By John Shirley
Most writers are not bestselling authors–and we can conclude from the sheer mathematics of it, most writers will never be one. Think about how many books there are, and how relatively few become bestsellers. So suppose you don’t quite get there–or don’t for now. Still, it’s worthwhile to be a published writer. Many acknowledged fine writers were not best sellers–but apart from posterity, the gratification, in your own time, of writing your way into print for any audience, speaking to the world from your own soapbox, or holding people enthralled at a kind of storytelling campfire of your own creation, that’s a great feeling.
You may be a best seller some day. But how do you as a writer make a real living–if you’re not a best seller in the meantime?
You can always have a day job–I do recommend that. The famous poet Wallace Stevens worked for an Insurance Company most of his life…Stephen King– before he had best sellers, worked as an english teacher. It was a good long while before his Carrie hit it big.
Joseph Heller was an advertising man. Many writers are teachers, or professors.
Well–for awhile as a young man I was a typist and later I was an assistant at a PR company in Manhattan before they fired me for writing novels at work. Moving to Los Angeles I worked on staff of an animated show writing cartoons. That lasted a year. A long time later I worked on a Fox TV show as a story editor. But mostly I haven’t held a job–I’ve had to live as a writer because I’m not competent to do honest work. If I worked in a bank I’d drift away on my imagination, and find myself making origami dragons out of hundred dollar bills and I’d soon be fired. If I worked as a carpenter I’d shoot a nail into my foot with the nail gun in record time.
I’ve managed to make a living as a writer–and I asked myself recently, how have I done this, without the best seller or the day job? Yes I have been partnered with a spouse who had a job for a long time–but even before I met her I made a living from words. It was kind of a roller coaster living, but I did pretty well, and now I have many books in print, I have a pension from the Writer’s Guild of America for my writing in television and movies. I make royalties from my books and I have new books coming out.
My secret is a kind of triangle: first, imaginative adaptability; second, professionalism; and third, productivity. While creating a body of work that is distinctly my own, I also managed compatibility with the marketplace. So while I was waiting to see how my newest, rather strange science-fictin novel was doing, and how my newest, decidedly strange short story collection was doing, I wrote tough guy action novels–for example. Paperback adventure novels under a pen name. I was John Cutter, and sometimes I was DB Drumm. I wrote these tough guy adventure novels as well as I could. I wrote them under time constraints, teaching myself more about storytelling as I went. One of those series of books was called The Specialist, which became the inspiration for the Sylvester Stallone movie.
I also wrote the A Song Called Youth cyberpunk trilogy, which is still in print. Then my agent of the time asked me, “Can you write horror novels?” Thanks to a certain Mr King, horror was coming back big-time. I had never written long form horror before, but I quickly wrote short outlines for two horror novels. It was the timing of the thing–I got a two book deal and in due course I wrote In Darkness Waiting and Cellars, for Avon Books. As Avon was part of the Hearst publishing corporation, their checks cleared. But I was always looking for the next job and the next opportunity.
I now had established my writing chops. I had shown I could write publishable science fiction; I had shown I could write action/adventure books with tough guy characters; I had shown I could write some pretty damn scary horror. You see? Suppose you want to make a living as a musician–hard to make a living at that too, so it’s best if you’re an all around musician who can play jazz, rock and roll, country, classical, big band, wherever you can get the work. For me, writing was and is just like that.
Various writers have jumped genres as needed–Roald Dahl wrote mysteries and suspense before he ever tried children’s books. Isaac Asimov wrote mysteries, science fiction, and lots and lots of nonfiction books about science and culture. Elmore Leonard wrote westerns and pulp detective stories before he hit it big as a crime novelist. He had no problem switching from westerns to detective stories, by the way. There’s a lot of overlap–westerns have their detective element, and detective heroes are kind of like western heroes without the horse. It’s not just a change of setting–a writer who can really write simply keeps his or her ears open as they read in different genres–reading widely and much is important if you want to be a writer. Writers absorb methods and moves and storytelling devices while reading other writers, and then, using some of that, they find their own voices for storytelling tropes–and they invent new spins on old genres. Once confident as a mystery writer or science fiction writer or Romance writer, she or he can shift gears and think original thoughts in those genres. And that’s when readers and editors really appreciate them. Originality matters–even in unoriginal formulas. So here we have people writing to market, writing deliberately working within a genre’s restrictions–but looking to bring something special to the field. If I decide to write a western, say–and I’ve done it, it has been published–I will try to take it to another level, without destroying the innate, fairly standardized appeal of that genre. People like Larry McMurtry transcended the genre completely. Me, I learned to write with originality while still walking the tightrope of each genre’s restrictions. I made a point of studying each form–I recommend studying published horror fiction if you’re going to write horror, studying military science fiction if you’re going to write military science fiction, studying the latest version of Romance if you’re writing that. And attentively play the videogame if you’re hired to novelize it.
