When I switched my major from medicine to “Editing” at BYU, I really decided to immerse myself in my writing. Now, I don’t want you to think that I gave up on everything else. I had other artistic interests. I had always been good at sculpting, had studied photography, and I was interested in oil painting, but I began to focus more and more on writing.
My very first story in my writing class with Eloise Bell though was a little piece called “Charlie in the Wind,” a story about a budding psychopath who tries to help his best friend learn to become a man. (You can find it on Amazon.com.) At the time, I had quit working as a guard at the Utah State Prison about a year earlier, and I was very interested in what makes a sociopath.
When I wrote the first draft, I took it to the writing lab at BYU and asked a young woman to help me edit it. I was particularly worried that my punctuation might be a bit off. She began editing, but after a couple of pages she just stopped and began reading. She laughed in all of the right places and cried in the right places, and when she reached the end, she was in tears. She said, “This is great. Just turn it in,” and I asked, “But what about the punctuation?” She told me, “When you can write like this, nobody gives a damn about punctuation.”
So I was pleased that the story at least elicited a good emotional reaction, and I turned it in with a great deal of trepidation.
A couple of days later I got the story back, and my teacher had given it an A. She wrote a little note informing me that there was a short story contest coming up, and she suggested that I enter it. So I erased the grade, and found that my teacher had spilled something on the last page. At first I thought it was coffee or something, but then I realized that there were tears on the manuscript. I just left them, then went up to the box where the contest entries were stored, and dropped it in.
About four weeks later, I ended up winning third place in the writing contest and winning $50. I calculated that I had spent about seven hours composing the story, and realized that I had made over $7 per hour on my story. I wondered, You know, if I had tried harder, I wonder if I could have taken first place.
So I set a goal to win first place in the writing contest for next year, and I kept studying.
My course of studies over the next year included writing, and I began writing almost every day. I now had a goal to win a contest, and I wanted to come up with a story that would be worthy. But as I looked at several upcoming contests, I realized that there were even bigger prizes out there. So I wanted to come up with a slate of stories.
At the same time, I was ramping up my studies on writing. I was reading books on writing for my classes and doing exercises. I decided to try to learn from a number of teachers, and took classes in writing poetry, science fiction, and short fiction. I also read books on how to write novels and screenplays.
Much of what I did included research into various genres. For example, I subscribed to The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, the Southern Review, Omni, Asimov's, and Fantasy and Science Fiction, and I read voraciously not just in modern literature, but I read short stories from many of the modern masters, and I fell in love in particular with the work of the Latin American realists. Borges in particular pretty much floored me, but there was Gabriel Garcia Marquez and a couple of other contemporary writers that really excited me.
I also began reading poetry daily. I fell in love with the works of Theodore Roethke, Dylan Thomas, Emily Dickinson, William Butler Yeats, and Robert Frost, to name a few.
Then I was also studying literary criticism. I took a class from a historian who had us study every significant critic from Plato down to the 1980s. A few people dropped out of the class due to the heavy workload, but I absolutely loved it.
In my spare time, I began doing a lot of research on past award winners—reading the works of our Nobel Prize winners in literature, going through all of the nominees for past Hugo and Nebula Awards, and so on.
More importantly, I began asking a lot of my own questions. The first big one I tackled was “Why do people read fiction?” What is it that they really want? Why do some stories seem to feed the soul and others don’t? Those questions seemed paramount to me as a writer, yet almost none of the literary critics I was reading seemed to be asking them.
So for the coming year, I threw myself into the writing, and I even began working as an intern, editing a couple of campus magazines. While interning at one magazine, one fellow, Jonathan Langford, invited me to join his science fiction writing group, Xenobia.
My next few short stories in Eloise’s class also got A’s, as did my works in other classes, and I began submitting to major magazines—unsuccessfully. My mainstream fiction got little notice, though one magazine for sociologists kept sending me love letters saying, “We hardly ever publish fiction, but if we did, we would want yours.”
But I think that of all the things I was doing, perhaps joining a writing group was the most helpful. My friend Jonathan was a huge fan of Tolkien, and had the goal of becoming the “world’s foremost literary critic of fantasy.” We spent many nights, talking until five in the morning about literature. (In those days, I often went on three hours of sleep.) In particular, I began to spend a lot of time developing my own theories on writing, which culminated in what I called “The Stress Induction/Reduction Theory of Storytelling.” I began to realize that all forms of entertainment put the audience under artificial stress, a kind of safe stress, and I suspected that part of what a story does is that it stresses out the reader as it opens and builds, then relieves stress at the end. In short, it is a kind of emotional exercise.
