In 1988, when I was 16 years old, I sold a short horror story called “Shed Led” to a horror convention mag. It was about a horror writer who dies and is reincarnated as a pencil, giving him the ability to possess whoever holds it. (Big twist ending: somebody sharpens him.) I was paid $75 and the story was even given an illustration. I thought I had arrived!
Fast forward ten years. I was now working as an editor at Details magazine in New York City, but I hadn’t sold a piece of fiction since that first one. I had also attempted a dozen different novels, but they all petered out after a chapter or two. I felt so lame. What was wrong? Why couldn’t I keep them going past the set-up?
So in early June 1998, I decided to write 1,000 words a day, every day, until I had a novel. It didn’t have to be perfect, or even make much sense. It just had to be something vaguely recognizable as a novel-shaped… thing. This was the only way I could break out of my funk.
Every day I’d come home from a long day toiling in the fields of men’s magazines, kiss my wife, eat dinner together, then sit down with this brick of a laptop and start typing.
Though I’d read hundreds of novels by this point, I knew jack shit about writing one. I wrote the damned thing out of order, much like a movie shoots out of continuity. I cannibalized whole chunks of a screenplay I’d written three years before, keeping the central murder mystery but gleefully chucking the rest. I grafted on a science fiction-y set-up; there were horror set pieces galore (nobody told me you weren’t supposed to mix genres like that). Hell, the action even took place in the mid-1970s.
At first, cranking about my daily thousand words of neo-sci-fi-noir-horror-pulp (or whatever the hell it was) was a little tough. Especially after spending my work day writing heds and subheds for fitness, health, and sex stories. But as the weeks rolled on, the daily word count became easier. I began to look forward to diving back into this weird world I’d conjured up.
By August, I was done. I had a novel-shaped… thing. I called it Secret Dead Men (after a headline I’d clipped years before about kids in Philly finding a “secret dead man” in an abandoned building).
The thing was, as the kids say, a hot mess. But it also wasn’t completely awful.
At the time, I belonged to a hardboiled mystery fiction listserv called Rara Avis (which is still running). At one point, a man named David Hale Smith foolishly outed himself as an agent. I sent him an e-mail, explaining who I was and what I had done. Would he want to take a look at a chapter or two?
David can tell me if I’m wrong, but I’m 99% sure the only reason he said yes was because of my job at Details. I suppose he figured that even if the novel was gibberish, he’d still be making a contact at a (then) popular men’s magazine—which would come in handy with his clients.
To my joy, David claimed to like those chapters and asked to see the whole thing. By the spring of 1999, he agreed to take me on as a client. I was so happy, I invited him to a kegger on the roof of the Details building. I thought I had arrived! Again!
But the novel needed major surgery. So I spent the summer and fall of 1999 revising SDM. I think I learned more about how to write during the revision process than I did writing the first draft.
In March 2000, we sent Secret Dead Men out into the wild. There were a few editors who were intrigued, but almost everyone asked: Where do we put this in the bookstore? I had no idea, either.
The novel went into a drawer, and I swore to never mix genres again.
Four years later, I became pals with Scottish writer and editor Allan Guthrie, and he asked if I had a novel in a drawer somewhere. I blew the dust off SDM and sent it to him. He said he loved it and accepted it for a crime fiction line he was editing—Point Blank Press.
My advance: well, zero. (I made more money on “Shed Led” sixteen years earlier.) But that novel led to everything else, including The Wheelman, the novel where I didn’t mix genres, which sold to St. Martin’s Press later that year.
Since then I’ve written over a dozen novels, hundreds of comic books, and even a few screenplays. But the lessons I learned in the summer of 1998 remain the most important ones:
Kiss your wife.
Eat your dinner.
Write 1,000 words every day.
Duane Swierczynski is the two-time Edgar-nominated author of Revolver (out July 2016), Canary, Severance Package, and the Charlie Hardie trilogy. He’s won an Anthony Award, a Shamus, and has been nominated for a Macavity and two Barrys as well. He really hopes that when he dies he doesn’t come back as a pencil.
To learn more about the Duane Swierczynski’s novels mentioned in this post, click on the covers below: