Every writer’s literary journey is unique. Childhood, education, religion, political affiliation … Quoting Pink Floyd, “All you touch and all you see, is all your life will ever be.” That sentiment tends to be the gospel for wordsmiths of every description.
Your life experiences play a big role (perhaps the biggest role) in how you write. As for what you write, that’s an entirely different cauldron of spells.
In my case, I always knew I wanted to be a writer. From my earliest memories of cracking into books like Treasure Island, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Journey to the Center of the Earth—the idea of turning blank pages into amazing worlds filled with interesting and unusual characters embarking on all sorts of wild adventures—I simply couldn’t imagine doing anything else with my life. But wanting to be a writer and actually becoming one—and getting paid to do so, no less—is far more difficult than it sounds. It’s a painstaking process that takes time, effort, imagination, and a little bit of luck.
Well, okay, maybe more than a little ...
After all, you could be the greatest writer on the planet, but unless someone reads your work—and offers you money for it—it’s more valuable as a drink coaster or birdcage liner, assuming you printed it out. Otherwise, it’s merely words in a computer memory bank.
When I was just starting out, I was totally clueless about how to break in. The idea of parking my butt in a chair for an ungodly number of hours to create a manuscript of any real worth seemed daunting. And even if I committed to that process, and the stars aligned to land a deal, I still had to do something in the meantime to pay the bills.
That was the mid-90s, and my literary idol was Hunter S. Thompson, the father of gonzo journalism. I figured I could follow Hunter’s lead (minus the prodigious quantities of drugs and booze) and write for magazines, earning a paycheck while honing my craft, and work my way up to the skill and dedication required to, hopefully, take my literary career to the next level.
That led to the $64,000 question: what the hell could I write about?
Due to a rather odd twist of fate, I was exposed to firearms, weaponry and self-defense tactics at an early age. Fortuitous as this exposure was considering the path my literary career would ultimately follow, explaining the reasons in full detail would require far more words than I’m allotted. Cutting to the quick, my “Dark Arts” sensei was a man by the name of Jonathan Keith Idema, who would eventually become known on a global scale for all the wrong reasons. Look him up—it’ll save me the trouble of explaining. Idema’s intensive tutorial, schooling me in everything from taking out muggers, to surviving a zombie apocalypse, not only introduced me to guns and other implements of destruction, but to the people whose lives depended on them.
Just as one falling domino will topple another, before long I was taking part in all sorts of high-octane adventures, the majority having nothing to do with guns or weaponry. Swimming with great white sharks sans cage, jumping out of planes sans parachute, playing poker with cartel kingpins sans sanity—I was just stupid enough to think I was invincible, and my unusual skillset made be believe I could handle whatever came my way. Chronicling these insane escapades for hip men’s lifestyle magazines (Maxim, Stuff, Razor, Playboy, Penthouse, etc.), when editors had a story idea that could get a journalist maimed or killed, I was the first scribe they pitched.
One day I got a call from Keith Blanchard, editor of Maxim, asking me if I knew any mercenaries. Soldiers of fortune. Warfighters who played for pay. Turns out I did—the very man who taught me to shoot. Blanchard wanted an in-depth merc story worthy of a cover feature, and that’s exactly what I gave him. A few months later, I was on the Dark Continent with Idema, living out a real-life excerpt of The Most Dangerous Game, hunting “prey” that could shoot back: poachers.
We’ve all seen graphic photos of poaching aftermath: elephants slaughtered for their ivory; rhinos killed for their horns, which are ground into “virility powder” and sold in apothecaries throughout Asia; giraffes slain for their patterned hides; gorillas murdered just so their paws can be turned into ashtrays. It’s a horror show on a colossal scale.
So, I joined Idema and his guided hunt “clients,” and the story I would ultimately write, "The Death Dealer," became a feature in Maxim’s September 1998 issue, with Christina Applegate on the cover.
Within days of the issue hitting the newsstands, my phone was ringing off the hook. CAA rep’d Maxim back in the day, and a slew of movers and shakers (Oliver Stone and Chris McQuarrie among them) were interested in buying the story rights. I was over-the-moon excited, but I was also more than a little overwhelmed. This whole process was new to me. Agents, producers, directors … I knew less than nada about this world.
But the reaction to that story opened my eyes to the potential, and I spent the next few years concentrating on writing articles that I believed would have Hollywood appeal—either a story that could go the biopic route, or one that could be a concept template for a series or feature film.
As everyone knows, you can’t copyright an idea. But the ability to mine a true story for all its details is the reason why industry players go through the trouble and expense of purchasing the rights to books, comics, graphic novels, and newspaper and magazine articles.
For writers looking to crack the door on Hollywood, this is a “best of both worlds” scenario. First and foremost, it’s a paycheck—for the article itself, and the much bigger payday for its TV and/or film rights. But more valuable than payment for the article are the connections you can make along the way. Producers, directors, agents—these are the people you want to know. Scratch that—these are the people you need to know if you plan on having a literary career in Tinseltown. Granted, selling an article’s story rights isn’t in the same universe as selling a screenplay, but it’s a start—and a damn good one at that.
Although print publications are disappearing faster than Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene’s mental health, the Internet is chock full of websites and e-zines, all of which are always starving for content. Choose topics you have legit expert knowledge of, or at least those on which you can write authoritatively (and are well versed in the associated verbiage), and then look for an angle that lends itself to a film or television series.
Think about movies and shows you like to watch, or those that garner high ratings and big box office receipts, and then research real happenings or noteworthy people in those arenas. Who knows? Maybe you’ll not only pen a great story, but when it comes time to sell the rights, you’ll pass on the quick cash, transform your article into a screenplay, and then celebrate in high style after that script wins Script Pipeline’s screenwriting competition, lands you a top agent, and sells in a bidding war for a record-breaking sum. This is Hollywood—dreams can come true!
*Feature photo by Harrison Haines (Pexels)