Moving Forward: Pulling Success From the Clutches of Failure

Happy Almost 4th of July to you and your families! Are you eating burgers? Dogs? See any fireworks yet? Well, I hope it’s glorious when you do!

Let’s start off with the bad news: my short story “The 9 Lives of Jay Catsby” was not selected by voters as one of the Top 25 to be voted on to be published in a collection later this year. I can’t say I’m surprised. Because I was not a long time member at Wattpad when the contest started, I did not have a following, and therefore could not muster up the votes, despite blog pleas and several tweets mentioning the vote. It was always going to be a long shot at best.

But still, I’m quite disappointed. I saw this as a golden opportunity to achieve a goal of mine. Because I frequent Target stores a lot and saw the poster indicating the contest, I thought it was, as they say, written in the stars. Meant to be. I work forty hours a week. I have a family that I enjoy spending time with, so my opportunities to fully immerse myself in writing are limited. (Yes, I know. If I truly want this, I wouldn’t make excuses, but if you have a family, you understand the sacrifices one has to make in order to write and hold a full-time job). So I naturally saw this as something I was supposed to do to achieve success. A sign. (Sidenote: I’m very pessimistic until an opportunity comes along, and then I dream big. Very big.).

But alas, I was mistaken. It was just another life lesson for me. Another due that I had to pay as a writer before my big break comes along, if it ever does.

But let’s focus on the positives. The good news: I started and finished a writing project of mine! At all times, there are approximately 9,000 ideas floating around in my brain, just waiting to be put on paper to see what they look like, but usually they just bang against each other like rocks in space because I don’t have the time, or I don’t make the time. But my brain not only gave birth to this idea, my fingers ran with the idea, putting down on paper, finishing it, editing it, and submitting it. Rarely does this happen. So this is a huge step for me. Anytime I complete a project related to writing, I can not view it as a failure, even if the end goal is not reached.

I don’t plan to stop here either. There’s more than one way to get a short story published. I have a finished project, a great short story, and it’s just a matter of making someone else believe it’s good. I haven’t had much luck in that department yet, but maybe that just means my luck is about to change.

A huge thank you to my wife, who is the hero of this story. She understands how important writing is in my life, how desperate I am to be published, how much I struggle on a daily basis not doing what I love. She took the reins of the house, left me the time to write, gave me the time I needed to get this project done. I couldn’t have done it without her. She’s my rock. Any I success I achieve in writing is only success if it includes her, because I am able to do what I do because of her.

Congrats to the 25 stories who did receive the necessary votes, and are eligible to be one of the ten finalists to be published later this year! I, more than anyone else, understand how hard of a step this is to achieve. To those who, like me, did not make the top 25: don’t give up. Use this as an opportunity to find other avenues to achieve publication. That’s what I aim to do.

Until Next Time. Keep Reading!
-MP

 

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