When I was eight years old there were two things I wanted to do: Join the Navy and write books. Being a sailor, in its way, was easier than finishing a book, so much so that even now I remember what it felt like to complete my first novel.
It was 1994, I was 31 and had already made three or four attempts at it. When I finally completed one, it was nothing short of miraculous. King of Peru, the story of a schizophrenic marine trying to navigate life in college, took me more than a year to write, and when it was done I knew it was perfect, that every word was inspired.
My hubris would allow me to believe nothing less, despite having completed very little editing. Almost none. Why would I want or need to edit inspiration? Wouldn’t that be an affront to the universe?
The hard lessons were learned when the rejection letters started rolling in. Agents and publishers couldn’t reject King of Peru fast enough.
Since, in 1994, correspondence and manuscripts were sent via regular mail, on actual paper, within six months I’d received a sufficient number of rejections to paper a small bathroom which, after careful consideration, I declined to do.
Who wants to be confronted by failure every time one sits down to do their business?
But I did keep a rejection folder in the filing cabinet, and would occasionally review its contents. This activity was mostly reserved for late nights when I was feeling particularly sorry for myself.
Willing myself to—mostly—ignore the solid stream of turndowns, I continued to plug away on the publishing front and even completed another novel, Bogeyman, about an insecure loser falsely accused of murder.
But the peddling of Bogeyman forced me to create an additional rejection folder and, being a glutton for punishment, I continued my efforts to find a home for both novels simultaneously.
These efforts yielded only more rejection, and Bogeyman would be my last serious attempt at novel writing for the next fifteen years, though this was not a result of being spurned by the entire literary industry.
Then why abandon the dream?
I blame my children. I blame a dream I didn’t even know I had.
You see, my oldest was born after I’d finished King of Peru and, by the time of her arrival, I’d nearly completed Bogeyman as well.
All was right with the world. I had a healthy daughter, a wife who loved me and supported my writing habit, and two completed novels that I was sure, with all my heart, would one day take the world by storm. But, to paraphrase Robert Burns, the best-laid plans of mice and men often go astray.
Fatherhood got the better of me—and it was glorious.
Everything changed the moment she was born. Suddenly nothing else mattered. Now my purpose in life was to arrange my world in such a way that this child would have every opportunity to grow up healthy and strong.
This baby, I was sure, would change our world, but I had to change mine first. In short order I landed a full-time job, abandoning the table-waiting and student teaching, and traded the dangerous sports car for a safe, used minivan.
Two and half years later my son was born. Two and half years after that, another daughter.
Everything seemed to be working out. Sure, I hadn’t written anything for years. Sure, my wife noticed my lack of literary production. One Christmas, she even attempted to encourage my writing habit with the gift of blank notebooks. But I was too far gone.
Though the desire to write never really left me, as a father of three, distractions were ample, and I indulged in them because it was easier, and the results more immediate, than spending another year writing a book I believed no one would ever read.
The only constant, however, is change. Fifteen years later, the cracks in my marriage had grown too wide to paper over. I could no longer hide from them, the way I’d hidden away the rejection letters.
But nothing is perfectly good or perfectly bad, and it was the failure of a 20-year marriage, the damage and pain it brought to everyone involved, that forced me back to my desk.
I started writing again. It was a way to offload some of the overwhelming sadness that accompanied the destruction of my family. And Burning Buildings, the story of an unchained, depressed banker, was born.
Though it took nearly three years to write, the first chapters came quickly. I was astonished, even alarmed, at the speed with which the words arrived, especially after having written nothing in 15 years.
So, fearing hubris would again get the better of me, I put together a crack team of beta readers, paid them with beer, and actually used their observations to help me edit the book.
With age comes wisdom—hopefully.
And six years ago, Burning Buildings found Nancy the agent who, despite her initial reservations about it being written in first-person, believed in me and the book.
Signing with Nancy after two years of searching brought a rush of endorphins. I rode the high all that day and for weeks after. With an agent, I was absolutely sure my book would find a publisher.
But, sadly, I had yet to discover the literary recipe for success. Six months and around 26 rejections later and I was ready to paper another bathroom. It was time for a come-to-Jesus with Nancy. I dialed and she picked right up.
“What do I do?”
“Self-publish Burning Buildings and write another one.”
Her response seemed so straightforward, so elegant in its simplicity. If at first you don’t succeed, and all that. And, really, what choice did I have? Wallow in self-pity and never write again? I did as I was told.
Sisyphus had it easy. Pushing boulders seems effortless compared to pushing books.
Undaunted, or at least only semi-daunted, I got the idea for my next book while hiking Pikes Peak with a group of friends. One of the hikers, who happened to be an astrophysicist, used precious, thinning air to tell me the tale of a Friday night she’d decided, as an experiment, to “tie one on” and write about it.
She bought a notebook and kept a record of everything she thought and felt after each drink, and told me she made it through eight or nine drinks before she could no longer write legibly.
A bit of a drinker myself, I loved the premise and asked her if I could use the idea for a book. She agreed and, two and half years later, my next book was complete.I phoned Nancy.
“What’s it called?”
“What’s it about?”
“A suicidal guy that’s gonna get drunk and write about it before he throws himself off a bridge.”
I sensed hesitation on the other end of the phone.
“Drunk Log? Hmmm… Fine. I’ll give it a read.”
Nancy didn’t fire me and, hope against fading hope, found a publisher for the book. But there was one caveat: I had to turn it into a series. A series, I was told, would give my audience a chance to build and become familiar with my work.
Series? If it will get me published, hell yes. Shave my head? Same. After decades of effort and delayed gratification, I was ready to do just about anything to realize a dream I’d had since I was eight.
So a series it was, even though it forced me to let the main character live, perhaps not a bad thing, as some readers expressed dismay at the possibility I might kill him.
At this point, the book has had very little financial impact on me. Although I believe sales are growing over time, I’ve spent more money promoting the books than I have made in royalties.
Judging by my ranking on Amazon, I would say sales aren’t bad. Book writing and selling is a crowded field. Even selling four or five hundred books is no mean feat. I believe, however, that as I continue to publish, sales across my catalog will grow as readers learn to trust me.
Publishing my book has had an overall positive impact on my life, though at times I don’t properly balance the book work with my day job.
I currently have three books available for purchase. The first was self-published while Drunk Log and First Date are with a traditional publisher. Free Will, the final book of the series will be out in the next few months.
So while a child’s dream, nursed for decades, was finally realized, for posterity and for my own edification, I still keep a rejection folder as a reminder. I figure I’ll need it as long as I keep writing, and that’s a good thing.
Mark E. Scott is an author from Ohio. His novel First Date is available now.
All views expressed in this article are the author’s own.
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