The Writing Life & The Writer’s Living

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

15 thoughts on “The Writing Life & The Writer’s Living

  1. I’ve also been following this story. I’ve heard rumblings of complaints, but I think writers are reluctant to discuss them (if they are published). There are pro’s and cons to every profession, and frankly, there are far easier ways to make money than writing. I’ve tried working from home, and I’ve found that isolating/unhealthy for me. I can go days at a time without speaking. I need to get out in the world, so I think I’ll always have a dayjob of some sort even if the writing pans out into something more than at present.

    • I’ll be honest, for myself – I love writing too much… if I was able to make an honest and comfortable living solely on my writing and writing-related activities (speaking events and consulting gigs that relate to my writing fields of expertise, for example), I’d probably drop the day-job in a heartbeat. But I don’t foresee that happening. I think I’m a good writer. But I’ve got no clue what magic transforms good writing into Bestseller status. That’s a mystery to me, and I suspect it always will be. But I’ll write anyway, even if I have to stay in a day job. I don’t even mind most of the other apparent exigencies of the modern professional author’s life: the blogging and tweeting. I don’t really understand self-promotion at a fundamental level… but what I see professional authors actually actively doing today, I can do that. The only challenge, for me, given the time demands of a day-job, would be the “book-a-year” phenomenon. At this stage I don’t know if I write fast enough to keep up with that. Mostly, because I’m untested, and haven’t yet written a complete book from start to finish.

      • I don’t think anyone knows what makes a bestseller. I love writing too much, and even if I never make a living from it, I’ll keep doing it. (My actual perfect ideal would be 3 days a week part time work + writing the rest of the time). The book a year thing is killer. I’ve been attempting it (hence the crazy word counts lately) to see if its actually feasable with a full time job. I think I can do it… but with the demands of children, I don’t know.

      • You’re right, no one does. If they did, publishers would monetize it, and only publish bestsellers. As for a book-a-year… I don’t think I can do it on a part-time basis. I could probably do more than one book a year if I wrote full-time, but as a part-timer I don’t see how it would work. So… I’m probably going to have to do what I suggested above – write a bunch of high-quality books before getting published, so I have a backlog I can turn to…

  2. My timing seems to be 15 years to write a book (though, admittedly, in one 15-year span I finished two, but each one took fifteen years).

    I’ve never really tried to go pro. My father was an unsuccessful writer, so I saw the pleasure of creation and the disillusionment of lack of success. I was a musician for years, trying very hard to make the big time. We had a couple of nibbles, but that was it. The whole experience soured me on music to the extent that I haven’t played since.

    I’d prefer not to have that happen with writing, too, especially since I am fairly certain that my stuff is not best-seller material anyway, and I could never write a book a year (not decent ones, anyway). So. I do the part that I enjoy.

    • Heh. That’s a long time – but when you’re doing it only for the love, it’s best to take as long as you need to make sure you get the story just the way you want it. I guess professional authors have to find a way to balance their love of the work with the business needs. But I can definitely understand how a too-narrow focus on striving for business success can spoil the artistic process. In that sense… I hope someday you’re able to pick up and play music again, too… An ability to play music is something that’s too valuable to lose, I think, if you’ve got it.

  3. Hmm…this is interesting. I think my biggest concern about the prospect of becoming a published author is this “book a year” expectation. I mean really? What about all the authors who take more than one year to craft their novels? And who says you have to write full-time?

    Published or not, I’m with Ms. Swainston on this one: “If I write another book, I’ll do it on my terms.” You may not have the guarantee of having your next book published this way, but is it not possible to negotiate contracts for one book at a time and maintain control over production level expectations that way???

    I mean the impatience of the market today just seems, to me, entirely ridiculous… (And I have to wonder how many of those who are most impatient to have a new book every year from their favorite authors have ever sat down and tried to write a novel themselves.) Seriously, the Generation of Instant Gratification will burn out eventually, if not collapse altogether, if we keep this up.

    • I can understand, though, from a business and marketing perspective why this is important. Publishing a book-a-year keeps an author’s name in front of readers, keeps it in their minds. That helps both the author (the more the author’s name stays in a reader’s mind, the more likely that reader will pick up the author’s next book) and the publisher. In this way, the author’s and publisher’s interests are actually aligned in some ways.

      But some authors find it difficult to keep that pace up – though I think you’ll find most well known authors are publishing about a book-a-year or so. Certainly, there are big names who don’t – with the release of Martin’s Dance of Dragons, he’s the name on everyone’s mind lately, when it comes to long development times. But there are two thoughts on this: (1) Martin is already a big name, so publishers are willing to let him take the time to get it right and (2) as John Scalzi points out, one of Martin’s books every four years is roughly the equivalent of one book a year from any normal author, in terms of the volume of content produced. The same can often be said of other authors who are putting out one every few years: the books they are writing tend to be considerably longer, at least for any author that I can put a name to right now.

      So yeah… I think it’s tough to pull this off – for instance, I don’t think I can write a book-a-year with the way my life is right now, with a full-time job and a family that each have a higher priority on my time. And it’s great to have the artistic freedom to take as much time as you need to write the book the way you want it. But if you’re going to be in the business of writing, professionally, I think a writer needs to keep in mind the business realities. It’s better not to pooh-pooh the needs of your business partners, and the needs and demands of your market if you want your business venture to be successful. That’s why I’m thinking about ways to cope with my own probable shortcoming in this department, rather than just complaining that there’s no way I can do it. If there’s no way I can do it, then I had better not try to get in the business in the first place. If I can develop a work-around (i.e. build up a body of work that would serve as a multi-year buffer allowing to focus on producing new content for the future as well as building up my brand name), then maybe I can make this thing work… So, it’s a good thing I’ve got a good supply of novel ideas I want to write.

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  5. Hey guys, I’m an aspiring author looking to get my book published and was told about a publishing and marketing company that I should try out called Publisher’s Podium.
    If they like your book, they publish and market it for $199. Is that good? What are your thoughts? Your advice is much appreciated.

    • This sounds suspiciously like what’s called a Vanity Press or Vanity Publishing. Traditionally, this is not considered a viable way of getting your book published, and I would personally not recommend that you follow this course. Vanity Publishing will cost you, the author, money – and they do not typically have links with distribution and retail companies that the major, traditional publishing companies have. So, any work to get your book into bookstores will fall on you, the author. Paying to get your book published and having to handle marketing, promotion, and distribution – that’s a bad deal. Traditional publishing companies do those things for you and pay you for the right to use your work. Basically, Vanity Presses are scams designed to skim money from gullible writers who want to see their work in print, but haven’t managed to attract the interest of a traditional publisher. You won’t make a living by using a Vanity Press. This particular publisher seems to focus on Ebooks – but I understand you can pretty much self-publish an ebook yourself directly through Amazon and B&N’s sites, without having to pay an intermediary. I haven’t done research on the issue, myself, as I’m not looking to self-publish any time in the near future. If you are, I’d go to the sites of some authors who have successfully published this way, and seek advice there. All that said… I’m suspicious, here. I hope you’re genuinely an aspiring author, but the wording of your post subtly suggests you’re actually automated spam. So… I’m going to delete the link in your comment, so as not to artificially generate traffic to what I suspect is a disreputable publisher. Anyone interested can easily google it, anyway.

    • I was going to mention POD, except the referenced publisher seemed to focus not on Print books but on Ebooks. Even so, I got the distinct impression it was a Vanity publisher, and that made me very uncomfortable. I agree, the POD options feels a lot more like a legitimate option for someone looking to self-publish.

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  7. Pingback: Looking Forward: Contemplating a Writer’s Living, Contemplating the Passing of an Old Dream « The Undiscovered Author

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