The Writer's Job
As of this year, I've been writing professionally for 30 years. I look at that number and it seems like a really long time. Half my life. I've got over 200 books to show for it. Many of them are under my name and many are not. Some of my pseudonyms have been outed, either by me or by astute readers.
I've enjoyed my job. There's really nothing like it in the world for me. I've imagined doing lots of other things over the years. As a writer, I've had to figure out what other occupations would be like.
Maybe some of those other careers would have fit me. I could have been a police officer, a journalist, an explorer, a director, an actor, any number of things. But my one true love has always been writing.
Writing fiction has always been the one place where I had the most control. I have control freak tendencies and I freely admit it. Thankfully, I'm an introvert and taking over the world isn't anywhere on my bucket list.
I broke in writing men's action adventure for the Mack Bolan series. Gold Eagle had taken over the books in the 1980s and ramped up the schedule, putting out a lot of books, and they needed writers. I'd never thought about writing one of those. I'd grown up on private eye novels and loved those. But I'd also grown up reading paperback editions of Doc Savage and the Shadow, and those old pulps were an early version of the men's action adventure market.
So I tried out for the series after Mike McQuay, one of the first writers I'd ever met, told me I should send something in. I wasn't a natural. I got my first proposal/spec manuscript turned down, but the editors asked for more plots.
Encouraged, and I also felt pressure from the calendar. I was about to turn 30 and writing was considered a freak habit by my family and other people I grew brave enough to talk about it with. I didn't know any writers for a long time. I sent in six plots that I thought might work.
I was turned down again.
At that point I was desperate and a little irritated. I had a job I hated that didn't pay enough, was throwing 7 newspaper routes 7 mornings a week, and I simply needed another income that wouldn't kill me.
Just so you know, I've put in more time learning how to write than anything else I've ever done--except parenting. Both of those fields take lots and lots of time, and the learning never ends. At the same time, the stakes constantly remain high.
After the second rejection, I got stubborn too. I took my favorite plot from the ones I'd sent in and sat down whenever I could in front of a black-and-white television set hooked into my prehistoric Radio Shack CoCo 2 (Color Computer for most of you who have no idea what I'm talking about. Yeah, it was a thing for about a minute, and I even upgraded to the CoCo 3 for a time).
I wrote the first 115 pages of what would become War Born, The Executioner #123 and sent it in sometime in October of 1987. In November I got a call about the proposal from Feroze Mohammed, the senior editor of Gold Eagle.
I wasn't there for the phone call. I was at work. Feroze left a message on the cassette recorder system I used back then and he told me if I could finish the book, they would buy it.
Well, that was a challenge. It had been years since I'd finished a book. I finished my first one the summer before my sophomore year of high school. It was 308 pages of handwritten pulp in the vein of those Doc Savage and Shadow stories I read. It was set in New York in 1933. It wasn't very good, but I'd finished it.
I managed to finish two private eye novels during summers while I went to college and worked full time at Solo Cup Company. I finished another private eye novel the spring after my first divorce while I was living in Moore. Writing then, and several times after, was therapeutic: about the only thing I seemed to have any control over. My life had not been, and still isn't, easy. I've always had to juggle.
So there I was with a possible book sale and I had to do it while I was married, raising three children--one of whom was from my first marriage and I only got to see every other weekend, and throwing 7 newspaper routes every morning before I went in to work. Or sometimes only a couple hours after I got home from the night shift at my full-time job at Long John Silver's.
Over the next six weeks, I hammered out the other 250+ pages of that book, proofed it, and mailed it out on December 15th, the day before my 30th birthday. I'd reluctantly made a deal with myself to give up writing if the manuscript didn't sell.
I knew the deal wouldn't hold because I've never been able to go without writing, but I felt a lot of pressure the day I dropped the manuscript at the post office.
Anyway, in January of 1988 (I want to say it was Friday, the 8th, which was Elvis's birthday, but might have been the 22nd), I received another call from Gold Eagle's senior editor, Feroze Mohammed.
Again, I wasn't there for the phone call. He left a message to tell me he was accepting the book for publication.
The next day, I was in a car wreck.
THEN LIFE GOT CRAZY
Where I ended up the last time? That's called a cliffhanger. It's one of the easiest tricks of the writing trade, and it's one every writer will want to use. It works by leaving a reader wanting more. However, you can't overuse it or you'll lose your reader. You can string them along for a little while.
We'll get back to the wreck in a moment, but first--this message.
The technique was developed in the days when Dickens and Verne and other writers made their living writing serial fiction for 19th century newspapers and magazines.
Serial fiction was designed to be published and read in small increments because producing fiction that way was more affordable. Book prices were outrageous, often amounting to a week's salary or more for each volume a reader purchased.
