Great Ah-ha! Moments in Writing: Career Counseling
By Joe McKinney
I’ll let you in on a little secret. When I got started, I had no idea I was a writer. None. I wrote a novel called Dead City, about a young patrolman trying to get home to his family on the first night of the zombie apocalypse, because at the time I was a young patrolman dealing with the stress and anxiety that comes with being a new parent. I kept wondering to myself why anybody in his or her right mind would trust me with a kid. I mean, me. I’ve got issues out the wazoo. In what kind of universe am I qualified to raise a child? Every time my wife and I went to the doctor’s office for a checkup, all I could think of was that famous opening quatrain from Philip Larkin:
They fuck you up, your mum and dad,
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
That was totally me. I was so scared of being a dad. I was so totally convinced that I was going to screw it all up. That poor child in there, mewling in the nursery, she was going to have the world’s most conflicted, most frightened, most God help me I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing parent this side of wherever.
I was struggling.
But I’m a fixer. I’m that guy who has to do something about his problems rather than just accept them.
So, what I did was write a novel about a young cop fighting zombies.
It seemed simple enough; and really, the book wasn’t written with any sort of market in mind. I knew nothing of publishing, in fact. I had only vague notions, and those were of the distorted kind I’d picked up from authors who like to write about authors, like Stephen King.
I honestly thought it worked like this: You write a book. It becomes a bestseller. You quit your day job. You wait around for adventure to come to you.
Really. No joke. That was what I thought the writing life was like.
But, back to the novel.
I wrote it, and a publisher bought it. The book came out in mass-market paperback – with a horrible cover I might add. But, despite all the marks against it, it did quite well. I wrote a zombie novel when there were very few other zombie novels out there. And I was in bookstores, before bookstores became dinosaurs. What that meant was that I got read by readers hungry for what I had written.
I sold a bunch of copies. Not a million, but a good amount.
And here’s the kicker, I kept selling. My editor at Kensington admitted to me once that he expected my book to die on the vine within three months, and I was right there with him. I wasn’t a writer, after all. I was just some guy who used zombies as a metaphor for the fears of becoming a dad.
But let’s turn back the clock a bit.
I started as a short story writer. The whole reason I wrote at all was to talk about individual moments that mattered to me.
And that meant short stories, mostly.
I’d write them, staple the pages together, and leave the manuscript at the corner of my desk until the next idea came along. Nearly all those stories eventually got tossed in the trash because I didn’t think of myself as a writer. Writing stories was just something I did because my mind was restless and needed an outlet. And I hate Sudoku.
Yet I found myself with kind of a hit on my hands. With Dead City continuing to sell, I suddenly found it easy to do something with those short stories I’d been trashing. I could actually type them up, polish them, and ship them out to magazines and anthologies. For a year after the publication of Dead City I went on a story-writing binge, sometimes turning out as many as three in a single week.
I sent them out to every market I could find, rarely researching the recipient beforehand…because everybody in this writing business of ours is respectable and has honorable intentions, right?
To be brief, I learned two lessons from this.
First, research your publisher before you agree to do anything with them. There are good people out there…and then there are the creeps, and the dead beats, and the assholes, and the completely fucking clueless…and thanks to the Internet, every single one of them can put together an anthology or a magazine or a website or whatever. You are the company you keep, my mom once told me, and after a year of recklessly publishing, I found myself in the company of some dubious bedfellows.
Research, people. Know whose mule you’re hitching your wagon to. When everything is said and done, a good name (you can put the word “brand” in here, if you want) is worth its weight in gold. You have to be your own best advocate in this world, and that means learning the skills needed to understand the business side of writing and to navigate its (sometimes) rocky shores.
There are sirens out there that will guide you to your doom, so beware.
My second lesson is this: The novel is king.
As I mentioned above, Dead City did better than my publisher expected. It wasn’t the walkaway success The Walking Dead was, but I was suddenly money in the pocket, and publishers like that kind of thing. After a year of sprinting through short stories I got an email from my editor at Kensington. He wanted to know about a sequel.
I read the email and said, “What sequel?” I’m not a writer. I had the one story. That was it.
Until I thought of the short stories I’d been cranking out. Only then did I step back and say, “Gosh, maybe I am a writer.”
Yes, short stories are fun – but unless you’re Ray Bradbury, they don’t pay the bills. I can’t stress this enough, and I really wish there had been somebody there to tell me, “Hey, don’t wait. Writing is fun, and it can be a business too, if you work at it, and that means keeping the novels coming.” Had I heard that, I would have been able to approach this writing gig with a little more direction and purpose.
I seem to have done okay, but really, it’s been a race to catch up on the time I lost that first year of my career as a professional writer. So, my advice for managing your writing career consists of two things. First, know the business. Learn it. Take the time to discover the ins and outs of your trade. And second, write books. Always be looking toward that next novel, and make sure it’s better than anything you’ve ever written up to that point!