“A Writing Career: What Does It Mean?” by Brendan DuBois

EQMM is very proud to say that Brendan DuBois debuted in our Department of First Stories. Usually, in introducing someone who has appeared in that department, I go on to say something about how their career has progressed. Brendan does that for us here, and the post should give encouragement to many beginning writers, since it doesn’t gloss over the difficult years nearly every writer will face. What Brendan left out of this account is that he is a two-time Shamus Award winner and three-time Edgar nominee for his short fiction! I’m sure that those honors, and many others, including an EQMM Readers Award, have lightened even the hardest parts of the journey.—Janet Hutchings

Prologue (Sweet Youth With Sweet Dreams)

When I started dreaming about being a published writer (or author, if we’re getting pretentious) I did a lot of writing, along with a lot of fantasizing.

In these pre-Internet days, I obsessively read copies of The Writer and Writer’s Digest magazine, along with the thick book Writer’s Guide to Markets, which came out every year. While I certainly read these magazines for writing tips and suggestions, I was also obsessed with what it was like to be a writer. I saw what it was like for my dad, uncles, aunts, and others to be fastened to a job with rotten bosses, poor pay, and bad hours.

Even before I was a teenager, I wanted more, and I loved the sense of freedom that came from successful authors. I read about writers who could set their own hours, traveled when they wanted, and who were only responsible to themselves and their agents, editors, and readers.

That was going to be life for me. That’s the career I wanted.

I imagined at some point later in my life, I would start off by selling short stories, which would lead to novels, and would leave to yearly or biyearly novels, having a career that would provide a comfortable and fulfilling life.

That was my plan.

Reality, Part One (Dreams Can Come True!)

I started writing and submitting short stories when I was twelve years old. I kept on doing this for a number of years. In my imagination, I thought being a writer of fiction like was attending the best party and celebration ever in a wonderful, multi-roomed mansion. At some point I was getting published as a journalist, but I wanted more. I wanted the satisfaction of seeing something I had created being published and paid for. In those long years, I felt like I was outside in a cold driving rain, peering in through the pantry door, whispering, “Let me in, let me in.”

Then the door did open for me, in 1985, when I sold my first short story, and then my second, and then my third, to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. God bless that magazine!

The door was finally opened, after 14 years (!) of trying.

My long-term career dream was about to take off.

Reality, Part Two (The World Is Wide Open)

I sold short stories, I got a couple of award nominations, and some of my stories were actually anthologized in “Year’s Best” anthologies. I went to my first Edgar Awards banquet. I went to my first post-Edgars party at Mary Higgins Clark’s luxurious apartment. It was time to start writing a novel (still using a typewriter, honest to God).

I wrote the novel. I spent a summer rewriting it, and sent it off to an agent. He sat on it for months. Then one night, when I was watching the movie In The Heat of the Night with my wife, the agent called from Florida. He loved the book, and wanted to represent me. He promised a quick sale.

My career seemed right on track.

Reality, Part Three (The Cruel Times)

The novel didn’t sell. My second novel didn’t sell. I got divorced. A third novel died aborning on my first Mac computer.

The sale of my short stories dropped off.

One miserable year, I didn’t publish a single short story.

My career seemed still-born.

I was working in corporate communications and was miserable.

It seemed like I had fallen into the trap that I thought I would always be available to avoid.

My writing career, dead before it could take off.

Reality, Part Four (The Bounce Back And Big Break)

I wrote my fourth novel, a first-person traditional detective novel.

My agent loved it

He sold it within three weeks of receiving it, and actually got a two-book deal out of it.

My short-story sales started to come around.

I got happily married for the second time.

There were bumps along the way (my first novel’s publication was delayed for two long, miserable, and disheartening years), but I felt my career was back on track. I didn’t make enough from the first two novels to quit my day job, but maybe by books number three or four . . .

I wrote the third novel in my mystery series, and then my publisher went out of business.

I was marooned.

What to do?

I decided to take a gamble, and I wrote an alternative history novel, called Resurrection Day.

Lightning struck.

The book went to auction. It was sold to nearly a dozen overseas publishers, and there was movie and TV interest.

Best of all, I had enough in the bank and in future income to quit my job in corporate communications, and become the full-time writer I always dreamed of.

My career had arrived!

Reality, Part Five (Reality Strikes Back)

Resurrection Day got great reviews, the best of my life, including a gushing starred review from Publisher’s Weekly. There was even TV and movie interest.

What it didn’t get were great sales.

It tanked.

The Hollywood promises faded away like morning frost in March.

My publisher and every other American publisher turned down my next standalone thriller. Only my U.K. publisher took it on, for which I’m eternally grateful.

My career seemed shattered right after it had such a promising start.

My bank account started to drain.

I wrote furiously.

Short story sales here and there.

My detective series got picked up by St. Martin’s Press.

