One Writer’s Journey: From Nowhere to Somewhere, But Not Quite There Yet

When I started this adventure of hosting a month of guest posts, I realized there were four Mondays in June, and I only had three authors lined up. I wanted a horror author for the final slot, and I wanted to keep to the theme of debut authors. I scouted around and Lisa Mannetti told me about Michael M. Hughes, who is a super writer and his novel, Cabal, is currently on submission with several editors.

I contacted Michael and he most graciously agreed to do a guest post for us. I’m so glad he did, because if you’re like me and on the verge of sending your first query letter, you’ll love Michael’s post. I can’t think of a better way to end our June guest posts than with Michael’s words of encouragement.

Michael lives in Baltimore with his wife and two daughters. His work has appeared in City Paper, Urbanite, and other publications. He sometimes performs as a mentalist and a storyteller and gives talks on paranormal and fortean topics. His first novel, Cabal, is represented by Sanford J. Greenburger Associates and is in need of a loving home with an editor seeking what is destined to become a breakout debut with a film adaptation starring Nicole Kidman.

Cabal

When Ray gets a cryptic phone call from his childhood friend Kevin — “It’s happening again” — he drops everything to trek down to Blackwater, West Virginia.  Ray has lived his entire life haunted by crazy dreams and fuzzy pieces of memories that he can’t quite bring into focus — memories that center around a childhood summer at a camp that nobody remembers, including himself.  And here, at last, is a chance to see if there was something real at the root of it all.

But down in rural Blackwater, Ray finds far more than just the source of his weird memories.  There is Lily, the siren with a razor-sharp edge; there’s Crawford, who steals Ray’s memories; and creepiest of all, there are the inexplicable lights that have always hovered on the edges of Blackwater’s history — and seem to have an interest in Ray.

You can visit Michael at his website or follow him on Twitter or Facebook. I hope you enjoy Michael’s post as much as I did. And now . . .

One Writer’s Journey: From Nowhere to Somewhere, But Not Quite There Yet

by Michael M. Hughes

 The hardest thing about being a writer is being a writer.

I’m not being clever or cryptic, either. Allow me to explain.

Five years ago, in the midst of an early-onset midlife crisis, I decided to finally do what I always knew I could do, and, more importantly, should do — write a novel. The catalyst for that decision was reading, for the second time, Stephen King’s On Writing. (In fact, if you haven’t read it and you think you would like to become a person who writes books and gets paid for them, please stop reading this and read that instead.) King’s book didn’t mince words, and it didn’t sugarcoat — writing is hard, but if you can sit your ass down and keep working at it, you can do it. 

My wife was pregnant with our first child, so I gave myself an obvious deadline — the birth of my daughter. I was lucky to have a spouse who never once exhibited a flicker of doubt that I could pull off such a herculean task, and if you’re also fortunate to have such support, please, I beg of you, never, ever stop thanking that person (Susan: consider this a partial payment for the times I should have thanked you but didn’t — mea culpa).

So I sat at the dining room table, several nights a week, watching as a story forced its way out of my head and into the glowing screen of my MacBook Pro. I finished the first draft a couple of weeks before my daughter arrived. I printed it out, put it aside for a while, as common wisdom suggested, then went back and revised until it was as near perfect as I could make it.

I researched agents like crazy, made a list of suitable candidates, and agonized over the tiniest details in my queries (Is it too chatty? Too formal? Utterly lame?). One by one, I went down the list and fired off my queries and pages. One by one, polite but curt rejections arrived. I knew not to expect instant success, but deep inside that’s what I thought I deserved (and let’s be frank, so do you). Each rejection hurt far worse than the last.

And then, while driving home from work, a woman in a blue Audi sped through a blinking red light and slammed into the side of my car. I didn’t even see her coming. My car spun 180 degrees and came to rest in the middle of the street.

We both escaped without obvious injuries, but the next day I woke up and found I couldn’t turn my head without wincing. I went to my doctor, and after checking out my x-rays, he sent me to a physical therapist practice across the city. It was inconvenient, but he said they were the best.

One afternoon I chitchatted with one of the PTs as she rubbed a greased, vaguely obscene ultrasound thingy on my neck. She asked what I did for a living. I told her about my day job and said, with faux modesty, “And I write. I just finished a novel.” She asked what kind of novel.

I’d seen inquisitive faces go blank and shut down at the mere mention of the H-word, so I hemmed and hawed. “Umm . . .  dark . . . suspenseful . . . scary stuff.”

“Oh — horror?” she asked.  “My husband publishes a horror magazine.”

