Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Writer Girl

I am 14 again. My parents and big sister are still alive. I’m in my room in the 1950’s shoebox house we’d lived in since I was in the third grade. The usual household noise is going on beyond my closed door.

I want privacy so I can research something important in peace.

I’d wanted to be a professionally published writer since I was 11 and that ambition is literally in my grasp.

I’m on my bed reading an issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. It cost fifty cents—which was my allowance for the week.

On the bed next to me is a battered library copy of the Writer’s Market for that year. It’s opened to the page that has EQMM’s address and submission requirements. I have them memorized.

Reading the current issue’s stories will tell me the kind of stuff they buy, which will be the kind of stuff I will write and sell to them. I want to be one of those writers.

It occurred to me that I could make a darn good living selling a story a month to EQMM. I would, in fact, be rolling in dough. To a 14-year-old limited to fifty cents a week, augmented by a dollar for every “A” on her report card, the payment of three cents a word for a five thousand-word story was a bloody fortune.

I read all the stories in that issue. I’d read all the stories in the collections at the library. I’d read Nancy Drew, Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie…I would be a mystery writer, sell a story to EQMM, and THEN people would take me seriously!

For weeks afterward I scribble on notebook paper fastened to a clipboard permanently “borrowed” from my dad’s office (the carport where he and the neighbors hung out next to his fridge full of beer). I’m writing THE story, the one that will send the editor at EQMM hurtling toward his checkbook, anxious to pay me so I wouldn’t send the story to some other magazine instead.

The writing consumed me at school. Or perhaps I wrote it in the summer, back to a wall, knees braced to hold the clipboard and my favorite blue pen in hand, words tumbling out of my ambitious brain almost too fast to write.

It was exhausting. I’d take breaks when I got tired and walk around the house, watch a few minutes of TV, maybe read a bit for inspiration, and then go back and write some more with classical music on my radio blocking out distracting house noise. That pattern of working would remain with me for life, though I didn’t know it at the time.
The story was finished. I typed it when I was alone in the house. I used carbon paper, addressed it to EQMM the way they instructed in Writer’s Market, triple-checked that I spelled the editor’s name right, included a SASE and cover letter, and then sent it out.

I wasn’t too disappointed that it was rejected. After all, every writer gets rejection letters; that was normal, so said all the books on writing. I filed the story away. (Some years later I found it, was horrified that another human being had ever read it, and quickly fed it to the wastebasket.)

I didn’t tell my parents about that first rejection. They’d not invented the term “dysfunctional” to describe them yet, but if I had shared, then I’d get a bunch of “I told you so’s” and with merciless teasing they’d never let me forget it. They knew I wanted to be a writer, but gave no encouragement. I was actively discouraged from writing. The idea was to protect me from rejection slips or something stupid like that. They had no clue of how wrong that was, but time and death cures much, allowing us to forgive.

My big sister wouldn’t have done that; she wanted to be a writer, too. I got the idea about becoming a writer from her. I may have told her. I just don’t remember. She’d have been nice about it, I know.

I got busy with other things. I was 14. Short attention span. New stuff to learn. Countless books to read. My whole life ahead of me. I was cocky, smart, and knew I was smart.

And sooner or later I’d send EQMM another story to consider, and maybe they’d buy it.

Decades later, I have to get out of my house. I’ve got deadlines, day job responsibilities to meet, writing stuff to do to press forward my tiny little publishing imprint (Vampwriter Books); there’s not enough in the bank to cover the mortgage tomorrow, the car insurance is coming due, and a few hundred other dreary, insane, and wholly stupid adult-life things no one bothered to warn me about are pressing, but I HAVE to get out of the damn house.

I don’t need it, but want it, ordering a burger and fries at a favorite eatery to screw up my arteries and add more lard to my writer’s spread.  But it tastes good and I appreciate every comforting bite. To entertain my brain I’m reading the 70th anniversary issue of EQMM. It has reviews mentioning novels I want to check out at the bookstore across from the burger joint.

Later, in the store, I scan the magazine rack, then move on to the S.F. aisle, the mystery aisle, the romance aisle—the genres I love to read and have worked in for 20+ years. I’ve been published multiple times, felt that giddy rush of seeing a title on the racks, signed copies on the sly and slipped them back into their slots. Viewing the shelves full of new releases, I can’t help but feel a little pang of jealousy for those writers who seem to kick books out effortlessly, year after year. I know it’s not effortless, but that pang is never logical. I will use its energy when I get home to drive me to scrape new words from my brain and hopefully meet those deadlines and take some of the pressure off my head.

Then I recall I was to look for those EQMM recommended titles. I left my copy in the car. No problem, more are in the magazine section. I’ll glance inside, get the names and find the books if they’re here.

I reach in the back of the display and snag what feels to be a strangely thin copy of EQMM. The one I read from at lunch was a double issue, covering September/October. I have a seat, take off my glasses because they’re not good for reading, and flip pages, looking for the article.

It doesn’t seem to be there.

Check the contents, Elrod.

So I do -- and there’s my name.

It’s not the name I put on that first story I sent in all those years ago, but it’s still my name, and it is in an issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.

This doesn’t register. Where’s the article I want?

I look at the cover. It’s familiar. I was sent three author copies about a month ago. I gave one to a friend, the other two are still on my desk in their envelope. The cover’s not the one I wanted. Where’s the copy with the cover I want?

I look again at the contents page and abruptly realize…

I say “Oh, good God” aloud, and stare at my name as though for the first time.

It’s not like this should have been a surprise. I’d submitted the story last spring, and some eight months later they accepted it. Some months after that they paid me for it. The money is no longer important. It never was.

What is, is that I have in hand the proof that I wrote a story good enough for Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine to buy.

You can count it as something to tic off the bucket list or as a near-impossible life goal finally reached.  I’ll pick the latter.

But most importantly of all, as I sit there on that bookstore bench…

I am 14 again. My parents and big sister are still alive. I’m in my room in the 1950’s shoebox house we’d lived in since I was in the third grade. The usual household noise is going on beyond my closed door...

It’s a sweet moment. I take my time.

The November 2011 issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine has P.N. Elrod's story, Beach Girl.

She hopes you enjoy it. It's been a long, long time coming.

The magazine is available as a Kindle instant download

It will be up on Nook shortly.