I grow old . . . I grow old . . .
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
– T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
When I first decided I wanted to be a writer – to make it not just my profession but my life – I started reading every article and book on how to write that I could find. This was 1982, so there was no Internet for me to turn to, just Writer’s Digest, the Writer, and the writing-instruction books they advertised in their pages, many of which I bought or hunted down in the library. I learned plenty about the craft of writing from these sources, but not so much about what it meant to live as a writer. In retrospect, this makes sense. There are a lot of ups and down in any artist’s life, but who would want to be seen bitching and moaning about them in public? Those conversations were saved for get-togethers with other writers, often in the hotel bar during conventions late at night.
In the early 90’s, I started going to local science fiction conventions and then to the World Fantasy Convention. (I didn’t think of myself as a horror writer then, so I didn’t go to the World Horror Convention.) Writers on panels would sometimes share stories about what the writing life was really like for them, and one of these conventions was where I likely first heard about GEnie, which – like CompuServe – was a forerunner of today’s social media sites. (Curious about GEnie? You can read more about it here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GEnie) Writers of all sorts hung out on GEnie’s boards, interacting with each other and fans, and sharing information you couldn’t find anywhere else. So I made an account on GENie and joined this new online world. Then I found out that GENie had private boards for active members of writers’ organizations, so I hustled to make three professional-level short story sales so I could join both SFWA and HWA as an active member and get access to those private boards. (Plus, the GEnie fee was waived for active members of SFWA and HWA members, so that was a bonus!) It was on those private boards that I saw professional writers commiserating with each other about the less-than-fun parts of the writing life – books not selling well, small advances, late payments from publishers, lack of health care, ineffective agents, writing and publishing scams, strained relationships, depression, substance abuse (mostly alcohol), dwindling careers, and competition from all the young writers eager to take their place. (One of these was George RR Martin who once posted that all us new writers should stop writing because we were making it harder for established writers like him to earn a living. I don’t know if he was joking, but I do know that George hasn’t had to worry about money for a long time!) GEnie died in 1999 as the Worldwide Web grew, and writers set up their own websites with their own message boards. It would be years before MySpace then Facebook and Twitter appeared and writers once again gathered in large virtual spaces to interact with fans and aspiring writers.
I continued to go to cons over the years. Not so many when my two daughters were young, and I didn’t go to any for a few years after my divorce from my first wife because I had no money for extras (and sometimes not for basics). But as my girls grew and my financial situation improved, I started going to cons again, mostly World Horror since by this time I’d decided to focus on horror writing for the most part. I’d long since become an established pro who was speaking on panels and conducting writing workshops, but aside from my networking with more successful writers and with editors, I was there to learn as much as I could about living as a writer from my peers and from older writers.
Which brings me to the topic de jour.
One of the things that I’m currently trying to learn from other writers is what it means to age as a writer and to maintain a long, productive career. As you might imagine, the older I get, the more this kind of thing is on my mind. This coming March, I’ll turn 59. That’s the same age my mother was when she died. I don’t have the health problems my mother did, and I’m not superstitious, so I’m not worried about dying next year, but this – I don’t know what to call it. Milestone? A morbid anniversary of sorts? – has got me thinking about my own mortality. (Actually, I’ve never stopped thinking about it since I was nine, when my first close relative died, and then later that year I almost drowned. Mortality has never been far from my thoughts for the last half century.)
I’ve found myself thinking about career longevity for artists a lot lately. Whenever I watch an old music video on YouTube, I find myself wondering what happened to the singer/band. Are they still making music? If not, what are they doing? I hit Wikipedia and read their entries. Most are still active in the arts one way or another, even if they haven’t been on the public’s radar for years, sometimes decades. I wonder what sort of emotional journey it took for them to get from there to here, from then to now, and I wonder how I’m doing the same and how I can do it better.