That got my attention. And then she told me about an upcoming “boot camp” for writers of dark fiction — and it was conveniently taking place about ten minutes from my home.

Not being foolish enough to refuse such blatant, hammer-over-the-head serendipity, I signed up for the boot camp. I recalled the name of the organizer, Thomas F. Monteleone, from a science fiction paperback I’d loved as a kid. At my last critique session of the boot camp, Tom (who was soon to become not just my mentor but a good friend) handed my manuscript back to me. Unlike everyone else’s, mine was unmarked. “I couldn’t find anything wrong with this. This should be published. Do you have an agent?” I was so shocked I almost threw up. I told him no. “Well, let me put you in touch with my guy.”

As if things couldn’t get any more preposterous, his guy turned out to be the agent who had been at the very top of my list, and who had sent my first rejection. “Don’t worry, he won’t remember you,” Tom said. I emailed the agent, and sure enough, he didn’t remember my query and asked for the full manuscript. He emailed me back, after the longest four days of my life, writing simply: “Will be done by next week . . . Creepy!”

The next week, he told me over the phone how much he liked the novel and agreed to work with me. He also told me it would make a great movie. The skies opened and golden light poured down upon my hallowed head. I had an agent! I was going to be a published writer! And not just a published writer, but a bestselling author with a film based on my book and a wildly successful and prolific career and a name recognized by everyone.

Only that’s not what happened. Despite what seemed like a clear, almost comically perfect narrative arc and acts of divine predestination, the gods who sent that blue Audi careening into me decided I’d had enough good fortune.

No, it was now time to suffer their capriciousness. And make an ass of myself, to boot.

In my mind, it was simple — I had an agent (and a damn good one), so I was going to be published. I was elated and probably came across as a bit smug, and I couldn’t keep my mouth shut, sharing my good news and imminent book deal with everyone I knew. (Note: other than fellow writers and your close friends and family, no one cares about your soon-to-be-bestseller or how it came to fruition. Really. They don’t.) I envisioned my multiple homes, my writing studio on a quiet lake, the throngs of fans lining up for signings, the casting of the film based on the book (Nicole Kidman as the wicked temptress, of course), and my new trajectory into literary and pop culture megastardom.

Then I got a kick to the head in an email from my formerly effusive agent.

He had some problems with the book. Not simple problems, either. He found the main character to be unlikeable, and said he needed to be more “proactive” (a word that has always set my teeth on edge). He didn’t like the guy’s wife, and thought she could be dropped completely. He didn’t like that I’d featured the death of a child and said that for many editors that would make them stop reading. My grab-em-by-the-balls prologue was “unnecessary.”

I’m sure you could have heard the hiss of escaping air from my swollen head.

I swore and fumed and paced. How could he not like the main character? Sure, the guy was depressed, beaten down, and a bit of an asshole to his wife, but he was real, you know? And the wife — how could there be marital and sexual tension between the protagonist and the seductive femme fatale without a wife complicating matters? And the protagonist’s ghostly dead son was a cornerstone of the goddamned book! No — I couldn’t change any of it. It was my work, after all, my vision, my capital-A Art.

So I rewrote. Kept the wife and the dead kid and the depressed asshole protagonist, but altered them enough to please what my demanding and artistically challenged agent thought would satisfy the great unwashed who couldn’t appreciate my pure vision. It took five months and I drank like Hunter S. Thompson the whole time. I packed the reworked manuscript up and sent it to New York.

He still didn’t like it. For all the same reasons.

In a fit of pique, I called my mentor, Tom. I must have sounded like an idiot, ranting about how story was being corrupted. “What should I do, Tom?”

“Do what he says,” Tom said. “It’s always like this.”

I revised and rewrote, convinced I could do it my way. It didn’t work. It was going on almost two years, and I was losing my sanity along with my self-confidence. Gone were my fantasies about the idyllic cabin retreat on the lake. In fact, I began to think the book would never make it to the shelves. People started mentioning the dreaded “self publishing” option much more frequently.

And then, one night, it hit me. He had been right. Not only had he been right, but I knew exactly how to fix everything that was wrong. I killed the wife, turned a minor character into the new love interest (brilliant!) and the dead kid into a living kid. Ray, the protagonist, went from being a depressed jerk to a decent guy, albeit with a few flaws. I spent a summer doing a major rewrite, and I enjoyed every minute of it.

Three years after he had first read my novel, I again boxed up the manuscript and sent it off. I knew it was the last time I could possibly touch the material — if it didn’t work this time, I was going to shove it in a box and move on.

