PIKE here. This post is about writing in general. In another post I’ll talk about how I came to write specific books. Hopefully, this post will answer many of your questions about publishing.
A lot of you have asked how I started writing and how I got my first book published. I spoke about these points in my last post on writing but it seems you guys want to hear more.
As always, my views on writing are just that — my opinions. Nothing I say is gospel. My opinions have changed over the years. Ten years from now they’ll probably have changed again.
I started writing seriously when I was 21 or 22. I was painting a house with a friend of mine, Danny. It was pleasant working outside in the sun; it was neither too hot nor too cold. We talked while we worked. I did most of the talking. Danny was a great listener.
I had a convoluted idea for a book. The hero was a medical student who had recently lost his sister in a fire. He kept having a dream about her along with a bright star. The book started with his dream. Little did I know that more than half the first books written on this planet start with a dream.
However, Danny loved the story outline. In a sense he was my first fan. He didn’t mind that the plot involved X-File like conspiracies — oddly enough, a portion of the book was a virtual blueprint for the X-Files; not to imply that Chris Carter used my ideas — UFO’s, reincarnation, soulmates, time travel. At the end of the story, I even managed to work in the Second Coming. The title of the book was “The Starlight Crystal.” My original version of The Starlight Crystal had nothing to do with the story that was later published under that name.
It should already be clear that the book was a mess. It covered every genre. Indeed, when people ask what was the first book I wrote, I usually say “The Season of Passage.” Because Season, even though it also covered several genres, at least made sense.
Yet, with my friend’s encouragement, and my sister’s, I spent a year writing The Starlight Crystal, and ended up with a 700 page novel my aunt typed for me. Back then I couldn’t type. I wrote in notebooks with Flair pens. I used to vary the color of the pens to keep myself amused.
I learned a great deal writing Starlight. I wrote 4 or 5 hours a night. That was a lot because I had to work during the day. At that point in my life I had already dropped out of college.
When Starlight was typed and ready to go, I sent out sample chapters and an outline to various publishers. I was hurt to be rejected by everyone who looked at the book. Or did they look at it? I began to glue together a few pages and when I got the manuscript back, the pages were always still glued together.
I figured I needed to find an agent.
I read about a writers conference that was going to be held at USC and signed up for it. I was excited. The ad in the LA Time said there would be REAL writers, publishers, and agents at the conference.
Unfortunately, that weekend the writers and publishers got up and gave depressing talks. They made it sound like it was next to impossible to get published.
However, I met Ashley Grayson there. He was just starting out as an agent; he was willing to read The Starlight Crystal. I doubt if an experienced agent would have bothered with me. Ashley felt Starlight was a mess but he thought I had talent. He told me to show him my next book, which I gave to him a year later — The Season of Passage.
Season was also roundly rejected, but I’d put so much work into it, I’d finally got a feel for how to write. By this time I’d begun to work as a computer programmer and I was desperate to quit my job. I hated the long hours, the tedious work, getting stuck on the freeway in rush hour. I felt if I had to kept working at programming I’d go nuts.
Note: this is a key point. I was DRIVEN to sell a book. I felt I HAD to sell a book. I felt I wasn’t built to work at a normal job. Maybe I was a snob. Maybe I was a dreamer. Maybe I was a little of both, I don‘t know.
It doesn’t matter, I kept writing and I kept getting rejected. I did this until I was 27 or 28 — I can’t remember exactly how old I was when I had a breakthrough.
One day Ashley called and said that a publishing house was coming out with a line of teen books that dealt with the supernatural. I can’t even recall the name of the series; later, it came out and died. Ashley told me to write two chapters and an outline and he would submit the material for the series. I wrote the beginning of Slumber Party but I did not call it Slumber Party.
It got rejected but it was an interesting rejection. The editor in charge of the series thought my book was too good for his series. He told Ashley and me to take it elsewhere. Ashley took it to Jean Fiewell at Avon. She offered to buy it, along with two other books.
I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. Suddenly I had a contract; I got an advance. I went around and told everyone I was a published writer. Then Jean Fiewell left Avon for Scholastic. Avon let me keep the advance I’d been paid but told me they were not interested in my book. Suddenly I was a nobody again, or at least I felt like a nobody.
Ashley took the book to Jean at Scholastic and she asked me to write the WHOLE novel and then she would decide whether to buy it or not. It was an exciting but scary period in my life. I had an editor who was serious about buying something I had written. Indeed, she had already bought it once before. But now I had to come up with 12-15 well-crafted chapters.
Knowing this might be my only break, I wrote and rewrote the book four times. I did all this in six weeks. It was worth it. When Jean read it, she loved it and offered me five grand and a standard royalty — 8% of retail on each copy sold. She renamed it Slumber Party, a brilliant title.
