Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Dear Every Aspiring Writer That Hopes So Desperately—So Painfully,

Guest post by Steven Bohls

I. Know. How. You. Feel. I truly do. Please, please listen to me. Please. Listen to what I REFUSED to listen to. If I could go back 10 years and give MYSELF a letter, it would be this:

Dear Steven,

"Dear Past Me" letter
I get that you think you’re special. I get that you think you’re smart and talented and whatever else you think you are. Stop being such a idiot about it already. You’re not entitled to a career in writing just because you think you were “born for this” or because you’re “sooo artistic, talented, and inspired.” My advice to you (well me): Write another book. Throw it away. Write a 3rd. Throw it away. 4th. Gone. 5th. Gone. Write until your brain feels like leftover oatmeal. Write until that blurry, sparkling, wad of career-stunting hubris is finally gone—replaced with actual experience, EARNED skill, and the liberating knowledge of WHY your writing is garbage and WHAT makes it so terrible. This is YOUR career. Earn it. Own it. Live it. Don’t settle for “talent and inspiration.” Getting an agent is like winning the Super Bowl. Is there any luck in winning the Super Bowl? Um… yes. If you think there’s no luck involved, then you’re a moron. On that same note, is there any skill involved? Very little. Almost none actually. Anyone can win the Super Bowl—well, as long as they have “talent and inspiration.” Right? Hmm… In the words of Thomas Jefferson, “I am a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it.”

Okay, enough preachy, preachy for now. Here’s the story of my road so far:

I would say that my career in writing began long before I ever wrote a story. I have always, always, always, always been a dreamer. My mind is cluttered with more ideas than I could spit out in a lifetime. As a young teenager, I didn’t know what to do with these worlds, fantasies, and plots (though I didn’t know they were called plots at the time). I explored poetry, sculpture, painting, video game design, and just about every creative outlet I could think of. I wanted so desperately to make my dreams ‘real’ and it wasn’t until I discovered fiction that I knew I could make such a thing happen.

I finished my first novel about a decade ago. It was a grotesque, wart-covered troll dressed in a rhinestone jean jacket, tuxedo slacks, clown shoes, and a cowboy hat. Every colorful and creative idea I could muster, vomited into one .DOC file. It was scary (not scary a good way—scary like that dish in the back of the fridge that looks like meatloaf but smells unnervingly like peach cobbler).

I took the book to an editing service of a MS critique. Author/screenwriter John Robert Marlow was assigned to my MS and somehow saw something special in me despite the hackneyed glob of melodrama he’d just been forced to cram past his gullet. After the official ‘critique’, we became friends and he worked (for free) with me out of the goodness of his eternally patient heart for over a year, helping me to develop my storytelling ability because he believed in me.

We tried to submit the MS to the world in what became such a traumatic failure that I spun into a genuine depression that lasted for a year and a half.

This was a terrible and tragic time in my life so that’s the last I’ll say of it for now. I’m sure some of you know the raw anguish that I’m referring to, and don’t needa reminder here.

The facts remained: I had learned how to tell a story. But I did not know how to write.

I formed a dedicated writing group and wrote a second novel and then a third and a fourth. Stories came easily, but something important was still missing. I then discovered that the bestselling mega-author Brandon Sanderson volunteer taught one class every year at the university I was attending. Despite having senior-status priority registration, the class filled up in seconds and I didn’t get in. I showed up on the first day to see if I could somehow add it. Two hundred other hopefuls had the same idea. Brandon said he would add only three. He had everyone write their names on slips of paper than put the white bundle of confetti into his (totally awesome mind you) bowler hat and announced he would toss the papers in the air and snatch the lucky three at random.

“But first!” he said, holding up a finger like an infomercial spokesman, “has anyone written more than three novels? I give priority to serious writers.”

I could talk for hours about the influence Brandon had on me that year, but I will simply say that Brandon gave me what I was missing—he taught me how to write.

I discovered he’d written 12 novels before he was ever published. With an overabundance of tenacity and insanity coursing through me, I decided to write one novel every month for the next year. Brandon loved the idea. I completed 6 novels in the first 6 months. He worked closely with me during this time, offering wonderful revisions on many chunks of my books. He expressed confidence in my future but I still didn’t feel like I was ‘there’ yet.

So I wrote another book, attended writing conferences, accumulated writing awards, and focused more intensely than ever on my writing group. And then I wrote JED AND THE JUNKYARD WAR—the first book I felt truly excited/hopeful/confident about. But I was too scared to query it. The memory of the earlier depression still stung so severely, I just couldn’t go through it again.

