Joe Miller: The Writing Life


I’ve been writing professionally for about 17 years.

I’ve got boxes and boxes of clips and a whole wall of awards. I’ve written a book that was published by a top publisher and got great reviews and won a couple of awards. Yet I’m getting paid less now for articles than I did when I first started out.

For this 10-post series I’m writing for Hearne I’m receiving $500. And I had to fight to get that much.

I’m also working on a story for the Lawrence Journal-World about the Kansas Book Festival for which I’ll earn $50.

In the late 90s, when I was a largely inexperienced hack, I got paid $100 for the same kind of article.

By contrast, I sold my book for $150,000.

I thought I had arrived. I believed I would spend the rest of my career writing for glossy magazines and selling a book for six figures every couple of years and I would never have to write for local newspapers again.

It’s been seven years since that glorious call from my agent, and I’ve only written for one national glossy – a story about Jada Pinkett Smith’s heavy metal band for Vibe. And I still don’t have another book.

It’s not for lack of trying. I’ve written eight book proposals since 2004, none of which have sold.

The lesson I’ve learned from these failures is valuable.         

The first idea I had for a second book was a family memoir, which is full of tension and conflicts about fundamentalist Christianity. I became interested in it after the 2004 presidential election and the support George Bush received from born again Christians.

I wrote a proposal that is painful to read today because it’s so hyped-up. My family’s story, which is the part that really appealed to me as a writer, atrophied under the weight of my attempt to make the story national and immediate.

My agent read it and said it wasn’t the right time in my career for that book.    

By that point, I’d amassed a lot of research about American fundamentalism, Pentecostalism in particular, and I’d grown fascinated with the racism that runs through its history. I got an idea for a year-in-the-life book about a black church and a white church in an integrated suburban community.

But that was too much, trying to be in two churches at the same time, so I found a mixed-race, inner-city Pentacostal megachurch where I could explore the same theme.          

I spent an entire year there. I worked with my agent on a proposal. She kept asking me to be able to distill my idea into one sentence that explained why the book would be important to a national audience.          

I was never quite able to do this. We submitted anyway and got a pass. The editor couldn’t see how the story backed up the point I was making.          

I didn’t want to do it, because my heart wasn’t in it. Hype up this story and make an example.

I could’ve pulled it off, I think: I discovered some new things about some of the people I’d been following around all year. But I instead volunteered to help a man become mayor of Kansas City. I worked for a while in the Mayor’s Office. Everything went wrong and my mayor’s foibles wound up on the front page of the NYT and Wall Street Journal.

I thought for sure I had a book. The story had gone national, and I had a backstage pass.

The first proposal I wrote was about corruption. The agent said no, the corruption of a politician is not a surprise and it doesn’t merit a book. Also, she told me that the only books New York publishers wanted at that time (during the early stages of the recession) were Big Books—comprehensive, confrontational, startling.           

So I reworked that story to make it about the American city and how its downfall could bring down the whole nation. She read the proposal and said it was “all over the place.”

I rewrote it to make it about race relations in big cities. That proposal was even messier.

I got a new agent. She suggested I make the story about the death of the American newspaper. “Everybody’s talking about that around here,” she said, meaning in New York.

That tack almost worked.

The only obstacle I couldn’t clear was the question of what the newspaper industry would look like two or three years down the line, when my book would come out and would have to fit in with whatever conversations they’d be having in New York.

If I’m tackling a puzzle like that, I’ve gotten far away from where I need to be as a writer, which is working on a book that I would like to read, regardless of how it plays in New York.

So I dropped everything and went on tour with The Dead.          

While traveling from concert to concert I got to thinking about all the crazy times I had in high school, partying.

Initially, I thought of writing an advice book about how to succeed in life even if you’re a high school burnout, which is a really stupid idea.

But then I looked on my new agent’s website and saw that she was wanted young adult books. I immediately thought of my junior year when I helped my best friend, a stoner and major acid head, get elected as student body president.

I thought, Wow. It’d be a blast to write about that.

So that’s what I’ve been doing for the last year and a half.

Meantime, my earlier nonfiction projects are starting to come back to life—the family memoir in particular. But this time around I’m not thinking at all about how these stories will play in New York. I’m thinking about how to put them together into a book I would like to read.

Which is exactly what I did with my first book, which actually became a book.
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26 Responses to Joe Miller: The Writing Life

  1. Tracy says:

    Lordy, Lordy, you are a wandering Jew in barren garden
    Oh, brother Joe, you are sad–and deluded–and apparently uncoachable.

    Chuck was right on, he suggested you write about Gloria. That’s what people want to read. But no, you cast yourself above the fray, give yourself massive undeserved credit for electing the Funk, and then excuse your failed career because of that sacrifice.

