“Writers become writers in their own good time. Some set their course early and never deviate. They major in English. They opt for the MFA instead of the MBA. Maybe they starve in Manhattan toiling as serfs for publishing houses, trying to get known. Others raise families before they bloom. Some are grandparents already. A friend, approaching 80, is seeing his first novel published this year by The Permanent Press. I’ve known others who wrote their first novels around the time they started collecting Social Security.
“One thing is universal, though. We all knew we were writers. It’s just that some of us got distracted along the way. I fall somewhere in the middle. I was 43 when my first novel, Littlejohn, was published, first by The Permanent Press and then by Random House.
“Early on, I knew I could see and feel things that didn’t seem to register with others, and I knew I could make others see and feel them through the printed word. I knew that before I was out of junior high. But I majored in journalism, because it was sensible. Capital-W writers might starve, but when I got out of college in the early 1970s, you could get a job at a newspaper if you had a J-school degree. My parents, who never had the chance to go to college, would not have wasted all that money. To them, college was where you went to move a rung or two up the socio-economic ladder. I’m sure they would have been happier with a business administration major. And I could write for the paper and keep dreaming about creating something that had more shelf life than a 300-word story about a high school basketball game.
“Newspaper journalism does two very good things for writers:
It teaches them to write something. It might not be Pulitzer-worthy, but there’s always another day. Writer’s block is not allowed in the newsroom. It will get your ass fired. And, it teaches them to write cleanly, with a minimum of grammatical errors. That’s a simple thing, but the publishers, editors and agents of my experience don’t have the time or patience to deal with sloppy copy. Submitting a clean manuscript shows that you are serious, that you didn’t just wake up one day and say, “What the hell! I think I’ll write a novel.”
“At 39, I started putting the pieces of that first novel together. I’d known I was going to write a novel for a quarter of a century, and I knew that it would be set in rural eastern North Carolina, because that’s where I grew up. That’s what I knew.
“Journalists live on deadlines, and I gave myself a couple. I’d go at it for one hour a day, every day, either before or after work. (I have never taken a sabbatical and have always worked in small bursts, maybe two pages in an hour). And, I’d give it five years. If after five years I didn’t have some indication that this was leading somewhere, I’d give it up. All writers aren’t published writers. (Well, they weren’t before the Internet made vanity publishing easy and respectable.)
“The first draft of Littlejohn took about 100 days. I polished it for six months. It took another three months or so to find an agent. It took the agent a year to sell it. Random House and 11 others turned it down. The Permanent Press took a chance and, when it started getting great reviews and support from independent booksellers, Random House bought it, giving Marty and Judy Shepard and me a nice payday and assuring that the other things I’ve written since would at least be taken seriously. My 13th novel will be published in August. Other than a manuscript I threw together while waiting for someone to buy Littlejohn, I don’t have any unpublished novels moldering in my file cabinet or computer.
“My last four novels, Oregon Hill, The Philadelphia Quarry, Parker Field and (coming in August) The Bottom, are all mysteries, all set in Richmond, where we live, with a night police reporter as the protagonist. Oregon Hill won the Dashiell Hammett Prize for excellence in crime literature in the United States and Canada. That night cops reporter, Willie Black, appeared when I was asked to write a detective noir short story for a collection called Richmond Noir. I liked him, liked his voice, and knew I could use him in a novel or six. (That’s the other thing being a print journalist has done for me. It has introduced me to a lot of Willie Blacks; old-school guys who drink too much, smoke too much and marry too much, perfect noir antiheroes who are, by their job definition, there when crimes are committed.)
“Being a writer has taken me from journalism to literary novels to mysteries. It could take me places I don’t even know about yet. One month into retirement from the hard-pressed newspaper business, I am reveling in the luxury of time.
“Often over the years, speaking at writers’ conferences, book clubs and elsewhere, I’ve heard people say that they’re going to write a novel when they find the time.
“If you know you’re a writer, I tell them, you will find the time.”
If you want to reach Howard you can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and also post your comments on this website.
COMING NEXT WEEK: A blog from Jon Jordan, the co-publisher of Crimespree Magazine.