I hope you enjoyed yesterday’s post. That was the first piece of borderland noir I ever wrote, dashed out over the course of an afternoon after reading an inspiring bit of mood-setting by author Craig McDonald. Reading over it now I see much of my current style reflected in it. Some of the stuff I wrote previously does not hold up so well, as I was pretty rough coming out of my ten-year dry spell, but this story reflects what I do on a regular basis today.
I am not what you’d call particularly nostalgic about my work. I wrote, in the early ’90s, a series of cyberpunk novels that were all uniformly awful. I know some writers, maybe even most writers, would save those manuscripts as artifacts of where they’ve been and how far they’ve come, but I’ve long since lost track of any file containing those books. I remember them, which is enough for me. I don’t actually have to read my own crappy writing to recall that I wasn’t a polished writer at that point.
Just about the only positive note I can point toward during those early days was a writer’s workshop I attended where a science-fiction/fantasy midlist author (whose name I now forget) was willing to read everyone’s short-story submissions. She said complimentary things to me, as she did to all of us, but I found out later that she said to one of the organizers, “He is going to be big someday.” Meaning me. Big someday. That’s was pretty cool.
Of course I’m not big, but that’s kind of beside the point. At that point in my life I would have been happy to have something, anything of mine in print. As of today I have three novels from a well-respected publisher from the UK, a novel from a small press out of Ireland, a self-published book and two coming from a Big Five house. That’s quite beyond the ability of my twentysomething mind to comprehend. If you told me back then that I’d have an even modest-sized bestseller, as I did with Tequila Sunset, I’d probably have gone into cardiac arrest.
He waited in the motel, cut off from daylight by heavy, plastic-lined curtains. He kept a gun on the nightstand and watched free satellite TV with the sound way down. When he was hungry, he crossed the gravel parking lot and two lanes of backwater farm road to a small gas station. He paid cash for junk food, beer, and cigarettes. He made no small talk with the acne-spattered teenager who worked the counter.
He got into a rhythm with the woman who cleaned the rooms: she rolled her cart up to the door, knocked twice, and he opened up long enough to swap dirty sheets and towels for clean ones. He never asked to have the bathtub or toilet scrubbed out.
There was little traffic past the motel and he liked it that way. Whenever tires crunched in the parking lot, he tensed up. He grabbed the pistol and crept to the drapes to peek out. Despite the late-summer heat, he didn’t run the air conditioner; he didn’t want the noise to cover any other sound.
He slept lightly. He washed his clothes in the bathroom sink and hung them to dry in the tub. Every other day he shaved. His hair had once been short, but was going long from neglect. From time to time, he ran his fingers over his scalp, his expression rueful. He was, despite the closed, sweaty cell of the motel room, a neat man.
In the morning he did a hundred push-ups without stopping for rest. Before he slept, he did the same with sit-ups. He did squats every couple of days. In a way, he did these things as much to combat boredom as to remain fit. His tan faded as weeks passed.
I rebooted my writing career in 2006 after a long time in the woods. I’d pushed very hard to make some success for myself between 1993-1996, but a combination of work, relationships and (sadly) mental illness made continuing in that vein impossible. I spent ten years writing absolutely nothing. I was creatively barren.
Eventually the itch to write became stronger and stronger still and I was compelled to start writing again. I started with short stories because I apparently was allergic to making money. I wrote a whole slew of short stories and saw them published all over the place under a bewildering variety of pen names. I have this weird fascination with pen names and I think I have more stuff published under names not my own than I do as myself. I’m pretty much over that now, but there was clearly a time when I wasn’t.
Anyway, I didn’t have a whole lot of focus back then. I wrote in a variety of genres, though predominantly in westerns because, as I say, I had an aversion to earning anything for my work. Writing westerns does not pay unless you happen to be someone like James Reasoner, and even he doesn’t waste his time writing more than a handful of short stories in a year.
I wrote a couple of novels that leaned on my scholarship — these have been discussed in this space before, as you may recall — and then I was at a crossroads. Was I going to keep on writing westerns and never make a nickel doing so, or was I going to write something people actually want to pay money to read? Thankfully along came Craig McDonald.
This week we have a pair of “monster of the week” episodes, the sort of thing my wife, a longtime X-Phile, likes best. Unfortunately for her, the first of these two episodes, “The Jersey Devil,” is widely considered to be one of the worst monster of the week episodes ever filmed. I don’t know that this is strictly true, as there are some truly awful episodes waiting for us out there in the X-Files wilderness, but “The Jersey Devil” isn’t exactly a great hour of TV, either.
Most people don’t realize this, but The X-Files never did a straight-up bigfoot episode. This surprises a lot of folks when they hear this, because bigfoots would seem to be a perfect subject for an X-Files adventure. The closest the show ever came to bringing sasquatch to the small screen was this one, however. And it tries pretty darned hard to put a quasi-realistic spin on the topic, rather than simply going for a guy in a hair suit. “The Jersey Devil”‘s problem, though, isn’t that it can’t figure out a unique spin on the topic, but that it tries to be so unique and so off the wall that it ends up simply being kind of stupid.
The premise of “The Jersey Devil” is that there are wild people living in the woodlands outside of Atlantic City. Yes, that Atlantic City. The story doesn’t take place in Oregon or Washington state or anywhere a substantial amount of forest could maintain a population, however small, of throwback human beings, but rather in the titular Jersey. Points to Chris Carter for trying to write something that doesn’t play strictly to chiché, but come on. New Jersey bigfoot? Even Finding Bigfoot had some difficulty swallowing that particular premise.
There’s an author named James Reasoner who writes, on average, about a million words a year. He also sells anywhere from 10-12 novels during that same period. The man is a writing machine, and he’s been turning out this level of material for a long, long time. He is, by any measure, a success. You probably have never heard his name.
I think about Reasoner sometimes when I’m doing my own work. First and foremost there’s his almost inhuman production rate, which dwarfs even my own. In my very best years, I produce about 800,000 words. Of those 800,000 words, I sell probably 80,000. That’s a work-to-publication ratio that’s not terrific, though I’ve written about that elsewhere. Reasoner also finds time to do regular blogging and God knows what else, so I’m thinking he has at least one robot arm.
Probably more important than the production are the sales. I’m in this for the money, as I’ve said countless times before. I do this not only because it’s where my talent lies, but so I can put food on the table. Sales are very, very important to me. I have to make them regularly and they have to be for solid amounts of money. But over the past four years I’ve only sold for advances five books. Reasoner easily doubles that number every year. It’s hard to wrap my brain around that even as I sit here and write the words.
What’s his secret? Well, first he has the art of writing westerns — and that’s primarily what he writes — down to a science. The man can write westerns like nobody’s business. Anyone who becomes such a specialist can probably rely on getting more sales than those who have not dedicated most of their adult lives to creating a specific kind of genre entertainment. It’s kind of like how Michael Newton has managed to write approximately 4.7 billion Mack Bolan novels and keep them (mostly) fresh.