Most writers who've been around realize that it's not easy to make it big. Most savvy writers understand that, even a published novel has usually had a huge pile of rejections. A lot of writers try to protect their emotions by assuming the worst. Writer Ryan David Jahn was living the struggle for a long time. Now he's won the prestigious John Creasey New Blood Dagger award, has published three books, is published internationally, and has a contract for another three books. Here's his story:
I came close to quitting once. I’d been writing since I was ten, first in a school notebook, then with a used typewriter my stepfather bought for me at a garage sale once he realized writing for me was what baseball had been for him (he’d played semi-pro ball). First it was short stories, then it was it novels. Between the ages of fifteen and twenty-two I wrote four or five novels. None of them got anywhere. They shouldn’t have. They weren’t very good.
When I was twenty-two I got an idea that seemed better suited to screenplay format than novel format. I wrote the script in three days, sent it off to a major screenwriting competition, and a few months later learned that my script was a quarter-finalist in said competition. I decided screenwriting was easier, and besides, I wanted to make a living as a writer and most novelists couldn’t make rent on what they earned writing.
For the next seven years I focused exclusively on screenplays. I optioned a couple scripts, did a work-for-hire gig, turned down another work-for-hire gig, and came to hate writing. I came to hate the constraints of the screenplay format. I came to hate the movie industry, the fact that scripts weren’t viewed as pieces of art in and of themselves. I worked hard on writing them well. Nobody who read them cared. They wanted to know if they could attract a star to play the lead. They wanted to know how many set pieces I’d written into them.
But worse was this: something like one in ten screenplays purchased in Hollywood becomes a film. The idea that even if I managed a small career as a screenwriter -- and I’d had a few small successes -- I might never see a script become a movie depressed me more than I can say. The idea of that was worse than simply not being good enough. If I wrote a story and everyone agreed it was terrible, then I could work to get better. But writing stuff that people responded to, writing stuff that earned me money, while still failing to reach an audience … well, to my mind, you hadn’t told a story if nobody’d heard it, and I’d spent the last seventeen years speaking to an empty room.
I decided I was finished with writing. I started looking into getting certified to teach. I could go back to school. It would take a couple years, but I had to do something. Writing obviously hadn’t panned out. It was time I faced that reality.
Around the same time I decided to quit writing, I lost my day job.
I’d been working on a reality TV show, the season ended, and, after working on the show for five years, wasn’t called back. I shouldn’t have been called back. I was in the middle of a pretty deep depression and had done a terrible job on the most recent season.
So there I was, unemployed and not writing. I went down to a couple temp agencies looking for work. I got my name into their systems. I called them regularly. There was no work. I went to construction sites and didn’t find work there either. I collected unemployment checks.
In May -- a month after losing my job -- I decided I’d give writing one more shot. I’d bang out a Western novel and try to sell it to one of those publishers that made their money with the library market. I got fifteen thousand words into it when my hard drive crashed and I lost my work.
Well, that seemed like a pretty definite sign. I really was finished now.
Except I wasn’t.
Three months later I started a different novel. A novel I wanted to write. I didn’t think much about whether it had a chance of selling. I didn’t have to. I was writing this one simply because I wanted to write it. I had quit trying to write for a market. This was just something I was doing because I loved doing it. I was writing it as I had written my earliest stories, out of the sheer pleasure of creating a world on paper.
It felt better than anything had felt in years. It felt right. It felt like the first drink of water after a long hike through the desert. This is what I had been missing for years without even realizing it. At some point I had begun to focus on the wrong things.
I finished the first draft before the end of September. I finished a draft I was happy with by early December. I decided I liked it well enough to try to find a publisher for it after all. I thought it had more life in it than anything I’d written in a long time.
A month later, on January 8, I was offered a contract. The book came out eleven months after that. My second novel came out seven months after that. My third novel is scheduled for release in July next year. And I’ve just signed a contracted for three more books.
The best career decision I ever made was to stop trying to have a career and instead to once more, as I had as a teenager, write for myself.
Ryan David Jahn
Ryan David Jahn is the author of the award-winning Acts of Violence, soon to be released in Germany (February 28) as Ein Akt der Gewalt and in the US (May 31) as Good Neighbors. Both are currently available for pre-order. His second novel, Low Life, is now available in UK hardcover. Watch for the UK Release of his third book, The Dispatcher.