Grave Diggin’ & Gettin’ Published!

Wow.  Someone should really dust in here, you know?  I’ll get right on that.

As some people might have suspected, I’ve always wanted to be a writer.  Pretty much since forever…you know, if forever is 2nd grade.  Sure there were the occasional career changes I considered along the way (Archaeologist, FBI Agent, movie director, astronaut), but I knew in my heart of hearts that I was going to write in one way, shape or form.  And I’ve been doing it a long time.  I’m not saying I’ve always done it well, mind you.  In fact, there are days even now where I look at some of the stuff my fingertips have shot out of the keyboard and I’m like…Good god…what have I done?

It might surprise some people to know that I didn’t always write books for kids.  Oh, no.  I used to love writing twisted little short stories about monsters and evil things happening to good people.

There was RACING THE DARK about a guy who’s in a hurry to get home before the sun rises.  (Gee…wonder how THAT one ends?)  There  was also WILL WORK…FOR FOOD about a woman moving into her apartment who takes a homeless man’s offer to work.  The only problem?  HE’S THE FOOD.  I also wrote the first half of a vampire story called THE MALEVOLENT VOICE about a kid who mistakenly ‘un-stakes’ a vampire who’s been crippled beneath the soil for decades.  Oh…I almost forgotten about THE INHUMANE RAIN which was a story set in a post-apocalyptic future where ships are raining down acid bombs and slowly melting away a city.

Yeah.  Real kid friendly stuff, right?

But, back in high school, I had an English teacher named Mr. Studer who became my Obi Wan Kenobi, if you will.  He saw something in me that I guess I didn’t really see in myself.  Sure, I liked to write.  I wrote tons of stories but didn’t know what to do with them.  It was the classic: “I’m not good enough” and “No one will want to read my junk anyway” argument that I’d gotten REALLY good at.  But the problem was, I wanted to keep writing (and get credit for it at school) and I’d taken every writing class the school had to offer.  So, Mr. Studer offered me a chance to do independent study during my senior year, or what we liked to call: Creative Writing 2 & 3.

It was simple.   During the hour, I’d come into his room, crack open the notebook and write.  And so I did.

I’d show him my stuff and he’d tell me if it was any good or if my characters needed more depth or whatever.  I (under my breath) said he didn’t know what he was talking about, but found myself fixing them up anyway.  (turns out he did)

One day, during class, Mr. Studer threw down the gauntlet.

“Mr. Troupe,” he said.  (He pretty much always called me “Mr. Troupe”, which made me think he was talking to my dad.  In fact, the only other name he called me was “Thomas” which NO ONE back then called me.  Now, it’s the name I prefer!) “I have a proposition for you.”

This wasn’t going to be good.  For years Mr. Studer was chasing me down, trying to get me to join the Speech team.  He’d already talked me into being in a bunch of the school plays, which I grew to love, but I never caught the ‘speech’ vibe.

“Okay,” I said, getting ready to bolt out the door if he tried to hand-cuff me to a speech meet.

“For your final in this class, I need you to submit a story to be published.”

A final?  In independent study, er…Creative Writing 3?  Seriously?

“I don’t know where I could send anything I wrote,” I said.  “Do I have to get published to pass?”

“No,” Mr. Studer said.  “But you do have to make it the best draft you can.  I want it to sparkle.”

I should take this time to point out that I was one of maybe a handful of kids in my class who liked Mr. Studer.  He didn’t joke around a lot, he took his job very seriously, and he didn’t take any garbage from anyone.  One day, I came into class wearing a Chicago Blackhawks hat.  Apparently, this was a no-no in Mr. Studer’s class.  I never got the memo.

“Mr. Troupe, please remove your hat.”

“How come?” I asked.  I looked around.  Sure enough, no one else was wearing a hat.

“Because that’s the rule.  We went over it in the syllabus during the first day of class.”

“I wasn’t here for that,” I said.  It was true.  I wasn’t.  “Why don’t we let it slide this time and I won’t wear one in here again.”

“I’m going to have to ask you one more time.”

“Mr. Studer,” I said.  “I can’t take off my hat.  I’ll have hat-head and I’ll look ridiculous.”  This was also true.  I was sporting a wicked Duran Duran-esqe mullet at the time.  And my hair was so thick and unruly, it would’ve been crazy.  I just couldn’t go out like that.  Not with girls in the class and my sharp-tongued friends around.

“Then I’ll have to ask you to go to the principal’s office and explain why you’re there.”

I sighed.  Mr. Studer wasn’t going to treat me any differently, even though I was the lead in a couple plays he directed and he saw the potential in me as a writer.  Rules were rules.