    1. Hearne, dammit, learn HTML, like the other commenters told you yesterday. The coding is still appearing somewhere, and it is annoying.
    2. Joe–you need to proofread. Actually you need a mother more than an editor, but I am not taking you to raise.
    “It’s been seven years {insert SINCE} ”
    AND, in the same graph, spell the name right, Jada Pinkett with TWO T’s Smith

    and in the graph that starts But then I looked…and saw that WHAT SHE WANTED WAS, not “saw that she was wanted young”

    jOE, AND HEARNE, this sloppiness in the edit is indicative of laziness of thought and effort. It reduces any credibility if you don’t care enough to get it right.
    Joe, no matter if you occasionally have a nice turn of phrase, if your writing is as sloppy as a 10th grader at a school in KCK, why should ANY editor have to work that hard to fix the basics.

    But mostly, you are uncoachable. If you don’t have self direction, and you’re not coachable, then really, $500 for 10 posts was about right.

    PS–There’s still time to rewrite your final Friday post.

  2. mark smith says:

    woe is joe
    Hearne should demand a refund. You admit to being a hack when you wrote your book. Newsflash, nothing has changed. You shopuld return Hearnes money and he should give it to Chuck and Smartman. They wrote circles around you in the comment sections.
    Joe = sad clown.

  3. mark smith says:

    shit must be contagious
    Excuse the typo. I meant Should. Then again, you probably missed it.

  4. Orphan of the Road says:

    Winner, winner, chicken dinner
    Mark Smith hits the nail on the head.

    Is it KCC cash or legal tender?

    And Chuck said it right, tell us the rest of the story.

    Did Gloria ride you hard and put you away wet, then beat you like a rented mule? Was you publisher there to make it a threesome? Was the Funk peaking out of the closest?

  5. smartman says:

    Miller Approaches New Low
    I started a detox yesterday and read your little ditty on the porcelain throne. Amazing the similarity between my excrement and your writing. At least my work this morning will lead to a healthier me. You seem to be stuck in that rat on the treadmill thing.

    You may write but you are no writer in much the same way that shovelling shit in the circus makes you an entertainer.

    In journalism awards mean NOTHING. If you’ve got wicked writing skills knocking down a quarter mil a year in the US is a no brainer.

    Do yourself a favor and read Money by Martin Amis. Not so much for the book itself but for Amis ability to turn a phrase with such character, clarity and precision it makes anyone who values writing and the English language want to cry tears of joy.

    While I admire your desire to be the next Christopher Hitchens and similarly be declared one of the worlds Top 100 Intellectuals that’s not going to happen for you. I can say that with the same certainty that I can say the sun will rise tomorrow.

    Life is a journey and you took a turn into the Funkhouser cul de sac and can’t seem to find your way out.

    As many have suggested the one meal ticket you still possess is GLORIA.

    A well written book on the Squid would sell globally. She’s Leona Helmsley, Imelda Marcos sans shoes, Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction and Nancy Pelosi all rolled up in power crazed midwest cornpone wannabe-ness.

    Men love to hate women. Women love to hate women even more. If you can’t cash on that COW then it’s really time to hang up the pen.

    You’re fucked up. So am I. I’m able to find peace and solace inside my fuckedupedness. I’m not so sure that you do in yours.

  6. % says:

    I think Hearne should have paid $1,000 for Joe’s work. Joe’s the best writer here and perhaps anywhere in town. I wish he was staying here. Joe’s departure is a loss a city accustomed to losing talented people.

  7. Tracy says:

    Now we know Gloria’s nom de plume: %
    So either that was Gloria commenting, or Joe channeling Gloria!

    Tell me this, %:
    The Funk/Squid clan has 3 mortgages on their home in Brookside. Who is gonna bail you out of that? And Funk loved to say he was “smart with the money”, LOL.

    My prediction is they WALK AWAY FROM THEIR MORTGAGE, as they pile their crap on the Grapes of Wrath wagon. Stick the taxpayers with another failed mortgage. So who can research that and report that, huh?

    Joe, we just handed you a final chapter for your book.

  8. Craig Glazer says:

    Nobody Reads Books, So Sad
    Joe its not due to lack of talent. Books sell on two issues now, ARE YOU FAMOUS, CAN YOU GET ON TV/RADIO or ARE YOU FAMOUS CAUSE YOU ARE A BIG BIG BIG NAME WRITER, STEVEN KING LIKE. Thats about it. Content means almost nothing. Had you sold your book say three years ago, the check would have been like 25,000. Everything is shrinking now. My book which has wide acclaim was passed on by 40 publishers for one year, than we got lucky. Yeah lucky alright. My second book will maybe pay me ok. If my book goes to film or TV like it should than yeah they will pay alot more. Again the fame game. I think you already know this, but hey you are a heck of a guy and I enjoy your work. Thank you.

  9. % says:

    This isn’t Gloria. I barely even know Joe in person. But I am someone who respected Joe’s work when he was at the Pitch and enjoyed his book and continue to enjoy his writing here. I guess you’re free to cast aspersions about Funkhouser and his wife, but I’m not at all sure what that means for Joe. I think Joe’s been pretty clear about how he regards his past experience working for Funkhouser, so your argument amounts to a flimsy strawman.

