This guest post is part of the Turning Points blog series here on distraction no. 99—in which I asked authors the question: What was your turning point as a writer? Here is upcoming debut YA author T. Michael Martin revealing his…
Guest post by T. Michael Martin
This poor Capitol Tour Guide, I am petrifying her.
Because—there is no getting around this—I am breaking a law. Not a “real one” written in leather Congressional ledgers, but rather a truer law—a natural law—inscribed no place save the beating heart of every good American. There are universal decrees, and they catalog the virtue of American moxie, and the eternal validity of Western hope, and also the question that you should never never never ever ask during a tour of a state Capitol building. A question that, alas, I have just flagrantly flung.
“Is this glass bulletproof?”
Which marked the first and final of my experiences of being mistaken for a guerilla. And—more importantly—an instant of my Turning Point.
When this happened— November 2008—I’d been out of film school for more than a year. A strange year it had been, too, for it had turned out to be the last thing I’d ever expected, which was: “freaking terrible.”
The spiral came so swiftly. My final semester of school had been what I can only describe as a kind of glittering rocket ride, a time in which all of all of my sacrifices (eschewing parties) and my faith (waking at five to place My Butt In the Chair before class; ignoring criticism or doubt) paid off in one breathtaking streak.
My screenplays got optioned; a famous agent worked with me on my first novel; and I landed representation from an incredible film manager who called me—with terrific enthusiasm—“Big Daddy.”
(It is difficult for me to describe just how not-ironic he meant this to be.)
But then arrived a three-day gulag when those grand things, every one, tipped their hat and said so long. And while I may not be able to find the words to capture the stone-faced bromancing from my former manager, it’s simple, sitting here, to sum up how I felt when my prizes vanished:
The compass broke and the lights went out.
I had disbelieved, before, in the existence of true helplessness. But now I struggled to wake and breathe. Now my life had become a foggy and persistent nightmare. I had run—headlong, heedless—through so many years, guided by things we all know are true, yet I’d struck the outer borders of my potential and those borders did not extend to the land my faith had promised. I found myself within a shadowed forest, for I had lost the path that does not stray. Dante said that. And with all respect to Mr. Alighieri’s literary grandeur, may I reply:
Danny…sing that thang.
But you know that something Turned.
I’m here on a blog about writing, writing. So I will tell you that it’s true that I fled those black woods, and came gasping back to life, and—through the kindnesses of friends and, eventually, a therapist—found again a grip on everything I knew to be true.
And, yep: For another year, I woke pre-dawn, and then I had a second novel, and every word of it felt like a spit in the eye of despair.
But I must here interrupt the narrative to issue what we in the biz called a Spoiler Alert, because that heartbreak? and that attendant rededication? Were not my Turning Point.
When I read my new novel, I knew three things: The book was good—maybe excellent—and it would not in seven gillion years ever get published.
I was running again, which was a bravery; but my error was that I had fought my way back to the same path. I had done what we are supposed to do, what I had always known would work: keep scribbling, Butt-Chair, et al.
But I have a sense-memory—in my cold bedroom, my feet on an oak bench my father made—of realizing that obeying the Writer’s Commandments would never be enough for me. That’s a frightening notion. Because: If you do not trust the Universal Laws, then what do you trust?
Wasn’t sure. Actual fact: had no idea.
But I could not deny that clinging to “what I knew” would not be faith: It would be dogma, which Progress will always detest.
It was vertigo-making to understand that my old arithmetic was wrong: that A plus B did not necessarily equal Dream Come True. I couldn’t tell, sometimes, if saying “I will keep doing this, even if there are no guarantees” was just another way of announcing “I’m not strong enough to believe in myself, and I am now in an embarrassingly elongated process of quitting.”
But just as courage is not “action without fear” but “action in spite of fear,” I know now that my Turning Point came from one single moment. The moment when I realized that the only weapon I had—that any of us have, to do anything—is this:
A perpetual and flexible motion
Always motion, yes, and even hope and faith—but also the inner strength to acknowledge that This or That may not get me where I wish to go.
Because (and how freeing this thought is! how frightening!) maybe no law really is universal.
So alright, okay, back to the story (me, exiting Dante’s spooky bushes), which I’ll deliver in Rocky Training Montage Format:
Armed with a new outlook, I
- analyzed, beat-by-beat, the emotional & thematic & dramatic structure of dozens of YA novels,
- & analyzed two-hundred-and-seventeen screenplays,
- & applied to grad school, and got rejected
- & took part in a clinical drug trial to pay for Robert McKee’s STORY seminar instead,
- & tried joining crit groups, which never worked,
- & sold plasma to pay for a charity auction manuscript critique from Sara Zarr (which did work, well),
- & mined my hopes and shames and my daring to make my third book everything my first two had never been,
- & began to understand my strengths (language, set pieces) and weaknesses (genre structure, research)
- & consequently committed to knowing everything possible about my subject matter.
And that brings us, you and me, back to the State Capitol Tour.
Where I ask That-Which-Must-Not-Be-Asked.
And my keen novelist’s observation of human behavior kicks in when the Tour Guide starts looking like screaming would just be a wonderful idea.
Crapohnocrapno! I say. No it’s cool! This is research—I’m a writer.
Of, like, fiction.
And in defiance of the supposed universal decree, I am not, in fact, pepper-sprayed or tazed, although my Guide’s continued skepticism does lead her to ask what my book is about. I tell her that it’s about two brothers—ages seventeen and five—trying to survive the apocalypse in West Virginia. That question about bulletproof glass came because I had wondered if the brothers would be able to shoot monsters in the Capitol from outside, or if they’d have to drive their Hummer through the windows instead. She goes, Oh.
And… is that going to be published? she asks.
I said the true thing: I didn’t know. She hoped it would be. Me, too. But not me anymore.
Because Balzer+Bray will publish that novel, The End Games, in the summer of 2013. And when they do, yes, I’m sending the first copy to the Tour Guide.
T. Michael Martin’s debut novel, The End Games, will be released by Balzer+Bray in Summer 2013. It was recently described in Publishers Weekly as “The Stand meets John Green.”
You can follow Mike on Twitter @_mike_martin.