Saturday, February 20, 2021

So You're Never Going to be Stephen King


Years ago, literary agent Russell Galen wrote a regularly appearing column in Locus focused on publishing and writing careers. I was in my mid-twenties back then and subscribed to Locus for all the science fiction/fantasy/horror publishing news I could get, and Galen’s column was the first thing I read whenever a new issue appeared in my mailbox. That was thirty years ago, and while I don’t remember a lot of what Galen wrote, one of the things that has stuck with me is this sentence: “Don’t be afraid to tell your agent you have a lust for success that would appall Napoleon.”


A couple years later, when I was in my late twenties, I was teaching writing classes part-time at three different colleges while I wrote novels and stories which weren’t getting published. In one of my composition classes, we were talking about success. I don’t remember why. Probably we’d read an essay in the textbook that had success as its theme. One of the students who always sat in the back of the room – a smart young man who contributed a great deal to classroom discussion – said, “Look at you. You’re a success.” My reaction? I burst out laughing. I had a master’s degree, not a doctorate, I didn’t have a full-time teaching job, and while I’d sold a handful of stories to small-press magazines, I wasn’t exactly appearing regularly on the New York Times Best Sellers list.


Several months ago, I was speaking with an editor on Zoom, and we were talking about ways to move my career to a higher level. During our conversation, he referred to me as a “reasonably successful writer.” I’ll be fifty-seven in less than a month. How much more time do I have left to become just a plain “successful writer,” let alone one that’s “significantly” or “wildly” successful? Hell, when I’m sixty, I’ll be eligible for a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Horror Writers Association. (Not that I think I merit one.) Such an award doesn’t mean one’s career is over, but it would seem to be a strong statement that the better part of one’s career is complete, that a writer has made whatever mark in their field they’re going to, and the remainder is epilogue.


I’ve had many different ways to gauge the success of my writing career over the last forty years that I’ve been writing. I submitted my first story for publication when I was eighteen. There was no Internet back then, so I learned about the submission process from magazines like Writer’s Digest and The Writer. Home computers and printers were still a year or two away (and of course there was no email), so stories were produced on a typewriter. When you sent them out for submission, you included a SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope) so if the story was rejected, the manuscript could be returned to you so you could submit it elsewhere. (You’d send the same manuscript out until it started to show some wear, then you typed a new copy.) The story was called “As Good as a Rest,” and it involved a barbarian who was tired of his job, so he went to the office of Archetype Management to be reassigned to a more interesting milieu. (The story never sold, and years later I rewrote it with a woman protagonist and sold it to a DAW anthology called Warrior Fantastic.) I submitted “As Good as a Rest” to Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, and when it was rejected, instead of receiving the manuscript back in the mail, I got a postcard from the editor informing me that I failed to include a SASE, and if I wanted my manuscript returned, I should send them a SASE. I was too embarrassed to do so, but I was thrilled to get the postcard. The postcard was proof that I had completed the cycle. I’d written a story, identified a market, prepared a submission (if without a SASE), sent it, and received a reply from an editor. This first completion of the cycle felt like a huge success to me. I might not have been a professional writer, but I had followed the steps that a professional would take, and I felt like I was on my way.


I had a story published before this, though. I’d written a story for a creative writing class in high school, and the teacher chose to read it aloud to the class, but without naming me at the author in case it might embarrass me (which it would’ve). The fact the teacher chose to read my story to the class as an example of good work made me feel great. I was named Writer of the Month at my high school, and my story was published in a local paper, this time under my name. It was the first time I saw my words in print, and it was fantastic. I published my next story my junior year in college. I was in a creative writing class with the editor of the college’s literary magazine. He had some positive comments about my story, so after class I asked if the story was the kind of thing he might like to publish. He said sure and had me send it to him. (I didn’t realize at the time that I’d also accomplished my first successful networking!). The following year, I became the editor of the lit mag – another achievement that I was proud of.


I began sporadically selling to small-press literary magazines, and I continued reading as many how-write-books as I could get my hands on. Slowly but surely, my achievements continued. I started selling stories more regularly, I began going to writing conventions, I joined The Horror Writers Association and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. I had my first professional sale, to a horror anthology Young Blood. I landed the first of three agents that I’ve had (so far) in my career. I started selling regularly to pro anthologies, and I started selling stories to Cemetery Dance magazine. I began getting (a few) invitations to submit to projects. I started being on panels at conventions, which allowed me to meet many professional writers. I started teaching creative writing workshops and writing how-to-write articles. My first published novel was for a small-press start-up called Foggy Windows, which specialized in erotica for married couples. I wrote a comedic mystery called Dying for It, one of only five novels the publisher produced before it folded. But my advance check didn’t bounce, and it was the first time I was paid to write a novel. (It was also a decent mid-list size advance for the time.)