Also, I knew I STILL needed to focus more on craft. STORIES FOR ROBERT was my ‘experiment’ in craft. The first version was pretentious and indulgent and my brother (who possesses great literary and writing aptitude) was quick to let me know this. I wrote it again from the beginning—this time, more tenderly.

I finished the second version and was very happy with the result. It was time to submit. I started submitting STORIES FOR ROBERT on a holiday (weird choice I know)—May 26th. The very next morning, I had three requests for the full.

Ella Kennen from Corvisiero Lit quickly responded and said she liked my writing but asked what else I had. I sent her JED AND THE JUNKYARD WAR. She read the whole thing and responded in less than half a day with a revise-and-resubmit then asked for STORIES FOR ROBERT in the meantime. A few days passed in which she read and once again asked, “Have anything else?” I sent her the first chapter of dark comedy/satire I’d written. She loved it but still asked again, “Have anything else?” I sent the first chapter of another middle grade. Her daughter read it and asked her mom, “Why didn’t you ask for the full?”

(Really, Ella, what’s going on here?)

She then asked for summaries of EVERY full book I’d written. (By the way everyone, this all happened in like 1-2 days)

I sent them. And then there was silence.

“She hates them.” I said to myself. “She hates them all.”

After non-stop communication, nothing but silence. All. Day. Long. (Oh yeah, and it was my birthday…)

I couldn’t stand it anymore so I added her as a friend on Facebook.

Nothing. No response.

That night, at 1am, I went to bed and checked my phone. She’d accepted my friend request and posted on my timeline.

“I have a belated birthday present for you. Stay tuned!”

I stared at the message for like an hour. My wife—sick of me asking “What does she mean??”—had long since fallen asleep.

And then, impulsivity surged and I clicked, ‘LIKE’ on the comment. In less than a minute, Ella sent a message.

“It's 2 am in Utah. What are you doing up?”

I stared at the message and with shaking hands, replied, “Staying tuned.”

“May I call you?”

I looked at my sleeping wife, grabbed a sweatshirt then snuck from my house and sat in the driveway. And then, at two in the morning, I got “the call.”

The reason I shared this long-winded story was to answer the question, “What got me an agent?” It wasn’t one book. It wasn’t three. Or four. It wasn’t one award or one writing class or even professional contacts (Yes I had a BUNCH of stellar “contacts”). It was EVERYTHING. It was my choice to treat this as a career before it ever became one—not as a hobby—not as a story or a series or an idea—but as  a way of life. And so, when I was finally ready—truly, truly ready. It happened. And not a moment before.

Don't chase Love, Fortune, or Success. Become the best version of yourselfAll too often, I hear the words, “I will not stop until…” Writing is what I do, it is who I am, and it is part of me I will never stop trying to improve. There is no “until,” and there never will be.
And so… I would also say that there is no substitute or shortcut for success in something that is as worth it as this. Treat writing with the same degree of commitment you might if you were trying to achieve something as EQUALLY awesome/prestigious/revered like neurosurgery or professional athletics. I promise you that there is NO faking it—no easy path through. Don’t think that you are the exception. Work hard. Study craft. Write until you can’t write anymore—and then wipe away the tears and KEEP writing.

Above all, from the words of Neil Gaiman in his incredible commencement speech

Make. Great. Art.


  1. Every writer needs to read this. Hard work is the best way to getting an agent.

  2. "It was a grotesque, wart-covered troll dressed in a rhinestone jean jacket, tuxedo slacks, clown shoes, and a cowboy hat." -- Will someone please publish one of Steven's books so that I may buy a copy and indulge in his words even more.

    There is much wisdom here, Steven. Thanks for sharing your story.

  3. Great post! Congratulations, Steven! Hard work pays off!

  4. Thank you for posting this! It was exactly what I needed to ready at the timeliest of moments! Truly, I'm grateful and wish you much continued success! Be well! :)

    1. Jean, I'm so glad that this helped at such an appropriate time for you! I wanted so badly to let others (who were going through what I went through) know that ALL the work you do matters--even if it doesn't feel like it all the time. Ella--my agent--was so funny; she kept poking just a bit into so many of my projects before she offered to rep. It was amazing to me to reflect back on that and think, "wow, I'm so glad I wrote every one of those--even if they didn't get published or ever will get published."

      It's so, so hard. Harder than anything I've done before. But the best things in life so often come from the aftermath of reckless tenacity. Good luck, Jean! I truly wish you the very best!

  5. Great post, thank you for the inspiration! It sounds like you found a great champion for your work and I look forward to reading them when they come out.

