It’s my birthday month, and this year I turn fifty-eight. I started writing with the intent of making it my life’s work when I was eighteen, which means that I’ve been at this for forty years.
I published my first story in my college’s literary magazine in 1985 when I was twenty-one. I published my first novel in 2001 when I was thirty-six. (And I wrote a lot of unpublished stories and novels before I started publishing regularly.) The story was called “Shadow Play,” and it was a science fiction tale about a time travel device that allows you to re-experience every moment of your life. The novel was Dying for It, a work-for-hire humorous erotic mystery. During most of those years, I taught composition and creative writing classes as a part-time instructor at various colleges.
Where am I now, career-wise?
I’ve traditionally published over fifty novels and seven collections of short stories. Most of my published work is original dark fantasy and horror, along with media tie-ins. My fiction has been translated into Russian, Portuguese, Japanese, Spanish, French, Italian, German, Hungarian, and Turkish. My articles on writing have appeared in numerous publications, such as Writer’s Digest and The Writer. I’m a three-time winner of the Bram Stoker Award (and have been nominated three other times as well), I’ve won the HWA’s Mentor of the Year Award, and I’ve been a finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award (twice), the Scribe Award (six times), and the Splatterpunk Award (once). In the fall of 1999, I started teaching as full-time tenure-track professor at Sinclair College in Dayton, Ohio, and after this semester, I’ll have only seven more years until I can retire from teaching with full benefits.
(If you’d like more specifics about my career, you can hit my website at www.timwaggoner.com)
So when I realized it’s my fortieth anniversary of setting out to be a writer, I thought I should write a blog to commemorate the occasion. I had no idea what to say, though. “I’ve written a hell of a long time and published stuff that some people read and liked. That’s it – let’s hit the bar!”
I thought about how I see people come into the horror writing community, become an active part of it for a few years, then vanish. I’ve seen this pattern over and over. But I’m still here. Maybe, I thought, I might be able to offer some tips on how I’ve managed to stick it out all these years. So that’s what I decided to write about.
So here – in no particular order – are some tips that might help you get through the long haul.
· Write with intention but without attachment to a specific outcome. I got this idea from writer Taylor Grant. The idea is to write with a specific intention – say, to make a great short story that presents a new take on vampires – but without being attached to any specific outcome. This way, so long as you write the story, you’ve succeeded. Whatever happens afterward – whether or not the story is published, wins awards, hell, whether or not the damn thing is any good in the first place – doesn’t matter. You wrote it, you won. Move on to writing something else. If you can manage this attitude, it can keep you from experiencing negative emotions about whatever happens to your work after you create it.
· Shoot for the moon but don't be crushed if you don't reach it. One of my earliest goals was to become famous enough as a writer to have a shelf in B. Dalton’s bookstore with my name on it. (B. Dalton is long gone, but they did have author name labels for people like Stephen King, Danielle Steele, Isaac Asimov, etc.) Even if B. Dalton’s was still around, I haven’t become famous enough to get my own name label, and I probably never will. I often see writers post on social media that in five years they plan to be making six figures from their writing, have signed a movie option, have won X amount of awards . . . Aiming for goals like these is fine. Being crushed when you (most likely) won’t achieve them – at least, not all of them – is not so fine. You might consider yourself a failure and quit writing. A career in the arts doesn’t run on a timetable. You aim for what you aim for and the results are what they are. You need to make your peace with this is you want to have a sustained career.
· Focus on helping others, on contributing to the writing community. It’s too easy to become self-obsessed when you’re a writer. After all, we spend so much time in our own heads, physically alone when we write, dreaming of the kind of success we so desperately want. But too much focus on the self can be unhealthy and lead to depression and self-loathing. Taking time to focus on others – our family, friends, colleagues – and being a good literary citizen by connecting to and helping other writers, allows us to remember that life is not always about us and our writing. Consider mentoring other writers or volunteering for a writers’ organization. Present workshops at libraries and rec centers. Offer to be a visiting writer for a school in your area. Help out and support other writers on social media. Doing any of these things will help you get out of your head, feel good about yourself, and re-energize you so you’re ready to hit the keyboard again.
