My Journey…So Far

I want you to know where I came from and why writing is so important to me.

I don’t know for sure, but it started in third grade. My third grade teacher, Mrs. Shilling, had us write creative stories on green-lined construction paper. We would write stories about the Amazon rain forest. I would fill 20-30 sheets of paper while some of my classmates struggled to fill five. (Note: Considering I think each sheet probably held about two sentences because of how big kids write, it probably amounted to maybe 3 typed pages? Maybe. But still.) Writing came natural to me. But you know what the best part was? When we read the stories to our classmates, and to hear them laugh and be amazed. I can still remember that, how fun it was to know readers were enthralled by something I did. In 5th grade, I wrote another story about Sheldon, a turtle who dreamed about being a limousine driver, but he was extremely fat, so he went on a diet of only salads, but eventually turned into a salad. It was even illustrated, albeit poorly, by yours truly. I still have that story. I pull it out every now and then and reminisce.

Then middle school happened, and junior high and high school. And what happened then? Puberty. Acne. No dates. An obsession with girls who did not reciprocate my feelings. A drain on my self confidence.

Did I write during this time? You betcha, but it was mostly self-loathing entries about how terrible life was, and how I was obsessed with this girl and I was pretty sure she was the love of my life. And then a couple months later, I would write the same entry, only it would be about a different girl. And the reason I call them “self loathing entries” is because I loathe myself every time I re-read this. Kind of a “What the hell were you thinking?” type of entry.

Then in tenth grade, something happened. I started writing again. Not “Dear Diary” style, but actual fiction. I wrote a poem about a cow who didn’t moo and was therefore mocked by society. (It was ahead of its time, clearly, but brilliant nonetheless) I wrote a short story, I wrote a murder-mystery play that was briefly available online for purchase (or so I was told). Something wonderful was reignited inside of me, something that had been dormant for 5 years, but was now active and hungrier than ever.

I continued to write. I took a creative writing class, I wrote for the school writing collection and submitted several pieces. I knew writing was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I even bought a book, Herman’s Guide to Literary Agents because it was recommended to me by one of my favorite authors of the time, Nicholas Sparks. I wanted to write love stories like him. (I figured my obsessive longing for females with my diary entries gave me the edge to do this) I was convinced I wanted to write for a living, I applied to two colleges, Pitt-Johnstown and Susquehanna University. Susquehanna was a campus built around trees and lush greenery, with squirrels running around. It also had a dedicated writing program. Pitt-Johnstown did not. Case closed.

When I was accepted into Susquehanna University’s writing program, I assumed it meant I was a big deal, that Susquehanna rejected hundreds of curious writers and accepted only the best of the best. Boy was I dumb. I’m pretty sure everyone was accepted. The first college writing class I took was Intro to Poetry, with mostly upper-classmen. Let me tell you three things about me and poetry: 1) I can’t write poetry save for one epic Cow poem, 2) I don’t enjoy reading poetry except for a few sonnets here and there, and 3) I’m awful at dissecting poetry–meanings, rhyme schemes, verse, etc. Somehow I managed to pull a B in the class.

I eventually got into fiction classes and felt more in my element. But I soon realized something that the naive, wide-eyed high schooler who figured he’d have his first novel published in his early twenties didn’t know: writing is extremely subjective. And my professor, a published author himself, stories that spoke to him. That’s not to say I didn’t learn anything in the class, but the momentum that had carried me through high school hit a giant brick wall in college. Suddenly my stories were not beloved. They were criticized, picked apart by eager peers wanting to impress teacher. They would repeat phrases that the professor spoke in class, probably oblivious to its actual meanings. My confidence shattered quicker than dropped glass. I became hardened, bitter, angry, sad, disappointed, frustrated. In a way, it sucked. But in a way, it was good to hear: most writers don’t get published in their twenties, if ever. The hard dose of reality was demoralizing, but I know it was also necessary.

Senior year of college, something strange happened. I took a novel class and…the professor didn’t hate it! It was a story about a freshman baseball player who was secretly using steroids to help his game. Steroids in pros were starting to become a major things at this point. “Juiced” by Jose Canseco was big, and Barry Bonds was shattering records with a body that looked nothing like it did in his Pirate days. It was a relevant story, and the professor gave more positive feedback than negative. Perhaps he was just running out my clock, pushing me through the door with a boost of confidence after shattering it for the past four years. Perhaps he actually liked it. I’ll never know for sure. I graduated before I finished.

