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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

How To Get A Book Deal In 3,285 Days

In regards to writing: I have always viewed failure as an obstacle and not a roadblock. Obstacles can be overcome—but a roadblock is a fucking roadblock. And the only way through a roadblock is with a bulldozer. Because the hardest part about being a writer is not writing the book. It’s about not giving up after you’ve written it. It’s about not giving up on being a writer. You learn from your mistakes or you don’t progress. Writing—with the goal of getting published—is about failing, because you will. You have to. Failure is the greatest teacher. It makes you stronger. You must embrace failure with an open mind because you have to learn from it.



I started writing seriously back in 2003. Before that, I’d always written little things. Small things. Poems. The beginning of a short story here or there. But I never thought about being a writer. And I can’t say I knew I wanted to be a writer since the day I was born either. Because I didn’t. I mean, who would want that?

But without realizing it, I decided to write a book late one afternoon on a Wednesday. The town newspaper had just come out and I saw an advertisement for a writers group forming in another town. I read the ad with strange curiosity.

Still, I threw the paper away. But the next day I kept thinking about that ad. There was a group of writers that wanted to “get together” and, you know, write. They wanted to form some kind of club.

On one hand that sounded really stupid. On the other hand it sounded really awesome.

That ad played through my mind over-and-over. It was strange how it called to me. So the next day I bought a newspaper and called the number and talked to a lady named Pat. She was very friendly. Said, welcome to the club. They met on Tuesday and Thursday nights.

Did I want in?

I said, you bet.

When Thursday came, I got to the library late—it was an hour drive from our farm out in the country—but I arrived with great enthusiasm and entered a room filled with middle-aged women who greeted me with awkward smiles and cautious head nods.

They said the meeting had just begun. We should all introduce ourselves.

So we took turns around the table. Made introductions. Talked about our goals and hopes and dreams. What did we want out of this group? What were our expectations of ourselves as writers?

One by one, everyone talked. But everyone’s answers were the same.

They said: we have four or five stories a piece trapped inside our heads – if only we could find some way to unlock that box. Find a way to get the story from head to paper. How do we find that key?

I said: I just want to write.

So we wrote down single words on small patches of scrap paper and dropped them in a paper sack and shook it up. Our leader pulled the first word. Said, “write for twenty minutes. Be sure’n use the word blind!

From her purse, she removed a gargantuan stopwatch made of stainless steel that looked like it could withstand just about whatever punishment you could give.

“Let’s see what you come up with,” she said. “Go!”

The next thing I knew, the clock had stopped. But I wasn’t done.

Just one minute, I told them.

When I finished, I looked up and everyone was looking at me. But no one spoke.

It was our group leader who broke the uncomfortable silence with a nervous cough.

Who wants to go first?

No one volunteered.

I looked around the room and realized it felt awkward in every way but one. That being the fact I was, strangely, happy. I had discovered something inside of me I never knew existed. It was in that moment I knew what I was meant to do.

It was a ‘game changing moment’ if you will. At one point or another we all have them. The trick is to pay attention when the moment comes. To recognize that moment from other moments and capture it before it slips away.

I was just about to make my move when our fearless leader piped up and offered to read what she had. Close to a page by the look of it.

They followed, one-by-one. Starting at her left and ending with me.

Several had managed a whole paragraph, or a handful of words—though they’d forgotten to use blind. But most were blank pages. Or pages filled with sketches. Or doodles. And then I read mine. Nine-and-a-half pages, and I used the word blind in the very first sentence.

When I finished reading, I’d left my audience at a scene where a fat guy gets shot in the throat while eating a White Castle — the blind guy. I looked up and saw everyone was uncomfortable. The lady to my right shook her head. Looked like she might get sick.

This is pretty cool, I told her. But she took a sip of coffee and ignored me.

No one else replied.

*

I had an hour drive home with the windows down. There was something inside me that felt raw and exciting. I’d found what I’d been looking for all my life. Words.