I was once hired by Pocket Books to write two novels about the modern British magician character John Constantine. So I obtained about thirty Hellblazer comics, which is more or less where the character got his start. I had fun reading them all–but I also paid attention to his mannerisms, his style of talking; I soaked up the rough otherworldly situations he got into, the underlying subtext of the comics, and the tone of the comic so I could write it as a novel in a way the fans of the comic could get into.
I kept working on my own projects, in between the hired jobs. I always had Hollywood in mind. Just before I went to LA I found some small animation studios developing Saturday morning cartoons, learned they were looking for writers, and sent them a carefully worded query letter with a few of my more relevant books. I soon got work writing animated series; animated versions of Ghostbusters, animated versions of Robocop, Batman Beyond–getting 5000 dollars for a twentyfive minute script was pretty good…Now I get a bit more for one…And while I was in La-La Land I managed to sell Warner Brothers the rights to my tough guy action series The Specialist. It wasn’t huge money–but $50,000 seemed like a lot of money to me then and I don’t sneer at it now!
One day when I was in a comic book store, I remembered seeing an article about the storyboards movie directors use–they actually work scenes out in shots drawn in blocks on a drawing board–and I thought, comic books are already storyboards. But I couldn’t afford to get the rights to big name comics. So I looked for lesser known independent comics that might have an appeal. I found an obscure black and white comic called The Crow. This tale of supernatural vengeance set in Detroit was already very cinematic because James O’Barr, who created it, loved noir films and Japanese action films. So I took the comic to a young producer friend of mine. I wrote a treatment for it–an outline of how it would be adapted as a movie–and he and I made a deal. He showed the comic and the treatment around town and Edward R. Pressman got interested. As part of my deal, I was hired to write the script and turned in four drafts. David Schow was brought in do some more drafts, and it became the movie The Crow. Every time there’s a sequel to The Crow I get some money, by the way. Not millions– I didn’t create the comic. But it’s a good check. All because I noticed that comic books are like storyboards.
My novels are pretty cinematic. I wrote a horror novel called Demons–and I thought cinematically, with scenes and even shots in mind, while writing it. I knew it was cinematic in feel, so I pushed that particular book with an agency repping books to movies and the novel was optioned by Miramax–I got $25,000 dollars for the option –they’d owe me quite a bit more if they made the film–and then I got another $15,000 for a renewal of option. They got a director, they developed a script–and then the recession hit, around 2007/2008, and the Weinstein Brothers dropped most everything they had planned, so the film wasn’t made.
Rolling with disappointments is part of writing professionalism–and I had made $40,000 besides the money I got from advance and royalties on the novel.
My novel Crawlers was also optioned…not made, but I received an extra $20,000 from that option. There are people who make much more, as you know, from books and scripts optioned or purchased in Hollywood, for movies that, fairly often, never get made. There are mansions in the Hollywood hills paid for with money for story rights–for movies that never got made.
I worked in television–I wrote a Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode and a number of others, but at that time in my life I had more difficulty working with a committee of producers breathing down my neck. I could communicate with editors and animation staff but working in committee meetings with producers and their assistants was difficult for me. For a time, in Hollywood, I ran into the outer boundary of my adaptability. I did okay, I still get residuals from the shows I worked on–but I don’t thrive in Hollywood meetings. I wrote original scripts, and made money when they were optioned. And I kept writing novels, and short stories. I also sold two pilot scripts for TV series–one to Fox and one to NBC. Like so many of them–they buy more than they can produce–they didn’t get made either. But I was paid.