With four years of student loans in front of me, I took the first job I could find as a bookseller at the local mall. The pay was shit, I worked nights and weekends, but I didn’t have a girlfriend or a life, so it fit well. And I was working with books! If the pay had been higher, I could have seen it as a career track. During this time, I finished that baseball novel at around 103,00 words, edited it, and tried to find an agent. I didn’t find one. Meanwhile, after 13 months selling books, I found a better paying job in banking. I continued to write, although sparingly, dated my wife, married my wife, moved out of my parent’s house, got a cat, bought a house, got a dog, knocked up said wife.

Then disaster struck. The bank where I had clawed and worked my way up over 7 years was bought by a bigger bank and I lost my job. Meanwhile, my pregnant wife gave birth to our baby boy three weeks early. He had Respiratory Stress Syndrome and spent 10 days in the NICU in York, where I spent my 31st birthday.An occasion that was supposed to be joyous became chaotic and stressful. When my healthy son turned one month old, right before Thanksgiving, I worked my last day at the bank. I was unemployed for five months, and in that time, while raising my son, I found an old friend: writing.

A story had been brewing in my mind for a while, a children’s Christmas story that I began writing. Over the span of a few months, I nearly finished it. I shopped it to one agent who–surprise surprise–never responded. But I plan on shopping it more very soon.

My writing life has gotten back on track. I’m writing more, I just entered a shorty story of mine called “The Nine Lives of Jay Catsby” in a contest with Wattpad, and I started this blog with a pen name I hope to use with my published works someday.

There are two lessons in all of this. One, writing is subjective. I guarantee if I presented a novel of mine called “Fifty Shades of My Grey” to my college professor and peers, it would have been beaten down to a pile of shit because of how terrible it was. Just because what you write doesn’t appeal to a certain room, it doesn’t mean it’s awful. It’s like fishing: You just need a wider net. Two, Never Give Up. My son spent ten days in the NICU, I lost my job at the worst time. But I’m still standing. No matter what is going on in your life, whether it’s trying to publish a story or getting through a tough time, never give up. 

Thanks for reading, and Happy Father’s Day to all the wonderful dads out there!
-MP

Help A Writer Realize His Dream

I want to tell you about a short story I wrote.

It’s called “The Nine Lives of Jay Catsby.” In short, it’s about a journalist who encounters a stray cat on the side of the road during an accident in which a dog is hit by a car. The journalist sees the dog, lying lifeless on the road. When he turns back, a cat is there, and the dog is moving. Hours later, still trying to process the events, the cat shows up on the man’s doorstep. As if this weren’t bizarre enough, the cat eventually begins talking, though only the man can hear him, and the cat informs him he has the ability to save lives–nine of them to be exact. The cat, Jay Catsby, is based loosely on my cat, shown above.

This story came about when I was wandering the aisles at Target, which I like to do at least once a week. Specifically, I enjoy looking at the books and dvds, although the kid in me still wanders the toy aisles. While looking over the new titles, I see a message on the side of an end cap that says “You can be published in Target stores!” Intrigued, I read on and find out it’s a contest sponsored by Wattpad and Target. The details are simple: write a story dealing in modern life with a fantastical element. Make sure it’s between 4,000 and 9,000 words. Post it on Wattpad, tag it with #OnceUponNow, and if enough Wattpad users vote you into the top 25, you have a chance to be selected by Gallery Books (an imprint of Simon & Schuster) as one of 10 stories to be published in October of this year.

Suddenly, the bridge between my lifelong dream and my current status became a little shorter…

…but only a little.

Here’s the thing: I’ve never used Wattpad before. I’ve heard about it, maybe perused it once or twice, but didn’t use it. The problem with my lack of use when it comes to this contest is that, similar to WordPress, Wattpad is all about building a following. I learned about this contest roughly four weeks ago. I’ve spent my free time in those past four weeks, crafting the “Catsby” story, editing the “Catsby” story, and figuring out how to successfully post the “Catsby” story to Wattpad.

