Bruce Robert Coffin here waxing nostalgic. I was seated at my writing desk this past weekend trying to decide what I wanted to blog about this month on Maine Crime Writers when Facebook shared a memory with me. After reading said memory, which was a blog I posted two years ago, I realized I couldn’t say it any better than I had in 2016. So, without further ado, may I present another look back at how it all started.
I’m sitting in my attic writing nook reflecting on the past year. What a ride! January 1st, 2015 found me with the usual resolutions, eat better, lose a few pounds, workout more, you know the ones. But last year I added a goal. Get published! It didn’t matter what it was; short story, grocery list, thank you note, fortune cookie advice, I wasn’t particularly choosy. I’d even entertained the thought of contacting Salada to see if they’d allow me to write a bit of tea bag advice. Hey, I was desperate.
Of course, what I really longed for was to see my first novel in print. The loftiest of all writing goals. Truly unattainable stuff. Friend and fellow Maine writer Chris Holm gave me some great advice. He said: “If you’re gonna step up to the plate, you’ve gotta swing for the fence, every single time.” He was right, of course. But that didn’t stop me from checking my in bin to see if Salada had responded. Nope. Damn.
Last April I attended my second Maine Crime Wave, this time as a wannabe published writer (the first had been as a guest panelist). The cool thing about events like this is getting the chance to chat with successful authors, both in formal and informal settings. I’ve found them all to be very gracious and approachable. And they always say encouraging things like: “Remember, we all began as unpublished authors, too.” In my heart of hearts I knew this was true, but it all sounded a bit too far-fetched. The kind of thing an art teacher might say if you turned in a blank canvas because you couldn’t think of a single thing to paint.
“Oh, I love what you’ve done here. So minimalist. So abstract. So bold.”
Like Jim Hayman, Kate Flora, and Gerry Boyle weren’t born already published!
The evening before the Crime Wave, I attended the Friday night reading dubbed “Two Minutes in the Slammer.” A cool moniker for what was really a chance to stand up in front of a room full of accomplished writers and wannabes (like me), knees knocking, and read something you’d written. The literary equivalent of grabbing the listener by the ear and not letting go. Knock their socks off, I was told. Sure, I said, until I realized we only had two minutes in which to accomplish this. Talk about nerve-racking.
After deciding upon a passage from my one of short stories, titled Bygones, I spent the afternoon practicing my delivery in my kitchen, to a audience of a half dozen empty dining room chairs. Timed by my microwave, trying not to sound like Peter Brady (Remember the episode where his voice kept changing as he hit puberty?), I honed the abridged version of my story until it was precisely two minutes in length. It was okay, I thought. I looked at the dining room chairs. Not a naysayer among them. I took their silence as a sign of agreement.
Hours later I found myself in the lower level of the Portland Public Library. Pacing as I stared at the stage. What the hell? No one had said anything about getting up on a stage. Please, God, I thought. Don’t make me read first. Or even worse, last!
As the seats slowly filled up, I continued to wear out the floor at the back of the room. Until I saw a familiar face, Paul Doiron. You know, author of the acclaimed Mike Bowditch mystery novels, about the coolest outdoorsman since Grizzly Adams. A fan of his books, I approached Paul hoping the pass the time with a little banter about what he was up to, wanting badly to take my mind off that stupid stage. As usual, Paul was very engaging and down to earth. If he noticed my frequent nervous over the shoulder glances at the stage, he never mentioned it. Paul told me about a book he was writing, The Precipice, set in the middle of Maine’s Hundred Mile Wildness along the famed Appalachian Trail. A fan of the AT myself, I mumbled something incoherent about a mystery novel that I’d been working on, titled “Trail Magic”, about a female FBI agent trying to convince others of the existence of a serial killer stalking victims along the entire AT. Always the gentleman, Paul said he thought it sounded “cool.” Somehow, given his stature in the mystery writing community, and me being an unpublished author, it didn’t feel very cool. In all honesty, I felt more like a tool.
Again, I glanced at the stage. Any word from Salada?
Everyone took their seats as the rules were explained. Each of the thirteen readers would be given a moment to either tell the audience a bit about themselves or explain the passage from which they’d be reading. Following the intro the two minutes would begin. The two minute limit would be strictly enforced, they said. They even had a timer! Alarmed, I wondered if the timer on my microwave had ever been calibrated…
The order of the readers was announce. I wasn’t first! Yay. Tucked safely in the middle, I figured if I sucked royally no one would remember. I listened enthusiastically as the others spewed forth great prose. Some was humorous, some action-oriented, and some just plain old good writing. When it was over, each of us congratulated the others on our delivery and our prose while we awaited word from the judges.
A number of people approached me and praised my reading, among them were Jim Hayman and Chris Holm. They seemed genuinely impressed with what I had read. But I remained doubtful. What if Jim and Chris were just really good at improvisational praise? My dining room chairs hadn’t instilled a lot of confidence.
Several minutes later the results were finally tallied. The judges announced two winners, and I was one of them! I was elated. Not only had I survived my Two Minutes in the Slammer, I’d won my freedom!
Winning Two Minutes in the Slammer hadn’t been on my list of New Year resolutions, but the way I was feeling, it shoulda been.
Screw you Salada!
Let’s just say that the remainder of the year exceeded my wildest hopes and expectations. In November my very first short story, “Fool Proof”, was published in the Best New England Crime Stories 2016 anthology, Red Dawn. I obtained an honest-to-god literary agent, Paula Munier of the Talcott Notch Agency. And with Paula’s help I’ve just recently managed to fulfill my lifelong dream of having a novel published. In fact, not just one novel but three! I’m happy to announce that HarperCollins will be publishing my John Byron Mystery Series under their Witness Impulse imprint. The debut novel will be released in early fall.
And finally, as if all of this wasn’t enough, the genie popped out of the lamp one more time in February (Yeah, I know it’s a different year, but this is my blog.), handing me an email from Mr. Mystery himself, world renown publisher, editor and New York bookstore owner Otto Penzler, informing me that “Fool Proof” had been picked as one of the twenty best mystery stories published in North America during the 2015 calendar year! Holy moly! My story will now appear in Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Best American Mystery Stories, 2016.
In retrospect, my diet may not have improved much, my appearances at the gym are somewhat sporadic, I’ve actually gained a few pounds (muscle I imagine), but as far as my writing goals are concerned, I somehow managed to put one over the fence.
Grab that would you, Chris? I’d like to keep it as a momento.
I’m not sure if Clarence was right about there being some correlation between bells and angels getting their wings (trust me, I’m no angel), but I can now say with certainty, if you want something bad enough, and you’re willing to work hard to get it, really hard, dreams really do come true.