Flashback: The Murder of Stephen King, or Why We Write

Note: This essay was originally published on Oct. 12, 2016
How terrible for his ghostwriter.

In case you missed it a few weeks ago, James Patterson called off his novel The Murder of Stephen King. It was actually a concept with potential, though not terribly unique: a serial killer is reenacting the deaths in a famous writer’s books. Too bad Patterson decided to base it on a real-life writer, one who has already done this story a couple of ways, who has actually been stalked and terrorized by crazy people, and who isn’t much of a Patterson fan.

Okay, it was maybe a little unkind (or at least impolite) for King to call Patterson a terrible but very successful writer. Largely because it’s public knowledge Patterson doesn’t write his own books anymore. If his books are terrible, then he should probably hire better ghostwriters.

Still, this was a tacky novel concept, so I’m glad he pulled it. I name characters after real people all the time, but only with their permission. And while my friends are largely delighted to die in horrible ways – which tells you something about my friends – I am sure any who have actually been stalked would not appreciate it immortalized without their consent.

I still boggle that Patterson doesn’t write his own books.

At times, usually in frustration when sales are low or when struggling to carry a box back to the car (books are heavy) we will complain, “Why are we doing this again?”

And there is always a fellow author to say, “Because we have no choice.”

Because you love books.
Because you have stories inside you that won’t shut up.
Because it’s therapy.
Because it is the only thing you’re truly good at doing.
Because no one is writing the stories you want to read.
Because you love making worlds.
Because there isn’t enough of [your subgenre here] in the world yet.
Because you only get better by doing more of it.
Because if you stopped the voices would take over.
Because just like the readers, you gotta know how it ends.

Writer Mia Silverton told me she began her writing career this year, hearing this advice from Quinn Loftis in three parts: We write because we have to. We write because we are inspired. We write to impact and influence lives.

“I do,” Mia says. “I write because I simply have to tell these characters’ stories and see the truth unfold. ‘We write because we are inspired.’ I am exactly that. Inspired by all the books, authors and lightbringers that have touched my heart and soul during every single year and phase of my life. ‘We write to impact and influence lives’ – I write because I want to help change lives, through not only the characters and worlds I create, but the messages that are spoken within those pages of love and healing. A well-spoken word in the past created a shift in me when the time was needed and I feel called to pay it forward.”

Nowhere in that do you read, “So that I can make a couple million bucks.” And if you did, there would be this sad, sick swell of laughter from the dealer’s room.

Sure, if you’ve reached that lovely, privileged spot where you’re making a living at writing, you write to pay the rent and put food on the table. I was on a panel at some point during the Fall Deathmarch Tour about writer’s block, and all of us opined that one sure-fire cure to writer’s block is a big paycheck held over a deadline. Filmmaker Jack Snyder listed his St. Louis house, apartment in Los Angeles, office rent and two kids in private school as his cures for writer’s block. Money is a terrific motivator.

But… the money is a motivator because we want what Patterson has achieved. We want to reach that point where you can write whatever you want, get it published, and still pay the rent. So if you reach that point… why would you hand off the good part to somebody else? What do you do with all your time, roll around in the dollars cackling like Scrooge McDuck? If you’re so busy managing the money that you don’t have time to do the writing part, maybe the priorities have gotten a little out of whack?

Harlan Ellison once disparaged the phrase, ‘I like having written but I don’t like to write, it’s hard work.’ “Well, fuck you, hard work!” Ellison said with his usual delicacy. “You don’t like it, go out and sail sailboats. Of course it’s hard work. If it wasn’t hard work, everybody would be doing it. And the better you do it, the harder the work is. It’s supposed to be hard. Art is not supposed to be easy…. Art is supposed to be hard. Art is supposed to be demanding. That’s the way I feel about it.”

So I don’t pretend to understand what’s going on in James Patterson Inc., and while I might envy receiving one-tenth of his (or Stephen King’s) paychecks, I’ll still keep writing my hopefully-not-terrible books.

Because I have to. For more than one reason.

Fall Deathmarch and Stalking Guide

I do this to myself every year. Every year I say I am not going to schedule myself like a chicken sans head in the fall, and every year I do it anyway.

Really, there’s no other way. If you’re a horror writer and you’re not working in the fall, you’re not working. With our current circumstances, we’re going to have to start declining cons in the new year, so this is our last chance for a long time to do the cons, see our friends and readers and readers-who-are-friends, and P.S. make a little cash.

Just a little. Sadly, the cons simply do not pay off for authors as they once did. So. Hint. Buy some books from those poor starving authors if you want to see them the following year. Yes, AT the show. We love ebooks as much as you do, but that 17 cents per copy six months from now won’t pay the hotel bill.

