Sellling Your Soul In Installments


If you are a writer who hopes to make a living from writing, sooner or later you’re going to find yourself writing something for which you have no feeling whatsoever.

No, I’m not saying that you’ll be doing work for hire.  Yes, I’ve done some, most of it book doctoring and not normal work for hire, nor anything that has my name, or that I can even disclose I did.  However, for me at least – people’s experience varies – the work for hire was small, confined, usually no more than a piece every few years and usually undertaken either as a favor to a friend or as a source of emergency cash.

As far as an annoyance, those barely exist in my life, except of course insofar as like everything else, those ALWAYS hit at the worst possible time.

But all the same, about half the time I’m writing, I’m writing something I don’t want to be writing right then.

This is because, at least until recently, the entire system of submissions and proposals, and finally acquisition, followed by scheduling the book for delivery, was highly unnatural when it comes to the creative impulse.  I might be all fired up, and this… oh, musketeer vampire story, might be the most important thing in my life when I wrote the proposal.  But two years later, when time comes to write it, I’ve got really involved in this future world, with a completely different feel and set of characters, and willing myself into the mind set to write the musketeer vampires is like willing myself back into a dream I had two months ago.

I don’t anticipate this disappearing with the advent of Indie, because the artist as artist still has to deal with the world.  What I mean is, if you’re an artist who hopes to live from your art, you still have to respond to market pressures.

Take me, for instance (why not.  Cash and carry.  I’m cheap.)  Anyway – take me for instance: partly to survive a publishing establishment in a state of collapse, I ended up with four pen names and at least eight series.  Let’s suppose – it’s possible, the figures I get are Bookscan and therefore not reliable – once I start publishing those series indie I find that what sells best is the craft mysteries by Elise Hyatt.

While I’m not particularly put off by those, neither are they – at least at the moment – the most pressing thing on my to write slate.  However, let’s suppose that the first book I put out under my own publishing enterprise – or perhaps with Naked Reader – sells, oh, 17k copies, at 5.99 a piece.  Even at 70% of the profit, heck, even halved if it’s with Naked reader, that’s an awful lot of money.  As in, even in the worst instance, around thirty thousand dollars, which is more than I’ve ever made for a book.

At that moment, if I make that kind of money, because I live from my writing (well, I live from my husband’s income, but my income is also needed, particularly with two kids in college) it becomes imperative to write more of those books.  In fact, it becomes imperative to write at least two of those a year.  That becomes the price for writing the other stuff I want to write, even the space operas for Baen.

(No, I’m not saying this will happen, but it is a possibility, an imaginary scenario to explain how even in indie, market forces can influence you to write something that’s less than a burning necessity.)

Or let’s imagine that – a possibility, though hopefully not one that will come to pass – Dan finds himself unemployed this spring, and I must come up with the way to – quickly – make up the money he contributes, before we run out of unemployment.

The right strategy for this, since I have a lot of properties tied up under technically expired contracts is to maximize the number of things I have out and then to pursue whatever happens to sell.

But let’s suppose I can’t pry those copyrights lose and I can’t, for whatever reason, do anything in my started series.  What should I do?

From where I stand – and I could be wrong in this, but it’s been the experience of all my self-published friends – the best way to maximize income, fast, is to write relatively short romances.  I could never do it in dark supernatural mode, but I could probably do passable regency and perhaps funny supernatural, or fairytale ones.  (In the vein in fact, of the stuff I did for the Derbyshire Writers Guild back in the day.)

Would this be my greatest most burning desire at the time?  No, probably not.  Actually when I’m worried about money, I don’t feel like writing at all, which is why the last year was such a disaster in terms of productivity.

The question was raised, in terms of Kate considering doing dark paranormal romances, by ABE who said that perhaps one should reconsider writing something one doesn’t have a burning passion for, because one would be expending life to write it.

ABE, who is a fairly sensible woman, is in a different position from most of us, since she does not need the proceeds of her writing to live, and since she is also ill and has to expend great effort just to write.

Mind you, to an extent she is right across the board.  Writing expends effort — “life” —  even when you are in good health and don’t feel “life” leaving you. In a way I can’t define, when you write you’re extending pieces of yourself out towards the world, and it takes both effort, energy and… well… a bit of you.

So… would you want to expend bits of you simply to make money?  To an extent, isn’t that a violation of your vocation?  Of your sacred trust?

