Where Do You Want To Go?
Where do you want to go as a writer? And are you willing to pay the price? Could you do something other than writing and be whole?
More and more I find my advice to newby writers starts with it. The reason is that you can’t get anywhere unless you know where you’re going. It’s hard to make a map that takes you nowhere in particular, and if that’s where you want to go… you’ll get nowhere in in particular. And right now there are different routes and prices to “author destinations.” Very different. And it’s worth considering.So I always ask my fledgelings:
Where do you want to go? Aiming for the sky, what career would you have?
As I see it these are the choices:
1- I want to see my book on bookstore shelves.
That’s fine. It’s a hard road, and a difficult price, but if you have the chops and work the right way you can do it.
First, you have to go traditional. It’s difficult these days, but if you’re willing to work for peanuts and take some quite unreasonable clauses in your contracts, you can do it. It will take probably a few years. It’s speeded up by going to conventions or writers’ workshops, meeting editors, becoming friendly with them. And stay friendly with them, mind, otherwise you could have 6 books out in a year and not a single one on bookstore shelves.
Other prices you might not think of: you will be competing for a limited number of slots with a large number of writers. You know, I read Spartacus at 14 and was highly impressed with “Gladiator, don’t make friends with gladiators.” (I WAS fourteen.) If you’re going this route, you can make friends with other writers, but be ready to have your heart broken several times. Some people will do anything to keep or take a slot. Watch out for knives in the back. There will be some. Worse, there’s a risk you’ll find yourself becoming the stabber.
Also be prepared to kill a lot of babies. My average was selling half my proposals, which was almost indecently good, but even so, three chapters and a full outline, those people are alive and in your head. And sometimes that series you loved dies because… well, most of the time because someone at the publisher’s office is either incompetent or doesn’t care enough. Sometimes because they developed a crazy grudge against you, even though you met them like once or twice in passing and couldn’t pick them out of a lineup.
Has happened not just to me but everyone I know. And you have another ten books planned in that series, and it was doing so well, and there you are, having to move on because “it just isn’t selling.” It might not strike you as a price now, but it is one.
2- Bestseller: for all but the very lucky few, all of the above with iron boots on and tapdancing. Also, if you’re used to a certain level of income and someone at your publisher for reasons known or unknown or because it’s Wednesday through incompetence of malice screws up your releases or decides you’ll never sell a book to them again, you’ll be left scrambling. There are still bills to pay and your route to continued success is gone.
Sure, if it all works out you get money and you get adoring fans. You also get intrusions in the weirdest places. A friend was delivering her baby with her gynecologist’s alternate (because the baby was early and doctor was on vacation) and suddenly the doctor realized who she was… and was a fan. Imagine trying to be professional and answer questions on your books while actively giving birth. My son — you think you raised them right! — tried to start a conversation with the late Terry Pratchett in a bathroom. You might think these things are funny, but when I hear them from friends, they seem to wear thin really fast.
Also you travel. Sometimes at the beginning, when you are trying to get known, but always when you’re a bestseller: signings, meetings with reps for booksellers, trips abroad for translation houses, etc etc. One of my bestseller friends often spends as much time away from home as a traveling salesman. Time to write in peace becomes scarce.
Yes, maybe you can swim in a money bin every morning, but you pay the price. Oh, you pay the price.
3- I want to be recognized as a great writer, win awards, be on the reading list.
It’s a goal. It’s even a valid goal. Had I started trying to be published in college (I wrote, but being published in Portugal is more complex and definitely not profitable) it might have been my goal. Degrees in Literature, even if you just take them so you can get all the languages (French, English, German, Italian, Swedish. I only didn’t take Russian because you had to join the association for Friendship of Portugal and Russia, and it was a communist front, where I’d fit in as well as a fart in church. I’ve found I don’t study languages well on my own. Though now there’s Great Courses and I’m hoping to brush up on Latin and Greek in my copious spare time, and maybe the others as they provide them.) still affects how you think.