None of this free time led me to building a following on Wattpad. And starting on Tuesday, June 14th, the writing window for the Wattpad contest will open. I’m not sure if there’s a way to calculate the number of stories that are being entered into this contest, but I’m going to assume it’s a lot. Definitely in the triple digits. Possibly in the four-digit range.

I’ve read that a writer’s job is never done, and that couldn’t be more true. If you’re not editing a story that you just finished, you’re thinking of the other stories that are stuck in your head that need to get down on paper. And if by some miracle your brain stops talking to you long enough to have a clear thought, the writer–published or unpublished–constantly has to be a shameless self promoter if he/she wants their book to be read.

So in the limited time I have left, I’m going to ask you, the reader, to push this blog, forward it to you and your Wattpad friends, to help me achieve a dream I’ve had for at least the last 15 years: publication.

Quickly, if you don’t currently use Wattpad and are unsure how to vote, I’m going to give you a quick tutorial if you’d like to sign up. (And I’d really appreciate it if you did!) Quick but important sidebar: YOU CAN ONLY VOTE BETWEEN JUNE 14TH AND JUNE 21ST, ENDING AT 3:59 PM (EST) ON THE 21ST!!!

  1. Click here to go to the Wattpad site
  2. My story should pop up. Cick the “read” button at the top.
  3. You will have to submit a username, an email address and a password to read.
  4. You will need to confirm your email by going into your email account and clicking on a link. This is important, because you can’t vote until you do this!
  5. Now you are able to read my story! I hope you love it as much as I did writing it!
  6. If you enjoy it enough and you’d like to vote, there is a “vote” button at the bottom of  each page of the story. Additionally, under each chapter (this story has 7), there’s a vote button at the top right-hand corner of the page that you can click to vote. You will know it works if the voting icon gets filled.
  7. If you have any questions, comments, or concerns, please email me and I will help! You can reach me at mpenbrell@gmail.com

Whether you choose to vote or not, or whether you choose to even sign up at Wattpad or not, I will say that I appreciate you reading this blog. Working fulltime, having a family, having a yard that needs work in the summer, it’s hard to find time to write, let alone time to develop a following. The fact that you found me and took the time to read this is a victory itself!

Thanks again, everyone! I’ll keep you posted!
-MP

 

Thoughts on Today’s Shooting in Orlando

This afternoon, I sat in our nursery, attempting to rock my fussy son to sleep. I didn’t have my tablet with me, nor was I in reach of his music box, so I decided to sing. Quietly, because the louder I am, the more off-key I become.

I sang the classics: ABCs, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, Lullaby. Then I started singing a song I learned in Sunday School almost 30 years ago. It’s simple:

Jesus loves the little children,
All the children of the world.
Whether yellow, black or white,
They are precious in his sight,
Jesus loves the little children of the world.

The song hit home for me in a way that it hadn’t in many years, that Jesus preached tolerance and acceptance while on this Earth, and 2,000 years later, we’ve forgotten his message.

When people carry out violent crimes like today, they like to mask it as “doing God’s will.” While God set forth a set of rules to be followed, nowhere did He tell us that if we witness someone not following his rules, we should enforce our own brand of punishment. And I’m pretty sure one of his commandments was worded something along the lines of “Thou Shalt Not Kill.”

Not to mention that the 50+ people who died today were not doing anything wrong. I don’t care what your stance is on homosexuality: nothing gives any one of us the right to establish our own brand of justice.

I’m saddened by the events of today. One of my biggest fears about having a child was bringing him into the world that we currently inhabit. It’s not peaceful. It’s not safe. Something terrible can at anytime, anywhere. For any reason.

But I’m also angry. I’m angry that we turn on each other when something awful happens. I’m angry that Fox News’ biggest debate this afternoon wasn’t about the events, but it was analyzing and criticizing our president’s press conference. Thanks, guys. Very helpful.

I’m angered that anytime a mass shooting occurs, we immediately split it into two camps: pro-guns and anti-guns. 50+ people have died, and our biggest concern is whether or not we should be able to keep that gun in our closet? C’mon. Let’s look at the bigger picture.

I’m angered that while searching on Twitter today, I saw several critical tweets, blaming tv writers/producers of all people, that we contributed to today’s tragedy by writing about the deaths of the LGBT community.

