On this month's Special Page:
What do you do when the MUSE calls...but you have no time?
Joe McKinney tells us his story
IN THE "SPECIAL PAGE" ARCHIVES:
DOING IT ALL: Or, the myth of productivity
by Joe McKinney
Not too long ago, I was sitting on a panel with three writers I grew up reading. All three were well known, well loved by readers and publishers alike, and personal heroes of mine. I felt like a Little League All Star sitting in on a press conference with three of my favorite Major League Hall of Famers.
I was expecting the crowd to ignore me.
You know, that poor guy on the panel who has nothing of substance to contribute and spends most of the time sitting there trying to look like he’s not wishing he was somewhere else?
That would be me.
But then somebody in the audience asked how long it took each of us to be able to quit our day job and write full time.
Two answered that they were writing professionally, full time, with no side job to help supplement the family income, within five years of their first professional sale. The third said it took her eight years.
Then it was my turn. I had just done the family taxes a few weeks prior to this, so the numbers were still fresh in my head, and without hesitation, I answered six years.
The guy next to me—the author, by the way, of some of the best short stories of the last twenty years - turned to me and said, “But you’re still an active duty police officer, aren’t you?”
I said, “Yes, I am. But I’m not ever going to quit that job.”
He nodded, but I don’t think he understood exactly what I meant by my answer. I don’t know if anyone in the audience understood either.
So let me tell you what I meant.
Most people count themselves lucky if they ever find their calling in life. They look at work like a chore, like an unpleasant pile of shit they step in eight hours a day, five days a week.
I’m different, though.
I didn’t find my calling once. I found it twice—once as a cop, and then again as a writer.
I’m asked every once in a while how I manage the various demands on my time. After all, I work a full day job as a patrol supervisor for the busiest part of San Antonio. The officers who make the calls, who make the arrests, who keep the peace on San Antonio’s West Side, they work for me. I do the administrative functions that any boss does for his or her team—scheduling, paperwork distribution, employee evaluations and work product approval and procedural clarification and all the rest of it—but I also have to get out there and supervise active crime scenes. I have to get in a police car and make scenes. Murders and robberies and rapes and all the general weirdness that forces a patrol officer to call his boss for help comes to me. It’s my butt on line when critical decisions about what the cops do next have to be made.
For about fifty hours a week, that’s what I do.
The rest of the time, I have to write two to three novels a year, dozens and dozens of reviews, articles, interviews, short stories, blurbs and various odd job writing assignments.
Oh yeah, and I also have to maintain a social networking presence.
And a blog.
And respond to fan emails.
And write summaries and pitches and various business letters for my upcoming projects.
And read, and contribute, submissions for the two writing workshops I belong to.
And act as a mentor for two up and coming horror writers.
And serve as secretary for the Horror Writers Association.
And somewhere, in addition to all of that, I have to find the time to walk the dog, get up early enough to make the kids their breakfast, stay up late enough to spend some quality time with the wife, coach my daughters’ softball and basketball teams, go to swim meets, go to Girl Scout meetings, watch the kids while my wife works late, or does her thing as secretary of our school’s PTA
In short, in addition to my professional life, I have to find the time to be a private person. I have to find time to be a husband, a father, a son, a brother.
Do I succeed?
It may look like it, but the truth is, most of the time, I feel like an abysmal failure at all of those things. I feel like everybody who really matters gets short shrift to my writing. My kids, my wife, my friends. I feel guilty for that, but I also feel this terrible pressure to write. I get irritable, grumpy, down-right nasty when I don’t get my writing time in each day. I try to do a thousand words a day, at a minimum. And when I don’t get that minimum done, I find myself barking at the kids, acting moody with my wife, getting short tempered with my officers on patrol.
Basically, I behave like a grumpy old bear.
Or, as my officers probably believe, a first rate asshole of a boss.
I wish I could say that I get it all done, and that I come out smelling pretty as a rose on the other side, but the truth is not quite as neat as that.
I wish it were otherwise.
But it isn’t.
Basically, being a writer, being a slave to that muse, can turn you into a mean son of a bitch. Doing this writing thing, on top of the day job and the family and all the other responsibilities, is stressful, and it takes a lot of hard work.
There’s no way to varnish that truth.
That sounds harsh, I know, but it’s not all bad. Getting organized and running my writing life like a business has certainly helped. Organization goes beyond simply keeping a calendar of due dates and maintaining files for contracts, expenses, and all the rest of that accounting crap. It governs the actual process of writing as well. I outline everything I write. And I keep myself to a schedule of a thousand words a day. If I do more, that’s great. But it's a rare day when I do less. Even when it feels like all I’m doing is making the literary equivalent of fertilizer, I keep going toward those thousand words a day.
You’d be surprised how such a small daily output can really build up.
At work, I’m sometimes asked how I’ve managed to publish fourteen books in the last six years. “Do you ever sleep?” they ask. I tell them it’s pretty simple: I do a thousand words a day. It’s like that old chestnut: How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.
Organization and a constant work pattern certainly help me to balance two full time careers and a family, but by themselves, they still aren't enough. There has to be more than that to make it all worth-while. And for me, it goes back to what I told that famous horror writer on that panel when he asked if I was still an active duty police officer. Behind it all is a deep and abiding love for both writing and police work. That's the glue that holds me together. As I said, I got lucky and found my calling in life twice. And when you do what you love, you always find the time for it.
It doesn’t matter what your passion is, be it gardening or fly fishing or photography or whatever, when it calls…you have to answer.
Because not answering is not an option.
Joe McKinney has won the 2011 Bram Stoker Award (presented in March 2012) for FLESH EATERS (Pinnacle Books)
About Joe McKinney
Joe McKinney has been a patrol officer for the San Antonio Police Department, a disaster mitigation specialist, homicide detective, administrator, patrol commander and successful novelist. Winner of the Bram Stoker Award, he is the author of the four part Dead World series, Quarantined, Inheritance, Lost Girl of the Lake, and Dodging Bullets. His short fiction has been collected in The Red Empire and Other Stories and Dating in Dead World. For more information visit his website at http://joemckinney.wordpress.com