So I began working on stories that did just that, that carried readers on a dark journey and then brought them back out of it. (I believe that if you google it, you will find an article on the topic on the internet.)
As you can see, when I went into writing, I plunged in all the way. I think that is a difference between me and many writers that I see today. Too many get the idea that they want to be writers, but don’t really put any effort into it. Then, when they don’t succeed immediately, they give up.
I didn’t give up. Over the next few months I began submitting my short stories, and having some small success. The major magazines didn’t take my work, but the university magazines wanted it. My friend Shane Bell told me about the Writers of the Future Contest, and so I wrote a science fiction story called “The Sky is an Open Highway” and sent it in. It placed as a finalist, and I added that contest to my list of contests that I was going to try to win.
Then in the summer of 1986, disaster struck. I came down with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). I developed a bad fever that lasted for about three months, often spiking to 105 degrees. I suddenly found that I could not get out of bed for more than about three hours per day, and I had to drop out of school.
I still had those contests that I wanted to win, so I put my time into that as much as possible. In particular, I began having odd fever dreams, in which I was living in the far future, so I began writing the short story “On My Way to Paradise.” I wrote it over the course of a month. My wife was working at the time, so I wrote while she was gone. My daughter Nichole was only a baby, about five months old, and I spent as much time as I could caring for her, too.
As fall approached, I worked on polishing up some of my short stories and entering several contests.
In thinking about the contests, there were some contests where I knew who the editors were—various professors or writers. So I read some of their works to get a sense of their tastes in literature, so that I could send them the right stories, the ones that I felt would have a good chance of winning. I realized that some writers like particular settings, or writing styles, or a focus on plot vs. characterization.
But when it came to the Writers of the Future and some other contests, I realized that I couldn’t know for sure who the judges were. So I began drawing up a list of ways that a story might be judged, and figured that if I could score high in every category, I would probably beat out most other contestants.
So I did final edits on my stories and sent them off to the contests. I was hoping to win a first-place prize to help offset things like my medical bills and the cost of having our baby.
And after a couple of months, I got a call, telling me that I had won first place in the Ann Doty Fiction Contest. That was the little contest I had won third-place in the previous year. Then I got a call a couple of days later telling me that I had won first place in an even larger contest, the Vera Hinckley-Mayhew contest. Suddenly I had $1500 in prize money. Then I got a call letting me know that I had won first place in the Writers of the Future, and ultimately won grand prize.
Indeed, I had hoped to win first place in a contest, and within a few weeks I ended up winning first place in half a dozen—every contest that I had entered.
To a certain degree, I felt that I was on my way as a writer, but I was still worried. I wondered if I would be able to make any difference in the world as a writer. You see, I was trying to write fiction that meant something, that changed the world.
A few years after I began to break out, I discovered that I was making a difference. I met a young woman who had read my little story, “Charlie in the Wind,” in that magazine at BYU. She had been an English Major, but after reading the story, immediately went to the university and decided to change her major to sociology. After school she opened a string of camps for troubled youth, and over the next few years helped tens of thousands of young men and women.
Winning a contest feels great. Changing lives feels better.
When I won the Writers of the Future contest, I heard from Joni Labaqui, the contest administrator, that some of the judges liked my story “On My Way to Paradise” so much, that they were going to get together with some publishers and offer me a book deal.
And guess what? I wasn’t quite over my fever dreams yet. I began having vivid dreams set on another planet, and realized that there was more to my short story, so I began to outline a novel, and prepared that for submission.
I went to the awards ceremony which was held atop the World Trade Center, and found that many of my favorite authors were there: folks like Ray Bradbury, Gene Wolfe, Orson Scott Card, Isaac Asimov, and so on. Really, there are too many to list.
And at the awards ceremony I won the grand prize for the year. Afterward, eight different editors approached me and asked me to submit my novel proposal to them. I’d only brought two copies, so I waited until I got home from the workshop, and then called an agent.
She agreed to represent me, and we faxed off the proposal to several different companies. Within a few days after winning Writers of the Future, I made a three-novel deal with Bantam Books. I really did feel that I was “On My Way to Paradise.”
My Write that Novel Seminar is just around the corner, next weekend in fact. You can still register. Hope to see you in Phoenix.
Also, I have all the information up for my two workshops in Australia! I'll be doing one in Brisbane and another in Sydney. See that info here.