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  • Writer's pictureJohn M Donovan

In Which I Meet My Younger Self

A scientist friend of mine called me up the other day and said he’d finally perfected his time machine, and since I wasn’t doing anything important at the time I drove over to check it out. It was pretty impressive. Lots of blinking lights and flux capacitors and whatnot. My friend was explaining how it worked when he got called away on a scientific emergency, so I asked if I could play around with it for a while, maybe go back and see Charlie Parker in concert or make sure someone other than Don Denkinger was umping first base in Game 6 of the 1985 World Series. He said that would be fine, so I started pushing some buttons and twirling some dials.

I didn’t actually go anywhere, but a younger version of me—the high school senior version from 1978—popped into the room and naturally didn’t realize, at first, that he was me and I was him. It took us both a few minutes to get past the initial shock and general freakoutery, but when we calmed down we agreed that this was a somewhat auspicious and possibly scientifically groundbreaking occasion. “Or,” I said, “at least a halfway decent blog entry.”

“A what kind of entry?” asked 1978 Dono. I said I’d explain it by and by. I left a note on the time machine, explaining that we’d be at a nearby coffee shop. Young Dono said he didn’t drink coffee. I had forgotten that, so we went to McDonald’s instead and I watched this 170-pound kid in 32-waist jeans put away three Big Macs. I have fond memories of that metabolism.

“So,” I said, “you probably have a lot of questions.”

"Yeah," he said. “When do I get around to having sex for the first time? I assume college?”

“You don’t want to know.”

“Fair enough. But I would like to talk about writing. I mean, that’s what I want to do with my life. Is that what happens?”

“In a manner of speaking. You spend 37 years writing advertising copy.”

“Oh. Is that fun?”

“Not particularly, no.”

“But do I keep writing fiction?”

“Oh, definitely. That’s your passion. You write novels. Short stories, essays, comedy sketches, that sort of thing.”

“How about Baby Face Dracula? Is that published?”

I had forgotten about Baby Face Dracula. In 1978 it was the longest thing I’d ever written, a 50-page high-concept story about a vampire who gets hired as a mob hit man, and while it didn’t suck all that much it wasn’t close to being a novel. That didn’t stop me from calling it one when I showed it to my senior English teacher, Linda Akers. She liked it but said it needed 200 more pages. “That story,” I told Young Dono, “was never revisited.”

“Shoot,” he said. “I don’t know what else to write about.”

“That won’t be a problem,” I said. “Flannery O’Connor said that anyone who survives childhood has enough material to write plenty of novels.”

“That’s good. But, you’re how old? 61, you said? And you’ve been writing all this time so you’re published, right?”

“Yes and no. But before we go into that I want to ask you how you think the publishing industry works.”

“Well, they run these big sheets of paper through a printing press and sew them together.”

Ah, that Dono wit. “I’m asking in a broader sense. Who do you think gets published?”

“Good writers. People who can tell good stories.”

“I see. So every good story gets published?”

“Yes. I assume so. Eventually. Don’t they?”

“The publishers know how many books they’re going to put out each year. But that number doesn’t necessarily equal the number of good stories they receive. So some of those stories get sent home.”

“But maybe those stories get published next year.”

“Maybe, but now they’re competing against all the new ones that were written in the meantime. And I’m just talking about the good ones, not the dreck that some people crank out.”

“If they’re cranking out dreck, why are they submitting to publishers?”

“Because a lot of writers don’t know they’re cranking out dreck.”

“How can they not?”

“Because they read so much dreck that their dreck looks as good or better.”

“But who’s publishing the dreck they read?”

I shrugged. “Beats me. Life’s too short to read dreck. Heck, I haven’t read everything of Steinbeck's yet."

“You still haven’t told me if you’re published,” said Young Dono. “Actually, hold that thought—I need another Big Mac.”

