Sunday, August 5, 2012

Survivor Man

This blog was originally featured this week at bestselling crime author, C.J. West's Suspense. Creativity. Action.

The year was 2005 and I was at my wick’s end.
What had started out as a stellar literary career of writing crime novels for a Random House imprint to the tune of 200K a pop in advance money, went south due to a corporate merger. I had published two books that were going nowhere and, at the same time, gotten involved in a ghost writing project that, while sending me around the world on a fact finding mission on the client’s dime, nearly drove me towards a nervous breakdown when it came time for the actual writing. Imagine writing for someone who is constantly telling you, “You can’t write that piece of dialogue. My friend George Bush won’t like it.” That’s the kind of vice tightening madness I was up against.

I was broke from a protracted divorce, without a home I could call my own, no money in the bank, considerable debt, no book contracts, no work, nothing. I had recently remarried and it was not going well. Instead of being a good and decent husband, I spent most of my nights staying up until the wee hours, stressing, plotting, but mostly just feeling sorry for myself. Things got so bad, my wife asked me to move out. I loved her more than any woman in the world. And because I loved her, I did what she asked of me. I moved out.

A couple of months later I woke on a cold Christmas morning. The kids were already up, but I decided I didn’t want to have a Christmas that year. So I stayed in bed until everyone had opened their gifts. When I finally emerged from my bedroom sometime that late afternoon, I went immediately to the refrigerator and cracked open a beer. I also lit up a cigarette. I stood there at the sink, staring at the beer and the blue smoke rising up from the cigarette. I knew I had reached a pivotal moment in my life. I could either slide down that slippery slope towards certain protracted death. Or, I could somehow make the effort to get my life back together.  
I’m not sure what came over me at that very moment in time, but I put out the cigarette and dumped the beer. I apologized to my family over missing Christmas and then I put on my running clothes and went for a long jog on that cold December afternoon.

The next day I went back to work. Since it was going to be a while until I could manage another book contract, I went back to the beginning, so to speak. I went back to the same kind of freelance journalism and freelance writing that had originally sustained me back when I was just starting out. It took some time, but I eventually scored gigs with some global publications. I worked so hard at it day in and day out, that within the year I was working for RT, Russia’s English speaking 24 hour global satellite news network. I found myself writing news pieces, professional blogs and photographing in places like West Africa, Moscow, Italy, Paris and other destinations. I also secured some much needed bread and butter work with some trade journals that specialized in architecture, building, and design. Suddenly, I was paying my rent and putting some money away. I’d even managed to pay up most of my debt. Not bad considering when I moved out of my house my wife loaned me fifty bucks in order to start a checking account.

I wasn’t only writing journalism at the time. I was also stealing an hour or so a day to work on the new novel that would become Moonlight Falls. To my surprise, an agent willingly took it on, and while I was still more or less blackballed by the majors for having not earned out my original $250K advance, she secured a contract with a small publisher. I couldn’t have been happier. I was not only back as a professional writer and journalist, I had a new book coming out.

I was so encouraged by my humble but serious success that I started taking even more time out to write fiction. That next year I wrote The Remains, The Concrete Pearl, and then Moonlight Rises. Those got picked up by one of the hottest indie publishers in the business. In the meantime, my agent managed to re-acquire the rights to my Random House books, The Innocent and Godchild. My new publisher agreed to republish them also. By the fourth year of my career rebuilding and re-commitment to excellence, I had sold more than one-hundred thousand copies of The Innocent and nearly the same for Godchild. The Remains would go on to sell at least as many. Almost all of these sales were e-book sales, which meant the books would never go out of print. In the end, I sold so many books I would have earned out my Random House advance.

Enter year six. With my new sales record and the income that was coming in along with it, I found myself with a new agent. That agent was able to repackage Vincent Zandri and acquire an eight book, “very nice deal” with arguably the hottest and potentially most powerful new major publisher on the block: Thomas & Mercer of Amazon Publishing. I had come full circle.

It took six full years to overcome the hump, or slump if you will, that began with a simple corporate restructuring. No matter what you call it, it still resulted in my having been served a crap sandwich. But there’s a major lesson to be learned here. As bad and personally directed as it all seemed at the time, my situation wasn’t unique. This business is fraught with disappointments and stumbling blocks too numerous to mention here. It’s not a matter of avoiding them since you can’t possibly avoid them all, but a matter of positioning yourself so that you can deal with them without having to take too many steps backwards.

Sure I have the major deal again but unlike the last time, I have set myself up so that I am never without a writing income, should one of my sources go south. How can you do the same?

--Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket. If you’re a journalist and/or freelance writer, try and maintain a client or two, even if your books are making you a nice living. The money will be welcome, and it will keep your journalism skills sharp.
--Don’t rely on one method of publishing. Acquire major, traditionally-based independent, and self publishing contracts. This is an ever changing business and what seems like an awesome major contract today can become a real dog tomorrow.
--Ally yourself with a very good agent. He or she will secure you work should you need it. And of course, they will sell your movie, TV, and foreign rights.
--Take care of yourself. I still like to drink beer and wine, but I never again touched another cigarette after that one dreadful Christmas day nearly seven years ago now. I run and lift on a daily basis and I love to cook good food.
--Travel. See the world and write about it. This will re-energize the batteries and give you a global perspective, the least of which is this: the world and the universe does not revolve around you.
--If you’re in bad relationship that prohibits your making a success of yourself as a writer, get out of it. My second wife saw the destructiveness of our relationship and she made the difficult decision to end it while we still had love for one another and even a friendship. Today, I have my life back together and we are once more a couple. But this relationship is so different from what we had before, that she seems like an entirely new woman to me. And as for me, I’m an entirely new man. I’ve learned from my mistakes and turned a disaster into a success. More importantly, I’ve grown up. And in doing so, I survived the slump.