On July 25, 1995, I felt a touch of disappointment and failure when it came to my avocation -- writing. "Because you write so very well… " the fax read, "…it's been a tough decision to turn down the chance to bring [A Sniper in the Tower] to market." Oddly, I was neither surprised nor fazed. After five years, I now understand that I had heard so many stories of rejection slips, so much advice about how to persevere and "pay my dues," that I was prepared for failure. I didn't really expect success.
Few writers are prepared for success. Our definition is unlike that of most other professions. Nearly all of us have our infamous "day" jobs and very few of us really care about writing to make money. And indeed, if you are into writing as an investment to make your fortune, you might have more luck liquidating your retirement account and heading to Las Vegas. As Jim Hornfischer pointed out a couple of years ago in this very publication, a $100,000 advance for a book is likely to yield an income equal to that of about an $11 to 13-an-hour job over a period of three years. Besides, if success for you is money, preparation for that is simple -- find a good investment banker.
Don't get me wrong. I like money. But it would take an awful lot of cash to buy the satisfaction I felt when a colleague of mine told me she bought one of my books in an airport in San Juan, when I heard that sales were "surprisingly brisk" in Tokyo, or when congratulatory e-mails from fans in Poland and New Zealand arrived. Success for most of us is the joy of seeing our names in print above an article or on the front cover of a book. We may try to pretend that being recognized, signing books, or seeing ourselves on television is a nuisance, but in truth, there is nothing quite like being told, "I read your book in one day and it was awesome." That has made up for a lot of money I did not make writing.
I am more fortunate, though, in that inadvertently my real job with the College Board (the maker of the infamous SAT) prepared me for the frustrations of success. Just seconds before a live broadcast on K-EYE News, where I was to speak of The Bad Boy from Rosebud, Kenneth Allen McDuff, anchorman Neil Spelce asked me if I was nervous. I said, "Neil, I speak for the SAT in four states; mass murder is easy!"
I wrote A Sniper in the Tower: The Charles Whitman Murders during nights in hotel rooms during business trips before I even knew what a book proposal was and what an agent actually did. People like me don't get published, I thought. Mentally, I was fully prepared to live with a truly-brilliant, though tragically-unpublished 100,000-word manuscript in my closet.
Then came success: UNT Press published it in hardcover and trade paperback; Amazon.com selected it as one of its Top Ten Small Press Books of 1997; the Austin Chronicle trashed it (a success of sorts) then chose it as one of its Top Ten Books of 1997. The next year it won the Best Book by a Local Author award in the Chronicle's Annual Readers' Poll. Success really hit the fan, at least for me, when Bantam bought the mass market paperback rights in 1998.
My dreams have already come true, and thankfully, they have not turned into nightmares. I can see, though, how those experiences could overwhelm a dilettante. Here's a little more advice to help you prepare for success.
First, be careful and give a great deal of thought to WHAT you decide to write about. If your dreams come true, you will wear your writing like a tattoo -- forever. If I never publish again, I'll be remembered as the guy who wrote the two books about Austin's most notorious mass murderers -- Charles Whitman and Kenneth Allen McDuff. Second, you do not know where your writing will take you; there will be unintended consequences. Charles Whitman was the first to "take his guns and go to school." Because I am an old history teacher who has also researched mass murder, I often receive gut-wrenching phone calls and e-mails from throughout the world after infamous school shootings like the Columbine tragedy. It is not easy being an "expert" on McDuff, especially during a political season where capital punishment is a very large issue. On the personal side, every social event I have attended since 1997, without exception, has included deep, often exhausting conversations of horrifying murders. My wife, Laura, has graciously endured the same terrible stories hundreds of times.
Success has also included appearances on the Today Show, MSNBC, CNBC, 48 Hours, American Justice, and The Discovery Channel. All of the appearances have been gloriously successful, but some of the most thought-provoking questions I have had to answer have come from producers who were afraid to repeat what I have written. That can be disconcerting. Successful writers must learn to deal with the pressure of getting it right and living with second thoughts.
For me, the epiphany of success was the realization that truly successful writers will be misunderstood. Great and inspirational works of literature more often bring about debate than consensus. For example, university courses focused on single writers, like Milton or Shakespeare, are really debate classes where faculty and students argue about messages and meanings. On a much smaller scale, there is always the possibility that morons might use your work, and your name, to advance causes that horrify you. Bad Boy From Rosebud has been used by both pro- and anti-death penalty advocates to bolster their causes. Charles Whitman has a following, consisting largely of advocates who want to use him as a poster boy for what they believe in passionately. Last year I appeared on a radio show where another guest said: "I despair [because of Gary's book]. I don't think I'll ever be able to convince people that Charles Whitman was a nice guy." Success may mean that you get in someone's way. Are you prepared for that and the venom that may follow?
Then there is the Internet. Only recently, I discovered that there is a "Gary Lavergne Forum" on the University of Texas Website. In other, more anarchistic discussion and chat groups, I sometimes feel like I have been cyber-mugged.
Finally, if you become a truly successful writer, you'll discover that about 5% of book reviewers are utterly lacking in critical reading skills and that another 10% don't read the books they review. One reviewer of Bad Boy from Rosebud strongly suggested that I, not Kenneth McDuff, encouraged the murder of drug addicts and prostitutes. During a recent event for the Austin Writers' League, I served on a panel with Spike Gillespie, who entertained us with one example of a reviewer who trashed her work without having himself mastered the fundamentals of English mechanics and grammar.
In the end, success beats the hell out of failure. When your time comes, relax and enjoy the ride. Don't take yourself too seriously -- even if others do. And remember, this is what you dreamed of!
If your dreams come true, are you prepared for success? I was, but it was by the grace of God and dumb luck, not by any foresight or planning on my part.