My first sale was not to a book publisher. Nor was it to a magazine, newspaper, website, e-zine, or anything like that. My first short story sale was to a restaurant.
I’ve never considered myself very good at short story writing. For whatever reason, my brain is just wired to think in bigger terms. The prospect of writing a 5,000 word short story is infinitely more terrifying than writing a 90,000 word novel. That’s not to say that I didn’t try.
When I decided I wanted to be a writer–literally an official decision around my sophomore year in college, when I declared to nobody in particular that “I want to be a writer!”–I went about researching how exactly one became this mystical creature. At first I went about it all wrong. The only person I knew who’d written a book was my physician, who’d penned a book on teenage health care. So I asked him how one becomes a writer. His unvarnished, unfiltered advice was simple: “The first thing any writer needs is an agent.”
This made sense to me. I mean, actors had agents, I was pretty sure screenwriters had agents. Why not novelists? So I began querying literary agents, figuring it would be no time before I was snapped up by some high-powered New York agency who would be chomping at the bit to represent a 20-year old with loads of potential (at least that’s what I told myself). But anyone who’s tried to get published knows one thing–it’s pretty hard to land an agent if you haven’t written anything.
No, my query letters were the extent of my writings. I had no manuscript, no novel, no short stories. My query letters were along the lines of, “At some point I’m going to write a book. Will you represent it?” Needless to say these letters were not exactly replied to with positive responses.
Once I realized I couldn’t get an agent without having written anything, I began to do some research. It seemed agents were more likely to represent you if you had a few writing credits under your belt, namely a few short stories published in reputable magazines or quarterlies. So I went about writing short stories, not because I liked writing short stories, but because I felt i had to do build my resume to land an agent.
My stories were terrible. They rarely had a beginning, middle and end, but were more rambling escapades, like a bad SNL sketch that goes on forever without realizing that it hasn’t gotten a laugh in five minutes. I sent these stories everywhere, without much regard for what the publication was looking for or what the requirements were. I was somewhat proud of one short story I’d written about a college kid on the road trip from hell with his family. I thought it was quite funny, and even though it didn’t really have an ending (or beginning or middle for that matter) I thought it was worthy of getting published.
Everyone else disagreed.
So this brings me to my very first published short story. I was looking online for more venues to submit my work, when I came upon an online zine that published short fiction. They did it bi-monthly, and every issue had a theme. The next month’s theme was ‘crime’. The story had to be under 3,000 words and the theme had to be some sort of crime story. So I wrote mine. It was about a hapless crook who steals a man’s wallet, only to have the bad karma from that act pay him back in spades. I even went against the grain and wrote the story with an actual ending. And then I sent it off to this zine, wondering if I’d just wasted my time essentially writing on spec for one specific publication.
But then the strangest thing happened…I got an email back from the editor saying they wanted to publish it. I was ecstatic, beside myself. I told them of course they could publish it, and it didn’t even occur to me that I might actually get something in return for this story. The editor then asked me for my mailing address for my gift certificate. “Gift certificate?” I said. “What gift certificate?”
It just so happened that the publisher of this online magazine was a New York City restaurant, known for being somewhat hip. I’m as hip as your grandfather’s tweed jacket, so being a New Yorker I’d of course never heard of it. But this zine, sponsored by the restaurant, paid its contributors in gift certificates for the restaurant itself. So once I signed and faxed back my consent, I received a $75 gift certificate in the mail. I took my then girlfriend to the restaurant, and that $75 paid for our dinner and a nice glass of wine. I even told the waiter that I’d received the gift by publishing a story in the restaurant’s online magazine. He was not impressed.
“Instant Karma” was the very first story I ever professionally published, and about six years and a whole heaping help of rejection slips later, I sold my first thriller, THE MARK. I’ve only written one short story since then, a piece called “The Point Guard” for the KILLER YEAR anthology that came out last year from St. Martin’s Press. To my great surprise, when I wrote “The Point Guard,” it even had an ending. And as I write this, I’m sitting in a hotel room in Chicago where I’m preparing for my first panel of the day at the annual Love is Murder convention. My first panel? What else–writing short stories.