Don’t dismiss “mere” short stories by the way–many movies were inspired by mere short stories by all kinds of writers. Two that come to mind are the short stories The Birds by Daphne Du Maurier, and 3:10 to Yuma by Elmore Leonard. Besides being a good story, a short story is a premise in itself, which can often re-launch in an entirely different media.
I also wrote short stories, in my spare time, for some of the sister publications of Penthouse magazine, like Oui. I got a thousand dollars for each story they took, which is in the upper range for a magazine short. A short story in that case might only be 5 or 6000 words. So do the math, it’s a good payday, but I also had to write to their needs. Some sexiness, a lot of plot intrigue, drama, suspense. I tended to write mystery or suspense stories with a bit more sex in them. They weren’t even soft core porn, they weren’t as explicit as some porn-like vampire novels around now, but they were attuned to the needs of a slick men’s magazine.
The point is, I adapted as a writer while still trying to bring something special to each project. And adapting–always bringing some originality– is part of professionalism.
Besides my own personal inventions in fiction, I’ve written numerous tie-in novels–novels based in worlds of someone else’s creation. Alien novels, Predator novels–I may write an Alien Vs Predator novel! I wrote novels based on videogames like Bioshock and Halo and Borderlands; I wrote a novel based on the TV show Grimm set here in Portland–they called me in for these projects because I had adapted to people’s needs so many times. Woody Allen said 50% of success is showing up and I showed up–I was there for the phone conferences, for the editorial notes, for draft after draft. They knew I was a fairly rapid writer, that I was reliable, but also imaginative so the thing wouldn’t be too predictable, and they knew I had high standards of quality. I always did the best I could in the time provided. I established myself as one of those people–as a pro who gets the job done to the best of his ability. I started at ten grand for a book of that kind and now I get $20,000. Meanwhile I’ve had novels of purely my own invention published by Simon & Schuster, Random House and other majors.
Over the years I’ve learned to adapt to committee writing a bit more–I sometimes write episodes of the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated series for Nick and I get a lot of network notes.
Now I’m adapting a videogame story for a new media, for a company called Bound that creates short novels to be read in easily digestible sections: you read the book on smartphones. It is written specifically for that medium. I just had a phone conference with the company on Friday to “take their notes”.
So all this keeps me going, pays my family’s bills–and it pays for time to do the kind of writing I love, like composing novels and short stories purely out of my own imagination. I have a new novel that is purely my invention–it was just sent to a major publisher. I paid for the time it took to write by saying yes to different media, different genres. I digested those genre, made them part of me, found a way to express myself there. And I was productive–I had to be. Procrastination doesn’t pay bills. When it was time to write, I wrote even when I didn’t feel like it. There was no boss standing over me–there was just willpower between me and the blank page. I found that if I said yes to the writing and simply started off–the writing would come. And I can always cut weaker material later. And to me, that attitude, and the demand I make on myself, is writing professionalism.
Remember those men’s magazine stories? Later on I included edited versions of those stories in my story collections. I might make one of them into a movie script sometime. I can use them again and again, in different ways, as with all my purely self-invented works. A short story might be the springboard of a novel, or a TV episode, even a comic book. And it can be reprinted and I can be paid again for it.
That’s part of being a professional–thinking of every truly original thing you write as a resource, a possible building block to something else.
So, imaginative adaptability, professionalism–and insisting to myself that I must be productive. You can induce yourself to be more prolific. It’s called regular habits and willpower. And being productive leads to being more productive. You learn to write as a professional by reading deeply, and by writing a lot. The more I write the more confident I am–and the more confident I am the more I write.
So that’s my advice.
Did I mention that it’s a good idea to have a day job?
John Shirley has been published by Simon & Schuster, Random House, HarperCollins and other houses. His novels include Demons, Bleak History, Crawlers, the A SONG CALLED YOUTH trilogy, Silicon Embrace, Doyle After Death, Wyatt in Wichita and The Other End. His short story collection Black Butterflies won the Bram Stoker Award. He has also written for television and movies and is a professional song writer.