No, I’m not being ironical.  And ABE is not being naïve.  None other than Harry Turtledove, in advising me about my career told me that if I was going to spend my life writing stuff I didn’t want to write, I might was well be driving a truck.

He was right.  Of course, sometimes there are no jobs driving a truck.  And I do know how to write – a fairly difficult art I’ve trained myself in, over the years.  On the other hand, I suspect – though I don’t know for sure, since it’s not something I’ve ever done – driving a truck doesn’t take pieces of your soul.  At least the jobs I’ve done, from retail to teaching, only teaching had an effect similar to writing.

So, if I’m going to be stuck doing what I don’t want to do, why not take a secretarial job (supposing I can find one?)

Because it is – as with everything else in life – a compromise.

Look, what Harry was advising me about – good heavens, ten years ago now – was the fact that everyone from publishers to agents was trying to push me towards literary fantasy.

I can do literary fantasy.  I can do it by default and very easily.  And there, I think, lies the problem.  You see, I never wanted a job in which I did more or less the same and fairly easy thing every day.  The jobs that attract me are things like teaching or translating, where every day you meet a different slant, a different challenge.

Or perhaps it is the fact that while I love literary fantasy, well done, and every once in a while, it is very far from being my favorite genre or subgenre.  (Space Opera, then cozy mystery, then historical fantasy, then…)  I can do it – in fact will do it – now and then, when the spirit moves me.  But the idea of doing ONLY literary fantasy the rest of my working life made me so depressed that I was actually suicidal.

It is in this context that Harry told me “you might as well be driving a truck.”

And in that context he was right.  Just about anything that brought in money, up to I suppose prostitution which would also take pieces of one’s soul, would be preferable to selling one’s creativity into that type of bondage.

But most career decisions aren’t that clear cut.  Oh, true, I have no burning desire to do modern retellings of fairytales, but once I think about it a while, I can see how a swan maiden could have married a college professor, and now their five daughters of magical heritage, get involved with various magical beings on their own.  (Yes, that is a planned, short, fantasy-romance series, because I want to try it.)

And once I start playing with the characters, I bet they come to life.  And if these are short –say 50 to sixty thousand words? – romances, I could easily do three a year, while doing everything else.

Pieces of my soul?  Sure.  But I could make the stories mine, and heck, maybe they’ll sell well enough that the time I spend worrying about money can be spent doing Space Opera instead.

Yes, I could – instead of that – find a job in retail, or food service.  But the way the economy is around here, just finding that job would take me as long as writing the three short novels.  And from what my friends doing romance tell me, I could make more per book than I could per year in one of those jobs.

There is another advantage, too – something Dean told me years and years ago, and which I didn’t believe, but which, like most things he told me, turned out to be true – about writing to make ends meet, as opposed to, oh, driving a truck or working retail: every book you write teaches you something.  Writing many different kinds of books puts new tools in your toolbox.  When you go back to that book, the heart book – and yep, each of us, definitely, has heart books and books that more of the mind and craft – you’ll have more tools.  You’ll know how to write different scenes.  You’ll have a new sense of how to describe certain things… and the heart book, because it’s not just a creature of art, but also of craft, will be better.  You will have enlarged it.

(This is the reason that I advise my fledgelings, even those who are quite, quite secure monetarily, to experiment with different types of stories, even if in very short form.  Or at least to read different things, if it’s too much effort to write them.)

So… would I write exclusively for money?  I don’t think I could.  Say you offered me a million a year to write ONLY literary fantasy.  Unless I considered it worth it to make three million before I slit my wrists in a warm bath, I’d be likely to tell you to go away.  Or say I found out what sells best in indie is Fifty Shades of Grey clones (it might be, for all I know.)  As someone who thinks that any type of pain does not belong in the same room as arousal, I don’t think I COULD write it.  Not even if I tried.

On the other hand, will I write a book I don’t feel particularly hot about right then because I know it has fans dying to give me money for it?  Well…  It all comes down to making the book my own, and also to respecting my fans.

Because I respect my fans, I wouldn’t want to write an inferior product.  This makes “horror-like” paranormal romance impossible for me.  I don’t like scary stories.  I don’t write them, (except in very short form) and I don’t read them.  And “love” and “fear” don’t live in my head in the same place.  So the chances of my writing this well would be close to zero.

