There’s already a lot of advice on the Internet about how to break into professional writing. I don’t have much to add. In my experience, at least, there was no magic formula or kung-fu technique that finally did it for me. All I did was keep writing, every day, while trying to get people to pay me for it.
But there is one piece of advice I wish I’d gotten years ago: never be ashamed of your enthusiasms.
When I decided that writing was going to be my life, I wanted to be a Very Serious Literary Figure. In addition to all the required classics, I read a lot of books about living like a writer. Using those as a roadmap, I began shaping myself to be the person I thought would belong in a black-and-white author photo.
I drank heavily. I had a series of terrible relationships. I bought a tweed blazer. I wrote short stories that included thinly veiled episodes from my own life. I named a lot of my characters after Biblical figures. I went to graduate school.
And I put away some of my favorite influences in hopes of being more mature. I grew up on sci-fi, fantasy, mysteries, horror, thrillers and comic books. But somewhere along the line – probably in school – I got the idea that these works didn’t count.
Maybe it’s because sci-fi was once shelved in the back of the store or the section of the library where the homeless guys slept. But if it included monsters or aliens, I decided, it wasn’t real literature. I put all that away with the other kid stuff.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I didn’t last long in grad school. A cyborg with used auto parts for his guts found his way into my first attempt at a serious novel. I blew off Chaucer to read Stephen King and my roommate’s library of cyberpunk. I skipped class to go to the comic book store.
The geeks have inherited the earth since the days when I hid my comics like they were porn. The revenues from vampire fiction alone outgross the GDP of several small nations. But commercial success presents its own problems. Now there’s a temptation to add a zombie or two in hopes of a quick sale somewhere.
Whatever the reason, there is always someone who will tell you why your story won’t work. But for writers of sci-fi, fantasy or any of the other genres lumped under the title “genre,” it seems like they’re even louder and more insistent.
They may say real literature cannot include aliens, swords, zombies, or vampires. It doesn’t matter how many times Kurt Vonnegut, Neil Gaiman, Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem – among many, many others – prove them wrong. Or they might say it doesn’t have enough zombies, or the right kind of vampire, to be successful.
Screw them. If you don’t like the idea you’re starting with – if you’re even just lukewarm about it – then your story is going to resemble a mortician’s best efforts. It might look nearly human, but it will be cold and dead inside.
Maybe that’s why I didn’t get published until I finally decided, the hell with it, I was going to include everything I wanted to see in a book. I took an old factoid from U.S. history about a president pardoning a bloodsucker and added everything that had ever intrigued me, from conspiracy theories to monster movies to espionage to politics.
Did the world need another vampire novel? Maybe not. But I needed to write it. For the first time, I wrote something I would really want to read.
I still have great respect for those writers, like Raymond Carver, who pack as much tension into a suburban living room as other writers do with a planet overrun by zombies.
I can’t do that. More to the point, I don’t want to.
Never be ashamed of your enthusiasms. If you love something, write it even if nobody else does. And if nobody else does, write it so well that they have no choice but to love it too.
Christopher Farnsworth is the author of The President’s Vampire, available April 28 from G.P. Putnam’s Sons. You can see more of his work at http://www.chrisfarnsworth.com.