Saturday, October 22, 2005

Cinderella Boy

A year ago, I did a guest lecture gig at my alma matter, Columbia College in Chicago, for a graduate writing class.

One of the students, a guy named Marcus Sakey, offered to buy me a beer after class. We went to a nearby watering hole and began to talk shop.

Marcus wrote lit fiction, and was pursuing his Masters in the hope that one day he'd be able to write and sell a book.

I gave him my opinion--an MFA won't sell a book. Only a good book will sell a book. School and study is something you do INSTEAD of write.

I also told him that the market for lit fiction isn't very large, and asked if there were any genres he liked to read.

Marcus liked Dennis Lehane, who writes crime fiction.

"Then you need to drop out of school and write a crime novel," I said.

He picked up the check, and I promptly forgot about him. Until he showed up at an event of mine a few weeks later.

"I did it," he told me.

"Did what?" I asked. I couldn't remember who he was.

"I did what you suggested."

"Which was...?"

"I dropped out of school, stopped writing lit fiction, and am working on a thriller."

"Oh. Uh... that's great."

I'd hear from Marcus occasionally, and every so often our paths would cross. We'd talk about writing, and the publishing business, and the importance of self-promotion, and more often than not Marcus would pick up the check.

I began to like this guy a lot, not just because he kept buying me beer. He was smart, funny, and really dedicated to making it in this business. I soon considered him a friend.

Two months ago, my friend finished his first novel, called THE BLADE ITSELF.

It was good. Damn good.

Marcus queried some agents, and got two big ones interested. He signed with a great agency, who went out with his book a few weeks ago.

A few days ago, Marcus called, saying he'd gotten a modest offer.

The next day, he'd gotten a counter-offer, which was considerably better.

The day after that, he had a two book deal and was earning more money than I am.

I couldn't have been happier than if it had happened to me.

Are you a new writer, unable to break into the publishing world? Take heart. It is possible. Marcus is proof. Within a year, he went from college student to earning a living as a writer.

Look for THE BLADE ITSELF to be released by St. Martin's in January 2007.

Look for Marcus at a writing convention near you. Offer to buy him a beer, and then pick his brain about the publishing business. But don't be surprised if he tries to talk you out of getting that MFA...


Anonymous said...

What a great story. Yes, I'm afraid that what an MFA qualifies you to do is teach creative writing at the junior college level and probably not much else. Writers write. Period.

Mark Terry

SPB said...

thanks for your great blog. i have a non-fiction book about to drop into stores any day now, but reading your pieces here always reminds me that there's my thriller waiting to get completed.

your stories always inspire.

be cool.

Scott P-B

Remixed said...

Hello! My Dad reads your blog and he really admires it. He told me about your upcoming book. It sounds nice, and I may read it, it's up my alley, but it does not seem....overly...original. Or realistic. Like the characters...while a General, a Vet, a Linguist, an MD, a Priest, and a lolecular biologist are all fine and dandy it's to set up. and on your site? The pentacle thing? That's actually not a Satan symbol. It's a sign of Nature Worshippers, whose basic religion preceded Christianity by several thousand years. Christians actualy took some traditions from them. Thank you for listning. If you want to know more about that, or my life, or anything, visit my blog, Journal of a Mad Eighth Grader!

Mark said...

Excellent. Now that's a prescription for success anyone can get behind.

thewriterslife said...

Hi, I found your article over at Backspace (very good indeed) and checked out your blog. It's amazing how you went from never being published anywhere into an overnight sensation! You give writers everywhere hope!

Anonymous said...

Great story. Thanks!

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

That's it.

I'm quitting my job and going to write my story of a Kabuki performer and her decades-long affair with a married but gay mortgage lender named Larry, ending in disaster when Greenspan pulls the career rug out from under Larry during the couple's second clandestine trip to the Poconos, when Larry runs into Merv, the man responsible for Larry's very first sexual encounter - in a Pacer at the back of a JC Penny's parking lot in Rockford.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes I wonder whether there are two J.A. Konraths.

The first Konrath is the good one. He tells writers to work hard, improve their craft, and to never give up. People like Marcus Sakey.

The second Konrath is the bad one. The guy who says that self-publishing is good and promotes it on his blog. As far as I'm aware, he's the only mainstream author who takes this position. As well as the position that talent has nothing to do with being published. That it's all about luck. What kind of drivel is that? If it's all about luck, I'll just play the lottery instead of becoming a writer.

Will the real J.A. Konrath stand up?

Luckily, Mr. Sakey listened to the "good" Konrath and not the "bad" Konrath.

Anonymous said...

As accurate as you may or may not be, as long as you continue to post criticizing comments anonymously, you have no credibility in my opinion, and only succeed in revealing that you are a *ussy.

Anonymous said...

I notice you didn't disagree with me Guyot.

JA Konrath said...

"If it's all about luck, I'll just play the lottery instead of becoming a writer."

I'm happy to help you out. Where can I send the dollar?

April Ehardt said...

