How Writers Should Die

When I first waded into the waters of self-publishing, I did so with two novellas. The first, WATCH YOUR BACK, showed me within the first month the potential for shorter books in the indie world. The second, ONE MORE LIE,became the first self-published work to be nominated for an International Thriller Writers Award, for which I will always be grateful.
And I owe it all to James M. Cain.
Cain, as most of you know, was the author of THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, his most famous work. Just behind it are DOUBLE INDEMNITY and MILDRED PIERCE. With hit movies based on each, Cain was, by 1947, one of the most famous novelists in America. The postman was delivering him a lot of money in those days.
His best books were written in a style that Cain made his calling card: the first-person confessional. The narrators recount their downfalls due to the entanglements of lust or greed or some combination thereof. There is something so direct in Cain’s prose. Spare and unsparing. Hardboiled but with a heart. Dialogue that snaps. Plots like runaway trains.
So one day I found myself sitting down to write about a man with a confession to make, and out came WATCH YOUR BACK. I liked it so much I did the same with ONE MORE LIE.
And I’m pleased to no end that the novella is back! You couldn’t get them published traditionally. They just didn’t sell. They were a staple of the old pulp era, but dinosaurs by the end of the twentieth century.
Now, with self-publishing, with low prices and instant delivery, novellas are back stronger than ever. I plan to make them a staple of my future work.
But even more important to me in all this is the example of Cain the man, Cain the writer. He was riding high when the 1950s hit, but then began a period of decline. Publishers started rejecting his stuff. He became, in the eyes of many, “damaged goods.”
By 1963 Cain was 71 years old and without any contracts. He thought he might be the very thing he never wanted to become: an ex-writer. Yet James M. Cain still wrote a 1200 words every morning. Here he is doing that very thing, on his beloved typewriter, at the age of 75:

Now that is inspirational. And guess what? At the age of 82 James M. Cain received the largest advance of his career, for his novel RAINBOW’S END, which was published to excellent reviews. He completed another novel that was published and well received, then immediately got to work on a new one. He had just completed THE COCKTAIL WAITRESS when he died at the age of 85. That last “lost” novel has now been published by the good folks at Hard Case Crime.
That is a writer’s good death–type THE END and keel over! Don’t you believe that? You’re a writer, after all. It’s what you do. You’d do it even if everyone in your family came to you at midnight, woke you up and begged you, for your own good, to stop writing once and for all. You’d tell them to get out of the room because you’re dreaming of your next book and the boys in the basement need to get to work!
And that is why I will never stop writing. Even if the postman stops delivering checks. 

13 thoughts on “How Writers Should Die

  1. Doing what you love to your dying breath. Next to dying on your knees in prayer, I think that’d be a great way to go. Diana Wynne Jones wrote books all through her battle with cancer, and managed to squeeze out one last one just before she died. She’s one of my heroes.

  2. I think genuine love of what you’re doing is what keeps you going through the good, the bad, and the worst.

    We’re all going to face challenges in our writing life, and it’s inspirational to hear that even through all of his hardship, Cain kept writing.

    I too am excited about the new storytelling possibles with ebook publishing. We have more freedom to play with narrative structure without feeling like we’re sacrificing our audience by experimentation.

    Wonderful post!

  3. Writing is like breathing, you do it because you must, something inside you drives you to put words on the page that build a story that a reader can in turn recreate in their mind. Cain wrote on despite his career seeming over-he was writer, and the words mattered to him. He may be gone but his words remain forever.

    Thanks for writing this very inspirational post. It will linger with me for a very long time.

  4. Very encouraging, Jim. I’ll never forget the mention of Kinko’s in one of your classes. If all else fails,you told listeners, we could run off a few copies at Kinko’s and keep on writing.(My abridged translation!) They just shut down the Kinko’s office in my little town. Good thing we have a new way of getting our writing before readers.

  5. This is wonderfully inspirational and a reason never to quit writing. We do it because we love what we do. It fulfills us and satisfies our creative energy.

    Relatives ask me when I’m going to retire. Would I like to have more time free? Sure, but cooking new dishes and going to lunch and scrapbooking don’t give my life purpose. Writing gives me a reason to get up every day. Non-writers just don’t get it.

  6. My family suggested I take a year off. I think they miss me. So I’m kinda-sorta-trying to figure out how to work the day job, write, and keep everyone happy. This is the what I call my personal roller-coaster ride.
    Well, obviously I can’t take a year off, I’m driven. Can’t help myself but it’s better than other addictions. 🙂 Gotta book coming out in January, so maybe I’ll learn the art of novella and short story writing this next year, as I market the first series, and work toward future story creations. Thank God my family members don’t read your blog.

  7. James Lee Burke just spoke at our Festival of the Book two days ago. He mentioned some famous writer’s advice to try your best to stop writing. If that doesn’t work, then there you have it. You a writah, boah. Burke is always doing some aspect of writing all the time.

  8. I am pretty much always in writing, or story telling, mode. Even this morning I just finished performing an original version of the life of Elijah the prophet from the Bible that I had to re-write in such a way that I could act it out in 45 minutes. Between novels, novellas, shorts, skits, plays, movies, and telling bedtime/campfire stories to kids and grandkids and boy scouts I will always keep doing it as long as there is breath in my lungs.

    And I look forward to seeing just such longevity from everyone here on TKZ.

  9. Yeah, this is excellent. Just hearing Cain’s name is like a warning bell ringing for all of us – work, work, and “rage against the dying light.” Tight, tough prose in Cain’s novels. And J.S. Bell’s prose is pretty damn taut also.

    Strange, I didn’t see the entire metaphor until now, but certainly this bell tolls for all of us…

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