The next few days crawled. Time was a glacier that moved slower than it had ever moved before. I could not wait until Tuesday, and when it came, I got to the library early. I was the first one there. While I waited, I ate a protein bar. Thumbed through an Elmore Leonard novel. Played snake on my old Nokia.

Then, finally, after several protein bars and many pages of Elmore Leonard and countless rounds of snake, I realized they weren’t coming.

Undaunted, I opened my backpack and found what I’d written the Thursday before. I read the words out loud with newfound curiosity and I didn’t want the story to end.

But when it ended, I didn’t miss a beat. I picked up where I’d left off and wrote for the next two hours. Until the janitor found me and threw me out.

But I left with thirty pages and never looked back. Two months later I had a manuscript.

*

Writing the manuscript wasn’t hard. Writing the manuscript while I lived 100 miles away from my job was. I built minivans for one of the big three. At the time, I installed seatbelts on the passenger side. I had the timing just right. I could walk up the assembly line and meet the van: shoot the upper bolt, shoot the lower bolt, slap a plastic clip in the floorboard, walk back to my job, and then write for thirty-five seconds.

So that’s what I did. Night after night. Ten hours a night. Six nights a week. Thirty-five seconds at a time.

I spent every minute consumed with plot and character development and dialogue. I wrote between minivans. On my lunch break. At my kitchen table during the 9 hours out of 24 that I was actually home. But two months later I had fashioned my first novel-length manuscript, and it was a remarkable achievement. I had just produced the single most amazing piece of original material the world had ever seen. I would blow the doors off the entire publishing industry with this masterpiece. No less than 100 thousand handwritten (and hand counted) words in seven different spiral notebooks. Pen to paper. That’s how I rolled. A book deal was right around the corner. I could smell the fame and wealth. I began to think of all the things I’d buy with the money.

I’d never typed on a computer before, so my wife jumped in. Typed the whole thing in her spare time. Between both jobs she was working. It took a few weeks, but then she finished, and kapow! There it was. My book on paper. Suddenly, not seeing my words scribbled in red and black and blue ink seemed real. Legit.

So after finishing what I considered to be the greatest achievement of my life, I decided to give it a quick read. Just to be sure I spelled everything right.

I was proud. Figured it was just a matter of time. It would probably take a few months, sure, but I didn’t mind waiting. I was a writer! Writer’s waited. Before long there would be money and travel and fame. A movie deal? Most likely.

And that’s when the delusions of grandeur began.

*

I spent that summer buying stamps and stuffing envelopes and writing query letters. I had a ritual and it went like this: Every Thursday night – twenty envelopes and twenty stamps and ten pieces of paper. I would send off my query letter to the ten different publishers I found on the back of any book I could find—regardless of the genre. I’d just write them all letters and tell them how great my book was.

But of course that didn’t work.

At some point I bought a book called The Writer’s Market. It cost thirty bucks but it was worth every penny. I’d stuff the large envelopes with the queries, address the smaller SASE, and stuff it in the big envolope. Stamp them all, and drop them in the mailbox on my way to St. Louis. I’d send out ten queries a week, every Friday, to ten different agents. Or ten different publishers. I did this for a long time and it never worked.

Until that one day when it finally did.

Everyday for years I checked the mail religiously at a quarter of two, and one day I found an envelope from a publisher in Georgia called Dare To Dream publishing. I assumed it was just another letter wishing me the best. Telling me not to feel like such an asshole. It’s just that, well, my story wasn’t right for them. But not to take it personal. And by the way, good luck on all my future writing endeavors.

That’s what I expected. I’d made peace with rejection early on. I accepted the idea that nobody’s as good a writer as they think they are. Especially not at first. I collected the rejection letters on our fridge, and after a while you couldn’t see what color it was. But that’s okay. I was a work in progress.

But to my great surprise, it was not a rejection letter. They said, “we loved the story and we’d like to offer you a contract. What do you think of that?”