I’ve written and published so much in my career, and while I doubt I’ll ever stop writing, increasingly I’m finding myself wanting to stop pushing so hard. Pushing myself to come up with novel ideas that I hope will be attractive to editors, entertaining to readers, and artistically satisfying to me. Pushing to try and get my career to the next level, and the next after that. Pushing on social media to maintain and increase my audience. Pushing myself to regularly write blog entries, record YouTube videos, put out newsletters . . . I think about abandoning novels entirely and just writing short stories the rest of my life, maybe experimental ones, or maybe trying to write non-genre fiction and see what kind of career (if any) I can make for myself publishing in literary magazines. So far, these have been passing thoughts, but maybe they’ll eventually be more than that.
I went to the most recent Worldcon in Chicago a couple weeks ago. Worldcon has never been one of my favorite cons. It’s so large that it’s usually a terrible place to do any networking, and this year, attendance was down due to the ongoing threat of COVID, so there were fewer writers, editors, and agents in attendance. My wife had a number of works selected to appear in the art show, and I decided to go and support her at the con. I signed up for programming so I’d have something to do while she was busy doing her thing. It turned out the most of the people who volunteered to help with the art show baled, so my wife – who planned to volunteer to learn more about how convention art shows are run – ended up working the show the entire time (and learning a ton, so she was tired but thrilled by the time we left for home). This meant I didn’t have much to do between panels, and while there were friends of mine in attendance, it’s often difficult to meet up during cons. So mostly I wandered from place to place, thinking about how I’ve been going to cons for thirty years and wondering what the hell I was doing there. When I used to go to World Fantasy regularly, I was more connected to the SF/F community than I am now, so I was pleasantly surprised to see a number of writers at Worldcon who I hadn’t seen or heard much about in years, people now in their sixties and seventies, some of who had their own tables in the dealer’s room, some who I saw walking from one panel to another. They were all still publishing (I checked their webpages later), and if their careers weren’t what they once were, they were still there, in so many senses of the word. Still writing, still publishing, still attending an event as a professional, still engaging with peers and fans.
Still living as artists. Emphasis on living.
When my wife and I left Chicago, I found myself feeling at peace for the first time in a while. I’m less concerned about where my career might go now – or maybe that should be where I can make it go – and more focused on simply continuing and enjoying continuing. That may be an important lesson for living a long artistic life, but I wouldn’t be surprised to discover it’s a vital lesson about aging overall.
Enough of me nattering on. How about I share some specific things about maintaining a sustained writing career? (I’m going to repeat some tips I’ve shared before in past blog entries, so if you’re a regular reader, think of this as a sort of greatest hits entry, but with some new songs added for good measure.)
First, a couple resources.
· Brian Keene wrote a wonderful memoir called End of the Road that often touches on the issue of the longevity of a writer’s career and on writers aging. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it. https://www.amazon.com/End-Road-Brian-Keene-ebook/dp/B087NF6YZD/ref=sr_1_1?crid=3NDAN0C0SZ3DW&keywords=brian+keene+end+of+the+road&qid=1662987453&s=books&sprefix=brian+keene+end+of+th%2Cstripbooks%2C108&sr=1-1
Now, some advice . . .
· I started college as an acting major. On the first day of acting class, the professor told us the only reason to be an actor was because we had to. The acting life was so hard, the odds of success so slim, the only way we could make a life for ourselves in acting was if we couldn’t imagine living our lives doing anything else. Well, I didn’t love acting that much, so I asked myself what I did love that much. The answer, I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn, was writing. Now I’m not saying don’t write if you don’t have an all-consuming passion for it. Writing can be as big or small a part of your life as you want. But if you want to dedicate your life to writing (as I have) and want to have a long career, I think it has to be a calling, a drive, a need. And that, maybe more than anything else, will help you maintain a long-term career as a writer.
· Take your writing as far as you can. I’ve shared this bit of advice so many times throughout my career. The TA who taught my freshman composition course, Pam Doyle, told me this during our final conference. It’s the perfect writing career advice because it’s unlimited. However far you get, however much you write and publish in your lifetime, is as far as you could go. It reminds you to focus on the process, on the doing, instead of achieving one specific goal.