· Don't make writing your entire identity. Some writers have other creative outlets, such as drawing, painting, playing a musical instrument, knitting . . . Some have hobbies that have nothing to do with producing creative work, such as birdwatching or amateur astronomy. Teaching fulfills this function for me, even if what I teach is writing. Plus, it has the benefit of helping me focus on others instead of myself. The richer your overall life is, the easier it will be to move past any writing career setbacks.
· Learn from other writers' survival stories. In my twenties, I joined the GEnie network, one of the first social media services. Many writers would post about their triumphs, hardships, failures, and how they deal with them all. I also read as many interviews with writers I could find for the same reason. I learned a ton about what might lie in store for me career-wise as the years went on, and I was able to benefit from other writers’ experiences. I still seek out other writers’ career stories to learn from them.
· Everyone wants to be a star, but if you love your craft above all, you'll be okay with whatever kind of career you have. I think a lot about supporting actors in movies, actors who have bit parts, and those who work as extras. When the credits role, I look at all the names, and I wonder if the lesser-known (or not-known-at-all) actors are happy with their careers or if they wish they were stars too, and the fact they aren’t eats at them. I hope that many of them love acting so much that they feel privileged and happy to ply their craft and improve it, even if they end up doing dinner theater or being cast in diarrhea commercials. I think the vast majority of creative careers of any kind are like those of these actors. I would love to be a writing star. Who wouldn’t? But I try to focus on my love for the craft and not worry too much about what size career I’ve got.
· Don't set stupid deadlines for yourself. In my early twenties, I vowed that if I didn’t have a novel published by the time I was thirty, I’d focus primarily on teaching and just write every once and a while. Of course, thirty came around and I didn’t have a novel out yet. However, an agent called on my thirtieth birthday and offered to represent me, so I figured that was close enough! But making a vow like this is dumb. There are too many factors in traditional publishing outside your control, and you’re more likely to fail to reach a goal on your preferred timetable than achieve it. If you’re going to set deadline-type goals for yourself, make them somewhat flexible, and don’t beat yourself up or consider yourself a failure if it’s going to take more time to get where you want to be.
· Aim for a life in writing. I tell this to students all the time. There’s so little about the publishing aspect of writing that we can control. We can aim for artistic, critical, and financial success, but there’s no guarantee how much – if any – of these things we will get. I often use a sports metaphor. Very few athletes make it to the pros or the Olympics. But there are many, many ways to be involved – to have a life – in sports. I’ve had a life in writing for forty years, and by that measure, I’m a massive success. How many people in this world manage to create a decades-long life for themselves focused entirely on the thing they love most? If you can learn to think like this, career setbacks won’t hurt so much, and they won’t stop you from writing.
· Learn to accept the limits of your control. Or at least learn to make your peace with it somehow. We can’t control the publishing industry. We can’t control how editors and readers respond to our work. We can’t control the circumstances of the world around us. And even if we do our best to stay physically and mentally healthy, we’re still going to get sick and injured at times. We need to do our best to keep working in whatever circumstances we find ourselves in, and depending on what those circumstances are, we might write more or less, and we might need to take a break from writing for a bit. Instead of beating ourselves up because we can’t change our circumstances (at least not easily and swiftly), we should congratulate ourselves for adapting and adjusting as need be.
· It's a marathon not a sprint. It’s a cliché, sure, but that doesn’t make it any less true. There’s a reason it’s called a writing career.
· Envy is the writer's disease. We learn by observing others and copying them. We do it as babies and continue doing it all our lives. But if we compare ourselves to others and start wondering why we can’t do what they do, why we don’t get what they get, we eventually stew in our own jealousy and resentment and become poisoned by it. Try to focus on what you do have instead of what you don’t. It’s okay to be a little envious of other writers’ triumphs – it’s only human. But don’t let that envy grow and spread, eventually killing your love for your art.
