No. Not just books.
I quit my job as a journalist to go write novels.
Now, given the current condition of the newspaper industry, that probably makes me look like a genius to some, as though I ought to be waxing rhapsodic on the eve of my debut novel's publication. ["Boon" is available in stores and online. View the trailer at YouTube, read an excerpt, or visit WhatTheBoon.com.]
Indeed, several newspaper friends have inquired in recent weeks as to how they might do the same thing. How, they ask, does a journalist becomes a novelist?
I've written and rewritten the answer to that question at least 100 different ways in the past week, all of which amounted to very poetic piles of steaming horseshit.
You want to know how? My answer is "no."
Few journalists have ever accomplished anything worthwhile without first hearing "no" -- No, you can't talk to him ... No, you can't have that document ... No, you aren't allowed -- so that's my answer.
When I started down this road, back in 2004, my life was good. I'd been a journalist for 15 years, more than half of which I'd spent writing for a growing, mid-sized newspaper in suburban Los Angeles. It was a dream job, well, as close as I was going to get to a dream job in journalism anyway, and the only job I wanted at that particular paper, a position that allowed me to spend weeks at a time researching and writing in-depth stories, but with enough flexibility to also dive into bigger news events as they occurred -- murders, manhunts, wildfires. Sure, if The New York Times had rung me up and invited me to come work for them, I'd have gone, but the only reason anyone from that paper ever called was to pitch a subscription special, and, well, I was OK with that.
The trouble was, I never intended to spend my life working for newspapers.
The only reason I got into it was because newspapering was the route most of my favorite writers took -- Twain, Hemingway, Thompson. Journalism was a way to see the world, or, at least, more than I would have seen otherwise. Writing for a newspaper provided me the kind of access no amount of money could buy, not that I had any money to begin with. I met heads of state, royalty, saintly people, and heartless scoundrels. I heard tales of tragedy, loss, and redemption straight from those who'd experienced it, and sometimes I even saw an injustice put right because the newspaper published a story about it. My experience was no more remarkable than any other reporter's, but I loved it, all of it, even the hate mail and the threats, which I quickly learned to interpret as indicators that I was doing the right thing.
But, then, one day I just woke to the realization that I'd stayed too long.
The newsroom reaction to my departure was mixed. Some of my colleagues were very supportive, while others treated me like a silly heart, as though the pressure had finally gotten to me, their well wishes the sort of sweet nothings you'd expect to see inscribed on Valentine candies.
My sources in government circles shared with me the wildest explanations they'd heard, gossip about how I'd finally stepped on the toes of some pol powerful enough to demand my dismissal. A few even offered to speak to my boss on my behalf, in defense of my job. A book? Even they could have made up a better excuse than that.
The most frank assessment came from one of my favorite editors, who, I'm glad to say, is still a good friend. She called the move "a mistake."
It was the most wonderful thing anyone could have said to me.
It was the same as saying "no."
No, you can't have that. No, you can't go in there. No, you're not on the list.
So, how does a journalist become a novelist? There's not much in the how-to realm of writing that hasn't already been said so many times in so many books that bookstores dedicate entire sections to the issue. About all I can add is what you're bound to hear thousands of times before, during, and after writing your first damn book:
No, you can't do it. No, you'll never do it. No, don't even try.