I kept writing and teaching, pushing myself to take my career to the next step, then the next after that, and the next after that. I started writing media tie-in novels as well as original fiction, and I focused more on fantasy than horror back then, but eventually my horror began to sell more than anything else so, since horror was my first love, I decided to focus on it primarily. I began regularly receiving anthology invites, so many that it became rare that I wrote and sold any short fiction on spec. I wanted to grow as an artist as much as possible, so I worked hard to make my horror unlike anything anyone else wrote (which, in retrospect, might not have been the smartest idea when it came to marketing my work to a wide audience.) I would set goals and try to reach them. I wanted to sell a novel to Leisure Books’ horror line. I sold three. I wanted to offer writing workshops at conventions, and I began doing so regularly. I wanted to write a Supernatural novel. I ended up writing five different books based on the series. I wanted to write an original series. I wrote three books in the Nekropolis series which readers still write me about to this day. I wanted to win awards, so I learned more about the process works for various writing awards, and I’ve been a multiple finalist for the Bram Stoker Award, the Shirley Jackson Award, and the Scribe Award. I’ve been a one-time finalist for a Splatterpunk Award. I’ve won the Stoker once, and this year I have two works on the final ballot. I wanted to be published in both The Writer and Writer’s Digest, and I have been. I wanted to write a book on writing, especially on how to write horror, and I wrote Writing in the Dark, which came out last fall from Raw Dog Screaming Press.


My reviews have almost all been positive throughout the years, and readers and other writers have told me how much they enjoy my work, whether through email, on social media, or in person.


There are lots of things I haven’t achieved yet. No one has adapted any of my fiction into film. My Nekropolis books have been dramatized and recorded with a full cast and audio effects by Graphic Audio, though. No one has adapted any of my fiction for comics. I had a story accepted for adaptation for the Evil Jester Presents comic, but it was canceled after one issue. I’ve never had a story reprinted in Year’s Best Horror, Best Horror of the Year, or Best Horror and Dark Fantasy of the Year. I have had four stories reprinted in various volumes of Best Hardcore Horror of the Year, though. I haven’t had a major bestseller, although my tie-in novel Alien: Prototype did make the Locus bestseller list. I’d love to have a long-running series, but that hasn’t happened yet. I’d love to make more money from my writing than I do, and I’d like to break out and become an A-list writer.


So why have I written what sounds like an extended brag about how awesome I am? So I could tell you this: I’ve pushed and pushed and pushed myself for almost four decades now, and sometimes I don’t feel like a success at all. I don’t think I’m a failure – there’s too much evidence that I’m not – but I feel as if true success is always just out of my reach. Sometimes it makes me feel like my career has been kind of a cruel cosmic joke, and that gets me down and makes it hard to keep working. Sometimes it feels as if I’m on the downhill slide of my career, and there’s nothing I can do to turn things around. Sometimes I toy with the idea of quitting writing. I’ve always thought about quitting. I’m prone to depression and, as an imaginative person, I’m prone to drama. I may not evince this in my everyday life, but it’s true. I’m as much a drama queen inside as any other creative person. And the reason I feel all these things is because I listen too much to what the world tells me a successful writer should be. I think of my writing accomplishments as achievements to slap in a bio or bibliography, quickly forgotten as I rush toward the next project or goal I want to achieve. I forget to enjoy the results of my efforts, to savor the experiences, to have fun, to feel joy. If I’m not first writing for myself, writing to spend my life in a way that feels fulfilling to me, if I don’t remember to appreciate these things, that’s when I most feel like a failure. My writing is supposed to sustain me, but if it was water, I’d get regular deliveries of it, throw the jugs in the basement, and never drink a drop of it. I’d be too focused on obtaining more water without taking the time to appreciate the water I’ve already got.


In his wonderful speech “Make Good Art,” Neil Gaiman shares a story about a time when he was doing a signing alongside Stephen King. It was during the height of Sandman’s success, and Neil had a ton of people show up to get their comics signed. Steve told him, “This is really great. You should enjoy it.” But Neil didn’t. He was too focused on the next project, the next hill to climb. He calls Steve’s words “the best advice I ever got but completely failed to follow.”


I feel most like a failure when I forget that eighteen-year-old boy I was, standing by the mailbox at the end of my parents’ gravel driveway, looking at the postcard from Asimov’s editor and grinning ear to ear. That boy savored his achievement. He framed that postcard (I know, I know – what a clich√©) and hung it on the wall next to his typewriter/word processor. I feel most like a failure when all I do is focus on the work and forget to appreciate the rewards, whatever they may be.


So often on social media I see posts from writers who work hard and celebrate their successes. These are often (but not always) newer writers in the early stages of their careers. I also see posts from writers who work equally as hard but share their disappointments with what they perceive as their failures.


I’m being a writer version of Marley’s Ghost right now, and I’m warning you not to treat your writing successes, no matter how big or small they may be, as merely one more step along the way to something so much bigger and better. We can all imagine levels of success that would appall Napoleon, but no matter what was achieve, we’re in danger of always defining real success as that we don’t have and which will remain forever beyond our grasp. And when we do that, we’ll always feel like failures.


I’m not telling you to ignore setbacks in your writing career. I am telling you not to focus on them to the point where you can’t appreciate your successes, and I’m telling you to make a conscious effort to enjoy those successes. Celebrate. Have a special meal, a special dessert, a special drink . . . Buy something nice for yourself. Share your successes with your friends and family, both in real life and online. Display your author copies, writing awards, certificates of appreciation, a nice email from a reader somewhere in your home . . . and when you’re feeling like you suck and your so-called career has been a complete waste of time and effort, look at these things.


Most of all, remind yourself that success is not reaching a destination; it truly is about enjoying the journey.


If you’ve never heard Neil’s “Make Good Art Speech,” you can watch it here:




Your Turn to Suffer

My newest novel for Flame Tree Press is coming out next month. Reviews have been good so far, although readers have found the book to be darker and bloodier than I’d expected. If that sounds good to you (you sick, twisted thing), here’s where you can order:


Flame Tree Website


This is my page on the Flame Tree site, where you can order any of my Flame Tree novels, including Your Turn to Suffer.










Barnes and Noble






NOOK Book:


Writing in the Dark: The Sequel

Now that the announcement has been officially made, I can tell you that I’m doing a follow-up to Writing in the Dark. This book is going to focus entirely on exercises to help writers produce better horror. Right now, it’s called Writing in the Dark Exercise Workbook, and since I haven’t started actually writing it yet, there’s no preorder information. The good folks at Raw Dog Screaming Press are aiming to have it out late this year or early next. I’ll keep you posted.


Transcript of my interview with Joanna Penn


I had a wonderful time being interviewed with author Joanna Penn for her blog a while back, but I hadn’t realized there was a transcript of the interview available online until this morning. So if you’re one of those people who’d rather read an interview than listen to it (I am), here’s a link to the transcript:


If you want to listen to the interview, you can do that too:




The Art of Suspense: March 7th. I’m presenting this online workshop in conjunction with Wright Memorial Library in Oakwood, Ohio. There’s no fee.


Writing Media Tie-Ins:  May 4th. I’m presenting this workshop in conjunction with Clarion West. It’s online and there’s no fee.




Stokercon: May 20th to May 23rd. Thanks to Covid, Stokercon is going virtual for the second year in a row. I should be on some panels, and I’ve proposed several workshops. I’ll let you know when I have a schedule to share.


Readercon 31: July 9th to July 11th. Readercon is going to be virtual this year, and I’ve been invited to be a quest. I should be on a panel or two, and I’ve proposed a couple workshops as well.


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Twitter: @timwaggoner


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  1. Nice post. I think we all struggle with this, and I frequently tell myself that college-me would have been incredibly happy to have accomplished what I have. Unfortunately, 50 year old me is an incredible pessimist who always sees the glass half full(of poison). I'll keep trying.
    (and I'm reading your Writing In The Dark book now--good stuff)

  2. Tim, great piece! You are always someone I look to when I'm feeling lost or in over my head. I hope you know how much your writing buds appreciate your generosity and your gifts. I can't wait to check out the new Flame Tree book!
    Congrats on the Stoker nom.

  3. Tim, great piece! You are always someone I look to when I'm feeling lost or in over my head. I hope you know how much your writing buds appreciate your generosity and your gifts. I can't wait to check out the new Flame Tree book!
    Congrats on the Stoker nom.

  4. Thank you for this. This is exactly what I needed to read this morning.