photo credit: Liza Trombi
Back in the year 2000 I submitted a few pages of narration to Stephen King's On Writing contest. A year later, on my birthday (you can’t make this stuff up), I received an email from Marsha DeFilippo. The name looked vaguely familiar. It was King’s personal assistant and she had written to inform me that I had won the contest. Four other writers also made the cut. The skies did not split asunder or anything. There was no prize money, and the original promise of publication in the mass market edition of On Writing didn’t happen. But my name appeared in newspapers around the world and King posted my story fragment on his website. He even made a little comment: "Not bad." Actually, it was. But that’s beside the point.
I'd been writing a long time before entering that contest. I still have most of the manuscripts—well over a million words, at a rough estimate. Six novels, dozens of short stories and fragments, notebooks filled to bursting. I used to write down unfamiliar words and their definitions, ideas for stories, images, memories, my lonely maunderings as I bounced around the country taking odd jobs and pounding away at my portable typewriter. Those notebooks also contained little maps I’d made of fictional towns like Salem’s Lot, and sketches of stuff, like the torpedo boat from Faulkner’s “Turnabout.”
It sounds romantic now, but looking back I think I must have been crazy. At the very least I was obsessed. So desperate was I to understand how to tap into the magic, I would take published stories that I admired and type them out on my Smith Corona to see what they would have looked like if I had written them. I wanted to feel my fingers pounding the keys in the same patterns that my favorite writers used to produce their magic. I did everything but slaughter a goat and offer up its entrails to the pagan god of literature, and I probably would have done that, too, if I could have afforded a goat. Well, maybe not.
Despite all that, my journey to publication was typical, though it took me longer than many. A mentor would have helped, or time at a good workshop. But mentors were in short supply, and I had no clue about workshops. Nevertheless, by the time I got to the On Writing contest I had some chops and one semi-pro sale that, frustratingly, never made it to publication. Most of my writer friends hit print sooner than I did, but one thing is for sure: obsession is always part of the deal.
After the “not bad” comment I decided to get organized. Getting organized is a wonderful thing for a writer. I gathered some of my old stories that had suffered one or two rejections, wrote a few new ones, and put them all into relentless submission. Well, not relentless, but I figured ten markets per story would tell the tale, right? At least I was giving them a fighting chance. Next I improvised a spreadsheet out of poster board. Yeah, Excel was not a thing back then, at least not for me. Also, I bought a spike and placed it on my desk. That’s where all the rejection slips would go.
But It didn't take long. I had primed the pump with all those years and all those manuscripts. My first pro sale came less than a year later, and soon I was selling regularly to professional markets. Now I've published more than forty stories, a collection, and three novels. My short work has been translated into multiple languages and reprinted in several Year's Best anthologies, and my second novel, Life on The Preservation, was a finalist for the Philip K. Dick Award. I've also been short-listed for the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award. These achievements are something more important than bragging points--they are benchmarks. Benchmarks are crucial, since writers thrive on faith as much as anything else, and losing faith is a lot easier than holding onto it. From my first appearance in Asimov’s in 2003 to the publication of The Chaos Function in 2019, it’s been steady upward progress, albeit with the usual disappoints along the way. I’m excited to see what comes next.