Anyway, here’s where you can find me and mine this fall, and I hope you’ll come by and say hello! If you bought a book or a print, it wouldn’t hurt my feelings any, but seriously, it’s always good to see humans.

Just be aware, I’ll also be disappearing into the hotel room to study and write up endless essays and other grad-school-type-stuff and I might or might not burst into a random string of polysyllabic metaphors if you get a few drinks into me.

Sept. 15 – St. Louis SPJ Boot Camp (journalism). I’ll be speaking about ethics and serving pizza, no sales. If you’re a journo student, you still have a day or two to sign up! It’s FREE.

Sept. 26-Oct. 1 – Excellence in Journalism, Baltimore. Just attending this time, as well as serving as delegate for St. Louis SPJ. I’ll be tweeting journo stuff at @edonaldmedia and personal observations at @edonald, as usual. I used to live in Baltimore as a teenager, and am looking forward to finding myself some Berger cookies! I’m not vending, but if anyone is interested in picking up a book from me, please contact me before Sept. 24 and I’ll stash a few in the suitcase. Also looking forward to seeing family and old friends, so let me know if we can grab drinks at the Harbor!

Oct. 5-7 – Imaginarium, Louisville, Ky. Attending, giving a seminar in “The Business of Writing,” vending as Literary Underworld and hosting the Literary Underworld Traveling Bar both nights. I’ll be accompanied by the Menfolk (read: husband Jim, son Ian) and my good friend Sela Carsen, who is definitely an author you should consider if you like romance. Or even if you don’t – she is queen of the fairytales! Imaginarium is one of my top-recommended cons for writers, beginning or established, and you should definitely consider it.

Oct. 12-14 – Archon, Collinsville, Ill. Attending, speaking, vending as Literary Underworld, and as of now we plan to open the Traveling Bar both nights. Sela is joining us again, and I’m not sure how many of the Lit Underlords will also be in attendance, but we’ll be looking for you!

Oct. 20 – Dupo Art Festival, Dupo, Ill. Vending as myself, both books and art. This is part of a chili cookoff that should not be missed!

Oct. 21 – Leclaire Parkfest, Edwardsville, Ill. Just selling this time, and not my own books – I run the charity used book sale for Parkfest that raises money for the American Cancer Society. (Psst. Volunteers welcome.)

Nov. 3 – St. Louis Indie Book Fair, St. Louis, Mo. Selling only and as myself, books only (no art permitted).

Nov. 9-11 – ContraKC, Kansas City, Mo. A 21-and-up “relaxacon,” selling as Literary Underworld with books and art, and the Traveling Bar will be open both nights.

At last I stay home, and celebrate a rescheduled anniversary with my long-suffering husband. Then begins the holiday fairs…

August Linkspam and Future Musings

It was a quiet month here at Donald Media, largely in transition between the daily news beat and the brave new world of freelancing. I imagine bylines will be much rarer, but that doesn’t mean I’ve stopped writing.

My official last byline for the News-Democrat centered on the turbulent history of the Edwardsville and Carbondale campuses of Southern Illinois University, as another president is forced to resign. I was a bit nervous writing this story right before I switched gears, but since both sides seemed to feel it was fair, I breathed easier. If both sides are happy or both sides are mad, you’ve done your job. It ran a week after I left.

On CultureGeek: a review of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society  and Christopher Robin.

On the Patreon:

• A essay titled “First Rough Draft of History” musing on departure from daily news, available to subscribers $5 and up.

• Blog posts on “Freelance Folderol, Part 1,” and on grad school: “First Class” and “Paradigm Shifts,” available to all subscribers.

• A photo essay from the Missouri Botanical Garden’s Chinese Festival, available to subscribers $3 and up.

• A fiction excerpt from Banshee’s Run, the work currently in progress, available to subscribers $10 and up.

On the home front, we spent much of August in a mad frenzy of mucking out the house (which got about 75 percent done) and setting up my office again. It had devolved into a dumping ground of storage, and still is only halfway mucked out. But I have shiny new computers in the Tower now, which should greatly expand my capability to make art and words to entertain you endlessly. Now all I need is time…

Buckle in, because I imagine the movie reviews over on CultureGeek are going to largely center on journalism movies for a while, since that’s what my grad school research will focus on. I’ve had to (at least temporarily) discontinue the Linkspam posts and the Fake News Roundups here on Donald Media, because honestly, there’s only X amount of me to go around. Those are fun features, but time-consuming, and frankly the hit counts don’t justify continuing them until or unless I acquire more hours in the day.

I’ve been asked if I intend to write political essays now that I am no longer working for the newspaper. It is very tempting, and Zod above knows there’s plenty of material these days. Here’s the thing: I don’t know what form my freelancing will take. Most freelancers I know develop a niche and specialize in a particular kind of content. I haven’t done that – if anything, I’ve been a generalist my entire career, hopping from subject to subject from day to day. In short, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that I will still be called upon to write politics, and thus it would still be inappropriate to opine about the issues of the day.