We left that night for Georgia.

We had two hundred and thirty-five dollars to our name but we hit the road. Drove eight hours in rain. Slept in our Durango. We brushed our teeth the next morning with bottled water in a truck stop parking lot.

A few hours later I crashed the writing conference my new publisher was attending. I told them who I was, said I’d just gotten the letter yesterday. FTW! Where’s my contract?

And they didn’t know what to say. They asked me was I crazy?

Of course, I said. But also quite determined. I was there to talk business.

But they didn’t know what to think about that. Said they admired my dedication, but they had to draw a contract first. Promised they would send it Monday. Be patient, they told me.

I assured them I was. Then we made the drive back to Missouri, and I was satisfied. I’m going to be a writer. I started making plans. Calling newspapers. I was lining up interviews like a one-man marketing machine and I wasn’t even home yet.

*

Once we got back home I parked myself at the mailbox. I waited all week but the contract never came. It finally arrived three weeks later, though I called them almost daily to remind them. But I really should have paid more attention to the BIG picture. The writing on the wall. I tried, but I was just too distracted. Blinded by thoughts of quitting my job. I couldn’t wait to give my boss the finger. I wanted to write myself out of that factory job so bad; words fail me. I cannot describe it. But I was on my way. It wouldn’t be long now.

My book deal fell through eight months later. And I’d already done several interviews, not to mention an ingenious marketing campaign. I had it all planned out. I was putting up billboards and distributing bumper stickers. My Mom had t-shirts made.

Then one day I went to my publishers website but the website wasn’t there. I called the number but it was disconnected. The next day we left for Georgia. Again.

*

I could not save the book deal but you can never say I didn’t try. It was a long drive home. Even with my wife beside me I felt alone. Like I was bleeding inside. My soul was an open wound. I wanted to die. Dare To Dream had been bought out by a company that published only Women’s Fiction.

Oh? I’d asked them back in Georgia. What’s that mean?

It means we publish lesbian fiction.

My wife says the color drained from my face and I looked as white as the wall I was standing in front of. But still, I would not go down without a fight. I told them not so fast. A deal is a deal.

But they told me they were sorry. And honestly, I think they were.

You must reconsider, I demanded. And they thought long and hard. They wanted to help me if they could but the manuscript I’d written didn’t fit the new program. It was about a riverboat casino heist gone wrong. While the book was everything a good book should be—fast pacing, strong characters, guns and drugs and a towering body count—there were no lesbians.

I said I understood. But I lied.

It was a long drive back to Missouri.

*

For the sake of brevity I will condense the next five years. I quit my (excellent paying) job to write. I got a Myspace page (don’t laugh – you had one) but that wasn’t cutting it. It was 2008 and I’d never really used a computer. When I wasn’t writing, I started riding motorcycles (and crashing them). Then I bought a boat and crashed it. I spent a lot of time in Emergency rooms. But that whole time I never stopped writing or believing.

At some point I discovered Twitter and realized the key to succeeding was learning every possible thing I could about the business, and what better way to learn about writing than by meeting writers.

I’ll never forget this: I’m sitting at my kitchen table—with both arms wrapped in gauze because I’d wrecked my motorcycle in a tank top—determined, but clueless. I didn’t know what to write or where to send it. And then I stumbled upon a literary agent (who would go on to become my agent down the road) and I also found Scott Phillips, author of The Ice Harvest. I remembered him from the special features section of the movie. He was hilarious. And famous. So I followed him on Twitter, and low and behold, he followed me back. So I wrote to him, immediately, and told him he was cool. Could we meet, I asked? He agreed. And that was it for me.

That was the real beginning. I learned more in a half-hour of talking with Scott than I had in six years on my own. He told me I should get an agent, and he recommended the agent I have now. Then Scott told me I should write a short story. Submit it online. So I did, as soon as I got home. I wrote Gunpowder & Aluminum Foil and from there I shifted gears and held the pedal to the floor. Tried to push it through the floor. Because that’s what it takes to make it.

