Friday, January 17, 2014

On Being A Writer

I attended a three day-book signing event in Newark, New Jersey in 2009, when my short story collection, Randoms, was published. I was seated at a booth with two other authors, one of whom was Kathryn Lee Scott. Kathryn was an actress who had become a self-published author, forming her own publishing company and eventually publishing other authors, as well. Ironically, I’d met Kathryn in 1991, several years after she had started her company. I had what I thought was a great idea for a book (which, by the way, I am still writing), and she told me to mail her a proposal, which I did. A few weeks later, I opened my mailbox to find the loveliest, nicest rejection letter I have ever seen waiting for me. I mean, this was not merely the most heartfelt rejection letter I’d gotten from a publisher; it was the most heartfelt rejection letter I’d ever received in my entire life – and that includes the one from a beautiful blonde Polish girl named Maria G’nichkevitch on Valentine’s Day in first grade with the letters “NO” scrawled in red crayon. Kathryn’s rejection letter was two pages long, and unlike Maria’s, penned in cursive and not written in crayon.

Kathryn explained she did not envision her new company publishing the sort of book I had proposed. I am forever grateful to Kathryn for her decision that day. I was impressed she had started her own publishing company, a rare feat back then, but I wondered why I couldn’t do the same. Unlike Kathryn (to the best of my knowledge), I had trained to become a writer, earning a degree in journalism, as well as an MBA from a Top 20 business school. Surely, I thought, that background would make me more qualified than an actress to be an author and publisher. A few years later, when the opportunity arose, I formed my own publishing company, inspired by Kathryn’s endeavor. Ironically, had Kathryn published my book, most likely I would have published all of my subsequent books through her company and never started my own, missing out on the best eight years of my life. I expressed my gratitude by crediting her as the inspiration for the birth of my company on the acknowledgments page of Randoms.

A long line of autograph seekers wrapped around our booth, mainly because one of us was a TV star, but unfortunately it wasn’t me. So, the other gentlemen and I sold a few books and spoke to the fans waiting in line for Kathryn’s autograph. I told this anecdote to a young man in the line and even showed him Kathryn’s name on the acknowledgments page. I was quite pleased when he purchased a copy of Randoms, at least until a few minutes later, when he placed my book before Kathryn, opened to the acknowledgments page, and asked her to autograph it above her name. The moral of the story is, for those of you driven by egotism to become authors, you may expect to have your ego sliced and diced with an astonishing degree of regularity throughout your career.

For example, a copy of my fantasy novel, Paved with Good Intentions, which I had autographed at a book signing, later appeared on eBay with this description: “Up for grabs. From Keith B. Darrell… Trade edition softcover in good, gently-read condition… signed to “Beth Anne” by author on title page, but otherwise clean text.” I don’t know which is more ego deflating: finding someone seeking a quick buck has turned around and listed on eBay a copy of a book they had asked you to sign to them, or that the autograph mars an “otherwise clean text”.

Fortunately, I was not driven by egotism to become an author and any illusions I might have had to inflate my ego had been crushed long ago by a blonde little girl with a red crayon. Instead, I became a writer, in part, because writing exposes you to whole new worlds limited only by your imagination and allows you to take part in a wide range of experiences, often without even leaving your desk.

Which is not to say I haven’t had my own share of unusual experiences in real life, as many of my friends, like Mark, know. Whether one writes fiction or nonfiction, an author must plan on doing a lot of research for a book. One night, I was working on a chapter in The 25th Hour, my Young Adult science fiction novel. I had done a fair amount of research on semi-automatic weapons like the AR-15 and Bushmaster rifles, but I’d never actually fired one. Mark, on the other hand, is extremely knowledgeable about guns. It was 2 o’clock in the morning and I’d written my protagonist into a situation in which he was facing down the barrel of an AR-15 and I needed to know if there were any way he could render the gun inoperable, short of disarming the antagonist. Despite my online research, I couldn’t find an answer to the question, so I did what any rational writer would do: I turned to an expert.

So, I phoned Mark… at 2 a.m. Fortunately Mark, like me, is one of those people usually awake at odd hours. I said, “Mark, I need to ask you a question. If someone is pointing an AR-15 at you, and there’s no way for you to get the gun away from him, is there any way to prevent it from firing?”

There was a long, silent pause on the other end of the phone line.

Then, Mark asked, “Keith, where the hell are you?”

And that’s why I enjoy being a writer. I can face down an AR-15, travel to the past or the future, explore other countries or other planets, and hold up a mirror to society reflecting the human condition… all without leaving the comfort of my chair.

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