Don’t Look Down

Scott William Carter   October 18, 2005  

Got a letter from Janet Hutchings at Ellery Queen this past Friday saying she wants to buy my suspense story, “Road Gamble.” The letter came in an Ellery Queen envelope that bore the words “The world’s leading mystery magazine” under their logo. And this pretty much sums up how I feel about the magazine. For a commercial writer, a writer who embraces the label rather than shuns it, as so many other writers seem to do (with few exceptions, writers considered classics today were the commercial writers of their time, so we pulp writers usually have the last laugh), Ellery Queen is the Carnegie Hall of pulp writing. And if you think I mean that in a derogatory sense, think again. When I got the letter, I had one of those sappy Leonardo diCaprio/Titanic moments: I threw up my arms and roared triumphantly.

Okay, so I’m a sap. But-but-but, it’s Ellery Queen!

Short story sales to Asimov’s and Ellery Queen within ten days of each other, my first to both of those markets, has made for a dizzying time. I’ve been pretty steady the last couple of years, writing through all the highs and lows, but finally it got to me. I thought about how far I’ve come, and the writing has been tougher because of it.

In a workshop not long ago, a professional writer said to a group of us, a group that included many emerging writers, “Just don’t look down folks. You’ll be stunned at how far you’ve come.” At the time I didn’t understand why it should be so perilous to look back at what you’ve accomplished, but this past few days, I’ve come to understand exactly what he meant. It’s easy to keep climbing so long as you keep looking up. When you look down and see how far below the ground is, any thought of continuing upward flees your mind and everything inside you screams to just hold tight to the rope. You just don’t want to slip, you see. You like it up here.

But when it comes to writing, holding tight to the rope is not really an option. If you’re not moving upward, if you’re not taking risks, you’re dead. At least that’s the way I see it. You’d think it’d get easier the more your skills improve, but there’s also a lot more psychological pitfalls. It’s easy to start worrying about things outside your control, to focus on things other than just climbing that rope.

In my office there is no phone. There is no email. It’s a tiny room on the backside of the house, where I can’t even hear the doorbell. There is only me and the computer. And when I’m in that place, with the door closed, alone with only the voice in my head, everything feels right. It’s all about telling a story, doing it as well as I can, and nothing else. I like that place. You see, it’s not really about the office. It’s about building that place inside yourself and protecting it fiercely, a haven for your creativity and your ego, keeping out the wolves that would tear it down. These wolves vary from writer to writer, but you’ll know them when you see them. So if you don’t see me posting often in this blog, or showing up at writing-related conventions or conferences, or engaging in discussions on newsgroups, it’s not because I’m being anti-social. Well, at least not completely. It’s because I’m in that place. It’s a place without critics, without editors or agents, and really, without even readers.

Just me and the rope, climbing and doing my best not to look down.

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