I don't understand anonymous's comment. Perhaps he/she is trying to note that Konrath contradicts himself sometimes. At any rate, the post is vague and not worthy of much thought. I too will send anonymous a dollar for a lottery ticket, but only if he/she promises to never publish another word.
As for the Marcus Sakey story, I think people in a position to do so (teachers, clergy, published authors etc) should really think before they casually give advice that an impressionable listener might take to heart. I would never tell someone, for example, to "quit school and write a crime novel." I hope Marcus has a long and prosperous writing career, but why couldn't he have finished the MFA AND started the crime novel. Many writers end up having to supplement their incomes with other careers and, to me, teaching creative writing at a junior college level is preferable to driving a cab or delivering shots of Cuervo to table #5. I hope Mr. Konrath doesn't tell every student he bellys up to the bar with to quit school(don't do it, icy vicy. It's a trick). If so, odds are that most of them will fail in the publishing business and, in a few years, will be scrambling for those transcripts and trying to get back in a masters program.

JA Konrath said...

"If so, odds are that most of them will fail in the publishing business and, in a few years, will be scrambling for those transcripts and trying to get back in a masters program."

Odds are, most people will fail in the publishing business, MFA or not.

You want to spend thousands of dollars and two years of your life when that's no guarantee of anything? A degree is a license to teach, not a publishing contract. And what kind of person teaches without having any success in their field?

You want to sell a book, you need to write a book.

Many new writers go to classes, and read books and magazines, and do a lot of research, but none of that is a substitute for sitting down and writing.

As Mark said, writers write. That's why they're called writers.

And yes, every student I teach I tell to stay home and write, rather than take more classes.

I paint a cold, harsh, and real picture of the publishing world. It's not something I read in a book, or learned about in a class. It's based on my experience.

I'm trying, in my own way, to foster a better understanding of this business, how it works, and how to improve your odds at succeeding.

You don't have to listen. You don't have to agree. You don't have to like me, or what I'm saying.

But for my many faults, I'm pretty confident in making this statement:

I try to help people. But I don't judge people.

April Ehardt said...


Have you been drinking again?

"Odds are, most people will fail in the publishing business, MFA or not."

No s**t, Sherlock.

But what harm does it do to get some sort of degree to fall back on? The "cold, harsh and real picture of the publishing business" is that most writers don't make enough anually to feed their cats.

Are you volunteering at the college where you teach? If they're cutting you a paycheck, you better hope they don't read your blog. The administration might not be very understanding of a statement like "every student I teach I tell to stay home and write, rather than take more classes."

I know you try to help people, Joe. I think you have a good heart. But are you really ready to dismiss higher education as worthless?

I'm not judging you or anyone else. I'm just voicing my opinion which, at times, is different from yours. The conflict is interesting to me, and is never meant to be hateful. Sort of a point/counterpoint. If you don't want to play anymore, just tell me and I'll stay off your blog.

What I would rather hear is, "April, you ignorant slut..."

Anonymous said...

I'm all for people getting a degree to "fall back on." I just don't necessarily then suggest an MFA in creative writing. Consider a B.S. in engineer, computer science, marketing, education, or an MBA. The problem with an MFA in creative writing is it qualifies you to teach creative writing. Not literature, not English, not much of anything else. An M.A. in lit will qualify you to teach literature and creative writing (qualifying, being an odd term here). To my mind the MFA is a problematic degree, which is it's so limiting. On the plus side, it does give you a great opportunity to write--forces you to, in fact. The problem being, if you're being forced to write, maybe you should consider something else to do with your time.

April Ehardt said...


Thanks. I didn't know the MFA was so limited. Should have done more research before spouting off. Lesson learned.

The thing is, I actually agree with you and Joe. If you want to be a writer, you should write. I have no interest in getting an MFA, or any other degrees above the ones I already have. Still, if someone chooses to go for an MFA, I don't think I would discourage them. I'm assuming most of the folks who go into a program like that are young graduates, and maybe they need a couple years of strict discipline and deadlines etc. to hone their craft. Plus, it's probably a good opportunity to meet several times a week with other students and faculty with goals similar to their own, as well as guest writers who can give them insight into the nuts and bolts of the business. Obviously, Marcus made the choice that was right for him. Does that mean the choice to drop out of an MFA program would be right for everybody? Any MFA students or grads out there who want to defend the merits of that degree?

Mr. Breese said...

I agree that MFAs aren't very useful in the real world of publishing.

I once read an interview with an editor who said that an MFA made NO difference in her decision to accept a novel or not. None at all.

And why would it? In the end, it's the quality of the book that counts.

Normally, I wouldn't encourage someone to quit school, but I'm pretty skeptical about MFA programs.

I think the major advantage of getting an MFA is it puts you in touch with the "right" people -- authors who can refer you to an agent/editor down the line.

Anonymous said...

I don't have an MFA to fall back on. I do, occasionally, fall back on my law degree.