  6. Congrats to you! Hard work is everything. Can't wait to read all of your great art.

  7. I was wondering if they novels you wrote were critiqued and polished when you submitted them to the agent? I mean all six of them? After her requests did you send her the unpolished versions and still want them? I mean all six of them?

    1. Hey Joy,

      Most of my books had at least been through my writing group once cover-to-cover. I haaaate revisions more than most (half of the people in my writing group love them and do their best work the second go around). But even though, I'm a "first drafter," I always do a 2nd draft.

      Ella signed me primarily after reading the 2 fulls I'd most recently written. I'm a 'binge' writer so each of these novels took around 8 weeks to complete (spaced about 6 months apart from each other). My writing group read them and I then churned out 2nd drafts--which took about 4 weeks each. After the 12 fulls that I've completed in my lifetime, my first drafts have become MUCH cleaner than they used to be--making the revision process much quicker. That said, I usually commit to spending about 30-50% of the time it took to write the book, to then revise it. BUT earlier books required much more care including 3rd and 4th drafts. The other 'chunks' that she read, were from much earlier projects and while less clean--were still fairly polished (at LEAST 2nd draft work).

      I guess what I'm saying by all this is: I find that the more books I write, the less intensive the revisions become. My first drafts just get stronger and stronger because I go into them knowing what I needed to fix the last time.

      If I had been trying to sell my first book (oh wait--that one was garbage and would never sell) if I was trying to sell my SECOND or THIRD book, I would have needed EXTENSIVE revisions back then. But no matter what--I ALWAYS do a 2nd draft. It's too hard to see clearly 'in the moment'. I will typically write a book, but not revise it until I've finished writing the NEXT book. By doing it that way, I spend time away from the novel and setting and familiarity. When I return, not only have I grown as a writer, but I have a fresh perspective.

      Revisions are a terrible and wonderful thing all wrapped up together. You'll be amazed at how much they help you write your NEXT book that much better. Embrace their ugly, awful face.

      Anyway, I hope this helps. Let me know if there's anything else I can help with/answer! I love connecting with other aspiring writers!!

      Good luck, Joy!


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    3. I'd like to piggyback on what Steven said. Creative writing is HARD. There's so much to get right: premise, plot, pacing, characterization, word choice, etc., etc. -- and even though most agents and editors will ask for some degree of revision, the manuscript has to be in pretty amazing shape, with all the major elements working -- to catch a pro's eye. So, yes, revise. Yes, get critiqued. Most agencies have a "no is a no" policy, which means that if you get feedback and do a major revision AFTER having subbed to an agency, you've probably closed the door on that agency for that project permanently. Always put forth your best work. What Steven's *pitches* of his books showed me is that he is a consistently creative consistent producer. Combine that with the quality of writing he's achieved from the two fulls that I *did* read, and the decision to sign him was a no-brainer. ;)

  8. Yes, Steven! Thank you very much!

    I have three novels completed. However. . .by the time my group gets the go around it will be ah, say, three years!

    Guess, my impatience is coming out. Again.

    Thank you, your answer helped alot.

    1. Consider swapping full manuscripts with a couple of people -- be each other's beta-readers. Reading a ms over the course of a few days (which is how agents and editors will do it) is a VERY different experience than reading it piecemeal.

  9. WONDERFUL post. Thank you so much for sharing. I needed this today.

  10. Thank you Ella. Important points!

  11. WOW! Steve, what an amazing story!
    I am so glad I went back and looked up this blog. I have had the writing bug since I first got into fiction. I have tried my hand at writing before, mainly because at times I had so many "good ideas" it would keep me up nights until I wrote them down, but I wouldget frustrated whenever I tried to coax a story out of the seed of an idea because it never came out coherent enough that I fealt I could share it.
    When Wheeler linked this on FB I thought, I should read that. Im so glad I did. Truly inspirational.

  12. I'm glad you went back too! There are few feelings that are more completely, wonderfully, satisfyingly, awesomely awesome as writing a book and KNOWING what makes it work--both in terms of craft AND story. It makes all your past efforts worth it. I hope you keep going with your writing! Fiction is an incredible pursuit. Work hard, write often, and always write your YOU first.

  13. ."Write until you think you can't write anymore...then wipe away the tears...and keep writing!" I thought I was tenacious - but then I read this article - kudos for your courage and hard work. Congratulations on your success and thank you for sharing your journey, Steve. :)

  14. WOW! this is an awesome post.
    I'm wiping away some tears...from reading

  15. WOW! Just, WOW! Thanks for sharing Steven. I think that's the kick in the pants I needed. :)

  16. What a great post - I love it. Kudos and congratulations to you for your tenacity and perseverance.


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