· What's your bare minimum for success? People tend to focus on their most ambitious goals for success – making millions of dollars from their writing, being world-renowned, and winning at least one Pulitzer Prize. They see anything less than achieving these lofty goals as failure. Instead, ask yourself what’s the least amount of success that will make you happy in your writing career. Regularly publishing your work in venues large of small, traditional or indie? Having a readership (of whatever size) that appreciates your work? Continuing to develop and grow as a writer over the years? Whatever your minimum for success is, there’s a greater chance you’ll achieve it, and a smaller chance you’ll view yourself as a failure. Bonus: Anything you achieve beyond minimum success is an extra gift from the universe.
· Determine what's most important for you: the craft, artistic and critical success, popularity, money. Accept this about yourself. Your priorities as a writer can change over the years. Hell, they can change from day to day, from project to project. But once you figure out what’s most important for you to achieve in your career, the more likely you’ll be able to gauge what success means for you. I would love to be a hugely popular writer who makes a ton of money from his fiction. But evidently I don’t love the prospect that much because I’ve never taken steps toward achieving this goal. I don’t try to create bestselling work. Hell, I don’t try to make my writing as commercial as it could be. I write things because they interest me, I think they’ll be fun to do, I think I’ll learn something from doing them, and I think (or at least hope) that I’ll grow as a writer and as a person. It’s not always easy for me to remember that these are my priorities – especially when I see other writers posting on social media about their commercial successes and I begin to compare my career to theirs – but when I eventually remind myself of what I truly need from my writing career, I tell myself I’m doing all right, and I can get back to work.
· Save good words about your writing. When I run across a good review of one of my books or a positive comment someone makes about me or my writing on social media, I save it. Sometimes I add it to the list of promotional blurbs I keep, but sometimes I just take a screenshot of it with my phone. When I start to feel down about my writing career, I look at these comments and remind myself that there are people who think my writing is good and who enjoy it. I have a terrible time believing anything good about myself or my work, but reading positive comments like these helps me not listen so closely to my own self-doubts.
· Keep making. When I’ve experienced a career setback or have a lull between projects or just feel shitty about myself and my career, I tell myself that all that matters is I keep making. When I was a kid, I made stuff all the time. I drew pictures, created intricate dramatic scenarios to act out with my toys, made my own comics . . . I did these things solely for the joy of creating. These days when I have a setback, I might write something I don’t normally do, like a one-act play or a poem. I might get a new piece of artwork to hang in my office. I might read an interview with or watch a documentary about a different kind of artist – a dancer, a singer, a painter – to learn how they make what they make. Sometimes I think of myself as a maker instead of a writer, and as long as I’m making, I’m expressing the deepest, truest part of myself, and that’s what matters most.
And above all . . .
· Enjoy the ride. Writers can get caught up in all the business concerns of publishing their work to the point where they forget why they started writing in the first place. I started because I love stories of all kinds, and I wanted to make my own. I had so many ideas inside me that I had to let them out. When I started writing with an aim of making a career out of it, I began trying to consciously improve my skills, and constantly bumping up against the limits of my ability could be frustrating. But I even loved the frustrations. But when I start to focus too much on what kind of stories I should write to make money, increase my audience, or win awards – or when I get caught up in the negativity of the latest publishing drama on social media – I lose sight of the ultimate reason I write: to have fun. I write for me, to fulfill myself as an artist and a human being, and to share what I create with people who (hopefully) appreciate it. I write for all the wonderful experiences associated with it – and for all the not-so-wonderful ones that teach me more about myself. And when I start to focus too much on what I haven’t achieved yet, and may never achieve, I forget to enjoy myself. And if we can’t enjoy the creating our art and living an artistic life, what’s the point?
