by Emile DeWeaver
I’m a novelist, fantasy fiction. For a decade, I wrote nothing else because I’m the guy who deliberates carefully, decides his course, and then tromps ahead until his skull is ringing from the walls he bulled through. Gives me a strong personality that delights my closest friends, but it tacked six years onto my road to publication.
Initially, I wanted to write spy novels like Robert Ludlum. However, as I’ve been serving a prison sentence since I was 18, I didn’t feel like I had the sensory experiences to set stories in the modern world. But I had been reading mythology, fantasy fiction, and playing Dungeons & Dragons since I was six, so I was confident that I could create my own worlds. I didn’t know what an internet cafe looked like or how Starbucks coffee smelled, but I knew how to describe a great sword fight.
I put aside spy-thriller dreams and knighted myself fantasy writer extraordinaire. I ordered Orson Scott Card’s How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy and combed through Dover’s catalogs for every book on ancient Egypt I could afford. I learned world-building, invented mythologies, and drew maps. Correctional officers would search my cell and demand to know why I had maps. Plenty of inmates had gone to the hole for possession of suspicious maps. A balance of concise answers and silence went a long way toward me never being one of them.
The first time I sat down to write a novel, I wrote a novella. I didn’t know the novel form started at a particular word count; I thought the Hardy Boys adventures I’d binge read as a kid shared the same shelf space with Ludlum’s spy novels. I pinched 90 manuscript pages between my fingers and congratulated myself: I’m a twenty-one-year-old novelist. World, eat it! I was lying on the bottom bunk in my cell. My cellmate was asleep, so I’d been quietly red penning by my television screen’s glow.
I submitted to DAW, TOR, ROC, Cloud Peak, and six agents. Cloud Peak — bless them — told me I wrote very well, but my work didn’t fit their current needs. I read that letter eleven times, then sealed it in my photo album.
Eventually I read a book that not only taught me 90 pages doth not a novel make, but also revealed some publishing industry secrets. First-time authors, apparently, had a better chance of publication if they wrote books that were about 300 pages long, because after a certain page count, publishers had to pay more to produce the book.
At the time, I lived in a prison where one could expect to spend a year in one’s cell, coming out only to shower, so I had few distractions. I sat and typed my first draft on the pages of old manuscripts and revised it until it gleamed. Then I typed two more copies because I’d read that photocopied manuscripts look unprofessional.
I sent queries this time to save postage and as I awaited responses, I read about how to succeed. Articles promised doom for novelists who didn’t arrange local book signings and promote themselves with interviews on radio and TV. I read that fledgling authors must go into the world to charm agents and editors at conventions. It seemed that marketing made authors, and having talent felt worthless because the world was full of talented writers. I envisioned an editor at TOR deciding between two manuscripts, mine and that of the writer who can tour bookstores, and concluded that I could write ten novels, but until I was marketable, I’d never be more than an author with a cardboard box full of manuscripts.
I stopped writing, though I continued to tell people I wrote. After a couple inactive years, I started rewriting chapters from my first two works, but I didn’t start any new projects. By then, my typewriter was so broken down that I had to turn the ink ribbon by hand. I was tired of writing with no one to hear me.
From here, the story should go, but the fire to write burned deep inside me, so I roared like a lion and flipped open my notebook. There was no fire; I was ash and stone. But I couldn’t live in my skin with the thought that one day I would die in prison having accomplished nothing. So I flipped open my notebook.
I assessed my obstacles. I needed to make myself marketable. I focused on short stories, which I’d use to draw an audience I could tout to editors and agents. I decided no more novels until I’d built a platform.
That was the story I told myself, but it wasn’t the real reason I didn’t start another novel. The real reason is this: I’d typed my first novel no less than eight times. At 260 pages a draft, I’d burned through four reams of paper and 67 typewriter ribbons. My fear: if I scraped together another 60 ribbons and typed 2000 more pages for a novel without a home, it would kill my will to write.
Short stories taught me how to write all over again. I collected rejection letters from magazines. Weird Tales and Realms of Fantasy sprinkled their rejections with caveats to improve my craft. I listened and kept writing. I reached out to L. Ron Hubbard’s Writers of the Future contest and told them I was a prisoner with no one to talk to about craft, and I needed help. It was the first time in my adult life I’d said, “I need help.” Joni Labaqui, the current Contest Director, wrote me an encouraging letter and sent essays on craft. Her kindness kept me writing for another five years before I quit again.
During this time, my mom kept offering the key to my eventual success during her visits from Nigeria. Sadly, I didn’t end up serving a life sentence by developing healthy mom-listening-to habits.
Mom: “You should tell people your story.”
Emile: “Mom, I don’t want to write about my life.”
I’d been incarcerated since I was 18, and I’d spent my earlier teens in juvenile facilities. I didn’t feel like I had a life about which to write, and the last thing I wanted was a reminder of that every time I sat down to work.
Mom: “You should write human interest stories. Americans love those.”
Me: “I write fantasy, Mom.”
I’d spent years learning the genre. I didn’t want to start over learning to write for another audience — especially when I didn’t believe I could render contemporary society on a page.
Junot Diaz’s Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao showed me that the myth-making I’d learned writing fantasy was transferable to contemporary fiction. Before Oscar Wao, I didn’t know about Diaz or any contemporary author. Prison libraries carry few fresh voices, but a friend who’d done her dissertation on Oscar Wao introduced me to Diaz’s book. I read the first sentence describing fuku, a Dominican spin on bad mojo.
“They say it came first from Africa, carried in the screams of the enslaved; that it was the death bane of the Tainos, uttered just as one world perished and another began; that it was a demon drawn into Creation through the nightmare door that was cracked open in the Antilles.”
I giggled and read it twice, for in Diaz, I glimpsed my place in the literary world. Not only did Diaz wield myth’s authority, but he wrote in a dirty, broken vernacular made clean and whole by his narrators’ striking intelligence. His style spoke to me — shouted: “So what you don’t know what lattes smell like. So what you’ve never seen an internet cafe. Bring what you have to the page and tear this mothafucka up!”
Diaz freed me from the idea that I could only write fantasy. I began to write everything — creative nonfiction, poetry, academic essays — but the first story to explode from my new knowledge was Superman. It was the first story I’d written that editors loved. Eventually, it led to this column on Easy Street where I keep company with my favorite editors this side of Narnia and where every month I’ll come to the page with what I have to tear this motha’ up.