· Try to focus on creating a life in writing. I tell this to all my creative writing students. There are so many things outside of our writing that we can’t control, whether we traditionally publish or are indie. We can’t control how people respond to our writing, how many books we sell, how much money we make, whether we win any literary prizes, whether our work is held in high esteem by our peers . . . Focusing too much on anything other than the writing itself can be a fast track to misery. But we can control whether we create and live a life in writing. I often need to remind myself that I’ve managed to do this, which means I’ve already achieved the most important goal in my artistic life.
· Many years ago, I attended a World Fantasy Convention where I was chatting in a hotel hallway with the husband of a writer I knew while she did a panel in a nearby room. His wife had published a number of well-regarded tie-in novels by that point, and I asked him how things were going for her. He said that one of the things she was surprised about was how hard the publishing part still was, even after all the novels she’d written. This taught me early on never to assume that a writing career would get easy after a certain point and then stay easy. We write, we share our work with the world however we can, we write some more, and we keep repeating this until we die. It never gets easier. Things will change in your career, of course, but for everything that does get easier, a new hard thing will appear (sometimes more than one; I swear, it’s like a fucking hydra sometimes). Find a way to make peace with this, because if you don’t, you’ll be miserable.
· Remember you’re not alone. Whatever you’re going through in your career, thousands of artists over the years have gone through it too. Some talk about it on social media, but some don’t for fear of looking weak or foolish or ungrateful or whatever. Reach out to your writing friends and colleagues when times are bad. Ask for their support in private if you need to. Don’t try to go it alone. (I’ve gotten bad about this over the years. I need to do better.)
· One of the writers I saw at Worldcon was SF author Ian Randal Strock. He runs a small-press called Gray Rabbit Publications. At his table, he was selling a book he wrote called So You Want to Get Rich as a Writer? with the subtitle Let Ian Randal Strock Burst Your Bubble . . . and Then Tell You Why There’s Still a Chance. The book’s cover looks like the kind of thing you used to see on self-published books twenty years ago – very much homemade and amateurish – but I love reading books about writing, especially writing careers, by writers who aren’t massively famous. I learned long ago that these writers are the ones who have more common careers, the type that the vast majority of writers have, and that makes them the best ones to learn from when it comes to career longevity. As much as I admire writers at the tippy-top of the literary food chain, each of their careers are singular ones, and they tell you jack shit about the challenges of being an everyday working writer (you can still learn a ton about craft from them, though). So read books and articles by everyday writers, read their blogs and follow them on social media. (By the way, I’m halfway through Randal’s book, and it’s got lot of great stuff in it.) https://www.amazon.com/Writer-Randal-Strock-Bubble-Chance/dp/1617209503
· Speaking of Randal’s book, early on he presents an important piece of writing career advice. I’ve been aware of the concept since I started writing, but I’ve always framed it differently, as writing for money versus writing for art’s sake. But that never felt exactly right to me. Randal framed it as writing for financial reward versus writing for emotional reward. Emotional reward is a better term, I think. I try to make as much money from my writing as I can, but I’ve never made enough in any given year to live on. But I’m a full-time tenured professor at a community college, which means I have a regular salary, health insurance, and retirement. I’m lucky because I don’t need to make money writing. I love teaching which is why I do it, but I long ago decided to get a day job because of what I learned on GEnie. Writers – pros whose work I read and loved and thought of as living legends – would talk about their financial problems, how they couldn’t afford to see a doctor, how they weren’t able to put away anything for retirement . . . And because of these financial troubles, they were often too stressed to write. I realized I’d need a regular income if I wanted to survive while I wrote but also so I could write, so I wouldn’t be too unhappy/stressed to create. I write for the same reason I teach, for the same reason I do anything in my life (when I have a choice): for emotional reward. I’m extremely fortunate that I had the advantages I’ve had and been able to create the overall life I have. I’m not trying to flex here. I’m trying to say that if you can focus on the emotional rewards of writing, regardless of how much money that writing brings you, you will always be succeeding, no matter what else happens.