I’ve had so many wonderful experiences over the last forty years of my writing career. I’ve grown from a struggling beginner to a competent professional who regularly publishes. I’ve met so many wonderful people over the years – other writers, readers, editors, publishers, agents, artists, filmmakers – who love writing as much as I do. I’ve challenged myself, battled my own self-doubts and anxieties, and while I’ve learned a ton about my craft, I’ve learned far more about what it means to be Tim Waggoner.
And hopefully I’ll live a few more decades so I can learn even more.
Want to hear how other writers have made – and survived – the long haul? Then check out these books by veteran authors!
· End of the Road, Briane Keene
· Fear in a Handful of Dust, Gary A. Braunbeck
· For Exposure: The Life and Times of a Small-Press Publisher, Jason Sizemore
· The Horror . . . The Horror: An Autobiography, Rick Hautala
· On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King
· Shooting Yourself in the Head for Fun and Profit: A Writer’s Survival Guide, Lucy A. Snyder
· Southern-Fried and Horrified, Ronald Kelly
· Starve Better: Surviving the Endless Horror of the Writing Life, Nick Mamatas
· A Writer Prepares, Lawrence Block
· A Writer’s Tale, Richard Laymon
· The Writing Life, Jeff Strand
DEPARTMENT OF SHAMELESS SELF-PROMOTION
Planet Havoc: A Zombicide Novel
Review copies of my forthcoming novel Planet Havoc: Zombicide Invader are available at NetGalley! I’d appreciate it if you’d give the novel a look and leave an honest review: https://www.netgalley.com/catalog/book/245927
Speaking of reviews, early ones for Planet Havoc have been good, and Jonathan Maberry was kind enough to read an advanced copy and provide a blurb!
“PLANET HAVOC is the best of all worlds –space adventure, military SF, snarky humor, and zombies! Tim Waggoner brings the pain and all the jolts in this rollicking action horror thriller!” – Jonathan Maberry, NY Times bestselling author of the Joe Ledger thrillers and KAGEN THE DAMNED
Planet Havoc is due out in April and is available for preorder. Here’s a synopsis:
Scoundrels and soldiers band together to survive the onslaught of alien-zombies spreading across the galaxy in this riotous adventure.
A deserted R&D facility tempts the hungry new Guild, Leviathan, into sending a team to plunder its valuable research. The base was abandoned after a neighboring planet was devastated by an outbreak of Xenos – alien zombies – but that was a whole planet away... When the Guild ship is attacked by a quarantine patrol, both ships crash onto the deserted world. Only it isn’t as deserted as they hope: a murderous new Xeno threat awakens, desperate to escape the planet. Can the crews cooperate to destroy this new foe? Or will they be forced to sacrifice their ships and lives to protect the galaxy?
We Will Rise
In Echo Hill, Ohio, the dead begin to reappear, manifesting in various forms, from classic ghosts and poltergeists, to physical undead and bizarre apparitions for which there is no name. These malign spirits attack the living, tormenting and ultimately killing them in order to add more recruits to their spectral ranks.
You can preorder the book here:
Flame Tree Press: https://www.flametreepublishing.com/we-will-rise-isbn-9781787585249.html
Barnes & Noble Paperback
Barnes & Noble Hardcover
A Little Aqua Book of Marine Tales eBook
WANT TO STALK ME IRL?
Here are the cons I’m planning on attending this year.
Stokercon. Denver, Colorado. May 12-15, 2022.
World Fantasy Convention 2022, New Orleans. Nov. 3-6, 2022.
WANT TO STALK ME VIRTUALLY?
Want to follow me on social media? Here’s where you can find me:
YouTube Channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCZEz6_ALPrV3tdC0V3peKNw
Wow. Thank you for sharing. Wishing you a fun birthday!ReplyDelete
Great advice here. I hope to implement it all myself.ReplyDelete
Keep blogging, and thank you for helping aspiring writers like me with pieces like this.
Just picked up Writing in the Dark and I am loving it. Do you ever take on students?ReplyDelete