  10. kcfred says:

    I love this place
    What a fucking car wreck. Shit, give me $500 and I’ll write you War and Peace in ten parts. And the funny part is all the comments. Glazer, checking in as an expert on how to write. I don’t know if that’s the funniest comment or this is.. “I started a detox yesterday and read your little ditty on the porcelain throne. Amazing the similarity between my excrement and your writing. At least my work this morning will lead to a healthier me. You seem to be stuck in that rat on the treadmill thing” Godammit, rack THIS guy and pay HIM the dough. That one sentence is more entertaing than anything . Joe writes.

  11. smartman says:

    Nobody Reads?
    C’mon Glaze how can you make an idiotic statement like that? My 80 year old parents will easily read 100 books between them this year. I’m good for another 20 and I’ll probably buy 50.

    Amazon makes it so easy. I don’t have to leave my couch.

    Look at sales of the ipad, Kindle, Nook and other E-Readers. Go to Barnes and Noble on the Plaza this weekend and watch people buy books.

    There’s at least a dozen sites on the net that allow you to self-publish.

    Just like the music business going from $16.00 cd’s in the longbox to .99 downloads the same thing is happening in the publishing world. The jungle is bigger and different but the strong will always survive.

    Saying stupid shit like nobody goes to the movies or reads books just undermines your foundation of credibility.

  12. Hearne Christopher says:

    Tracy; I have one word for you…meds!

    Our system catches bugs when writers use Microsoft Word and paste in the text, which is what Joe did. You and most of the writers learned this last year when we switched to the new Web site. I was out of town and Joe pasted in Word. Which looks fine on a Mac – no coding visible – but as we learned last year, lots of people still labor away on ancient PCs and have problems.

    FYI, Joe has written plenty about Gloria and he may yet. These are his farewell posts to Kansas City. From one of the top writers here of the past 10 or 12 years. Enjoy!

  13. Hearne Christopher says:

    Hey, Mark – we’re all human. Humane even.

  14. Hearne Christopher says:

    Joe has written about the Funks over and over. It’s too late for a reality show, they’ve left office and left the city.

    Seriously though, ow much more dirt do you want on them? Between Joe, myself, the Star, Tony and you-name-it, their story has been told and retold. I just wrote – courtesy of Joe – about them having sex on the mayoral sofa, taking the kid to the boonies to be deflowered.

    You want to see videos?

  15. Hearne Christopher says:

    Ah, a voice of reason. Joe definitely deserved to be paid more.

  16. Hearne Christopher says:

    Well said

  17. brian says:

    Glazer didn’t say nobody reads
    Smartman, he never made the “idiotic statement” that nobody reads. He commented on what books publishers are interested in buying in today’s market.

  18. Brian says:

    actually, yes he did
    My bad. His headline did in fact say “nobody reads.” When I’m wrong, I’m wrong. However, his headline didn’t really reflect the content of his post..

  19. Hearne says:

    OK, HTML Lovers…
    I’m back in KC and converted Joe’s story to plain text from Word.

    How duzzit look?

  20. chuck says:

    looks ok on my phone
    Outta town. 😉

  21. mermaid says:

    This is just really sad…
    I love to read and find it much more entertaining than TV. I have to agree though it’s becoming a dying activity. My teenager does not read for entertainment and neither do his friends. They get there news from TV and the internet. Many of my friends do not read and I find it very disturbing. I read the paper everyday and sometimes The New York Times. Every night before bed I read and it makes me sleepy then I go to sleep. I really have to struggle to turn the computer OFF and that will keep me up. I feel so bad for all the writers who have lost their jobs or have taken serious cuts in pay. I’m afraid of a world where people don’t read books anymore. There really isn’t anything like having a really great book that you can’t put down because it is just that good.

  22. harry pothead says:

    somebody is reading
    JK Rowling (sp?) made Oprah money writing Harry Potter books. You people need to get out more.

  23. Hearne Christopher says:

    I just don’t have the time to read much anymore, other than news, magazines, emails, texts and the like. I’m a slow reader and I took two books I was really looking forward to digging into on my vaca.

    Guess what? I got about 50 pages read in one.

  24. Hearne Christopher says:

    Well yeah. And people are buying Lady Gaga CDs, too. But CD sales are still down.

  25. gully says:

    You can always tell when Hearne is away
    because the newspapers pile up in his driveway

  26. Hearne Christopher says:

    Stalking me, eh?

    Actually, that’s not a sure sign. Because I don’t always pick them up. You know who does? My postal carrier woman. I’ll not always get them right away and have long wondered who it was that dutifully stacked them by my back door.

    Then one day a few weeks ago as I watched her exit my property, she did it. She paused, picked up the newspaper, carried it to my back door and deposited it on the stoop.

    Christmas bonus, coming right up!

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