Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Writing Lesson #4: Going To Market

I discovered horror in grade 8, when I was 14. I picked up DIFF’RENT SEASONS in the school library. I enjoyed that so much I went looking for more. The next King book I read was CARRIE. That was possibly a turning point. I identified with Carrie, the high school loser with no friends. In fact I rather wished I possessed her ability to instigate the violent and painful death of everyone who gave her a hard time. In any case, I was hooked on King.

I was also in Mrs Riepert’s English class that year, and we were given an assignment to write a horror story. We started with brainstorming titles. As everyone called out titles, mine came suddenly, unprompted, into my mind: TERROR IN TANNER’S FIELD. It’s probably the only time in my writing career I have come up with the title before the story – usually the title comes to me at the end. TERROR IN TANNER’S FIELD was about ten teenagers who go on a camping trip, and unearth an evil entity that possesses them and makes them murder each other.

I had to read the story out loud in front of the class and it seemed to go down well with my classmates, in particular my science lab partner, Rob Vukovic, who was a fan of the genre. He told me repeatedly that year I ought to write more horror. He’s probably not given me a thought in 25 years or more, but I guess I was listening, because by the time I got to high school I was a horror convert.

I decided to turn TERROR IN TANNER’S FIELD into a novel. I finished it when I was 17. I didn’t have a computer in those days (we are talking circa 1987 here). The first draft of TITF was written in pencil, as was my process by then, and then I redrafted it in pen. But my uncle had one of those newfangled devices called a word processor, and he volunteered to type it out for me. I handed over the handwritten pages, and he duly returned the manuscript to me in the form of three printouts and a 5 1/4-inch floppy disk (remember those?) with the files on it.

TERROR IN TANNER’S FIELD became the first novel I sent out into the big wide world. I really had no idea where to start. I went to the library and picked up a few books in the teenage horror range – which at that point was still a strange new genre – and looked up the publisher’s address on the title page. That’s where I sent my manuscript- in its entirety. I didn’t know about the etiquette of query letters, or sending only the first three chapters. I’m not even sure if I remembered return postage, although older and wiser people may have pointed out to me the wisdom of doing this, if I wanted the precious package returned.

Those initial queries came back fairly swiftly, with kind and encouraging rejection letters that basically said the publisher was always pleased to hear from young people who liked to write (I had mentioned my age in the cover letter; the publishers had all decided to be gentle), and my writing showed promise, but I needed a bit more practice before it would be ready for publication.

After racking up a few rejection letters, I started to wonder if maybe I was aiming too high. It was getting expensive to keep sending the novel out, and not many publishers were dealing with teenage horror in those days.

Then I thought, perhaps I should lower the bar. So I put TERROR IN TANNER’S FIELD in a drawer, and looked towards my short stories instead. Perhaps it would be easier to start small, and get some of those published first, my 17-year-old self reasoned.

I still had a lot of lessons to learn about writing, and submitting, at that point. But one of the things I learned fairly on was that rejection was all part of the process.

1 comment:

Nerine Dorman said...

My morbid fascination would love to know if you'd ever share excerpts from your first novel. I put all my juvenalia in a big black bin bag and threw them away when I moved house. Really, they were that bad.