Before long I was meeting people and connecting on all the right levels. I started writing short fiction and submitting it online. Built up a network of friends and followers.

But it took another three years before I could truly feel like I was a writer.

But the point is this: I never gave up

And now I have a book deal with New Pulp Press. Plus there's a new manuscript in my agent's hands. And, somewhere—saved on some old hard drive—there is that first book I ever wrote. The one that began as nine-and-a-half pages—written on an assembly line, at our kitchen table, in the backroom of a library—surrounded by other people who felt the same spark I did. The difference is: I recognized that spark and did everything in my power not to let it die. I've spent the last eight years trying to grow the flame—now it is a raging inferno.

19 comments:

Naomi Johnson said...

You are an amazing person, Matthew. I'll be proud to say I knew you when.

Andrew Nette said...

Nice post. I agree with you that writing a manuscript seems kind of easy compared to the at times pride swallowing siege that can the process of getting published. I wrote the manuscript to my crime novel set in Cambodia in 2008 and only got picked by the good folks at Snubnose press in November 2011. As you say, the key thing is never, ever give. I bought Sinatra as an e-book a couple of weeks ago. Looking forward to reading it.
Cheers,
Andrew
www.pulpcurry.com

Thomas Pluck said...

Yours is a great story, Matthew. Glad I met you and hope to meet again.
The persistence is the key, you gotta want it, and you damn sure fought the battle hardcore... I can't wait to get the paperback and make you draw stickman porn all over it.

jedidiah ayres said...

Can't wait to hold a copy

Anna Sweat said...

Thanks for sharing this. It makes me feel better about my own writing journey and delusions of grandeur. Probably only a couple thousand more days to go...

Jaye said...

This has to be one of the best essays on what it REALLY means to be a writer I've ever read. Thank you. I'm bookmarking the post. When I'm asked what does it take to be a writer, I'll send them here first.

Ben said...

This is a very touching story. I was unaware of the whole pre-Scott Phillips era. For some reason I always thought you two were lifelong buddies or something. I don't know what I would have done, having a book deal falling through because a company got bought out.

Very inspiring, man. Looking forward to read you, wherever you're published. There's always place somewhere for those crazy over-the-top stories.

Helen said...

Your story reminded me of Stephen King's determination to succeed. Very inspiring!

Elizabeth said...

And you didn't even have to use a chainsaw. ;-) Seriously though, I am so incredibly happy for you. Can't wait to hold a "real boy" copy of FSIB, and to watch your next one get an even bigger reception.

Sanas said...

That's a great adventure you tell. Very inspirational. I'll be passing it on.

Sanas said...

That's a great adventure you've had. Props to you for having what it takes to be a hero! Will be sharing this around.

Ed V. said...

Great post. Your perseverance is very inspiring. I look forward to reading your work.

Glenn Gray said...

Great story, Matt. An inspiring show of push, drive, blood. Looking forward to what's next.

Matthew McBride said...

I appreciate all the comments. If you read this and you're where I was for all those years, hang in there. Read the kind of books you'd like to write, then write the kind of book you'd like to read. But don't ever stop believing.

Mike Cane said...

Holy sh*t. I read *all* of this, despite the light type on dark background. THAT is how compelling a writer you are. Well done!

Kathleen A. Ryan said...

Perseverance, man! The name of the game, isn't it? I often think of your hysterical tweet, just before the "Rapture" Judgment Day:

How ironic to finally get both an agent AND a book deal, only to have the f***ing world end the next day. #justmyluck

I share your story with so many folks. Congratulations on following your heart, Matthew ~ and never giving up. It's so true about failure; adversity is quite the university.

Phronk said...

I'm somewhere near the beginning of this story, so this is inspiring stuff. Thanks Matthew McBride. I won't stop believing. #Journey

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