“I find having a mortgage to be a great motivator to keep on working.”
Mo Willems

author: Nicole J. LeBoeuf

actually writing blog

Appreciations, part 3 of 3: Having Writers In Your Corner
Fri 2010-08-20 20:25:43 (in context)
  • 2,850 words (if poetry, lines) long

Since I've been blogging this week, I've been having doubts. This stuff I say I remember: did it really happen that way? It's more than just "Was the poem on display in first or third grade?" or "Was it tenth grade or twelfth grade when Mr. Day and Ms. Petersen showed me how you submit a story for publication?" Since I've name-checked actual people, I'm half-expecting any of them to show up on Facebook or in my email to tell me, "I don't know what you're talking about. Did you make this up?" I'm very much afraid that I may have done just that.

At some point during the last decade, I was engaging in some of that mild daughter-to-mother-about-husband griping that you hear about in sit-coms and romances. Nothing important, nothing damning, just a half-laughing exasperated kvetch about a silly argument John and I had had that week. At some point, Mom laughed and said, "Niki, hasn't he learned yet that you remember everything?"

Woo uncomfortable. Because, growing up, that wasn't a compliment. It was synonymous with "You sure can hold a grudge, can't you?" When the fact was, I did remember things, hurtful things among them, with a high level of emotional detail and a word-for-word recall. And it would be like living the episode all over again. The only advantage was, the intervening time had allowed me to match words to experience. So I'd describe the memory, explain the way it had hurt, try to get someone who didn't live inside my head to understand.

But was I then, am I now, remembering things correctly? It seems that it's less likely that I have an astonishing memory than that I have a normal, vague, wishy-washy memory alongside a writer's instinct to convert everything into narratives. I tell myself stories about what happened, and the stories take the place of the memory. I'm not sure how much of what I remember is the event, and how much is the cleaned-up, narratively sound story I made up around the event.

I wonder if other writers have this doubt?

The upshot of all this maundering is, I'm not sure exactly when the previous or following events happened, or even quite whether they happened in exactly this way. But this is the story I'm going to tell about them.

Sometime between my sophomore and senior years, Ms. Petersen encouraged me to submit a story I'd written to a local contest. My family will remember this, because I think Mom did a lot of reading it to aunts and uncles over the phone: "Dancers of Land and Sea," a quiet little conversational story that took place in a mental institution between an insufficiently subordinate woman, a psychologically cut-off drowning survivor, and a cynical and skeptical doctor. I didn't know anything about mental institutions outside our high school's recent production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and I had a tendency to get preachy with The Moral Of The Story, but the results seemed to work. The story was apparently pretty decent for my age and lack of experience. It placed second in the contest.

Have I blogged about this before? It feels familiar. Maybe because I've told this story a lot to friends, face to face, fossilizing the memory in layers of tidy narrative. This time around I want to emphasize something specific: I would never have entered the contest without my teacher making me aware of it--and without her telling me, "This story you wrote? You should enter it. It's good." I was a headstrong, independent, stubborn bull of a girl with an ego that could have floated a hot air balloon--but its amazing how far that wouldn't have gotten me just on its own. I needed someone in my corner pushing me out into the center of the ring.

The contest awards were to be given out at the New Orleans Science Fiction and Fantasy Festival. Does anyone remember the NOSF3? Google reassures me that about two people mention it. I wouldn't know; I didn't know the first thing about conventions, didn't go to one until 2002. If I'd had my way that night, I wouldn't have gone at all. I hated getting dressed up, I mean in dresses, and I hated the goddamned pretentious ritual of formal occasions. And I was going to have to put up with all that and keep my elbows off the table and not drink out my soup bowl or use my fingers to pinch the last unwieldy bits on my plate against my fork. But Mom wouldn't let me get out of it. (For which, my sincere thanks.) Off we went to the French Quarter and the convention hotel.

The award banquet was as uncomfortable as I'd expected, of course. The table was cluttered, there was no good place for my legs to go, my feet didn't touch the floor so I couldn't support myself in a relaxed posture, and I was afraid of breaking one of the million incomprehensible rules that made the difference between "good manners" and "I can't believe how badly you embarrassed me tonight!" Nothing really changes; the last bit is no longer a factor, but the rest? Why must there be so many things at every place setting?

But then came the various awards. And then came the award for my contest: something like the NOSF3 Young Writers Award, something like that. And then it was time for me to walk toward the front of the room and accept my certificate from the smiling lady holding out her hand to shake mine.

I was learning a lot about the mechanics of the writing and publishing industry. But I knew nothing yet about the people in it. I knew which authors I liked to read, of course, but of publishers and editors and the sorts of people who go to professional conventions I was very very ignorant. I was shaking hands with Ellen Datlow, then editor of Omni Magazine. I don't think I'd heard either name before in my life.