· Don’t accept anyone else’s paradigm for success but your own. When I first started writing, my paradigm for success was having a shelf full of my books in a bookstore (this was back when Waldenbooks and B. Dalton’s were the only major bookstores around) and being able to make at least $20,000 a year from my writing since I figured I could live on that. (We’re talking 1980’s dollars here.) For years, I’d read interviews with writers or posts from them on GEnie that true success as a writer meant writing full time and earning all your money from your words. What these writers didn’t say was that they often had spouses with jobs and health insurance, or they did business or technical writing on the side (which still counts as writing full-time right?). But I also had one foot in academia, and the paradigm there was that writers shouldn’t focus on money but rather on art, and therefore should make their living teaching (or doing whatever) so they could focus on producing work free of any financial pressure. Because I loved writing and teaching, I figured why not do both? Which would I give up if I had to? Teaching, in a heartbeat. I’d still find ways to teach for free if I could, but I could never stop writing. It’s as necessary to me as breathing. My point here: You decide what success means to you, and it’s okay for your paradigm to change over time. Screw what the rest of the world tells you. What the hell do they know anyway?
· I can’t remember where I first heard it, but it was sometime in my late twenties. Old pros would often say “Envy is the writer’s disease.” Comparing ourselves and our efforts to others is one way we learn, but always feeling that we come up short in these comparisons leads to envy, and that leads to all sorts of dark places as an artist (and as a human in general). I struggle with this sometimes, especially when writers younger than me (both in terms of age and in terms of time they’ve been writing) achieve a level of success I haven’t. But I do my best to be happy for them and put my nose back to the grindstone. My work needs to be about my work, and my career needs to be about my career. No one else’s.
· Read reviews, don’t read reviews . . . whichever you do, just don’t take them too seriously. They are just one person’s opinion about one piece of work you did at one particular time. A piece of work that, in all likelihood, is in your rearview mirror anyway. Many years ago, when live video hookups were a new thing in classrooms, the chair at one of the colleges where I taught had arranged for Margaret Atwood to speak live to her class. (The students had read The Handmaid’s Tale back when it was still fiction.) When I asked my boss how it went, she wrinkled her nose and said, “All she wanted to talk about was the book she’s working on now.” The Handmaid’s Tale was in Margaret’s rearview mirror, just as it should have been. As much as writers crave acceptance, praise, and appreciation (myself included), our job is to produce work and continue producing work, however much we can at whatever pace we can given all the factors in our lives. I like reading reviews of my work because I always learn something from them, but if you find reading reviews emotionally difficult, forget about them and get back to writing.
· When setbacks occur with publishing, whether traditional or indie, do your best to deal with them and move on. You’re in this for a career, not just for one story, one book, one poem, one article. The publisher who offered me my first novel contract changed their mind after a few weeks and decided they “were no longer comfortable with the book.” When I asked my agent at the time what this meant, he said, “Who cares? A no is a no, and we’ll send the book to someone else.” When I told my friend Gary A. Braunbeck (a fabulous author whose work you should check out) what happened, he said I was lucky. Surprised, I asked him why. “Because this happened to you early in your career. Now you’ll be more prepared when the next bad thing happens.” And he was right. Like Dory always says in Finding Nemo, we need to just keep swimming.
· Don’t take yourself too seriously. If you’re fortunate enough to have a writing career of any length, the odds are that some people will regularly read your work, love your work, and think you’re awesome. Hell, they might even toss around words like genius and greatest writer of all time. That can feel good. At least, I think it can. I don’t know if anyone’s ever used those words to refer to me, but I have had many people tell me how much they enjoyed my work or how much my writing advice has helped them. And reviews of my fiction have been primarily good throughout the years. But whenever I feel my ego start to get a bit too big, I remind myself that when I’m at a con – especially one like Stokercon where I’m better known – all I have to do is step outside the hotel and no one will have any idea who I am or what I’ve done. It’s actually a comfort to me, most likely because I’m an introvert, but it also helps keep me focused on the writing, not on me as the writer. To paraphrase Stephen King, it’s the story, not they who tell it.