It’s hard to believe but I can’t recall what I was calling the book. I don‘t even know if I had a title. At the same time Jean asked for a second book and I wrote “Sweet Hemlock — all of it. She loved it and offered to buy it as well, although she renamed it “Weekend,” another brilliant title.
The books came out and sold well. I expected that. I thought I just had to get published and the rest of my life would be rosy. I had no idea how much the odds were against my two small books. I had only made 10 grand off my writing — it took me 2 years before I saw any royalties — but I felt rich. I felt nothing could stop me. It was an exciting time of my life.
I would have stayed at Scholastic and stayed with Jean but my next book — Chain Letter — got rejected. Or I thought it got rejected, and so did my agent.
Jean wanted me to make major changes to Chain Letter. I felt they would ruin the story. I know now they definitely would have ruined it. But I don’t blame Jean. I never got a chance to speak to her. My agent just said she didn’t want it and sent the book to Avon — to the house that had just rejected Slumber Party. There was a new editor there named Ellen Kreiger and she loved Chain Letter and offered to buy it.
Probably if Jean and I had talked face to face we could have worked out our differences on Chain Letter. Jean is a clever woman and I’ll always be grateful to her. She told me early on, while editing Slumber Party, that I was talented and that I would be successful. That meant a lot to me.
No one was to blame for the breakdown in communication.
When Chain Letter came out it took off and Ashley brought my next book to Pat MacDonald at Simon & Schuster. Pat was to be my “mother” for the next 13 years. But my actual editor at S&S was a woman who worked freelance for the company named Majorie Hanlon. To this day I have never met Marjorie even though she edited almost every one of my books. Marjorie taught me a great deal about writing. She was a jewel.
That’s how I got started. What can you learn from my experience? Well, first off I needed to get an agent to get read. Next, I had to give the publisher what they were looking for. Yet the truth is they weren’t sure what they were looking for in YA at that time.
They decided that sophisticated YA thrillers were the next thing only after Slumber Party, Weekend, and Chain Letter took off. I’m not saying I created the YA thriller market but I helped it along. R.L. Stine appeared on the market shortly after I did. There were other writers of YA thrillers but Stine and I held most of the market. It was a heady time. What helped made me popular is that I brought out 3 or 4 YA books a year. My fans always knew a new book was coming.
Back then it was important to bring out lots of books. The writers who did well kept writing. But they were short novels, and when Harry Potter came along, longer novels became more popular and suddenly short novels were out. The market changed. I’m not sure if I changed fast enough to keep pace, but that’s a story for another day.
During this time I was successful because I kept writing interesting stories. I did not have a formula. Every book was different. When I came up with a fresh concept, I ran with it. I didn’t care what genre it fit into: sci-fi, horror, mystery, fantasy — it was all fine with me. I worked hard, I wrote almost every day. I wrote a few adult novels as well. None sold as well as Remember Me or The Last Vampire but they did okay.
I kept experimenting. I’m still experimenting, and that’s the best advice I can give new writers. Keep writing — write every day if possible — and don’t get stuck on one book. Finish it and move on. But do finish it. I know so many unpublished writers who never finish a book.
People often ask what they should write about. Write what you’re passionate about. Write what excites you. Try to make your book as clear and readable as possible. All successful writers are readers. Read what is selling. Try to figure out WHY it is selling. But then, write your own book. I’ve said this before — learn from others but don’t copy them.
If you read this post closely you’ll see that I was able to sell a lot of books because I was highly motivated. I wanted to be a writer and I had a strong work ethic — when it came to writing. When it came to programming computers, I was hopeless. I mean, I was okay at it but since I hated it, my future with computers was doomed.
I hope this brief synopsis of my career helps even one of you get published. Then it will have served its purpose. When you start writing, your odds of getting published are terrible. But each year that you keep writing, they improve dramatically. Because if you have talent, you will improve dramatically.
How do you know if you have talent? Keep writing and you’ll know. You won’t have to ask anyone. But whatever your inborn abilities, you will go through periods where you feel like quitting. Where you feel despair. It comes with the territory.
Sure, you read about certain people who write their first book and it makes them rich and famous. But those people are one in a million. 99% of writers pay their dues. They work hard for several years and then they get published, and if they’re lucky, people buy their book. And it doesn’t matter whether people buy it or not, they keep writing. Because they know people are going to buy their next book or the one after that.
Now go buy Witch World and study it. It might teach you something about writing, and even if it doesn’t, it will definitely keep me from having to get a normal job.
Seriously, writers write. If you feel compelled to keep writing, there is probably a reason. Have faith in what drives you. It might be a muse, it might be an angel, it might even be fate. Remember what a wise man once told me when he was talking about the invisible universe that surrounds us. He said, “The passionate-less ones seek out those with passion.” Imagine if your muse comes one day to help and you’re not at your desk writing.