How to Build an Author in Your Lab|
(An Instructional Manual for Writers as Dumb as I Was)
In the self-help section of the library (right alongside volumes about the proper use of electric hammers and fur-lined drills; or guidebooks for bilking suckers who believe there actually is such a thing as a romantic vacation in Acapulco, West Virginia; plus those splendid coffee table books on how to produce a lavish English garden, complete with ornamental pond, on a budget of less than ten dollars; and some really inspiring kits that give complete and simple instructions — via paint by numbers — on how to forge
"The Lost Works of Jackson Pollock" and then market the messes to Benny the Frog in Vernon, New Jersey; or the hundreds of coaching manuals about becoming the world's number one tennis brat, featuring introductory endorsement contracts and a practice set of beginner's cocaine) — well, there certainly ought to be a place on the bookshelves as well as on the market for young writers on How to Build an Author.
I wish I'd had such a book when I was starting out on a career as a novelist. I mean, talk about niche marketing! Hundreds of thousands would rush to buy a guide to being a chronicler of the times (or the future, if your thing is science fiction, stuffing optimism up our noses like oxygen on the sidelines of the Pro Bowl) and make money while doing nothing but sitting on your butt.
If I had even the slightest smidgeon of brains and talent, I'd write the book myself, because I can smell a bestseller, a sure thing, and an Oprah choice a mile away. I do expect to get paid, however, for this scrawny set of biographical blueprints, because I'm going to sue the pants off of anyone who steals it. After all, lawsuits will feed your family a lot better than writing books.
First you have to get yourself born and go through all that childhood crap. Here's my baby picture, showing how I did that part. Notice the angst, which is all-important in the early childhood years. Oh, wait. That's not angst; that's ice cream. Oh, yeah. This is the part where you learn not to share. (Photo by my mother, a useful person for authors who want to write "literary" novels. You won't need one if your plan is to commit genre writing — for genre writing, you'll need a bratty sibling who makes you want to kill people or invent laser weapons.)
It helps to get an education, possibly even the kind offered in schools. I grew up in Columbia, Missouri, which has some schools. Then I went to Yale, which was good because I could readily spell the school's name since it has only four letters.
While you're doing this part of your life, you might want to practice holding a pen. Here's the style of pen-holding I developed.
You'll need your own style when it's time to scribble on books legally as an author and not get yelled at like they did at the library.
Before we get to any authorial aspirations, it's a very important part of the process to develop a desperate desire to do something else with your life. With me it was competitive sports, particularly basketball. I had great plans for me and the New York Knicks.
I thought I could be the scrappy point guard, sort of like John Stockton, who pretends to get fouled and then flops around on the floor until the officials give him a couple of free throws. I thought I could be a star.
And then you have to go through a stupefying and possibly drug-filled era when you realize that they'll never allow your ass on the floor at Madison Square Garden. I skipped the drugs part, because I guess I was born with all the nasty flashbacks I need, and alcohol tastes like gasoline (yes, I have tasted gasoline, so don't think you can get me on a fraudulent simile).
The truth, in my case, dawned when I started hanging out with players from the NBA, to get in the mood. At 5'2", I lacked that certain something that makes an NBA player an NBA player — I wasn't tall enough, no matter how many lies I told, to stuff the old rock in the hole. Here's a picture that shows the vital difference between the dream and the reality: Dennis Scott (6'8") of Michael Jordan's Washington Wizards scrunches down so he can be in the same photo with me.
The photo further indicates why my dream to star in the NBA crashed to smithereens (if you thought I was going to say "because I'm a girl," you're wrong.) What I learned is that real basketball players can take a hit from a Cadillac doing 50 miles per hour and not even flinch — though they will
insist on a technical foul.
You may hold to a few lingering dreams, all of them fairly impossible and therefore well-suited to the normal laziness quotient of authors (typical whine: "Do I have to write a paragraph today?")
Okay. So the NBA has evaluated
your skills and they're not buying.
Case in point: my grand dream turned into a sort of miniature reality when I finally got to play one game in Yankee Stadium and got a base hit off of Conan O'Brien. I stank out in right field, using the glove like a goat trained by Chuck Knoblauch, but, like Knobby, I can hit. Little dreams can come true.
The unfortunate thing is that by this time, everyone — members of your family, strangers, society at large, the FBI — starts to give you the old screw-eye, wondering if you're ever going to do any writing or if your seeming sloth is a mask for real sloth.
It was my husband who lit the fire under me. He's good at lighting fires and getting people to do things. This is what he looks like when all those fires pay off and he's leaving his office on West 57th Street, on his way to collect a few Emmy's as the Senior Broadcast Producer of 60 Minutes II.
Michael R. Whitney, in his 60 Minutes II voice, said, "Polly, why don't you write a book?" It really was that simple, despite all the horsing around on this website.
So, I sat down at my computer, wrote Until Death, got an agent to represent me, and — poof! — I'm an author. That novel went on to win a nomination for an Agatha Award as Best First Mystery, which I felt was completely unearned since it wasn't like I'd slam-dunked the Championship-winning two points at Madison Square Garden or hit the Series-winning homerun.
I've been nominated for a couple of other things since I actually parked myself in my chair and did some work. Novels lead to short stories and other forms of expression, and people start noticing if you do enough of them.
One of my short stories, "Etiquette Lesson," was published in Murderous Intent Mystery Magazine and later nominated for the prestigious Macavity Award. You can find that story and other children of my mind in "The Hunter's Song."
No matter how you pursue the project of authorship, and no matter where it gets you, I'm sorry to report that the earlier dreams never quite slip away into the stillness of forgetfulness.
I'll always be haunted by what could have been.
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