· Accept your career will never live up to your wildest dreams – because they are wild. We’re imaginers. It’s more than what we do, it’s what we are at our core. The real world can never live up to what we can imagine. But you know what? The real world is better because it’s real. Whatever type of writing career we achieve will be infinitely better than any we can imagine because it is real. Which is better? An imaginary gourmet cheeseburger, the most delicious that’s ever been made, or a real cheeseburger that’s mediocre and just tastes okay? One puts food in your belly and the other doesn’t. A real writing career feeds your life. What we imagine can give us goals to strive for, and that’s important, but we need to always remember what really feeds us is what keeps our spirit alive.
· The world will decide how you will be remembered. Author and teacher Laurence C. Connely told me this some years ago, and it’s one of the best pieces of writing career advice I’ve ever received. Edgar Allan Poe wanted to be remembered for his poetry, not his fiction. Neil Gaiman recently posted on Twitter that, for all that he’s created or will create, Sandman will probably be his legacy. I mentioned Margaret Atwood earlier. She’ll be remembered for The Handmaid’s Tale, not the many other books she’s written over the decades. Stephen King can explore as many genres as he wants in his fiction, but the world will likely always remember him as primarily a horror writer. So don’t worry so much about what kind of writer you should be, what genre you should write in, what your brand is, or any of that. Just write the next thing and the thing after that and the thing after that. Find a way to share these things with the world. Be happy. And I’ll do my best to follow my own advice. Deal?
Department of Shameless Self-Promotion
One of the things about being a prolific writer and working with different publishers is that they don’t coordinate their releases with each other (and why would they?). This means that this year I had three books from different publishers come out in the space of three months. Because of this, I haven’t been able to give each book the individual promotional attention it deserved. So if you’ve read any of them, I’d appreciate it if you could help a brother out and post a review somewhere.
We Will Rise
Speaking of reviews, here’s a sampling for my latest horror novel:
“This was visceral stuff and a highly entertaining fast-paced read which was a bleak exploration of the human psyche.” – Tony Jones, Ink Heist
“We Will Rise is a tense, emotional, scary ride and one of Waggoner’s best.” – Zach Rosenberg, Horror DNA
“From the first page on Waggoner had me hooked. His imagination is truly off the charts, and never could I have predicted what would happen next.” – Julia C. Lewis on GoodReads
You can also listen to me read the first scene from the book here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pqQWpRmZRAc&t=52s
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.
A group of survivors come together after the initial attack, all plagued by different ghostly apparitions of their own. Can they make it out of Echo Hill alive? And if so, will they still be sane? Or will they die and join the ranks of the vengeful dead?
Flame Tree Press
Barnes & Noble Paperback
Barnes & Noble Hardcover
Writing in the Dark: The Workbook
This workbook is my follow-up to Writing in the Dark. While you can use it in conjunction with Writing in the Dark, I wrote it so it could be used on its own as well.
Want to know if the workbook is right for you? Check out Cynthia Pelayo’s review at Lit Reactor:
Writing in the Dark: The Workbook is available at all the usual places online, but here’s a link to the publisher’s website if you’d like to learn more about it (and order it from them). Plus, you can download some sample exercises for free!
Planet Havoc: A Zombiecide Invader Novel
Want to read some sci-fi/horror/action-adventure? I got you covered! My Zombicide Invader novel is still available from all the usual online stores. Imagine Alien meets Resident Evil. Here’s a synopsis:
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?
Where to Find Me Online
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YouTube Channel: https://www.youtube.com/c/timwaggonerswritinginthedark