It’s No Mystery

How can you become a critically acclaimed, groundbreaking, must-read novelist like me? Talent is the least of your worries.

MAY IS TEXAS WRITERS MONTH, and trust me, that’s no oxymoron. We have many fine writers in Texas and, quite possibly, even a few great ones. The problem is, we’re not sure who they are. When a young person tells me he or she wants to be a writer, I always ask the same question: “Have you explored a career at Starbucks?” A writer’s life is hard work, the hours are long, and the retirement policy is to drink yourself to death. And that’s if you’re successful. If you fail, you suffer an even more unpleasant fate. You might live a heartbreakingly obscure, tragically lonely existence only to become famous long after you’re worm bait. As J. R. R. Tolkien remarked rather bitterly to Herman Melville at a recent screenwriters seminar in heaven: “ Now Hollywood discovers me.”

If you’re really determined to be a writer, however, nothing anyone can say or do will stop you. A good example of this is my friend and fellow mystery writer Stephen King, who was T-boned by a van three years ago but flatly (no pun intended) refused to die. As Flaubert would have said, King fiercely wanted to live in order to dump a few more buckets of horse manure upon mankind. I haven’t run into Steve myself lately, but he should serve as a, well, shining example to all aspiring young writers. Here are a few other tips that might maximize your chances of catapulting your masterpiece onto the best-seller list.

1. Find a catchy title. If you’re writing a thriller, you may want to use the word “kill.” Possible titles you could consider are Kill Two Birds and Get Stoned or The Cat Who Killed Christ. If you’re writing a more philosophical book, you might run with something like Chicken Soup for John Grisham’s Soul . At any rate, find a good title and stick with it. Believe me, that’s half the battle. The other half is finding a bad tailor.

2. Always try to write about what you know. Let’s assume you’re a black Jewish lesbian midget who likes to go grizzly bear hunting in Alaska. Now, you might say: “Who would be interested in my boring, conventional, humdrum existence?” Ah, but you’d be wrong. Someday they might even make a life out of your movie. In writing, it’s all a matter of inward turning. If you look deep enough inside yourself, pretty soon you’ll see everybody else. To paraphrase John Steinbeck, we’re all just part of one big soul.

3. Every drunk is not a poet, they say, but drinking does seem to help. Over the past fifty years the people who have won the Nobel prize for literature have often been so high when they received the award that they’ve needed a hook-and-ladder truck to scratch their thesauruses. So it makes sense to alter your lifestyle radically. You should also feel free to cultivate paranoia, self-pity, and despair. (There are lots of things to despair over if you just stop to think for a moment.) Remember, the unhappier you are, the better you’ll write. So fight happiness at every turn. In fact, most of our Great Armenian Novels were written by drunken no-hopers who were struggling to pay the rent. If you’re a playwright, you might even try titling your play Rent.

4. One of the hardest things about being a writer is selecting a genre and then remembering to use the word “genre” as often as possible in your interviews. As a mystery writer, I have drawn inspiration from the great Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the man who gave us Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, two characters who maintained the most enduring latent homosexual relationship in all of literature. Holmes once observed, “What you do in this world is a matter of no consequence. The question is what can you make people believe you have done.” In other words, great artists never reveal their methods. If you stumble upon a great artist someday lying in a gutter or sleeping under a bridge, the most he will probably ever tell you is that talent is its own reward.

5. Learn to handle your editors and agents. An editor’s job is to take something great and make it good. Always agree with your editor, then proceed to do whatever the hell you want. Chances are he’ll never know the difference. My current editor, it just so happens, is the man who discovered Tom Clancy. Shortly after that, unfortunately, he discovered Chivas Regal. Agents, of course, are a whole different talk show. It took Tennessee Williams 32 years to fire his agent. It took me only 15, but I’ve been diagnosed with attention-deficit disorder. An agent is usually a taker in a giver’s body. For instance, a writer in Hollywood came home one day and found that his house had burned down. He asked his neighbor what had happened, and the neighbor told him, “Your agent came by, assaulted your wife, shot your dog, and torched the house.” As the writer stumbled through the ashes, all he could say was, “Really, my agent came by?”

If everything works out, of course, you’ll have to learn how to deal with fame. Hemingway called it a “whore,” and he also called it “death’s little sister.” I don’t know about that, but I have noticed they’ve raised the price of fame. The only thing we know for certain is that fame is fleeting. Larry McMurtry once told me a story about the time he stayed at the Holiday Inn in Uvalde. When he arrived at the hotel, he was pleased to see in large letters on the marquee: “Welcome Larry McMurtry. Author of Terms of Endearment.” The next morning, he learned that he’d won the Pulitzer prize for Lonesome Dove. He went out for a few hours, then returned to the hotel. The sign now read, “Lunch special. Catfish—$3.99.”

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