Well, you’re going to have to go traditional. So, number 1. But there’s more to this. You must be able to tell where the political and taste winds are blowing. And you must be or at least be able to pretend to be the right political color.
I’ve actually always been very good at telling where the editorial taste and politics were. Probably a side result of growing up in the midst of a political mine field. But by the time I got here, I just couldn’t pretend anymore. I came close once or twice (Magical British Empire. Yes, still editing it into an “Author’s edition.”) but in the end it wasn’t worth my soul. And besides I didn’t want the “literary writer” lifestyle.
Sure I can write “literary” (which is really just a genre) and even enjoy it at times. (If you only read my baen books, you might what to buy Ill Met by Moonlight and the rest of the trilogy.) But I don’t want to do that ALL THE TIME. It depresses me. (Weirdly I’ve recently realized that though I write fantasy, romance and mystery my happy spot is Space Opera, which is not the best selling thing around. May G_d have mercy on my soul.)
Because the Ill Met trilogy was my first published books, I found agents and editors both pushing me to “Maybe you can write a book every two years and get a college teaching job to make money.”
Awards help you get teaching jobs. So if that’s what you want to do this is perfect.
It’s all on your destination. I already had a masters and had worked as a lecturer in college. It’s actually fun, but dear Lord, I wanted to write. That’s all I really ever wanted to do. Teaching just got in the way.
4- Self-supporting writer.
You want to support your family. You want to make enough money to do that. You don’t give a good goddamn if your name isn’t a household word (or would prefer it weren’t, if you’re a private person and have small kids), you might attend a con or two a year, but don’t want to be flying all over all the time.
You want the money. Sure, the writing too. (If you don’t want or need to write, or are pushed into it for other reasons like physical disability, I tell you what Orson Scott Card said in his book on how to write SF/F which I read at the beginning of this crazy journey, now 33 years ago: “Whistle as you go. You’re a free man” (or woman.)
Like Heinlein, you write to support your family (or in my case help support and hopefully financially survive the college years which — dang it — would be much easier if the kids weren’t taking the longest possible professional training ever.) You also enjoy writing, want to write, need to write, and act like an addict whose drug was taken away when you can’t write, but your career goal is to support your family.
This is getting hard to do in traditional, and I’ll be honest, it was never very easy. It was doable — and I did it for 20 years — if you were prolific as hell. Before I was prolific as hell (and willing to take work for hire and ghost writing, and G-d knows what) I made less than 5k a year. Even when the books sold well. That’s not an income, that’s a tip jar.
But if you’re prolific as hell, and willing to do or pay for the very little work of typesetting and cover work (around $500 if you shop carefully. I do my own because I’m cheap as hell. This might change as I become more indie-prolific. I’d rather be writing) and trade copyediting with friends, (or indenture one of them) you can do very well indeed in indie. Better than most midlisters did in trad, and with less psychological damage and more control.
To me, one of the best part of indie is that I can be friends with writers. Really friends, with no reserves. Tell them the ugly side as well as the good. And if you don’t think that’s a huge benefit, you aren’t far in this crazy profession. The only ones who understand you are other writers.
Yes, you might still decide to kill a series — if it’s not selling and your time is best used somewhere else — but at least it’s you making the decision, not some bumbling fool you might never have met, or some concatenation of circumstances beyond your control.
But you’ll pay the price all the same. There’s scheduling, and worse, there’s realizing that what you put in is what you get out, which might encourage you to pour yourself away in writing. It’s a price. It’s just a different price.
And some of you — you know who you are — will feel like velveteen writers and need someone to tell you you’re a real writer. I have a certificate here somewhere (someone who is better at search find it.) I declare you a real writer. Don’t sell your soul for affirmation.
Yes, it’s obvious where I stand, I know. And maybe I stand where I do because I tried the other way ad cut my feet raw on the stones of the path. Maybe indie will be as bad, who knows? Doesn’t seem to be for my friends though. And honestly, if it had been available when I was young I’d never have tried trad. This is more in line with what I wanted from writing.
Which is the point of all this. Choose your destination, draw your map. Good fortune to you and maybe fate be kind.