I also sold some standalone thrillers.

But things were grim. My advances dropped dramatically. Only through the support of my wife could I afford to keep on writing full-time.

Yet my career was miserable. I had to fire my agent when I learned that, for a year, he hadn’t submitted a novel to an editor when he had indicated otherwise. Agents came and went. My last one told me that my two most recent novels were unpublishable.

And on one special occasion, having cake and coffee with my book editor, I was told that my publisher would no longer publish my traditional detective series.

Career? What was that?

Reality, Part Six (Fifth Stage, Acceptance)

But I kept on writing.

I could not think of not writing.

My short-story sales continued (as of this writing, they stand at 176 . . . honest!) and I found another publisher for my detective series. I branched out into writing science fiction (my first true love back when I was young) and broke into the SF novel and short-story field.

Things had calmed down some.

My career . . . well, perhaps I was going to be destined to be one of those writers only recognized and getting great sales after my passing.

Once I was at an Edgar Awards ceremony with the incredibly talented S.J. Rozan, and there was a slide show of past award winners and nominees, and we both saw names of past writer friends who . . .

Who were gone.

No, not dead.

They had just stopped writing, for a variety of reasons.

Their writing careers were over.

Perhaps they had made the wiser choice.

Reality, Part Seven (Resurrection Day, for real this time)

Things were quiet, almost satisfying in my writing. I now had an income stream—all right, more of a trickle than a stream—but I was content. Scarred, a bit bitter, but I was still here, and I was still at the keyboard.

Then lightning struck.

A publishing friend of mine told me that James Patterson, the most popular author in the world, was starting up a new publishing line, called Bookshots—novellas of only 40,000 words—and was looking for coauthors. I wrote a try-out, succeeded, and over the next year and a half, wrote three Bookshots.

Things seemed great.

Then they were going to get better, much better.

I did an outline for a fourth Bookshot and my editor at Hachette said that James Patterson wanted to personally talk to me . . . a first!

I nervously got on the phone with him. He was direct and to the point.

He liked the outline for the fourth Bookshot. He liked it so much that he wanted to know if I was interested in coauthoring a full-length novel with him based on the outline.

I said “yes” so fast that I think the phone nearly melted.

I wrote that book, called The First Lady, and then wrote a second full-length novel with him, called The Cornwalls Are Gone. A third novel has been completed and is the pipeline, and I’m about halfway finished with my fourth coauthored novel with Patterson.

My short-story output continues, and I just submitted my twelfth detective novel to my publisher.

As of today, The Cornwalls Are Gone is #2 on the New York Times Hardcover Bestseller List, and The First Lady is #6 on the trade paperback bestseller list. These two books have also appeared on the USA Today, Wall Street Journal, and Publisher’s Weekly bestseller lists.

At last, I thought, at last and finally . . . I have a writing career.

But you know what?

I look back on everything that had happened since 1985, and my career has always been there, staring at me in the face.

I just had to be smart enough to recognize it.

And for those of you out there dreaming of a writing career, may your dreams come true as well.

Maybe with just a few less detours.

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12 Responses to “A Writing Career: What Does It Mean?” by Brendan DuBois

  1. Josh Pachter says:

    Thanks for sticking with it through the tough times, Brendan! Had you given up, I shudder to think of all the quality fiction we would never have had the opportunity to read.

    Josh <— who was, as you know, one of your very first fans, and who remains one of your most devoted….

    • Brendan DuBois says:

      Josh, you’re too kind! I still remember being so thrilled when you were doing your zine about mystery short fiction, and how you printed my very first interview that I had with anyone about my writing.

  2. EARL STAGGS says:

    Brendan, your story underlines the three P’s of writing: Patience, Persistence, and Perseverance. I’m glad it finally paid off for you.

  3. Kathleen Stine says:

    Brendan, You were one of my favorite authors way back when I was a book editor. Glad to see you’re doing so well. Much deserved!

    • Brendan DuBois says:

      Oh Kate, I cherished those days working with you when I was first starting out! Great memories… and you were a joy as an editor.

  4. pauldmarks says:

    Brendan, as Earl says, your story underlines the three P’s of writing. It also shows how the dream and the reality aren’t quite always the same thing. But as you say at the end, your career was really there all the time one way or another.

  5. Art Taylor says:

    Brendan, I love this post. Ups and downs, trials and tribulations, and perseverance throughout. That part about the slide show at the Edgars really hit home.
    Glad you stuck with it—so much admire your work, and you too!!

    • Brendan DuBois says:

      Aw, thanks Art for the very kind words… and yes, that slide show at the Edgars, I distinctly remember sitting next to SJ and saying, “Wow, where is he/she now…” See you next week!

  6. What a great story! I didn’t realize all of the travails you’ve had. I admire your work so much that It boggles my mind that everyone doesn’t’ treasure it.

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