"You should submit something to Omni," she told me. "Thank you," I said. I went back to my table.

And dang if I didn't take her at her word. A real editor, someone who puts stories in magazines that people actually read, had told me to submit! Hot damn! I wasted no time. I acquired a copy of Omni's submission guidelines. I followed them to the letter. I agonized over a cover letter mentioning our brief meeting at NOSF3 and her kind invitation to submit. I mailed off my contest-winning story!

And, very soon after that, I had my very first rejection letter--and my very first real-life lesson in the importance of researching your market. As you know (Bob), Omni published science fiction. "Dancers" was very much urban fantasy.

Oops. But "Oops" notwithstanding, I had a goal now. And not just a goal, but a set-your-heart-on-it, pursue-it-through-the-years goal. I had failed this time, but just wait. One day... one day... But then Omni Magazine folded, and I still hadn't been published in it. But that was OK, because a few years after that there was SciFiction. And one day... one day... And SciFiction closed its doors too, but still I had this goal. And the intervening years had convinced me it was an important goal: One day, I would sell a story to Ellen Datlow.

Which is the punchline that this series of blog posts has been leading up to: One day is today.

That professional sale of my story "First Breath" I mentioned a few months ago? I get to blab about the details now, because the table of contents (TOC) has been announced and everything. My story will appear in Ellen Datlow's forthcoming anthology Blood and Other Cravings, to be published by Tor in, so the estimate goes, the fall of 2011.

*blink* *blink* Wow. That means that, in addition to being in a Datlow anthology, I'm going to be published by Tor. Wow. *blink*

Maybe if I say it enough times it'll seem ordinary.

But a really important thing here is--I would never have submitted the story if I didn't, again, have a writer in my corner pushing me forward. I've been attending a bimonthly writing class in Denver for about 6 years. Local writer Melanie Tem--I'd say "horror writer," but that would be woefully incomplete; The Deceiver is far too complex a family drama to be simply called horror; and have you read her and Steve's The Man on the Ceiling?--anyway, Melanie hosts a writing group that I've been going to since running into one of her students at World Horror 2004. It's a pretty basic class. Sometimes we critique a manuscript, sometimes we bring in shorter pieces to read aloud, and sometimes we read aloud very short pieces written right there in class. Sometimes we just talk shop.

I volunteered "First Breath" for the group to review, and, as you may remember, my heart was in my teeth about it. I mean, it has sexy stuffs in it! But another student had brought in a piece the time before that had an actual complete sex scene in it, so screw fear, let's do this. And as it turned out the comments around the table were overwhelmingly positive, and the negatives were overwhelmingly helpful, and everything was overwhelmingly awesome. Peer critique went like peer critique should.

Then, about a week later, Melanie emailed me. Ellen Datlow was putting out the call for submissions to a closed anthology, she said, and Melanie, who'd been invited to submit, had also been given the go-ahead to pass the invite along to me. (Apparently she'd said something like, "So I have this student, I have no idea why she isn't published yet, who just turned in this amazing story..." This is me, blushing and stammering: *blush*) The anthology would have to do with vampires, but not your ordinary vampires, and Melanie thought my story would be a perfect fit. "But they're not vampires, not really..." Yeah, but they kinda sorta were, right? Just not blood-suckers. Which the submission guideline specifically wanted them not to be. So. Perfect, right?

Right. Apparently so. I received an acceptance-conditional-upon-revision on May 2, and within a few days I was signing and mailing back a contract. How weird to think that last time I mailed an envelope to this address, I was out by the outgoing mailbox with my purple fountain pen waiting for the post officer to show up so I could beg him to give me the envelope back momentarily so I could scribble VAMPIRISM on the outside like I'd totally forgotten to the day before. Insecurity then, totally incredulity now. Wow.

I cannot begin to tell you--well, I can begin, but "begin" is about all I can do--what Melanie's support means to me. This wasn't the first invite-only anthology she got me permission to submit to. When she emailed me about this one, I thanked her profusely: "I feel honored that you keep sending opportunities like this my way." To which she replied, matter-of-factly, "I'm on a mission to get you published." Support like that, you can't count on getting it. You can only thank the powers that be for the blessing of having it.

I feel sort of like I've written those two pages of writer's acknowledgments you get at the beginning of novels, which is a little silly when the piece I've sold is under 3,000 words long. But this sale feels like a huge landmark in my personal path as a writer. It isn't the goal, certainly not a final destination, but it's a goal I've had close to my heart since that night at a downtown New Orleans hotel. I think goals are like playing connect-the-dots, really. Or climbing a rock face. You only ever aim for the next dot, the next hold, because until you get to the next one, you can't really work on the one after that. But then you do, and so you can. So you go on.

But before going on, this set of holds is a good place to pause, rest my arms, and think about some of the people (and there are ever so many more!) without whose support I'd have never gotten this far up the mountain.

I love you all.