Sunday, August 31, 2008

It Started With a Cigarette


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 .) 

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