A friend was kind enough to gift me with the ever-elusive A WRITER’S TALE, Richard Laymon’s nonfiction book about the writing life. I’ve been trying to make a go at this writing stuff for 10 years now, but I’m a big proponent of continuing to learn, and boy, oh boy, A WRITER’S TALE has been incredibly eye-opening. Lots has changed in the biz since the writing of this book, but you can learn a lot from history, and while I’m a big fan of innovation and moving forward, sometimes things really were better back then. Even when they weren’t, I think they still present teachable moments. So, what are the big takeaways from this long out-of-print holy grail for Richard Laymon fans?
First, write what you love to write. Be willing to learn and always be honing your craft, but ultimately, write the sort of stuff you want to read. Seriously. Hack work shows. Love Laymon or hate him, he always wrote his truth. That uncompromising approach earned him a huge following and eventually a successful career.
Second, hold onto your day job as long as you can. I won’t go into the chapter where he explained the financials of publishing, but I will point out that, according to his notes, ten/fifteen books into his career, he still had to hold down a regular job to make ends meet. Most writers do. Don’t let the success stories of King, Koontz, and Patterson color your judgment. First, they aren’t the overnight successes they appear to be. No one is. Even Patterson wasn’t able to write full-time until 1996. By then, he’d been at it twenty years. Second, their huge successes are exceptions. They achieved financial reward and levels of fame most writers don’t. Seriously, hold onto day job until it makes financial sense to quit.
Third, novels. Fucking novels. Yeah, I know. Those short stories may be fun little dopamine boosts because it’s nice to finish things quickly. They can also be a way to make fast money (depending on the market). Novellas are cool, too. They’re lean and mean and if you’re okay with haunting the small press, you can get quite a few books in print by writing them. But we’re in a bubble, gang. While we may enjoy reading and writing novellas and short stories, it’s simply not feasible to build a career on them. Novels simply sell better. This is why you (I) should …
Try new things. If you’re familiar with Richard Laymon’s body of work, you know that his first few books were short novels. They were fast-paced chillers with characters that were not one-dimensional but certainly less fleshed-out than in his later works. After he got a few of those under his belt and gained some confidence (and after some career advice from his buddy Dean Koontz), he tried his hand at writing something more immersive. The result was a book known as DARK MOUNTAIN (which I’m re-reading now). The horror elements are great, sure, but my favorite parts are his lush descriptions of nature (it’s a book about camping) and moments where the characters are just hanging out together being characters. If you’re like me and you’ve mostly only written stuff that’s 20-40,000 words, it may be worth trying to let your characters breathe and find concepts Laymon describes as “infinitely expandable.”
Lastly, learn to love the word “rump.”
My newest book, EXTINCTION PEAK, is currently available. It has no rumps, but it’s got plenty of dinosaurs and badass women. You can order it here.