The truth, sadly, is there isn’t one issue to blame. It’s a combination of things. Is television too violent? At times, yes. But if everything on television was clean, there’d still be shootings. Are the gun control laws in this country too weak? Absolutely. But stronger gun laws wouldn’t solve our problems. Anyone with malice in their heart will find a way to carry out a scheme. And while laws about the “right to bear arms” that were written over 200 years ago do not have the same value that they do today, eliminating guns altogether solves nothing. People have the right to feel safe, but they also have the responsibility to protect themselves AND others.

At this point, I’m rambling. But I really don’t care. I’m tired of hearing of tragedies that could have been prevented, but I’m also tired of the finger pointing that ensues. How do we fix it? That’s the million dollar question, but nobody has the right answer. It’s a combination of things that need to be changed, but right now, we’re too stubborn to make the necessary changes.

For now, there’s only one thing we all need to remember: United We Stand, Divided We Fall.

RIP to the victims of today’s shooting in Orlando. My thoughts and prayers go out to the survivors and the families that have lost loved ones today.

My Name is Milo.

IMG_6785It’s Sunday morning. The baby is fussing, so I agree to take him to the living room so my wife, Jessica, can get a few more minutes of sleep. I lay our six-month old son, Eli into his side-sleeper and turn on Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, and hand him a toy. He is instantly content.

I then take our Golden Retriever, Allie, outside to do her morning business. She then comes in quick to gobble her food. It’s gone in less than a minute: No Surprise. She brings me a toy so we can play Tug O’ War. She growls playfully and refuses to lose. I wish I had her tenacity.

With Eli still content in his side-sleeper,  I bust out a new book to read: “The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry” by Gabrielle Zevin. I’d been staring longingly at it for weeks when I’d visit Target, so I finally bought it. I just finished a great read last night, the memoir “The Autumn Balloon” by Kenneth Porpora.

Starting a new book is one of my three favorite parts of the reading process. It reminds me a lot of dating–being attracted to them for a few weeks (seeing the book at the store), finally going out on a date (aka opening the book), getting to know them (the first few pages), and eventually falling head-over-heels, a.k.a. the point where you can’t put the book down, which is #2 of my favorite parts.

I’m about ten pages into Fikry–he’s grumpy and bitching at the sales rep for a publishing company trying to sell him her Winter list–when Allie rings the bell. She wants to go out again. I tear myself away from the book and hook her leash. It’s cool this morning, but I don’t mind.Spring is here, and summer is around the corner. It’s my favorite seasonal time of year. Allie finishes and we head back inside. I go to pick up my book, only to hear Eli start to cry. I sigh. Maybe later, Fikry. Maybe later.

Hi, I’m Milo Penbrell. Nice to meet you.

Aside from being a family man, an animal lover (we have a cat too, Noah, but he didn’t factor into this morning’s picture), and a book collector, it’s important for you to know that what I want more in this life than anything right now is to be able to write full time.

I’ve been writing on and off for twenty years, and I’ve wanted to be a published author for the last thirteen. I studied Creative Writing in college and finished my first novel, “Off the Record,” a story about steroids infiltrating a high-profile college baseball team, a couple years after that. Attempts to publish it–an estimated dozen queries to literary agents–failed miserably, so I shoved it in a drawer. Every once in a while, I pull it out, dust it off, read it over and think to myself “I still believe this is good enough to be on the shelves someday.”

Currently though, I recently finished a children’s story I’m super excited to share. I had the idea for a while  but was unable to put it to paper. Recently though, I was laid off from my job in finance due to a bank merger and found the time to bring it to life. And much like “Off the Record,” I think it has enormous potential. So far I’ve only sent it to one agent: she didn’t respond. But I’m not giving up on it that easily.

I’ve been back to work now for about two weeks and as I illustrated above, it’s tough to find a fair balance between being a good husband, father, AND writer. But I’ll get there. I HAVE to. I want this too much. How do I stress that in a one-page query letter? That’s where I’ve struggled.

In future posts, I hope to document to you my journey in finding that balance. Hopefully, I’ll have some successful news to share with you as well. It all starts here, so get in on the ground floor. Milo Penbrell is a name I hope you are asking for when you visit the local bookstore. I want it to be a name that inspires you and/or your kids, like so many authors have done for me.

Thanks for reading. Until next time.

-Milo