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How I Became a Published Author, Part 1

Once upon a time I wasn't much of a writer. In high school I wrote crappy requisite five-paragraph essays about T.S. Eliot and F. Scott Fitzgerald and The War Against Northern Aggression, but they were unimaginative and mostly aimed at satisfying the teachers' expectations.

In college I went out of my way to avoid writing-heavy classes, although for distributional reasons I had to take a few. In each case I produced passable-but-unexceptional term papers. I'm sure if I dug them up today I'd find them terrifically embarrassing, on account of both style and content. (Also, I'm sure I printed them using really ugly fonts that were popular back in the 90's.)

Many years later I found myself full of opinions, and so (as was the fashion) I started a blog to force my poorly written harangues on the world. Eventually I became aware of its poorly written nature, and I deleted it. I repeated this harangue-awareness-deletion cycle several times. (One could plausibly argue that I'm currently in the "harangue" step of another go-round, but if one is polite one won't.)

In addition, approximately 10 (!) years ago I started a LiveJournal. Although today people think of LiveJournal and picture a bunch of Russians and 15-year-old emo kids, back then LiveJournal actually consisted mostly of 15-year-old emo kids. My LiveJournal at first was terrible, really terrible, which you'd be able to see if I hadn't at some point become aware of how terrible it was and deleted most of it.

Over time, though, I sort of "found my voice," and I started getting fewer and fewer "please become aware of the poorly-written nature of your journal and delete it!" comments and more and more "please tell us more humiliating stories about your social life!" comments. All the while I became practiced in the twin literary techniques of making stuff up and referencing things that had happened on "Charles in Charge" as if they'd actually happened in real life.

Eventually I went out and took a UCLA Extension "Introduction to Fiction Writing" class, taught by Noel Alumit, who writes acclaimed novels about being gay and Filipino. "Where better," I asked myself, "to learn how to write acclaimed novels about being gay and Filipino?" I had few expectations for the class, but Noel was an excellent teacher, and I ended up enjoying the class quite a bit. I produced a mawkish short story about a boy who likes to play baseball but is no good at it, which my classmates all seemed to enjoy. (My girlfriend at the time initially refused to believe I was the author of something so sickeningly earnest.)

After I moved to Seattle, I took a Hugo House "Improv for Writers" course, which launched me on a 2-year detour away from writing, during which I performed a lot of really bad improv and also tricked my friends into watching a lot of really bad improv.

Eventually I realized that I wasn't enjoying doing improv, and I walked away. (I took the rule of three with me.) This left me with a bunch of spare time, which I immediately filled with books. Every time someone mentioned a book to me, every time I read an interesting book review, every time a blog I read endorsed a book, I'd go online and add it to my library queue.

Once a week or so, I'd go to the library with huge shopping bags full of overdue books, and I'd come home with a dozen or so new ones. I never ended up reading most of these, of course, but it kept me entertained. And then one day I read The Book That Changed My Life.

This was John Hodgman's The Areas of My Expertise. I don't know that anyone else can make such a claim, except maybe Hodgman himself. As I mentioned last time, my literary arsenal consisted mostly of the "writing factually about things that didn't actually happen" trick. Before The Areas of My Expertise, it never occurred to me that one could squeeze an entire book out of this trick. After The Areas of My Expertise, I knew that I had to.

But still I needed something to write about. I had a half-finished novel about religion sitting on my hard drive, so it seemed the natural choice. Also, I liked to tell myself, it was a subject I knew plenty about, and whatever I didn't know I could figure out from the internet.

I started out by writing the Preface. I wrote it, and edited it, and wrote some more, and edited some more, and eventually (maybe around the time I came up with Nancy Drew Blood) I realized I had something that I thought was really, really funny. And at that point I had no choice but to finish the book.

Historically I haven't been good at finishing things. I'm fantastic at starting things, but I usually lack sticktoitiveness. Fortunately, it was a really slow time at work, and rather than worrying that someone might realize I was unnecessary (which is what I probably would have done if I hadn't had a side project to work on), I just spent a lot of days going home early and writing. (After a while I became necessary again, and after that the writing proceeded much more slowly.)

I came up with a pretty good outline, based largely on the related principles that (1) unexpected categories are funny, and (2) mutually non-exclusive categories are funny. At that point it became a matter of just putting flesh on the bones.

That makes it sound easy, but coming up with 258 pages of mockery and Scott Baio references is hard. I spent most of my free time working on the thing for months and months and months. And finally, when the book was about 75% done, I decided I was ready to unleash it on the world.

Some friends of mine were organizing the BIL conference and asked if I wanted to give a talk. This seemed like a great time to unveil the book. (It would have been better if the book were finished and for sale at that point, but you have to work with what you have.)

The problem was that the talk was only supposed to be 15 minutes. My first version of the talk involved about 100 slides, which I decided was about 6x too many to fit into 15 minutes. I triaged my jokes and used all my Presentation Zen skills and somehow got down to about 75 slides, and then I just spent the entire plane ride practicing talking really, really fast.

The talk itself seemed well received, and I got lots of questions about when the book would be available. So I set myself to finishing it.

At the same time, I realized that I should start thinking about how to get it published. I searched the web for "how to write a book proposal" instructions, which I used to craft a proposal and send it to various literary agents whom I also found by searching the web. I never got a response from any of them.

Also whurley put me in touch with a literary agent he knew. Since this was a friend-of-a-friend introduction, I got responses to my emails, although they revolved around the theme of "yeah, I can't sell this book."

Finally, I emailed a bunch of ought-to-be-sympathetic authors asking if they could help. The only one who responded was Michael Shermer, who opined that I'd never get my book published by a "reputable publisher." Times were tough for publishers, he pointed out, and their willingness to take a chance on an unknown first-time author in a saturated genre was pretty nonexistent.

This all left me sort of in a jam. I had a mostly-finished book that I thought was pretty damn good. And yet I couldn't get anyone in the publishing industry to even respond to my mail.

(To be continued.)

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