On the other hand, writing, say a sequel to musketeer vampires?  Well, that is a matter of clearing some time, reading the first one and getting back in the right frame of mind.  The same way with all my other series.  The worlds are mine.  They were fascinating at one point.  And you can recapture the dream.  It’s a matter of knowing how.  A matter of craft.  You do it partly because it’s money – and you need to live – and partly because you do love the world and you do love your fans, even if it’s not the most pressing thing in your life right then.  (You can spend your life chasing what’s pressing right then, and likely never finish anything.)

In the same way, when pressed for money, you can come up with the property that’s most likely to give it, short term. (Or at least I hope so, since I might need it.)  But it has to be something you can make yours, something you won’t be ashamed to have infused with a piece of your soul.

And if you do a good enough job, you find you walk away from it refreshed, enlarged, and ready to write those books that are penned in heart’s blood all the better and with greater strength.

9 thoughts on “Sellling Your Soul In Installments

  1. The worst off people are those like Doyle, writing Holmes when he hated him, or Baum churning out more and more Oz books.

    1. Yes. That’s where the “you might as well be driving a truck” comes in. I do think if I got stuck in that, the only way to survive whole (as in if I couldn’t say “bugger that” and walk off [best thing that happened to be was the Shakespeare Series not doing well. It gave me permission to do other stuff] because I need to help support my family, etc) would be to write stuff I passionately wanted to on the side. This would be impossible in the trad model the way I met it. They were strongly against closed pen names, and if you were what they considered “high road” — i.e. literary — they were against you trying anything else at all “soiling yourself with schlock,” as an agent told me. It would have been possible — and fine — in the golden age, but all of a sudden they were all too high minded to allow writers to lead a double life (actually it was just a way to control us.) BUT with Indie? Totally possible. Right now I love the series I do for Baen, for instance. But I can totally see the point where it palls, if I only did that. Only I don’t have to! I can do mysteries and historical and stuff on the side. (Mwahahahahaha.)

      1. Sarah, reading this comment I thought of something said about David Weber. The comment was that David Weber writes different books/series is that it helps him keep the series “fresh”. While some of his fans would prefer he do 100% of “fill-in-the-blank”, he might become stale and tried of that series. So while it delays the books some fans “really want”, the books may be better than if he wrote 100% in that series.

        1. And sometimes we fans get a shock, too. I was distressed when Lois McMaster Bujold started writing other series. “I want Miles! Oh woe is me!” Now I’d be hard put to pick which of her _three_ series is my favorite. Some times _fans_ need to get out of the rut and breathe the free air of something crisp and new.

          And it can’t hurt a writer to develop the discipline to produce a well crafted story they don’t like. Especially when they (looks in mirror) are a bit weak in the discipline to keep to a regular schedule writing the stuff they love.

        2. I find that works with fiction/ non-fiction as well. When I do my history writing, it recharges the other well. After so many weeks (or hours) fighting plot tangles, it is such a relief to work on something that already has a plot and characters laid out for me!

  2. After doing practically mindless manual labor jobs for 13 years after college, before I got my first I.T. job, I can tell you that while it may not take pieces of your soul, it certainly can crush it.

    Likewise, after growing the calluses (in my mind) from that experience, I could definitely write something I had no interest in for a few years, if that would put money in my pocket with a potential residual revenue stream after the first blush wore off each one.

    But that’s just me. I don’t think I’m as invested in the things I do as a lot of people are (especially artists of whatever form). I’m more invested in the abstract of doing it as well as I can, than the specific item I’m working on.

    1. See now I always kind of liked mindless manual labor jobs. Work hard and well, and when the workdays done you can forget about it, no need to take the job home with you, and spend evenings worrying about how your going to solve that insurmountable problem. Of course I don’t like having a set schedule, or a boss, so anymore I work mostly self-employed which means I no longer get the luxury of clocking out and forgetting about it. Even if the job I am doing is mindless, I need to worry about where my next source of income is going to be from once this one is finished.

  3. My job does give me a little bit of change each day inside the greater task of getting the product out the door, as each shipment is a little bit different, and if it’s going on a Less Than truckLoad carrier, those trailers will have differing amounts of space available for our stuff. It’s been years since a story or character came to me and insisted that I write it out, but I do know how that feels. For a while in the ’80s I was on the staff of the company newsletter. From that I learned that I don’t like interviewing people (I’m not nosy enough to be a good journalist). There are a few ideas that float by me every now and then, but I’m too lazy to catch them in a net of words if they don’t make me do it.

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