21 May 2018

Sticking It Out


Guest starring Brendan DuBois
Jan Grape invited a guest whom we are honored to have with us today. Brendan DuBois is the award-winning author of more than twenty novels and nearly 160 short stories. His latest mystery novel, HARD AGROUND, was published this past April by Pegasus Books. His next novel, THE NEGOTIATOR, is set to be published this August by Midnight Ink. He's currently working on a series of works with bestselling novelist James Patterson, with publications set for early 2019.

Brendan's short fiction has appeared in Playboy, The Saturday Evening Post, Analog, Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and numerous anthologies including THE BEST AMERICAN MYSTERY STORIES OF THE CENTURY, published in 2000, as well as THE BEST AMERICAN NOIR OF THE CENTURY, published in 2010.
His stories have thrice won him the Shamus Award from the Private Eye Writers of America, two Barry Awards, a Derringer Award, and have also earned him three Edgar Allan Poe Award nominations from the Mystery Writers of America.

Brendan is also a Jeopardy! game show champion.
— Jan Grape and Rob Lopresti


Sticking It Out
by Brendan DuBois


Last month I had the fun and privilege of going to Manhattan for the Edgar Allan Poe Awards ---- or as we call them in our house, Passover (hah-hah-hah) --- and had a fabulous time. The best part of Edgars week is catching up with old friends and making new ones, hobnobbing with agents and editors and other writers, and reinvigorating ones sense of being part a great writing community.

On one afternoon, I attended a wonderful reception at Dell Magazines --- publishers of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine --- and among the attendees were two old friends of mine, writers Doug Allyn and S.J. Rozan.

As we talked, laughed and gossiped with editors Janet Hutchings and Linda Landrigan, assistant editor Jackie Sherbow, and authors Jeffrey Deaver and Peter Lovesey, it was a just reminder of how far I’ve come in publishing. When I was just a kid, writing short fiction at the age of twelve, I dreamed about coming to Manhattan and hanging out in publishing offices.

At some point, some of us realized that three of us --- Doug, S.J., and myself --- had all gotten published by either Ellery Queen or Alfred Hitchcock within a year or so of each other back in 1986. I think the three of us looked at each other and all thought the same thing: thirty years! And look how good we all looked! And we are still getting published in both magazines, as well as novels and other works.

Later that week, I joined up with S.J. and Doug at the Dell Magazines table during the Edgars banquet, and as part of the ceremony, there’s a slide show depicting past Edgar winners, and when it came to the 1980s and 1990s, the three of us commented on fellow short story authors who had won Edgars, had published for a few years, and then… disappeared.


What happened?

The three of us discussed this a bit, talking about these past friends and co-authors, and while a couple of them had died over this time period, what of the others?

I don’t know about Doug or S.J., but I felt a slight shudder pass through me. I’ve always wanted to be a writer, and to be a published author back in 1986 was one of my greatest accomplishments. How could someone just… stop? Give up? Never return again to writing?

And what could someone do to prevent this from happening?

What are the keys to having a lengthy writing career?

Some thoughts:

You have to possess something more than just talent. You need drive. Something inside of you pushing you. Many years ago, when I was in college, a good friend of mine had submitted a short story to The New Yorker magazine. It was rejected, but it was a personal rejection, a typewritten note from an editor, encouraging her to submit again. And what did she do? Nothing! She just shrugged and went on with her life, finding joy and satisfaction in something else.

I’m still gobsmacked that she had done that. But you know what? Her life, her decision.

You have to have a thick skin. Rhinoceros skin? Try two rhino skins. Writing is a hard, tough, and lonely business. Here’s a news flash: nobody cares if you write or not. Nobody. It’s all up to you… and you have to realize that in the outset, you’re going to get rejected. Lots of times. Rejected in creative ways you never knew possible.

And some of those rejections will be harsh and deeply personal. And you have to smile, shrug it off, and keep on writing.

Then… you get published! Yay!

And then you really need a thick skin… maybe three rhino skins. The reviews will come in, and some will be great, and some will be awful. And as humans do, you’ll tend to ignore the good reviews and obsess on the negative ones.

Don’t.

As someone once said, opinions (and reviews) are like certain bodily orifices. Everybody has one. There are a number of fine, dedicated and thoughtful reviewers out there, but alas, it’s the mean ones that stick in your mind.


My trick is this: good reviews come from reviewers who know exactly what I was trying to do in a piece of writing. And bad reviews come from ignoramuses who missed the whole point of my story.

Still, again, you need a thick skin. Maybe even four rhino skins!

You have to be willing to stretch yourself, try different things, different approaches. My first published short stories were of a kind, following certain tropes and approaches. But as months and years went by, I decided to experiment.

You can’t keep plowing and re-plowing the old fictional fields. Editors and readers then get bored. So I wrote first person. Third person. Even a couple of second persons. Then I wrote from the point of a view of a woman. A young boy. A… dog! Yes, a dog.

You need to be trying new things, new ways of telling a story. Sure, there’ll be rejections, but in the end, you’ll be your stretching your talent.

