How My Writing Reached the Top of a New York Skyscraper and Then Fell Back Down Again

…or What the Heck Happened with That Book I Wrote

BrocksWritingSpace
My writing space: Dining Room Table. Tunes. Notebook. Laptop. Flowers.

I’ve been avoiding writing this post for a long time. When I started writing my book, Raised By a Dead Man (which everyone seems to agree is a terrible title and yet no one has ever come up with anything better), my plan was to a) become a writer and b) start big. Just to be clear: starting big is writing a 95,000 word book when the longest thing you’ve written previously was a 2,000 word report on North Dakota. In the sixth grade.

I’m be facetious. I had also done some blogging. (Okay, now I’m really being facetious.)

You ever feel like you can do something–I mean really, actually do it–even though you’ve never even attempted it before? Me neither, except for this one time when I spent every night after 10pm for two years writing this book. I knew I was a writer. I just knew it.

And I knew I had a great story to tell. A boy’s coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of his father getting gunned down in not one, but two armed robberies. The second time, the father dies and the boy–now serving as a missionary–has to come to grips with not only himself but the legacy his father has left behind. Somehow, this all ends on a happy, positive not. It’s a feel-good tragedy. Y’know, like those sorts of things always are.

The best part was that it was all true. It was my story. A memoir.

I sent the book out to friends and family and people I didn’t know so well for their feedback. This was valuable because the book wasn’t quite ready yet. Thankfully, I have good people I can lean on who are both enthusiastic and honest.  The book got better and finally, in April 2011, I started submitting it to literary agents.

(I had some initial ideas about self-publishing but after doing my research I quickly determined that was not for me. My reasons are a whole ‘nother blog post, but even my subsequent failure hasn’t turned that into a viable option.)

My thought was, why not shoot for the stars? You never know, right? And if all I hit is the moon, that’s okay, too, because there’s no points for not trying. “Whatever happens, happens,” I said.

Here’s what’s wrong with this: nobody likes putting everything on the line and then admitting defeat, especially when they’ve been foolish enough to say, “Eh, whatever happens, happens.” Human beings invented the word “whatever” against the advice of God when we really, really felt like we needed one word to cover up all the feelings we insist aren’t there.

God said, “Look, I invented language and I didn’t include ‘whatever’ for a reason. It’s a transparent, nothing of a word. People are gonna see right through it to your real intentions.”

“But maybe not!” we said. “Maybe it will be the one word that allows us to barrel through difficult things in all confidence that we’re fooling everybody!”

God said, “Sometimes I wonder why I bother.” Then, He invented the Ten Commandments because anything more nuanced would have gone right over our heads.

I knew–I knew before I even started writing–that I’d be devastated if the book didn’t reach the top of the bestseller lists. I also knew expecting a book from a first-time author with little writing experience to reach that highest of heights was unreasonable. But I didn’t care. In fact, I still kind of don’t think that was the wrong attitude to have. You can’t maintain a passion for something over the course of several years without absolute belief in its viability.

So, my book went out to agents. This is a punishing process. It requires submitting a one page letter of both introduction and summation and a small sample from the book. Then, you wait to hear back. Could take two minutes or several months. If the agent likes what they see, they ask for more, sometimes (if you’re lucky) the whole book. A few agents did ask for more. A lot more just rejected the book outright. Then, in August 2011 one agent liked it so much she read it all in a week.

That agent, Bonnie Solow, is my now my literary agent. She thought the book should be seen by the top editors in New York–people who had worked on bestselling and Pulitzer Prize winning memoirs–and she had the connections to get it there.

Now, in case it’s not clear, this–that I got that far–is a BIG FREAKIN’ DEAL. I fully appreciate that many authors will try to get an agent for years without success. And getting an agent is really the only way to get your writing in front of the right eyes. That’s what a good agent does. That’s what Bonnie did for me.

I’ll spare you the details of the months of additional drafts and and the development of the 30-page proposal designed to convince the editors and publishing houses to buy the book, and skip right to the end: despite a lot of enthusiasm (and, sure, some real lack of enthusiasm), Raised By a Dead Man failed to find a home. It will not be coming to a bookstore or online retailer near you.

It’s been a full year now since we stopped shopping the book. I’ve talked in person about its failure freely with whoever asks, but I’ve never really written anything down. The written word is where I can be the most honest and sometimes you just want to lie to yourself a little longer.

Yeah, I was devastated. In a most spectacular, soul-crushing way. I poured everything I had into that book. It reached the top of the New York skyscrapers (I actually have no idea where the New York publishing offices are located, but “high up” seems like a safe bet) and was put on display in the right offices. Then it got ejected.