This is a fascinating thread. I'm an unpublished author. I have a graduate degree. My wife and both my parents are teachers (or retired teachers) with graduate degrees. In short, I know the value of education. I know the appeal an MFA holds for writers.

But if I were in the same position as Joe, I'd have said the same thing: drop out of school and start writing. Because an MFA only qualifies you to teach writing. Which you don't really teach, you coach, but I digress. Would you rather learn the craft of writing from a.) somebody with an MFA from the University of Iowa (the best MFA in the biz), or b.)from somebody with three best-selling novels, a fourth on the way, and many, many years of experience from the inside of the publishing world?

Right, I'll pick option B, too. And option B, not option A, will have better contacts within the publishing world, too (agents, editors, etc). Every time.


JA Konrath said...

"But are you really ready to dismiss higher education as worthless?"

Learning is never worthless.

But there's a difference between knowledge to help you grow as a person, and the practical application of knowledge to help you get employed.

Do you only take the advice that you agree with? If you do, why ask for advice in the first place?

Anonymous said...

The many posts here may be relevant when discussing genre ficiton, but in the field of literary fiction, an MFA DOES help open doors, plain and simple. Most good MFA programs fund their students, so you're not spending "thousands of dollars." Finally, you ARE writing in an MFA program. That's what the degree is -- the whole program is predicated on doing little else but writing for two years. Writers write, right? Right.

Anonymous said...

First off, thanks for the new nickname, Joe. Remind me to key your car. ;)

Secondly, as the very, very lucky author this piece featured, I'd like to thank everyone for the happy wishes and congratulations. They're much appreciated.

Since we're talking publishing advice, if anyone is interested in my advice about this biz, one of my suggestions would be this: Buy Joe Konrath a beer.

This is not because Joe is the sole arbiter of truth. It's not because he's a nice guy who likes beer (although both are true). It's because there is an enormous amount to learn about the publishing business, and the only way to learn is to do it yourself--or to talk to those who have.

It's not rocket science. After all, they teach courses in rocket science. With a very few exceptions, there aren't courses in breaking into publishing. Not ones run by someone who knows what they are talking about, anyway. So when you meet someone who's done it and is willing to answer questions so long as you ply them with beer, I suggest you signal the bartender.

April, while I appreciate your concern, if people are silly enough to quit school simply because Joe told them to, well, then they need psychological help, not grad school. I didn't quit because Joe said to. I finished out my semester and opted not to register for more classes because what he said made a lot of sense. Because I looked around at all the extremely talented writers I shared a classroom with and realized that none of them had actually finished a novel. They all had novels going. Many had three or four. But not one had written the words "THE END".

And it occurred to me that for all their abundant talent, none of them were closer to being working novelists than they had been before their first class.

So for me it came down to a choice--which would I rather have in a year?


Or a finished novel?

I went the latter route.

Of course, finishing the novel isn't the same as landing an agent. Which isn't the same as selling the book. But it is a mandatory step in that process. An MFA is not.

If school works for you, groovy. Just don't confuse it with getting published.

Just my two cents.

And should anyone want a second piece of advice, it's don't call me "Cinderella Boy" in person.

Unless you're buying the beer.

April Ehardt said...

"If school works for you, groovy. Just don't confuse it with getting published."

That, I think, would be an appropiate statement from a published author to an MFA student.

Congratulations on your contract. Do you feel that your undergrad studies and your time in the MFA program helped you become a better writer? You must have learned some things somewhere along the line in order to score so big on a first novel. Those of us still packing away the rejection letters are somewhat in awe of someone who seems to have made it on his first try.

I'm looking forward to reading your novel when it comes out.

Rob Gregory Browne said...

I don't even have a BA.

Tim said...

Marcus got a book deal?! That's great news!

Anonymous said...

I had the pleasure of living right across the hall from Marcus Sakey my freshman year in college, and I have to say that I think "Cinderella Boy" is a perfect name for someone who has lead such a charmed life. But his considerable talent is certainly worthy of such good fortune!

Rob Gregory Browne said...

Hey, Marcus, according to Sarah Weinman, we share an editor. Congrats. Ben's a great guy.

Anonymous said...

Hey all, sorry for disappearing--didn't occur to me to check back after Joe published a new entry.

April: I do think that my classes were helpful, but mostly in that I wrote for them every session, and consistently shared that work for feedback. But nothing you couldn't get from a dedicated writer's group, and I certainly don't feel they shared any mystical sercets. Truthfully, though they were very talented writers and good people, when it comes to the realities of publishing, few of my professors had any professional (read: paying) experience.

Tim: Thanks! I'm giddy. I'm going to try for Twilight Tales next week--maybe I'll catch you there?

Rob: I'm really excited to be with Ben. He seems like a hell of a guy. Actually, I'm with Scott as well--apparently I'm following in your footsteps. Yours and Dan Judson's.

Late in the game to say it, but congrats again on your deal! Do you have a date for A MEASURE OF DARKNESS yet?

Katie: Hey!! How the hell are you? What a strange place to run into you again. Drop me a line ( and fill me in on the last fourteen years.