How to Get Started Writing

poster of how to start a bookOh, but it’s so appropriate to begin this post with those words…
It was so long ago and I was so, so young, . A and so full of the fire of I CAN DO THIS, EVERYTHING, AND NOTHING WILL STAND IN MY WAY.
I sent a story in the venerable London Magazine, then still spearheaded by its editor of a quarter of a century’s standing, Alan Ross. He was famous for sending his responses via postcard – I don’t mean the touristy Tower of London stuff but weird things with black and white artwork or some esoteric photo which had nothing to do with anything at all – and my own postcard soon came, in response to my submission:
Not enough background. Regards, A. Ross.”
As I said, I was young and I was full of chutzpah. I wrote back, and said, “Well, how much background would you LIKE?”
Another postcard arrived by return of mail. “We’ll take it, Regards, A.Ross.
It was thus that I sold a story to the London Magazine – but it never appeared in it. Not too long after the sale, another postcard arrived inquiring whether I would have any objection if they used my story – not in the magazine – but instead in the hardcover anthology they were producing to mark the LM’s thirtieth anniversary. Blown away by the request, I managed a “yes of course you may” and the antho duly appeared, with my story inside it.
I subsequently had lunch in London with the editor who put that book together, and to cut a long story short, he introduced me to my very first British agent., and I sent her some stories I had written – original fairy tales, in the vein of the dark Oscar Wilde-ian tales which I loved. In due time I received notification from her, something about the stories being “in a book”.
It took three exchanges of mail before she could convince me that she didn’t mean that the stories would appear as part of another anthology, sharing space with others in some book. No, she meant a book. MY book. My very first book. My three stories were to appear together in a short publication under the aegis of the Longman reading series, which stretched from ABC books to what they called books for independent readers, which was what my own stories would be.
This was an educational publisher and these books would be aimed squarely at the educational market, at kids. But my language, my vocabulary, were NOT kid-level, not at all. Which is why when the edits for this book arrived, I handed them to my father and asked him to look because I was terrified that they would eviscerate the thing.
But wondrously, they did not. They left my lush stories alone.
This book of three stories went on to NINE PRINTINGS, and a decade after it was first published it was still dribbling royalties into my lap. I’m not sure if it’s even in print any more although it does appear in – but that was my first book, my first REAL book, and I loved it fiercely. Still do. I love those stories.
No, they do not end with a “happily ever after”. None of my stories have ever really done. But each of the tales in there is visceral, is full of drama, is full of dream. They really are the dark-chocolate variant of the fairy tale, bittersweet, memorable because of that because they leave an aftertaste in the mind.
I was channeling the pathos and empathy of Hans Christian Andersen, the lush language and the pain of Oscar Wilde. I was reinventing the fairy tale, in my own peculiar way. And it all really came about because a perfectly unrelated story sent to an unlikely market got accepted in spite of the fact that it lacked “background”.
And that… was the beginning.