“Jesus, kid.” But I waited for him to bring back the two all-beef patties, special sauce, etc. “I wrote my first novel, Bob Smith, in the summer of 1983. By the way, spoiler alert, you’re going to blow your meager life savings on that summer semester of grad school at Purdue, so don’t say you weren’t warned. I tried for years to get Bob Smith noticed, naively thinking that because it had some famous American authors as characters, the publishing industry would jump at it. I carefully crafted my query letter—”

“Oh, right,” interrupted Young Dono with his mouth full of Big Mac, “I read that article in Writer’s Digest: How to Craft A Can’t-Miss Query Letter.”

“No such thing,” I said. “Even if every good writer crafted a can’t-miss query letter, there are still only so many spots available in the publishers’ catalogs—and most of those are taken by established writers who don’t need to write query letters. But I digress. Nobody wanted to even look at Bob Smith, so nobody could tell me it wasn’t good enough to be published. As it turns out, it wasn’t—and still, five versions later, probably isn’t. But at least I proved I could finish a novel and that made it easier to write the next one. This one was called The Fraternity, and it was about a year in the life of two friends at an all-male college. You do know you’re going to an all-male college, right?”

“Yeah, it’s the only one I applied to.”

“We’ll have to have that conversation another time. Anyway, it’s a good story, funny, real, poignant at times. I sent out my well-crafted query letter over and over and got nothing. Actually I got one handwritten comment: ‘There’s nothing new here.’ But that wasn’t true. Sure, there are other books about college life, other books about fraternity life, other books about friendship, other books about the absurdity of arbitrary rules—but none of those were mine.”

“Sounds pretty discouraging.”

“Well, when you’re buried in unsolicited manuscripts I don’t know if you want to keep encouraging people to send them. Anyway, I started writing The Rocheville Devil next, and honestly, it had a great premise—a man tries to escape the brutality of the world by moving into his abandoned grade school building and reliving innocent childhood memories. This version was flawed, though, with too many sub-plots. But how many publishers and agents read the manuscript and told me that? None. One agent asked for the manuscript because she apparently thought it was a horror story.”

“It’s not? Sounds like it could be.”

“It isn’t. It’s a psychological drama about smalltown life. She wasn’t interested in that.”

“So by my count I’ll write at least three novels in my life. But do we ever get published?”

“In 2012 we opt for independent publishing. Amazon—which is still just a river back in 1978, so remind me to tell you all about the internet and the digital marketplace and whatnot—Amazon had set up a print-on-demand service so people could publish their own books. The upside of this is that the author gets a larger royalty than he or she might get through a traditional publisher. I rewrote The Fraternity—tightened it up quite a bit—and put it out there. The reviews have been excellent.”

“So it was a best-seller?”

“In ten years I’ve sold 66 copies.”


“But you have to do your own marketing. You have to find your own readers. And worse, you have to compete against the other one million books that are independently published each year, many many many of which are the dreck that gets rejected by traditional publishers.”

“66 copies—”

“Yes. But. I’m not trying to discourage you. I don’t even know if that’s possible. You might return to 1978 and live your life exactly the way I did. Or you might have better luck getting noticed. Or those four Big Macs might cause you to have your gall bladder removed earlier than I did. But here’s what I want to tell you: Don’t stop writing. There are going to be people who will tell you that no, you should concentrate on getting a career-type job, that that should be the focus of your life. Ignore them. Observe the world around you and write about it. Keep reading good books because you can’t write good books if you don’t read good books. I’ve published five novels and not one of them is dreck. They’re all worth reading and they will all, I hope, eventually make it into the hands of readers who will appreciate them. I used to always say that it’s better to have five unpublished novels than five unwritten ones, and I’ll amend that to say it’s better to have five novels waiting to be read than five novels waiting to be published. You only have so many years on this planet, and if you’re a writer it doesn’t make sense to waste any of them not writing. Sorry, I seem to be monopolizing the conversation.”

“No, these are points well taken. I mean, I want to see my name on a book cover but I want it to be something I can be proud of. Baby Face Dracula probably isn’t it.”

Baby Face Dracula would be a good comedy sketch.”

“Yeah, I can see that. Are you going to eat those fries?”

“Those are your fries.”

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