What Writing About Taxes Taught Me About Writing Fiction

Here, then, a guest post by my alpha clone, Dan O’Shea, whose newest thriller, Greed, is out now. You should check it out. Or I’ll send dogs to eat you.

Chuck was kind enough to lend me his blog again to pitch my new book, GREED. I’d already done Chuck’s Ten Questions thing for my debut novel, PENANCE. Didn’t seem to make sense to answer the same questions again. I can give you the elevator pitch – it’s a thriller, set in Chicago. It’s got blood diamonds and coke dealers and mafia dons and terrorists and mysterious three-letter agency types and regular cops and refugees and someone who’s not quite a nun.

But that’s not much of a blog post. So I thought I’d pontificate a bit, offer you young punks some life lessons.

There’s this line I use when in my author bio: Dan O’Shea has been a business and financial writer for more than 30 years. Three decades of writing about the tax code have driven him to write about killing people.

True enough as far as it goes, but lessons were learned.

See, here’s the thing. For a guy with only his second book out, I’m an old fart – in my fifties, and never mind how far in you little shits. I’ve done the confessional posts already, how I wasted way too many years writing for a living without writing what I really wanted to write. You want one lesson you can take to the bank? You want to be a writer, just write. Is that all there is to it? No. Talent’s involved. You can learn, sure, but there has to be some kind of base there, an aptitude for language, some intuition about storytelling. But you’re born with all the talent you’re going to get. Once they’ve wiped off the afterbirth, the rest of it’s on you. Every minute you spend with your ass in the chair and your fingers on the keyboard is a minute you’re getting better. Every minute you don’t is a minute you aren’t. No guarantees, of course. Doesn’t mean you’re getting published, doesn’t mean you’re getting famous, doesn’t mean you’re getting rich. Just means you’re getting better.

And I’ve had my ass in the chair and my fingers on the keyboard since before a lot of you were born. OK, most of that time I was writing about how transfer pricing issues and repatriated income concerns should shape tax strategies for businesses with off-shore operations. Or about how companies that don’t leverage cost accounting and their ERP systems to develop a metrics dashboard for KPIs aren’t getting the most from their IT investment. Exciting shit like that.

But what I said about getting better? It still applied. Here’s how.

I learned that everything is a story. There should always be a narrative arc. That shit about transfer pricing and repatriated income? You could just recite the facts – corporate rates in country A are X and in country B are Y and blah blah blah. Or you can make give your reader a protagonist to cheer for. A scrappy US manufacturer is getting pummeled by multi-national Goliaths using bottom-feeding labor costs to gut them on prices. But the company strikes out on the great adventure of off-shoring to fight back, relying on its wits and on the reflexes that transform its size from a weakness into a competitive advantage. It works with its tax sensi to pick the right locations, evolve the best structures, to become a nimble business ninja running rings around its lumbering foes. Sure, the need for a narrative arc is way more obvious when you’re writing fiction. You’re not trying to position some existing facts, you’re making up a story. But your big story has lots of moving parts, little stories that add up to the whole. That subplot you just ginned up to bridge a gap in your narrative? That’s got to stand on its own or it will read like a verbal Band-Aid, become the storytelling equivalent of reciting the tax rates for countries A and B.

I learned that motivation matters. Something would change, a tax law maybe. And my clients would want a story on it. I’d make them tell me why. If their readers just want the facts, then there are a dozen business wire services that have already beat my clients to the punch. They have to get past their readers’ brains and down into their guts. Was this change an opportunity or a threat? Do we play on the readers’ fears or on their greed? We all like to think we’re rational, and maybe our brains are at the helm most of the time. But our emotions are the fire in the boiler. Without them, the ship ain’t going anywhere. Do you know what your characters are burning for fuel? Nothing turns me off quicker than cardboard cutout characters that are just there to shoot guns and drive cars and move the plot. Get past their brains and past your outline and wallow around in their guts awhile. Know the way before you start telling me the what.

I learned how to string words together. I don’t have any new secret style sauce to offer – I have yet to read any advice on the craft of writing that The Elements of Style didn’t say first and better. But the longer your ass is in the chair, the easier it is to hammer out the copy and the better the copy is when you’re done. Really doesn’t matter what you’re writing about, the act of writing is still your gym time. I know writers who are afraid of starting a novel because the prospect of having to crank out 100K words just seems too daunting. Means they haven’t done the training yet. When I finally got serious about fiction, I’d already done my cardio, done my time in the weight room.100K words didn’t seem like that big a deal because I already had a few million words under my belt.

