Friday, July 30, 2010

The Writing Life: The Ugly Truth

There are a great many misconceptions about writers.  One is that anyone can write a horror/romance/sci-fi/fill-in-the-genre book and get it published.  Another is publication equals respect.  But by far the biggest one has to do with how we measure success.  For the most part, normal everyday folks look at someone who has a couple of books published and think we must be rich.

I thought I'd take a few moments to dispel a few of these myths.  Why?  Not because I'm trying to discourage, but because I want aspiring writers to know what they're in for.  Steel  your nerves and screw your courage to the sticking place, because this isn't a life for cowards.

To begin with, the notion that anyone can write any given type of book is true, but not everyone should.  An idea is not the beginning of a book, nor is it a finished manuscript.  It is simply that...An idea.  I also can't count the number of times I've heard some elitist snob (usually a lit student in a masters program) say "I should just write a _____ novel and get published.  Then I can work on my serious stuff."  Apart from resisting the urge to bludgeon him with his copy of Wordsworth, I wonder just how easy he thinks it is.  Consider:  A novel's word count has to be at least 80,000 words.  That's roughly 380 pages long.  During that time, you have to not only tell a story, but bring characters to life, make sure you know what you're talking about, and emotionally impact the readers, and you have to do it while being original.  Let's say you write a minimum of 1000 words every day.  That still gives you a little under three months for the first draft.  Then there's the revision process, which should take between one and two months.  Then, once it's perfect (in your eyes), you get to do the soul-crushing task of sending your baby out into the world to try to find love, i.e. a publisher or agent.  The major publishers have response times of up to (and in come cases more than) a year, and so do many agents.  Oh, and most of those specify that they want to be the only one reading your work at a given time, so that means you send it, wait a year, get rejected, send to the next person, wait a year, get nauseum.  How do I know you'll get rejected?  Because you will.  Everyone does.  It's a fact of the writing life, and it's something we wear as a badge of honor.  I've actually kept every rejection I've ever gotten.  So then, after several years of hawking the same manuscript, you start to try to push to smaller presses, which brings me to my next point.

Publication doesn't always equal respect.  The smaller the press, the less respect your work gets because it is measured against not only everything else that press puts out, but also because of the simple fact that smaller presses mean smaller audiences.  Few people will have heard of you, so they're not going to respect someone they've never heard of.  Smaller presses also, by necessity, tend to charge more for their books, and why would someone want to pay fifteen dollars for someone they've never heard of when the latest King novel is only ten?  If you go the self-publish/vanity-press route, you'll get even less respect for your book.  Why?  Because anyone, and I do mean anyone, can get their book published if they have the money.  It doesn't mean it's any good, but it can get out there, sell a few copies to Grandma and friends, and then there's still only a penny or two in your pocket.  Second, there are no standards, no people who are professionals at identifying what good fiction reads like, or if the person who wrote it is functionally illiterate.  Many of them don't have editors either.  Any typos or grammatical missives you've made?  They'll be in print for all the world to see.

And by the way, for those of us who do get lucky enough to land an agent and/or get published, it's still not easy.  We're not rich. Because our titles appear in bookstores or online, many people equate us with success stories like Stephen King.  But the truth is far less glossy.  One thing that most of us (with the exception of Mr. King and a few other notables) have in common is that we all have day jobs.  Why?  Because we need them to survive.  I know a rather well-published author who worked as a janitor to make ends meet.  I know another who runs tech at a theater.  I myself have worked as a baker, sales rep, bouncer, bar-backer, teacher, and other various odd jobs throughout my life.  The percentage of writers who get the "big money" deals is far less than the percentage who struggle to make ends meet.  In fact, the vast majority of traditionally published writers, chances are, you've never heard of.

So why do we do it?  Why struggle and try and sweat and burn the midnight oil to tell our stories if the climb is all uphill and fraught with dangerous obstacles?  Simple.  Because we can.  Determination, drive and faith in our abilities are what keeps us going.  For every acceptance, there's a hundred rejections, but those acceptances make it all worthwhile.  We think of ourselves as story-tellers, dreamers and scribes.  Those of us who dare, who stick with it, who learn our craft and pursue this career with dogged determination do have a chance, no matter how small or how high the odds are stacked against us.  We, whether we like to think of ourselves as such or not, are true artists, bearing our thoughts, our imaginations, and our souls to the world.  And to hear just one person (that you don't know) say that they like your work is worth all the struggles, the sleepless nights, and the financial hardship.

I recently landed my first agent.  After ten books and as many years in the business as a professional writer, I accomplished that goal.  I'm luckier than most.  My agent has a fantastic reputation in the industry, and I have complete confidence in her, and for that, I'm doubly lucky.  So keep working.  Do not give up, never stop learning, and pursue this lifestyle if you dare.  I can't, in all honesty, say that eventually you'll come out on top.  But I can, with all certainty, say that you never will if you don't try.

Write on!


  1. Excellent post! The comment I seem to get all the time is "Are they going to make a movie out of your book?" Of course, I have to remind people that books and movies are usually completely separate things, even if they share the same titles.

  2. Very nicely said, Scott. My favorite one is, "I have an idea, you write the book and we'll split the profits 50-50." Ha! Sally