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:
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.
All 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.