I learned that people would pay me to write shit. I still remember the first time I got a check for putting words on paper. Been a shit-ton of checks since then. Truth be told, the business writing pays way better than the fiction writing. Not if you’re Stephen King, of course. But on average? It’s no contest. Confidence matters. Sure, motivation has to start within – you have to believe in yourself. But sell something to somebody. I don’t care what or to whom. All the online zines and other outlets that run shit for free, those are great, but their proliferation has created a giant content vacuum that will suck up almost anything.  Some of them are better than others, so aim high. But keep pitching the people who pay. Once you get someone to open their wallet, then you really know you’ve spent enough time in the gym. And yeah, I know you can skip this step now. I know we’re living in the sunlit utopia of the great self-publishing revolution and that the oppressive gatekeepers of the literary industrial complex have been thrown to the curb by the Democratic People’s Republic of Everybody. You can just toss your shit up on Amazon now and wait for the money to roll in. Well, do what you want, but if nobody nowhere has ever paid you a cent for anything you’ve written, what makes you think and anybody anywhere is going to start now? Once I’d written a novel, I didn’t have any qualms about pitching agents. I knew when something was done and when it wasn’t. I knew when something sucked and when it didn’t. I had a few decades of checks from Fortune 500 clients that told me so.

So go buy my damn book. You can get better than 400 pages of my copy for fast-food money, better than 100K words. That’s a steal. My day-job clients would have to pay me six figures for that. C’mon, I need the scratch for my Metamucil habit.

Dan O’Shea: Website | Twitter

Greed: Amazon | B&N | Indiebound

13 comments

  • “I’m an old fart – in my fifties, and never mind how far in you little shits.”

    Thanks, you give me hope!

    (I’m following not that far behind age-wise, finally decided about 2 yrs ago to start doing what I always wanted to do, getting more serious about it now… wondering sometimes if it’s too little too late. So, again, thanks.)

    Great post.

  • Thanks for the perspective and the motivation. I especially like the metaphor of writing as “gym time,” which kind of got me pumped to go crank out some word count.

    And Greed sounds absolutely awesome. Think I’ll order me a copy right now.

  • Thank you so much for this post. I’ve read about so many writers who’d written three novels by the time they’re twenty-five and now they’re on their eighteenth… even though I was of course very happy for them in the not-so-confident me would secretly sigh “Darn. I’m pretty sure I’ve left it too late to start getting anywhere with this now…”

    Like you I wrote in between doing other things for a living, and while I had some success with things like short stories, stage plays and musical lyrics, I didn’t finally start knuckling down to a real, proper novel until my kid started school. I’m peeping over the wall of forty now (a bit like one of those chad things) and since I’m determined not to die of old age for at least another twenty years *touching wood* I figure that’ll give me enough time to finish it. Maybe it’ll be good enough to publish – but if it isn’t I’ll at least have gone through the process and learned from it, which will stand me in good stead for the next one… anyway. you’ve given me hope that there’s room for us olders too. Thank you so much for that.

    • Wendy, I’m forty-six and am getting my first novel published this year. The great thing about writing – unlike, say, modelling, joining a boy band, or stripping – is that there’s no age limit. On the contrary, I’ve found it helps to have lived a little. Those 20-somethings nailing their first sale? Good for them, but how many can write about parenthood, convincingly, assuming they’re still fumbling through their first relationships? Success comes when it’s been earned and, as the cliche says, the overnight success took years to happen. It’s never too late.

  • “I wasted way too many years writing for a living without writing what I really wanted to write.”

    Ow. Yeah. Writing is my day job.

    Thank you sir, for the kick in the ass.

  • Ha! Looking at the comments, it feels like we should start a club for those of us who are kicking ourselves for leaving fiction writing until middle(ish) age. I too write non-fiction for a living and not long ago thought “Damn, I’m going to fricking die one day and my family will wonder why I never did anything with all the half-finished stories on my computer!” Feels like I’m playing catch-up now, so it’s heartening to read your post. Thanks!!

  • I’m a 68 year-old grandmother of 4. Thanks for assuming that I am young and have a long and productive writing life ahead of me.

  • Loved this! I think I cut my literary teeth being the ‘voice’ of a bus company. It’s probably about the only thing in the world that’s less interesting than tax, although I’ll bet you can make tax sound interesting. And I’m 45 and it’s taken me 25 sodding years to get to the point where I have a complete story arc written… well, one that I didn’t wish someone else had written I mean. And it’ll even be in the public domain as of April and May.

    So thanks for your post. It’s heartening stuff. Gimmers of the world unite and good luck with your novel.

    Cheers

    MTM

  • Read your blurb just as I finished writing 1700 words on Income Taxes for Writers. It just caught my eye, many years ago H&R Block supported me and I learned a lot. Thought I would use some of it to warn others.. Good Luck

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