GIVEAWAY: Shameless self-promoter that I am, I’m giving away five copies of my new book, HOW TO WRITE GOOD to the first five Unboxed Writers who reach me directly by email. I’m not posting my email address here, though, and Facebook and Twitter don’t count. Consider it a scavenger hunt. Ready? GO!
One of the quirks of my writing life is that I’ve pulled down a paycheck by writing about poker on a more or less consistent basis since 1988. How I came to do that is a slightly instructive tale.
Back in 1988, I was an up-and-coming member of the Writers Guild of America, but the WGA was on strike, so there I was, rattling around Los Angeles with time on my hands. I found my way into the Commerce Casino and discovered exactly how badly I could play poker. I mean, they went through me like a freight train through the wind. I thought, Well, this is great and this is fun, but I obviously can’t afford to suck at it. At that point, I invoked one of my favorite life strategies: When there’s something I want to learn how to do, I find someone to pay me to teach it. In this case, I contacted the only poker magazine in the market and – honest to God – made the following pitch: Look, I know nothing about poker, but I’m going to learn, and while I learn I want to write about it, and that’ll be my column, Notes From The Nervous Breakdown Lane. Well, that worked, and 25 years and three million words later, I’m still writing about poker.
One of the first lessons I learned in poker is the one you see in the title of this piece: Never leave money lying on the table. If the game is good, you stay in the game. I adopted that lesson and turned it into a philosophy of my writer’s life. All during that formative part of my writing career, I never left money lying on the table. If anyone, anywhere ever offered to pay me to write anything at all, I always found a way to say yes. Sometimes this created the problem of giving me too much work to do in too short a space of time, but that just taught me how to write fast and how to manage a workload. Sometimes I accepted assignments well outside my comfort zone, but that just expanded my comfort zone. Sometimes I found the work boring, but that just taught me to be a craftsman, and to take pride in my words even if they were only, say, the back-cover pimp copy for old movies being re-released on VHS (it was before DVD, kids; Google it).
In 2003, when poker got really hot, I told my agent that I thought I could sell a how-to book in that market. He told me he couldn’t sell one – but was pretty sure he could sell three. Well, I didn’t think there was any way I had three books’ worth of poker in me, but never leave money lying on the table, right? Thus did I churn out Killer Poker, Killer Poker/Online and The Killer Poker Hold’em Handbook. And that taught me how to write longer works, 80,000 words or more. Then my durn agent sold three more, and the world now has Killer Poker No-Limit, Killer Poker Online/2 and Killer Poker Shorthanded (when I say world I mean world; also available in Portuguese and French). That was my living as a writer then, and it was a good one. I never told myself I couldn’t do it, and I never let myself not do it. The opportunity was there; I took it.
At the same time, I really wanted to start publishing novels, and even though I wasn’t sure I could pull it off, I did what poker players do: I bluffed; I persuaded my publisher to let me take a whack at a poker novel, a combination murder mystery and teaching tool, a how-to whodunit called Under The Gun. In that book, our hero is a guy who’s never played poker in his life, but his brother is a big deal poker player, but his brother gets murdered, and our guy has to get game in order to solve the mystery of the death. He goes from, literally, “What beats what?” to the highest levels of tournament poker strategy, and takes the reader along, too. As I said, I didn’t know I had the writing chops to pull it off, but I did have a whole lot of poker knowledge and… write what you know, you know? So that worked out fine.
I’ve written three poker novels. I’ve written three con artist novels. I’ve written a coming-of-age story set in hippie times. With each book I write, I accept new challenges, and challenge myself to keep growing my game, keeping making discoveries, keep closing the gap between the writer I am and the writer I want to become.
But I still don’t leave money lying on the table. Ladies and gentlemen, I barely play poker anymore, but I’m still writing columns for that same poker magazine, and they’re still paying me the modest freelance wages I’ve come to expect from that gig. And even though I no longer play a lot of poker, once a month I sit down and think about poker, and turn my thoughts into copy, and my copy into a modest paycheck. I don’t consider it beneath me or beyond me. I consider it part of my healthy practice of writing.
I don’t imagine that too many of you play poker. It’s not the hotsky-totsky fad it was a decade ago. But you can still learn some lessons from the game, just as I have. One is bluff. If someone will pay you to write something, don’t ever give them reason to believe you can’t do it, even when you’re not entirely sure you can. Fake it till you make it; that’s how writers have always gotten by.
The other lesson is the one I have purely beaten to death in this column: Never leave money lying on the table. Hustle for gigs. Accept every assignment. Make the most of every opportunity. Everything you write will teach you something about writing. That’s how you grow your practice, and that’s how you build a career.