Rejected. Out the window. Ground floor, coming up fast.

Let me tell you, there’s no arrogance like the confidence of the undiscovered and nothing so bitter as the defeat of the uncovered found wanting. Creativity turned into a chore. Music stopped sounding good. I thought about writing about vampires in love on a boat. “Vampire Love Boat.” Tell me that’s not a bestseller.

All of this was temporary. See, in case you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m an idiot. Instead of playing video games every night and just being happy with my amazing wife and our girls and a job that puts a roof over our heads and friends that are super cool and you wish you had, I kept writing. I didn’t even take a break, really. I wrote on the good days and I wrote on the bad days. I just wrote. Because, by now, I know that’s what I love to do.

Like I said, idiot.

My new project was (and still is) a second memoir (idiot!). It’s a not-a-sequel that starts about a year and a half after the first one and relates the Mormon Romeo/Protestant Juliet journey my wife and I and our future in-laws took to the altar. Bad dates, secret romance, religious conflict and abysmal attempts at flirting abound.

My agent is actually pretty excited about it. Whatever happens (there’s that word again), I know that the 52,000 words I’ve written so far is the best stuff I’ve ever done.

With any luck, the second time’s the charm. If not, I have no doubt I’ll go for the hat trick of failure and write something else. And then something else. And then something elser. If I’ve learned anything over the past year, it’s that I suck at failure.

Post Script:

So, what of Raised By a Dead Man? After all, it’s still listed in my bio. I still hope it will see the light. An author can create demand for his work by simply becoming an in demand author. I’ll no doubt do some more drafts one day and, who knows, that might just be what the book needs.

But, y’know, it still kind of bums me out that no one outside of a very small circle has ever read it. Here, then, is the first few pages of Raised By a Dead Man just because. I hope you enjoy it at least a little more than New York did.

RAISED BY A DEAD MAN

by Brock Heasley

Ready

After the funeral, my family and I were ushered down the long, silent hallway and out through the back of the church to avoid the news cameras out front. For a while we stood silently at the edge of the parking lot, huddled close together. Looking down. Mom, in her black skirt and bright red top, dried her tears and smiled faintly. She looked almost relieved. This day had been coming for a long time.

I wrapped one arm tightly around her and the other around my two youngest brothers, who stuck close to me. My other younger brother, Logan, stood as an island unto himself, shivering slightly with arms draped in as much stillness at his sides as he could manage. It was one of those oddly cold, bright days where if you weren’t standing directly in the path of the white and warming sun, you’d freeze. A few cousins, Mom’s parents, Dad’s brother Jim, and Dad’s parents soon joined us. We talked about how nice the service was and not much else.

Grandma, a longtime smoker, could barely breathe and leaned on Grandpa for support. There was a bitterness to her mourning that choked out sentiment, leaving nothing but the sharp anger she displayed all over her face. She muttered the same refrain she’d been repeating over and over again since Saturday night: “Parents shouldn’t have to bury their children.” No one disagreed with her.

The hearse pulled up and we moved to the nearby trees along the sidewalk surrounding the church to allow room for the casket to be rolled out. We watched as the box and the body were loaded in carefully by the hired hands from the funeral home. They were so solemn and so precise in the way they went about it. They didn’t know Dad; for them, it was a performance—routine and impersonal. Were they thinking about the game later that night? Hatching dinner plans? Digesting breakfast? I hadn’t been able to eat that morning. I was too nervous about my speaking assignment.

The door to the hearse clicked as it locked. The signal given, we all piled into cars to start the long journey out to the cemetery way beyond the edge of town. The cameras followed us, but only until we were out of sight. Mom, in the front seat, wiped her tears. She turned around to tell me how much the talk I gave during the funeral meant to her and how impressed she and everyone else was with it. Embarrassed and flattered, I thanked my dedicated, proud and delusional mother. (Though the many compliments I received proved her to not be entirely alone in her insanity.) She dismissed my modesty as false and said the talk reminded her of a moment she’d had with Dad just a week earlier.

They were sitting on the couch in the living room, talking. It was one of those conversations that meandered from the inane to the consequential, a web of familiar concerns particular to all longstanding couples. Dad, who was not sick, spoke, as he often did, of his impending death and how much he looked forward to the afterlife. It would be wonderful. Glorious. So much to learn and to see.

Mom hit her limit. After years of Dad’s supposedly fatal fatalism, she’d had enough and finally asked him the one question she had wanted to ask for years, but had never before dared:

“Bill, do you want to die?”