But yes, it is tempting.

Coming up this month: lots and lots of school, more Patreon work as the membership grows, the Student Boot Camp for SPJ, and the annual Excellence in Journalism Conference in Baltimore, which I will be attending to represent St. Louis SPJ. Watch my @edonaldmedia Twitter for the journalism-related material, and @edonald for personal and photographic evidence. As you might know, I lived in Baltimore for a time as a teenager, and I have fond memories of Charm City. I am really looking forward to five days staying right at the Inner Harbor, and will be shooting photos of anything that will stand still. If only I ate seafood.

In the meantime, the freelance folderol continues, the photo backlog is piling up, and the Patreon is (understandably) getting a large amount of my attention. You might consider subscribing

Flashback: Workaversary

This post was originally published on June 19, 2017.

A random thought occurred to me tonight: This month marks 17 years with the News-Democrat, and simultaneously marks 20 years in journalism.

I suppose I could count my career from my occasional dabblings in junior high or high school newspapers, or from the point where I switched majors to news editorial and started working for the University of Tennessee student paper. But for my own purposes, I count from my internship at the Union City (Tenn.) Daily Messenger, which began this month in the sunny year of 1997.

It doesn’t feel like 20 years ago, and sometimes I feel like I catch glimpses of the greenest cub reporter to step into an old-fashioned newsroom. Many of the tales I could tell from those days belong over drinks in a bar, not in this blog. But I can tell this one: I learned more from the editor of the Daily Messenger in six months than I could have learned in years of study.

His name was David Critchlow, and last I heard, he’s still running the show. They had never had an intern before, and they had no desk for me, so they set up a work station in the corner of the conference room. Full of the confidence borne of two whole semesters of journalism school [insert laugh track], I dutifully typed up obituaries and weddings (loooooooong weddings; in the deep south, wedding announcements are not three lines and a picture, folks) until I started getting assignments.

After I turned in my stories, Critchlow walked into the conference room, read my lead back to me, and snored.

The number of snores reflected how boring, basic and summary my leads were, and I learned how to improve them. By the end of the summer, I had my own city beat, gotten Critchlow down to one snore per lead, covered Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Downey Jr. (sort of) and had a part-time stringer job as I finished my last semester of school. I graduated in December 1997, got married (the first time) a week later in Memphis, and five days after the wedding, I reported to my first newsroom job in La Salle, Ill.

Two and a half years later, I was hired by the News-Democrat, reporting to work in June 2000. The Boy was all of 18 months old; his father left in 2003. I was a single mom while chasing stories all over the metro-east until Jim and I moved in together in 2012, and married two years later.

Now the Boy is graduated and college-bound, Jim is halfway through his own degree, my resume is up to six pages long (which is really egregious), and I’m still downing the coffee with one hand and typing with the other every day. Standoffs and fires, murder trials and city council meetings, marching union workers and political protests and school test score analyses. I’ve interviewed presidents future and past, politicians without number, young kids and visiting celebrities.

I’ve interviewed a bookstore owner who couldn’t read until he was nearly 20 years old, and seen crime photos that made a juror faint. I’ve stood beneath a glass dome representing science and religion together, in a boat with volunteers testing for illegal dumping on the river, and by the side of the road watching them pull the pieces of the bodies out of cars.

I’ve frozen my tail off in an observatory with Neil DeGrasse Tyson talking about communing with the stars through science, stood watch behind the yellow tape at a collapsed culvert that killed a child, and watched an unassuming, ordinary man who just won a gold medal in karate kick the everloving hell out of a practice dummy. I’ve played good cop and bad cop, taken verbal abuse without counting and been happy never to duck bullets. (Except that once sort of but it doesn’t count.)

I’ve met the most amazing journalists the profession has ever known, learned from them and been proud to stand with them. I’ve done the best I could for my fellow journalists here in St. Louis through SPJ, and been honored to work with some of the top ethicists in the nation to rewrite the Code of Ethics in the hopes that our “ethics evangelism” will help us all remember our calling when the heat is on.

It’s one hell of a privilege, this life.

Was the summer of 1997 really 20 years ago? I already have socks older than some of my co-workers; soon my career will be older than some of my fellow journalists. Eh, what’s that, sonny? I can’t hear ye…

I wish I had something more profound to say about this milestone than, “Holy Walter Cronkite, I’m old.” Maybe that will come, as I work on my Occasional Research Project of Doom (on the fictional portrayal of journalists) and I am asked to speak more and more often to new journalists and budding writers about the work that I do.

For now, I’m proud to be doing a job I believe in, that I know makes a difference in the world, and a job that needs doing, whatever the costs may be.

But I think Critchlow would probably make me restructure that sentence.