“Nailing it big time!” he emailed back, making me believe, once again, that I could be a real, certified, book-on-the-shelf-at-Barnes-and-Noble novelist.

That was seven months ago. He sent it out right away, with a glowing recommendation, to over twenty editors at major publishing houses. I didn’t start looking for lakefront property, but I was close. Then the rejections started to arrive. “Well-written, great story, but just not for us at this time.” “I really liked it, but it doesn’t fit our needs.” “Just didn’t grab me, sorry.” Twenty editors became twelve editors and, as I’m writing this, it’s down to nine.

“Sorry,” my agent told me a couple of days ago. “It’s a tough market right now. I could’ve sold it off the bat just a year ago. But it’s slow and hardly anyone is buying. You’re not the only one. But remember — it only takes one to say yes.”

And that’s become my mantra.

So what’s the point of all of this? Why should you listen to someone who doesn’t even have a published book opine about writing — how could I be so presumptuous? Good questions. My hope is that unspooling my saga might help someone else facing the enormous, daunting prospect of writing and publishing a novel when the industry seems designed by a malicious masochist to kill every last spark of hope. And maybe I can pass on a few hard-won, potentially useful lessons from the trenches strewn with corpses of dreams and filled with blood and booze and landfills of tear-stained 12-point Times New Roman abortions no one will ever read. To wit:

  • You will be rejected. Repeatedly. That’s just the way it is. You must figure out a way to deal with that, or you will go crazy and drive those around you crazy. The best antidote to rejection is to ignore it and continue writing.
  • Nothing happens fast. Nothing even happens at a reasonable speed, or even a glacial speed — Speed should never be used when discussing the protracted torture known as publishing. Imagine everything will take ten times longer that you think it will, and then double that.
  • Things are different now, in a big way, thanks to e-reader this and iPad that and the incursions of self-publishing authors into the formerly off-limits realms of commercial success. Publishers are as scared and clueless as you are. Deal with it.
  • Find solace, or at least communal drunkenness, among other writers. You need friends who understand the soul-sapping despair of the writing life, and no one besides writers ever will. Plus, if you’re a nice person (and you’d better be) they will help you in ways that will surprise you.
  • Listen to what professionals say. You can ignore the people in your writer’s group, but don’t ignore someone with a proven track record. You can disagree with him or her, of course. But very often you will be wrong.
  • If you’re lucky enough to find a mentor who believes in you, shut up about yourself  and listen to what he or she has to say. After I thanked Tom Monteleone for about the hundred-and-fiftieth time for everything he had done for me, he said, for the hundred-and-fiftieth time, “Just do the same for someone when it’s your time.”
  • Take advantage of serendipitous and synchronistic gifts from the Fates, but know that they may also delight in your torment. We’re writers and we love good stories, especially about ourselves, but happy endings don’t come cheap. Louis Pasteur said “Fortune favors the prepared mind,” and that barreling, out of control Audi might, through a series of improbable events, get you an agent — but without a damn good manuscript, you’re toast.
  • If you have even halting, tentative success, realize how lucky you are. I still pinch myself when I think how fortunate I am to have a terrific, supportive spouse, a few publishing credits, great writer friends, and a flesh-and-blood agent who is trying to make us both some money while launching the career of an unknown. Many others have tried much longer than you, without a measly crumb of success for their piles of rejected and abandoned manuscripts. Remember that, and never, ever complain.
  • Yes, being a writer is about getting published and getting paid. It’s what sets professionals apart from hobbyists. But becoming a pro might take a very long time, and unless you’re brilliant beyond measure and you have an uncle at Simon & Schuster, it will take longer than you want it to. You must keep writing, and writing, and writing, no matter what happens. The cliché is true — writers write. If you stop, you’re not a writer anymore.

That’s the only iron rule — don’t stop.

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About T. Frohock

Please visit my web site at: www.tfrohock.com
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16 Responses to One Writer’s Journey: From Nowhere to Somewhere, But Not Quite There Yet

  1. Thank you for this informative and encouraging post. I have done my research about the wonderful world of publishing, but it was great to read a personal story.

  2. erikamarks says:

    Such a great story with so many true points, Michael–thanks so much for sharing it. I can’t tell you how many times reading it I thought: I know how he feels! When the rejection for my novel came in from editors, my agent and I stayed upbeat until the tally was down to almost zip. But then, out of the blue and after I’d put away the novel and started a new WIP, I got a call that an editor from NAL was interested and suddenly, wow–an offer came a few days later and the book is due for publication in 2011. The bottomline is exactly what you said: never, NEVER stop. And yes, ALWAYS thank your partner for their unconditional love and support.
    Your novel has me intrigued–I’ll be sure and check out your website.

