One Writer's Story: The 20-Year Path to Overnight Success

Brian Panowich, debut author of Bull Mountain (featured in the September 2015 Writer's Digest "Breaking In" column, wasn't looking for an agent when one found him through a pair of short stories published online. Here, in this online exclusive companion to his "Breaking In" spotlight, Panowich walks readers through his journey to agented, published author, and shares tips for taking a similar path.
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My old man was a talented fella, possessing an almost savant level of talent that made other artistically inclined people a touch jealous, myself included. He could pick up any stringed instrument and within a few minutes of noodling be able to strum a tune. He sang, he painted, he understood, and he could build—and rebuild—anything from a car engine to a computer. After he died, while going through a few boxes in the attic, I found out he was a writer too, and a damn good one. I wasn’t at all surprised. Now, I’ve never been nearly as gifted as my father, but I was born with the same jack-of-all-trades/master-of-none quality. Of course that blessing also came with the curse that anyone who uses the right side of his brain as a primary motivator eventually has to face: the harsh reality that “luck” is essential to meeting your goals.

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Column by Brian Panowich, author of the debut BULL MOUNTAIN
(July 7, 2015, G.P. Putnam's Sons Books). He has
several stories available in print and online collections. Two
of his stories, "If I Ever Get Off This Mountain" and "Coming
Down The Mountain," were nominated for a Spinetingler
award in 2013. He is currently a firefighter in East Georgia,
living with his wife and four children. Connect with him on Twitter.

Brilliant one-of-a-kind artists sometimes never find the recognition they deserve because Lady Luck didn’t happen to smile down at the right moment. In fact, they fail to be recognized more often than not. Artists and creators don’t follow the same type of paths to success that most doctors and lawyers do. Finding an agent to take you in and care as deeply about your art is a lot different from just being committed to refining your skill set and getting the proper schooling.

(Which writers' conference is the BEST to attend?)

I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt, since I was a small boy, that I would grow up someday to write comic books. That changed sometime in high-school when I knew beyond yet another shadow of doubt that I would grace the cover of Rolling Stone magazine as the second coming of Kurt Cobain. (I know, go big or go home.) Neither of those dreams panned out the way I expected them to. I came close a few times, but never got that “lucky” break. When my first daughter was born, my time as a hard-traveling road dog was over. I was okay with that, as another chapter of my life was beginning—fatherhood. The problem was, as anyone reading this can tell you: you just can’t turn it off. We aren’t wired that way. You can try, but it only leads to resentment, misery, and a lot of unanswered questions. At least it did for me.

My writing has always been personal. It’s always been there underneath everything else I did, acting as a shield between me and the world, so it was natural to dive back into it since I was going to find myself at home a lot more often than I was used to. I began to write short stories and publish them online as a way to continue to create. I simply needed to do it. My first story was published in 2012—a flash fiction crime story called “Services Rendered” that I’m still proud of today—and I remember sitting in a chicken joint with my kids when I got the email saying it had been accepted. We got milkshakes to celebrate.

I kept writing those short stories and kept putting them out there. Sometimes I’d get a big fat no, but sometimes I got a yes, and every time me and the kids got milkshakes. Those stories I wrote over the next year or so attracted an agent from New York, and within the next year or so, I’d written a novel and had a highly respected literary agent invested in my career. Doors began to open, and I just stepped through them. I figured if I came to one that was closed, I’d just bang on it until someone opened it, if for no other reason than to quell the noise. This year will see the release of my first novel, Bull Mountain. Will the book be a smashing success? I don’t know. All I can do is keep walking, and in some cases banging, through doors. But I do know this. I know if I had stopped trying, there would be no book. There would be no blog post for me to be writing right now. If I’d decided that I’d failed at comics, or I’d failed at music, or now that I was married with children that it was going to be too hard to continue being a dreamer, then what would have been the point of the past twenty years?

When people ask me how long it took for me to reach this point in my career, they are always surprised to hear that my first story was published in 2012. The normal reaction to that news is to tell me how lucky I am, and they aren’t entirely wrong. I did get lucky, no doubt about it. Luck was definitely at the party, but she wouldn’t have been had not tenacity sent out the invitations.

(Agents define their "ideal client" -- hear what they have to say.)

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This guest column is a supplement to the
"Breaking In" (debut authors) feature of this author
in Writer's Digest magazine. Are you a subscriber
yet? If not, get a discounted one-year sub here.

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