What? No, this isn’t about THAT first time. This blog is about writers, and writing, and fantasy, and horror, and stuff like that. Besides, that would be telling. This is about the first time I wrote a novel, and since I’ve written over thirty of them, I had to take a long trip in the way-back machine to remember some of it.
Some folks think that all novelists begin writing when they’re kids. Unless you’re a rare talent like Christopher Paolini, who wrote the Inheritance cycle and started when he was a young teen, that’s not necessarily true. As a kid I always knew that I wanted to be a writer. When my mother gave birth to me, she also delivered an Underwood typewriter. A sign, no? The doctors were so stunned that they dropped both me and the typewriter. My head hit the typewriter first, then the floor, which—as my wife will helpfully point out—is the reason I am the way I am.
So I went through childhood and young adulthood talking about becoming a writer, but never actually wrote anything. I read a lot, and I subscribed to writers’ magazines—I even operated my own bookstore for nearly three years. Still, when I hit thirty—the age of mistrust from the younger generation at that time—I hadn’t written a damn thing. So what got me started?
In part, I can probably credit the alien lobotomy. It happened after I’d closed the bookstore. I’m not sure what portion of my brain they replaced, but I came out of it a different man. Since the abduction and surgery occurred between Christmas and New Year’s, I wound up making a resolution. No, it wasn’t, “This is the year that I’m going to write something.” I’d tried that before; didn’t work. My resolution: “This is the year that I’m going to get a rejection slip.”
You’re right, that sounds negative. But consider this: in order to get a rejection slip, you have to write something and send it to someone. I still couldn’t start a novel, but I did manage to sit down and write something—a short ghost story with a western twist, I do believe. I sent it off to Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, and I received a rejection postcard. (What you see here is that actual postcard.) Success!
The first time, for me, was the day I sat down at the typewriter and wrote these three words: I am insane. Having been dropped on my head and lobotomized by aliens, this might have been more a personal statement than anything. I wrote about 250 words more that day, then the next day I read what I had written and concluded that it was crap. I tossed the pages, wrote I am insane once again and followed that up with about 400 words. I kept those words—for a while, anyway—and finished the novel. I’ve never had writer’s block since.
That novel, a sword & planet story called The Master of Boranga, did not get published for a couple of years. Seven other novels came before it, and I rewrote Master in its entirety a couple of times before it finally hit the bookstores. Now, three decades later, I’m rewriting it again to reissue under my Atoris Press imprint. Guess what, it still sucks. You learn a lot about the craft of writing in all that time. It should be out sometime in May. One thing that will not have changed, regardless of how many times I revise it: the first three words remain, I am insane.
HUNT COUNTRY WRITERS’ RETREAT: later this month I get to do something that I absolutely love—talk to aspiring authors about writing. This retreat takes place in historic Middleburg, VA, on April 20-21. If you live back east and are interested, check it out.