    • Erika,

      Thanks very much, and your story is exactly the kind of thing *I* need to hear at this time. Congratulations on your upcoming book—can you tell us a little bit about it?

  3. Everything in this post would echo either my own experience, or what I’ve seen of my writer friends. Well done.

    My only confusion? What’s with the spoon? LOL

    • Jan, I perform as a mentalist (psychic entertainer) and one of my demonstrations is bending silverware or moving silverware and other objects without touching them. The photo was a publicity shot for an article that appeared in Johns Hopkins Magazine, which is linked to from my blog.

  4. Philip Koch says:

    Wonderful agonizing story. Written beautifully as it chronicles the delays, disappointments, and crumbs of hope that fell your way. Good luck with it!

  5. Peter says:

    Thanks for the great post, Michael! I particularly loved the bit about things taking 10 times longer than expected. I’ve seen that a few times too.

    All the best with the rest of the submissions.

  6. Great article! I only wish I’d read it when I first started out in the biz–it would have saved me (and my dearest and dearest) a lot of anguish, griping and all around pain-in the-rear behavior (on my part).

    L.

  7. kat magendie says:

    Love your honesty!

    I learned never to tell people anything until it’s a reality – nothing is worse than having to shuffle my feet and say, “well, … um…still waiting” or worse …”well, um, it didn’t work out….” *lawd!*

    In all of this good stuff you wrote, this is one I needed to see: “If you have even halting, tentative success, realize how lucky you are” === it isn’t that i haven’t been feeling lucky – I have a couple books out and another on the way and the promise of another still – I received small advances for the books, and even better, I’m making royalties-actually getting paid to do what I love. But, some days I’d find myself thinking “I could be doing better. I could be making more money. I could have this or that or the other. I haven’t tried to find an agent like many writers do (I’m published with a small press).” when really, what I’d always wanted has already happened. It’s easy to become jaded and greedy in this business. Keeping our eyes, and our hearts, on what we love: the language, books, our characters, the process, keep us grounded.

    I found it interesting how you received a rejection from the same place that later took you on.

    By the way, maybe because he is Stephen King he can get away with it, but he had at least one killed/dead child – Pet Semetary. I can still see that shoe on the grass all these years later after I read it.

    Good luck to you!

    • Kat, very good points about staying focused on the love of writing and avoiding becoming greedy and jaded. I’ve also adopted the “don’t talk about it unless asked” philosophy—those who really care *will* ask, others can wait until it’s a real object on the shelves.

      Yeah, I will never forget that scene in Pet Sematary, either. It was one of the most disturbing books I’ve ever read (and that’s saying a lot). I remember an interview with King where he said Tabitha read it and wouldn’t let him publish it. I guess she relented.

      I think my agent was concerned that the audience for the book is likely to be people who read thrillers and not necessarily horror readers, and that a graphic death of a child would put-off editors who rep mainstream fiction. Thankfully, when I had my eureka moment about how to restructure things, the ghost child and his terrible death no longer fit.

      I’m encouraged by your success and your attitude — thanks for commenting!

      • Michael, I’m glad you elaborated on killing the kid. You had me a little worried there, because I kill a kid. In my novel. Not in real life. I just wanted to be clear about that.

  8. Mike Marshall says:

    Inspiring essay, thanks! Hoping one of the remaining nine see your obvious talents. I’ll be first in/on line for the hardback.

  9. Terrific post, Michael. I consider myself forewarned, not happily, but … And I’m happy to have found and subscribed to yours and Teresa’s blogs today!

  10. tahliaN says:

    Thanks for that Micheal, it’s a warning that just becasue I’ve scored an agent for my novel, it doesn’t mean that the road to getting a published is going to be smooth sailing. The worst my agent has asked me to do, was to loose 19,000 words, but I manged to do it without cutting any action and without stress, probably because I hadn’t looked at the ms for 4 months.

    I don’t think it’s presumptuous for unpublished – or maybe we should say prepublished – writers to share their words of wisdom. I find a lot of support from others who are in the same position as me. Our stories are similar but never the same and hearing each other’s experiences make us all wiser.

    I’m going to check out your website and find out more about your novel.
    Ch 1 of mine is at http://publishersearch.wordpress.com/lethal-inheritance/

  11. Thank you. This is one of the best articles about writing that I’ve encountered.

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