I stood up grabbed my stuff and headed for the door.  “All right,” I said.  “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

That was the kind of relationship we had.  It wasn’t a slap each other on the back, high-fivin’ mentor-like thing.  Not at all.  I respected his wishes, but I still wasn’t going to back down and look like a clown.  It was the dumb, stubborn and (I guess) vain part of me during my high school years.  Whatever.  I ended up hanging out with the principal and shooting the poop.

Anyway…back to the “Creative Writing 3” final.  I didn’t know what I was going to write for my ‘new requirement.’  I looked at my notebook and it was filled with half-started, never-finished story ideas.  I’d write out 10 page outlines and by the time I was ready to write the dumb things, I’d get bored, feeling like I already wrote it.  I flipped another page and saw a picture I drew of a rocker-like guy standing in a grave yard.  He looked scared and beads of sweat were coming off of him.  A skeletal hand was popping out of a nearby grave.  The tombstone said JAKE HADE.  I thought the name Jake was cool (hence, it’s my youngest son’s name) and I liked the idea that someone could have a last name synonymous with hell.

And just like that, an idea was born.

I started writing THE LEGEND OF JAKE HADE right then and there.  I didn’t know how I wanted it to end, I just knew it would have a guy going out into a graveyard in the middle of the night to dig up a grave.  That was pretty much it.  As I wrote it, (longhand, before computers were everywhere) I started thinking about how I could incorporate some sort of legend…a local legend.

Well, I won’t bore you with the ins and outs of how I came up with the story, but after two more classes, I was done.  I had a decent-sized short story that ended the way I wanted it to.  I gave it to Mr. Studer, who looked it over and nodded.

“This isn’t bad,” he said.

“But is it good enough to submit?”  I asked.  I knew the answer, but asked anyway.

“Not yet it isn’t.”

And so I spent the next few weeks doing what (at the time) I couldn’t stand doing…at all.  REVISING.  I changed up the dialogue.  I added detail to just about everything the guy did.  I made the guy somewhat crazy, since I was going crazy myself.  I chiseled away extra garbage that didn’t need to be in there.  I saw the word count drop like a wet pair of pants.  After the dust settled, I looked at the story and re-read the dumb thing from beginning to end.

And I’ll be gosh-darned if Mr. Studer wasn’t right.  I was better.  Much better.  I had to remind myself that it still might not be Mr. Studer caliber better.

Turns out…it was.

By the time the next class rolled around, he’d found a literary magazine to submit it to.  It was called “Fresh Tracks” and it was a small little book that featured work from students in the Midwest.  I didn’t really care where it went to, as long as I was passing my writing class.  He dropped it in the mail and I pretty much forgot about it.

A month or two later, I came into class and saw a smiling Mr. Studer.  This was not a common occurrence.

“What did I do?” I asked immediately.  I put my hand on my head to make sure my backwards baseball hat hadn’t mysteriously ended up there.

He held out an envelope.  It was already slit open and the letter was still inside.

“You’re in Fresh Tracks,” he announced, taking the suspense away immediately.  I don’t know who was more excited.  I guess we both were.

I almost said: “You’re s#*@ing me.”  I read the letter.  It was true.  I was going to be in the Spring 1991 volume of “Fresh Tracks.”

It was kind of a big deal at our little school.  I ended up getting a plaque from the superintendent and had to go to a meeting full of St. Anthony Village big-shots to receive it.  When she asked (in front of the school board) what the book was about, I could feel my face heat up.

“Uh, it’s about a guy who digs up a grave to dispel a local legend,” I said, expecting shock and horror.  “It doesn’t end well for him.”

The school board laughed.

I had to admit, it felt like I had sort of ‘arrived.’  I’d gotten my first piece published and I thought: I could get used to this. Too bad it would be almost 2 decades before it happened again.

After what seemed like forever, I got my 5 copies of the magazine in the mail.  On the cover it had a picture of some animal’s tracks in the sand.  Huh.  I flipped it open and saw how many poems were in there.

Really?  This magazine wanted my book about grave-digging?  Sure there were a couple other short stories in there, but mine REALLY seemed to stick out like a sore thumb.

Anyway, below is the story, scanned in it’s entirety.  Imagine this amongst a sea of poems about snow, roses, trips to grandma’s house, and puppies.

(click on the first picture and then click it again to advance pages…you know, if you wanna read it)

Ah, the feel good story of the year, right?  (if the year was 1991).

Holy Hannah.  I just realized that this story is 20 years old this year!