My friend Vincent Zandri is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling thriller author of more than nineteen novels. This week he announced he's a Shamus Award finalist this year for his novel Moonlight Weeps. His newest novel, Everything Burns, already has over 400 five-star reviews.
I asked Vince to share his advice for aspiring writers, and this is what he had to say:
The Sawmill Period
By Vincent Zandri
Inspiration…where does it come from?
The answer is as complicated as it is simple, since there really is no one answer. I don’t really think of my job in terms of inspiration, since it’s what I do Monday through Friday, eight hours a day (half a day on Saturday), whether I’m inspired or not. For certain, when you are just starting out, you’ll need to feel inspired because more than likely, you’ll be holding a full-time job while trying to find the time to write for free. This takes a lot of effort and sacrifice and those two things require one to be inspired by more than just a cup of Maxwell House.
When I was starting out, I had just gotten married (at 23! Yikes!), and soon we had a child to care for. So that meant I had to put food on the table and figure out a way to develop myself into some kind of a writer. I knew that inevitably I wanted to write fiction full-time, but I was also realistic in that I had to justify the many hours I put in by getting paid for it, no matter how humble the paycheck. That meant taking on all varieties of freelance journalism, reporting, and stringing gigs.
On any given week back in 1991 I might be covering some high school football games for the local Times Union Newspaper, writing a fishing feature for Game & Fish Magazine, and going through the agony of writing a short story for any number of journals like Negative Capability, Fugue, or Maryland Review. I was also working a construction job. Of course, these were the days before the Internet so all submissions had to be sent snail mail along with SASEs to which a half dozen or more stamps would be pasted. During that same week, I would collect maybe a dozen or more rejections (I recall how the manila envelopes would return bent and torn, forced into the mailbox, as if the rejecting editors physically beat the story to a pulp). But that never stopped me from setting my alarm for 5AM, sometimes 4:30AM so I would have time to write before work.
To this day, I don’t know how I survived those times, but I’m sure they took an enormous amount of inspiration, drive, and energy. They were analogous to the young unknown Hemingway writing in utter poverty above a sawmill in Paris. I think it’s important that all writers experience their “sawmill” period. If you can get through that…the rejections, the poverty, the exhaustion…then nothing will stop you.
Today, I write full-time, and enjoy lots of contracts both major and small. I’ve sold close to a million copies of my books and this year I’m nominated for both a Shamus and an ITW Award for Best Original Paperback Novel (Moonlight Weeps). But that doesn’t mean my work doesn’t get rejected from time to time even at this stage of this impossible game (although now a rejection from one house usually means another will pick it up!).
So is it difficult to find inspiration almost 25 years after my personal version of the “sawmill” period?
Not at all. I’m still a fan of writers and the writing life. I’m still a reader and I still have heroes, some of whom are my contemporaries. One day I hope to write dialogue as perfectly as Charlie Huston, for instance. Writing is a craft that is always developing and as a professional writer that entails growth. Steady growth takes more than sitting at your desk for eight hours a day. It also means getting out of the house sometimes for months at a time. Travelling to new and strange locales, upsetting your comfort zone, getting lost. It’s hard on the love life (I’m twice divorced). But then, writing isn’t a job or a hobby, it’s a calling. A priestly calling. Like God, you devote your life to it. For better or for worse.
So the “sawmill” is long gone, but the sound of the blade tearing through the wood is not silenced. I still hear it every time I sit down at my writing desk on a cold, dark, lonely winter morning, and lock eyes with the blank page.
Vincent Zandri is the New York Times and USA Today Bestselling author of nineteen novels, including Everything Burns, The Remains, The Shroud Key, and Moonlight Weeps, the Finalist for ITW’s 2015 Best Original Paperback Award and the Finalist for The Shamus Best Original PI Novel Award. A freelance photojournalist, he is also the author of the blog The Vincent Zandri Vox. He lives in New York and Florence, Italy.