Why Catastrophe Is the Key To Success: How I Got Published
Here’s one thing I know: Until the final breakthrough comes, “Success” feels like “Catastrophe.”
I’d like to tell you the story of five beautiful catastrophes, fears, and failures that led to me living my childhood dream.
I’ve wanted to tell the tale of how I sold my debut novel, The End Games, for a long time, but I only recently realized where the story’s true heart lies. It’s ultimately a story about a willingness to live with the terrors of disappointment and the unknown.
Steve Jobs famously said that you can only connect the dots of your life looking back. So here are the five dots, the five awful-wonderful moments in time, that got me here.
1. The Short-term Pain (and Long-term Gifts) of Being a Geek.
When I was a kid, my friends wanted to be Troy Aikman and Barry Bonds. I wanted to be RL Stine.
In other words: I was a geek.
And I honestly didn’t even notice at first. In elementary school, when I first cracked the spines of RL Stine’s Goosebumps books, all I remember feeling was a sense that I’d stumbled upon something wonderful and secret, that Mr. Stine had introduced me to some true aspect of myself and ignited something deep within me–a jack-o’lantern candle, perhaps.
Mr. Stine’s books won’t ever be confused with Great And Serious Literature, but that’s way beside the point: Those stories enchanted my life, and some of the happiest memories of my kid years are of drawing Mr. Stine’s monsters on my school notebooks, of calling Waldenbooks every Tuesday to see if the new Goosebumpswas on the shelves yet, and even of planning with my friends to start “a monster hunting business.”
Here’s the Catastrophe part, though: When you’re that young, you don’t realize how beautiful (and fleeting) it is to love things unapologetically.
That’s why middle school (where suddenly loving scary stories Was Not Cool) felt like such a sucker-punch. Middle school was lonely and a little bit awful, and I can’t tell you how many times I tried to stay awake during football games on Sunday so that I’d had something to talk about at lunch the next day.
But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t stop loving scary stories. And thank goodness for that.
2. Post-College FAIL
My generation was told that we could be anything.
But gaaaaawd, is it hard.
I did all the right things to get ready for “the real world”: I “followed my bliss,” went to a great college, studied, got solid grades, flossed. And by the time I graduated in 2007, I had a screenplay optioned, an amazing film manager, and I was working on my first novel with a famous agent.
Then, in the space of three days, all those things disappeared. It’s difficult to describe how lost I felt (though I tried to do so here).
But it turned out that failure was more miracle than catastrophe.
“What Got You Here Won’t Get You There.”
I’d been in a deep, sad funk for a few months when I found that quote. The quote made my heart sing, because I realized that just because my hard work had not yet taken me all the way, I could learn new things to remake myself and reach that higher ground I so wanted to attain.
It turns out that this is a common thing. Steve Martin talks about how, at twenty-one, he realized that his act had to be totaled and rebuilt. Marianne Williamson talks about how sometimes we ask God to help us “set our house [aka. our lives] in order,” and rather than coming in and doing a little dusting, God shows up with a bulldozer and rubbles our house to the ground.
I felt bulldozed. But I understood that I had the power to rebuild.
3. $210—and Getting a Mentor—Changes My Life
But that knowledge didn’t make everything click magically into place.
I worked a series of frustrating day jobs for a couple more years (pharmaceutical study guinea pig, 4AM-shift worker at a kosher bagel shop), and though I’d begun writing a new novel I liked called The End Games in late 2008, I still often felt like I was trudging through a quicksand pit.
Then I got a mentor, and changed my life forever.
In the late winter of 2010, Sara Zarr, one of my favorite novelists, put up a “full manuscript critique” as part of a charity auction. Money was tight for me and Mrs. Martin right then, but on the night the auction was to end, I set my alarm for five minutes ‘til midnight, put in a bid on the Sara Zarr critique at the final second, and won the auction.
It cost $210, and such a big expenditure felt (you guessed it) a little catastrophic at the time, as did the feeling of vulnerability that comes from submitting your work to someone you so admire.
But having an author whose work I adored coach me through the writing and revisions of The End Games was a gorgeous vivifying Frankenstein lightning-bolt miracle that has enriched my life and writing in ways too many to recount.
It didn’t make the writing process magic, or even easy: I still sweated blood, and Sara would be the first to tell you that The End Games is 100% mine.
But the validation and kinship I found in having a mentor has been the greatest gift I’ve ever received in my writing life.
(PS: Taking that chance changed my personal realm as well: Sara Zarr eventually became my best [non-spouse] friend. PPS: The day I finally got to meet SZ, I also met another Really Awesome Person….)
4. Letting Go
The scariest part of the writing process for me is letting go.
I finished The End Games in September 2011, and I knew that I’d poured my sweat/blood/soul into every page and plot twist, and that ultimately I’d created a novel that (while not autobiographical) represented a kind of topographic map of my heart.
But even though I knew I should begin querying agents, I was (uhmm) pants-crappingly petrified. ’Cause I’d committed everything (everything) I had to the page… and what if that wasn’t enough?
This was one of those moments when SZ stepped in, and said something I’ll never forget:
“Your job is not to get the book perfect. Your job is to get the book done.”
So, on a Saturday night, after three years of writing The End Games, I cast my fatequery to the winds of the unknown.
I told myself to be patient, that it was going to be months before I heard anything back, that even if I got an agent, it would still be roughly a geological age before I knew whether The End Games would be published or not.
Thirty-six hours later, on Monday morning, I received multiple offers of representation.
The End Games sold to HarperCollins a couple weeks after it went out on submission.
(Do I have to tell you I cried?)
5. May 7th, 2013
The End Games will be published next May. I have to admit that even typing that sentence still feels so alien—and yes, dreamlike—to me.
I know how hard I worked, so I don’t believe in luck. But I do feel lucky.
I look back, and I know now that if The End Games had never received literary representation or an offer from a major publisher, I would have eventually rebounded. I would have grown, as necessary.
I know this because every apparent catastrophe in my life ultimately turned out to be a gift.
It’s corny but true that the journey is the reward, that the book itself is the boon. But man oh man, I can’t wait to see The End Games on the shelves. It’s a story about two brothers fighting monsters, true, but it’s also about the gifts of catastrophe, and the beautiful truths that can only be revealed by adversity (and, y’know, the zombie apocalypse).
That might sound familiar :]
So what do you guys think? Is adversity a key part of success? Feel free to leave your thoughts in the Comments .
About The End Games: You can now pre-order The End Games (Balzer + Bray) atAmazon, Barnes and Noble, and soon on IndieBound. You can also read more aboutThe End Games on Goodreads, or by following me on Twitter and Facebook.
Visit his website at: http://tmichaelmartin.com/.