For two years I’d been giving myself a writing course. I had read all the “How-to” books in the Brooklyn Public Library and they were full of good advice about setting a scene, how to show instead of tell, how to arc a story or an article, how to breathe life into a character. I had subscribed to The Writer Magazine so that I soon knew how to prepare a manuscript and write a killer query letter. I wrote travel articles, mood pieces, poignant romances, humorous filler verses, and moody vignettes. None of them sold.
It helped that I wrote short pieces that could be folded in half and sent in a 6 x 9 manila envelope. I did not waste years—not to mention postage—on book-length manuscripts while I learned my craft. Hope kept me going. Hope and cigarettes and a supply of envelopes that shuttled in and out like homing pigeons. I would send something out, light a fresh cigarette and immediately get to work on something new. When one envelope returned with a form rejection clipped to my manuscript, it was disappointing, but hey! I had three other envelopes out there. Surely one of them—?
Eventually, I began to notice that every time a story came back, its absence had not made my heart grow fonder. After five or six weeks, I could now read it with more objective eyes and could even see where it could be tightened and sharpened before sending it out again.
Although I had grown up reading mysteries for pleasure, it did not occur to me to try writing one till I was two years into my auto-tutorials and had quit smoking.
I remember that morning with crystal clarity. I had been quit about three hours and had already gone through two packs of chewing gum. By noon, I was ready to kill for a cigarette. The thought was ruefully amusing. I could not remember ever reading a mystery in which someone killed for a cigarette. Would someone kill for a smoke?
I couldn’t exactly see myself killing for one, but at that point, with my craving so intense, I could envision wrestling someone to the ground for one.
But why? Why not just walk up to the nearest drugstore and buy a carton?
Which was what I did.
During that six-block walk, I posited and discarded a half-dozen implausible scenarios until I came up with one that would logically isolate a sympathetic chain-smoker and place him at the mercy of a sanctimonious prig who denies him cigarettes for what she says is his own good. I got home, lit up, and finished the story in three days. It was more satisfying than anything I had yet written and it sold the second trip out.
So did my next mystery story.
And the one after that.
I had learned a lot in those two years. The books I studied were full of practical advice that made me think about how words should go on paper, but the most important thing I learned did not come out of any how-to book. Every one of them had said “Write what you know.” Nowhere did a single author say “Write what you love to read.”
Once I realized that my heart lay with the mystery, I was finally able to crash through that roadblock of rejection letters.
(And quitting cigarettes? That took another ten years .)