Broadsheets, fascicles, feuilletons--there were a lot of different names for this kind of entertainment. Studying the various forms can lead you straight down a rabbit hole. Trust me. I've been there.
The Count of Monte Cristo was published in 139 parts, and it kept readers begging for more at the time. The Nine-tailed Turtle, a Chinese novel, was published from 1906 to 1910 in 192 parts.
Serial fiction hasn't lost its appeal. Soap operas still flourish. Stephen King first published The Green Mile as a 6-part story (and he swore at the time the parts would never be gathered into a novel). I was one of those guys who went out each month and bought the latest release to find out what happened next.
Of course, those releases came in 1996, years after that car wreck you're still waiting to hear about.
Leaving the main characters' futures uncertain, delivering them into the jaws of death, guaranteed readers would be clamoring for the next installment. It still works that way. Netflix and other streaming services are well aware of that need in humans to know the next part of the story.
Paul Harvey did a lot with the form on radio with his show, The Rest of the Story. A lot of times, he simply held back the identity of the person he was talking about. The narrative was compelling.
I know most of you didn't come back to read this post to see if I survived, (spoiler: I did) but I'm betting many of you dropped in again to see what that wreck was all about.
So here's what happened: the day after I sold my first book, I drove to Ada to get my son for our bi-weekly visit. I was driving through Konawa, one of the small towns in southeastern Oklahoma, and the roads were covered in snow and ice.
Being out in that weather was stupid, but I loved my son and cherished every visit I got with him. So I loaded up and went.
In Konawa, just in front of the Sonic Drive-In there, I pulled farther to the right to allow a van going the other way to pass. Instead, the wheels hit the snow that had been bermed up by a grader earlier that morning, and lost control of the car.
We went head-first into the full-size van. I threw an arm across the seats to protect our two children as the other vehicle filled the windshield. I knew we were going to hit.
We did. I don't remember much after that point. I managed to get out of the car and check on the kids. They were both scared and crying, but they were okay.
I had blood all down the front of my trench coat and was gushing more blood from a cut on my forehead. Medical note: head wounds bleed like crazy because there are so many capillaries that feed the muscles of the face and the brain.
The next thing I knew, I was laying down in the middle of the street with a pool of blood the size of a basketball goal spreading out through the ice.
I couldn't help thinking, Writer for one day, and you die.
Actually, it took a while to get to the hospital. The ambulance took a long time to arrive, and the usual 15-minute ride to the hospital turned into an hour. I sat up the whole way, joined by my wife and kids.
I knew I was in pretty bad shape because of all the blood, but there was a lot of staring and turning away by the other people who'd seen me. I was in an out of consciousness, though they wanted me to stay awake because of a possible concussion. Turned out I had a LARGE concussion.
When I got to the hospital, the ER docs took a look at me and said, Nope, we're not touching that. They sent out for a plastic surgeon who was on call. I don't even remember his name, but I should. There were a lot of things going on at the time, though.
My mom came and stayed with me. My wife at that time couldn't be in the room with me without getting sick. I didn't have the guts to look at the wound in a mirror. I should have. I would now. That's the only opportunity I've had to look at my skull up close and personal.
The doc came and sewed me back together. 22 stitches on the inside, 38 on the outside. All of them small, neat, and precise--in hopes of keeping the resulting scar from being too eye-catching.
They wanted to keep me in the hospital overnight because of the concussion, but I had seen a lot of Clint Eastwood movies and knew there was a form that would allow me to check myself out of the hospital. I asked the nurse for one. She shot me a dirty look, but I'd already been through some bad stuff and was then fully medicated. I did not wither.
I wanted to see my kid. He was almost five at that time. I didn't think about how scary I would look to him, but I was with my head all bandaged up. He got over it after a while.
Needless to say, I wasn't able to do much for a couple days. Here I was, a newly-minted writer, and I was worried my brain had gotten scrambled.
The doctor told me at the time he sewed me up that he'd had to remove bone chips from the wound. I'd been wearing a beanie because I'm bald and when it's cold outside, my head freezes. He told me that the beanie was probably the only thing that kept my head from getting smashed in.
That was something I thought about a lot over the next few days. I'd just turned 30 and I'd just become a writer. I'd never expected to do the former, and the latter was something I'd always wished for.
So I worked on healing, getting used to that stitched-up area that was then my forehead. It was all a lot to take in.
Five days later, I got the external stitches taken out. And I learned something new: your skin has a layer of fat under it that keeps it from sticking to your bones. Unfortunately, after something like what I'd gone through, that fat gets lost and the skin adheres to the bone beneath. In this case, my skull.
It wouldn't move. My left eyebrow was frozen. And I felt like I looked like something out of Frankenstein. All I needed was a couple bolts in my neck.
And I had a management job where I was supposed to deal with the public on a daily basis. Needless to say, I felt sorry for myself.