You have to seek out new markets, new opportunities. Back in the days when I first started writing short stories, I used a typewriter. Found my markets via Writer’s Digest Guide to Markets. Sent out my stories in a nine-by-twelve manila envelope, with an SASE contained within. And I’d walk up to my mailbox, shooing away the baby dinosaurs as I did so.

Now it’s all electronic. And there are lots of new markets out there, lots of new publishing opportunities. When I first started out, self-publishing was considered icky, the sign of a loser. Now? I self publish novels that I’ve retained the rights to, and have self-published a number of original anthologies of my own short fiction.

Opportunities had changed, and so had I.

And, lastly, you still have to love it.

Not to mention that there aren’t setbacks, or disappointments, or career plans that founder on the shoals of reality and publishing.

But still, I can’t go without a day without writing.

More than it’s what I do, it’s what I am.

My friend Doug mentioned this at another ceremony during Edgars Week, where Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine gave out the Reader’s Choice Award. He said something to the effect that decades later, he still loved being in the writing game, that he still loved it.

And so do I.

13 comments:

Paul D. Marks said...

All good points, Brendan. Almost everyone I come across wants to be a writer or at the very least has an idea that’ll make tons of money. But very few have the fire in the belly to actually sit down and write something and even less have the perserverance to stick it out after that first slew of rejections. Most don’t really understand how the game is played and, like your friend who got the nice rejection from the New Yorker, move on to other things.

Glad you stuck it out. And congratulations again on your Ellery Queen Readers Award win!

Robert Lopresti said...

Great piece, Brendan. Thank you.

Your comment about drive reminded me of Lawrence Block's wonderful parable of the violinist: https://theamericangenius.com/real-estate-coaching-tutorials/the-violin-prodigy-inspiring-story-about-passion/

So true what you said about no one caring whether we write or not. Two years ago I had a project with an actual contract and a deadline and it freaked me out. Someone was actually waiting for something I was writing! Freaky!

John Floyd said...

Great column, Brendan! And it's wonderful to have you here at SleuthSayers.

You make some interesting points, here. Writing IS hard, but I can't imagine not doing it.

Congratulations as always, for your many, many accomplishments in writing. You're an inspiration!

Steve Liskow said...

Terrific piece with priceless advice, Brendan. Thank you. I continue to read stories by you, Doug, and S.J. constantly, so thank you again for that.

Nobody ever tells painters, musicians, actors or writers that talent is only the first step. Without the toughness and the drive, it won't be enough. And the love...

There's nothing more exciting than realizing you're looking at a complete first draft, even if it sucks. You can fix sucks. That's what revision is for. And I love revision.

If your friend still has that rejected story around, maybe you could ask her to send it to me?

Art Taylor said...

Great post, Brendan! And great points throughout. I admire both your talent and your work ethic—drive, determination, and good attitude abiding always!

Melodie Campbell said...

Perfectly said. I tell my students they need three things: Talent, craft, and passion. They need ALL of them. Talent is the ability to come up with plot ideas. Craft is what they will learn in my course. Passion - well, that's what is key. You have to love writing enough to get through the tough times. It's not enough to have the first two things.

Eve Fisher said...

My husband and I lived in what was then the artists' neighborhood of Atlanta, Georgia, back when it was cheap and ratty, etc. And everyone was young, or semi-young, and going to be an artist, writer, musician, etc. Now, over 30 years later, there are only about five of us who are still doing it. Life weeds people out pretty thoroughly. You have to be willing to work hard at it even when no one sees / cares / wants what you're doing. But when you're in the zone, and / or when you get published - it's magic!

R.T. Lawton said...

Brendan, I first found your stories in Playboy, the stories about the retired spy trying to live in an un-spy world. Loved them and was very pleased when the next story came out so I could read more of his adventures.

O'Neil De Noux said...

Good blog. Harlan Ellison once said, "The trick is not becoming a writer. The trick is staying a writer."

Mary Sutton said...

Excellent points, all of them.

I learned something interesting about myself recently. If I don't write regularly, my imagination will seek an outlet - any outlet. And it won't necessarily be pretty!

Mary/Liz

Elizabeth said...

When people stop writing, sometimes they're just taking a break. A few years ago I received several rejections in a row & I had other things going on in my life. That's my excuse for my lack of productivity. Recently I managed to sell two reprints to an anthology & guess what, I'm writing again!

Congrats on winning "Jeopardy". I tried out for "Jeopardy" at Resorts International in 1992, never having been in a casino before, & was so overwhelmed that I forgot everything I thought I knew. Silver lining, I won $200+ playing video poker & roulette that day.

Leigh Lundin said...

Mary Sutton scares me. Have any unidentified bodies turned up lately?

Brendan, you've topped our list of professional tips. I especially appreciate that you explain why the steps are necessary, which helps it gel in the mind.

Lisa Ciarfella said...

Thanks much for this, Brendan!

I'm just getting my feet wet, having published a few stories recently and submitting like crazy. Getting out there, it's hard, like you say! And I'm starting to get into the game of it.

But yeah, I've had my slew of rejections since starting out after finishing up my MFA...2 years out now and wondering how I'm gonna pay the light bill!

Do I have what it takes, the thick rhino skins??? Stay tuned and we'll all find out....