Recently, author John Scalzi blogged a link to an article about a fantasy writer, Steph Swainston, who was putting her successful writing career on an apparently indefinite hiatus in order to pursue a career as a chemistry teacher.
I was fascinated by the Independent article that features Swainston and her decision to put writing behind her and change careers. In it she lists a few of the troubles she faced as a writer – turning her story of success into a cautionary tale. Some of her complaints: the inwardness of writing that leads to a lack of outside, external, non-writing experience (one funny quote: “Look at Stephen King. All his characters seem to be writers.”); the loneliness of the solitary writer’s life, the trouble interacting with fans, the book-a-year publishing machine (where authors are expected to churn out a new book every year), and the outsourcing of publicity and promotion to the writer.
Any of those might be fair complaints. And they wouldn’t be the only ones. One entirely not-unfair complaint I’ve oft heard: the miserly compensation. An author cannot simply be an author in this day-and-age. Unless you live someplace with no cost of living and are as healthy as an Undying God, the average income attainable solely from writing novels and short stories is nothing to base a household’s finances on – unless you are somewhat more successful than average. Of course, if you’re average or lower, you’ll eventually be dropped by your publisher, more than likely – which is why Ms. Swainston had the opportunity instead to withdraw from the industry of her own volition and choosing, as she was apparently somewhat more successful than average.
What’s fascinating, of course, is the contrary version of the typical writer’s story. It goes: yeah, there’s some stuff about being a writer that sucks. But you do it anyway because it’s worth it. Or: Crappy pay doesn’t bother me because I’d write even if I didn’t get paid (in the case of yours truly, presently, this is very much true, seeing as I don’t get paid). And so on. But here is a writer who has decided, after having lived the dream, that no, it is not worth it.
It’s useful to have such a counterpoint, to weigh against the gold-tinted hue with which we typically view the dream of the writer’s life. Writing may be in our blood, but when we decide that our goal is to “go pro”, we’ll have to understand what that means – and it is best to be familiar with both the positives and the negatives. That way, we can plan realistically for how we want to manage our careers.
For example: I intend to have a “real life” day job even after I get published. I know I have to plan for this because I’ve long been aware of the shortcomings of the income of a new or midlist authors. No matter how good I think my writing is, I don’t want to – I can’t – bank on becoming a bestselling author. For these other complaints, I can plan accordingly as well. For instance: the problem of the “book-a-year” ethos makes a great case for not pushing hard to get your first novel published, but to write a a bunch of novels before breaking in. This ties in well with the “million-words-of-crap” mantra. So, when you finally do get published, you’ll have several more books waiting in the wings, wanting only for an editor’s touch to polish them for public presentation. (This, from things I have read, is apparently part of the secret to Brandon Sanderson’s success.) This will keep you in good stead for a few years, during which you’ll be writing more novels. Eventually, if you don’t write at least one book a year, the publishing schedule will catch up to you. But by then, if you’ve been writing successfully, you’ll have built a name for yourself, with sufficient clout to keep the audience coming back even if it takes you a year or two to finish the next book. (See also: Martin, George R. R.)
So yes: the writing life: it’s not all rainbows and unicorns and sunshine. Hard enough to drive some successful writers from the business. We do well to keep that in mind. For some of us – it will be oh so worth it…