Then, on January 22, Feroze Mohammed of Gold Eagle Books called again.
I had a great conversation with Feroze. Turns out Gold Eagle was excited enough about me to offer me a two-book contract. I worked on outlines and got them accepted.
Then I quit 3 of my 7 paper routes to give myself more time. The door-to-door collection process every month was still killing me. I spent a lot of time on the streets knocking on doors because a lot of people didn't want to pre-pay or mail in their payments. I was racing the calendar every month to collect all the money I needed to pay for the papers I threw.
I refused to let go of all the routes at the time. I was afraid I wouldn't be able to provide for my family. Even with four of them out of the nest now for years, it's still something I worry about.
Before I finished up the third book for Feroze, I was offered a three-book deal in May. I accepted it and quit the other four paper routes because I was literally killing myself by burning the candle at both ends. I'd just worked seven days a week for three years straight with only one day off for the accident.
And that was while trying to get my writing career going.
I'm used to not having any time for myself. I think I took up gardening after the paper routes to fill in my "extra" time. More than that, though, I think my body just figured out it needed the extra sunlight to offset the SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) I've dealt with forever. I just didn't have a name for it before I turned 50. SAD still kicks my ass every year from mid-November to the first of February. That's when I start getting out getting the garden beds ready.
Anyway, when I got offered the second set of contracts, I also started looking around for an agent. I sent a letter to the Scott Meredith Agency, which, back in the day, was the Cadillac of literary agencies.
They said no.
I got irritated (usually when I do some of my best work) and cold-called an agent I'd heard of because he represented a lot of writers I read. He accepted, but told me he was going to get 10% of everything I made, including the Gold Eagle Books.
(Agents used to charge only 10%. Now they charge 15%. One of my writer friends balked at that because, as he said, God only asks you for 10%. I think he had a point, but agents do a lot of heavy lifting.)
I wasn't thrilled about that. I pointed out that I didn't need an agent for the work I was getting. I could get it on my own.
The agent told me he wouldn't represent me on any books until he sold something for me. I agreed. A couple months later, he called back and told me he had a five-book deal for me.
I'd now sold 11 books in 7 months, and I was seriously wondering how I was going to catch up to all my commitments.
However, that deal didn't go as well as I'd hoped.
So there I was in July of 1988, fully engaged in a writing career.
That I had absolutely zero training for.
By that time, I'd finished three books for Harlequin, and I had three more books under contract for them. On top of that, I now had five books of Warren Norwood's Time Police series to write at an incredible pace of a book every two months!
I dug in. That's my first response to anything. It's why some people think I'm stubborn. I don't like change unless I'm prepared for it, and even then I resent it. I drive a 20-year old car for a reason. I don't want to learn any new idiosyncrasies. I want to drive a car I'm comfortable with.
The Time Police series was interesting. A rogue agent of a Time (with the capital T) department was responsible for tracking down an awol agent with designs on dominance of all time.
Warren wrote the first book, then became deathly ill. So I was hired on to do the new books. At less than half of the money I was getting.
However, I negotiated my contracts a little, even though my agent was supposed to do that. I couldn't get any more money because the new publisher was a start-up called Lynx Books, but I managed to get my name put on the books starting with the third book in the series. The second book was so late it had to be slapped together and shoved out the door.
Google them. You won't find them. They opened shop in basically one year and went under the next. During that time, they optioned a lot of books and got people started on series stuff.
Warren had written the opening chapters of Time Police: Trapped! and had a loose outline for the rest of the book. I amended that outline to take it in directions I wanted to, and finished it up. It was published months before War Born, my first Executioner novel.
It was odd to me that my fourth actual completed book was published before my first. I was working myself to death managing the full-time job while throwing newspapers, so I reluctantly gave up the other four paper routes.
Actually, I would have kept them if collecting money hadn't kept me out on the streets so much. I didn't mind the work or even the extra hours of throwing the paper, but the stress of getting all the cash together to pay my paper bill every month took its toll.
I was, quite frankly, terrified. I was making $22,000 a year as a manager in 1988, and the paper routes were kicking in another $12,000. It was still taking everything I made to get by with a wife and three kids.
I had no time for me. Mostly I never did in those days. I had even less of it when the kids got older and started sports, and I got involved in coaching them. Even now I spend a lot of time on my college kids and teaching.
I love work that I love.
The second Time Police novel came out as my third published novel even though it was my seventh written.
Then I found out how slowly writers could get paid. Harlequin, thank god, pays out quickly. You can't get spoiled to something good when you've never had anything different. But, boy, I noticed the difference in those two publishers, and in the way the editors worked with you.
And in October of 1988, only a few (relatively speaking) months after I'd had a near-death experience and had started living my longed-for dream, I found out my son Shiloh was on the way.
That changed everything.