The first thing I ever wrote that was recognizable as a short story (as opposed to “nonreactive pile of words that failed to start a chain reaction of genius) was called “Bricks”, and was written in 1986, when I was fifteen. I’d recently been told that in order to get into college and stop the clear downward slide my life was already engaged in, I needed to have activities on my transcript.
(Anyone high school age reading this: You don’t. It’s an adult conspiracy to get you involved in school activities. Walk away.)
I showed up for one meeting of the wrestling team, and left after twenty minutes, because holy shit that’s a lot of work. So I figured I’d get involved in something a little closer to my comfort zone: Writing. So I joined the literary magazine. In order to join the literary magazine, you kind of had to have literary output, so I shifted from 100% novels to writing some short stories.
That was my first real short story. The first good short story came about three years later. And the first story I actually sold was written four years after that.
The Chapter Stops
I can divide my entire literary life that way, between eras marked by Firsts. Some of those chapter stops shift over time as my definition of good and successful change, but in general I can point to works and say, this was my first real novel, this was my first good novel, this was the first story I ever sold, this was the first story I ever got a dollar a word for.
Just as important, though, are the milestones that don’t have a fixed point in time—things like the best story or novel I wrote. It’s kind of great that that status keeps changing, because the only things worse than realizing the best thing you ever wrote was written thirty years ago is realizing the last thing you sold was thirty years ago. As long as your dates keep changing, as long as you have new milestones to mark, you’re okay. And to keep that happening, you have to keep working. You never know when your next idea is going to be the best one you’ve ever had.
Unless your idea is to spend the next few years observing your cats as research for a Watership Down-esque epic about them. That will never be your best idea. Trust me, I speak from experience.