Dad fell silent. He took a moment to consider his words carefully. Mom could see by the look on his face that he was desperately trying to craft the correct answer to her very direct question. He didn’t want to hurt her. Finally, he gave his measured response.

“If it weren’t for you… and the boys… yes, I’m ready to go now.”

Thanks for reading. Seriously, thanks. That’s all anybody who writes wants anyway.

How to Make Things Valuable

A writerly pose. Notice the all-black attire, the awkward framing, the fingers brought to the temple, and the archaic writing tool. Yes, this man has deep, deep thoughts.

When I was younger I had this dream about accomplishing something amazing at a young age. Get hired by Marvel or DC Comics. Write a book. Serve in City Council. Invent a new Oreo. Whatever. I thought that doing something great at a young age would make me and that thing more extraordinary.

Didn’t happen. The things I did as a young adult were pretty typical. I graduated college. Married. Had kids. Got a job and a house. All good things and great accomplishments for me personally, but nothing the world was gonna stand up and take notice of.

Fast forward to now and, on the eve of my 35th birthday (still a week away), I actually have done something pretty great. I’ve written a book that could find a wide audience and change my life and the life of my family forever. That’s terribly exciting, but it’s nothing people younger than me haven’t already done hundreds of times over. Granted, my story is my own and unique and amazing, but I’ve read and heard about kids and young adults still in college getting these amazing book deals. Real prodigies. People who have accomplished so much and are so talented  and so young. That was supposed to me.

I’m so, so glad it wasn’t.

There is value in the wait. With hard, laborious, extended periods of work and pounds of sweat comes a feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment. I can appreciate what I have now because of where I’ve been and what it took to get here. My book has been through the wringer–multiple readers and people giving their opinion on what I’ve done and what does and does work for them. The “does not” is the hard part. Pouring your heart and talents into something for years and then being told it’s not quite right is tough and it shapes you. Thank goodness.

Now, I have a literary agent. I’ve written a book. Do you know how exciting that is? I do, now. If this had happened to younger me (and no friggin’ way he had the talent or the skills), he wouldn’t have appreciated it. There would have a been a sense of inevitability about it. A sense of entitlement that would have made the accomplishment less thrilling and less deserved. I’m glad that punk didn’t get this then. What I have now is more valuable because that guy was disappointed and had to wait and reconfigure who he thought he was and work harder than he ever thought he could.

I realize I haven’t really “done it” yet. In fact, I’m at the biggest crossroads of this whole process right now. The book is about to go out to publishers and then we’ll really see what the future holds. But everything that’s happened so far? Pretty big deal. More than most ever get.

I’m so glad I can see that fully.

BIG ANNOUNCEMENT: I Have Accepted an Offer of Representation

This is something I’ve been wanting to write for a long, long time. I’m pleased to announce that I’ve been offered and accepted representation for my book RAISED BY A DEAD MAN (working title) from Bonnie Solow of Solow Literary Enterprises!

Querying agents is a rough business. A query is a short letter telling the agent what the book is about and why it’s awesome. Very hard to sum up a 300 page book in one page and do it in such a way that makes an agent want to read more. Agents receive HUNDREDS of queries every week from the anonymous, unwashed masses. They call it “The Slush Pile.” Most of them suck. Not sucking is your best way to stand out from the crowd, but even then… the odds are against you.

I played the odds because I believed in my book. Not that I had any right to. I never though of myself as a writer until about four or five years ago. I got this fool idea in my head that I could write a book and so I did. My (true!) story is about growing up during the time between my father’s two shootings and dealing with his death. Heavy stuff, but funny too. Really. Death is pretty awesome and only in the space a book gives me could I ever explain why I think so.

And now I have an agent who also believes in me. She’s read the book twice now and given me some invaluable feedback and wants to bring it to the world. She’s amazing. In the fourteen years she’s been working as an agent, I’m only the second author she’s ever rescued from the slush pile. That’s how much my book resonated with her. Now, we’re working together to bring the book to publishers and convince them to invest big in a story that we both feel could sell many, many copies. It’s quite the thing when someone who knows their stuff believes in you.

There’s still a lot of work ahead. Nothing is guaranteed, but my faith in this book is as unwavering now as it was when I first called up a blank sheet and started typing. The difference now is that I have a lot more reasons to think success is on the horizon.

Big thanks to everyone who has believed in me and supported me so far. You know who you are. We’re not quite there yet, but we’re much closer.

More to come.