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Why am I doing this?

Like the sperm whale plunging toward the surface of Magrathea, existential questions are something that most writers think about. Not necessarily ones relating to their own existence, but to that of the book they’re working on.

“Why am I doing this?”

It’s actually one those questions that, generally speaking, is easier to answer for yourself the first time around than the 20th (Trust me on this, I’m past that mark. And it’s still hard.)

Now, in that question, in first book, we’re all still fueled by the dream that our book will become that instant success. We may well (as was my case) assume that if you wrote a good enough (or better) book, a publisher would read it, and after that, it would be relatively plain sailing. Maybe not awards and bestsellerdom, but into a career, where you could do something you loved (mostly) and earn a reasonable living at it – if your book was good enough, that was. I certainly assumed the system was fair, merit based and that publishers invested a lot money into 1)finding out just what people want to read (and therefore know precisely) 2)searching new offerings for just that. And they must be searching, because you can’t find enough of your favorite kinds of reads. Honestly, I’d say most writers are driven by a mixture of desire to emulate their favorites (I certainly was) and a reaction to what they just bought “I could do better than this. Publishers MUST be desperate for anything half as good as xyz, my favorites, if they’re publishing THIS.”

By time you get a little further into the experience ranks, you’ll know that all of the above is wrong. Certainly when I broke in in there was just one sf/fantasy publisher reading slush. And that year they had 3000 subs and bought one. The others didn’t TELL you they didn’t accept un-agented submissions. They just listed their requirements in the various marketplace books as ‘whole manuscript and a SASE. In the case of UK publishers, it would have been impossible for them to read the manuscripts past page one (I included a ‘please discard this page if you have read this far as page 2’). I got them back by immediate return of post. I did have two manuscripts I sent to US publishers (DAW) and a smaller YA one stay away a long time, get to editorial board level (and in DAW’s case they mislaid the manuscript) – but really, unagented you had little chance.  Merit, a system, knowing what readers actually wanted on the basis of research. Nope. If you didn’t have contacts or/and a huge amount of persistence, you had about the same chance of winning the lottery. Hey, people chase that dream too.

Now, things have changed. Very little at Trad publishers, but they just haven’t yet made the transition from a world of superabundance in which they were the only gatekeepers, to a world where, for new authors, increasingly, trad is a vanity choice, or that of those who haven’t really kept up with the changing world of reading. It is why, steadily, they’re losing ground.

Indy of course has its own problems with the process and it isn’t plain sailing. BUT it is an alternative, and yes, people without contacts in the industry do succeed.  Hard work and merit in the eyes of the reading public have somewhat more of a role than trad publishing.  It’s still, for most who lack the marketing or following, mostly a long hard slog, simply getting discovered. But it can be done.

So: you might say for the first few books  ‘why am I doing this? (when I’m selling tens or hundreds, not 100 000 copies) is still justified in the effort as building towards that dream of doing something you loved (mostly) in the hope of eventually building a career and earning a reasonable living.

But the truth is I certainly could earn more doing other things, and my income is at least in the top quarter of writers. It’s still at where I could equal it here in Oz as a farm-hand. Ok, that’s not the lowest paid job out here (it’s hard, dirty, physical, and all weathers, outdoors) but really, if it were just for the money, I could do better. The top-selling 1-2% do indeed do very much better. Maybe that will be you.

If you’re a writer who doesn’t care about being paid… well, fine, you’re probably happy with whatever you personally get out of it. I gather awards are very important to these folk, 1)because they feel it gives them status (even if the award means ‘avoid’ to readers). It’s really vanity publishing and partner or trust fund or patreon pay the bills.  2) to many it is intended as an entrée into teaching writing at college – because their writing sells not even vaguely enough to call earning a living. What the value of such teaching is, I leave to you to decide.

Being paid for your work, does say readers like it enough to pay for it. There is no more sincere vote of approval than someone who doesn’t know you personally, opening their wallet to spend money on your book. That’s why awards – if they are to be relevant at all, should go to people who sell enough not to rely on a trust fund or partner or patreon.

But there’s a big group in between the top 1-2% and the ‘only my mum and my partner bought it’ (And the guy who claimed a refund).

I’m there. Many of you are. And many of you will get to a point in your book and think ‘why am I doing this to myself? (because for most of us, if you do it properly, it’s hard work).

I still have this.  I can only tell you my reasons. It’s not vanity. Aside from the fact that I care very little what most people think of me (which the SJW and their little twitter pogroms find frustrating) I’ve got a slab of trad published books.

It is at least in part that, yes, I love to create stories and solve problems and build characters. I build onion-skin layers of plots and meanings only I will certainly get all of, because I enjoy doing that. I love to make books I would have loved to have read.

It’s also part of straight-up hero worship emulation. Authors… at least the great ones, that took me from little sick kid (I spent most of my first 7 years on the ‘are you going to die’ list and ‘you must stay in bed, not play outside like other kids’.  By the time I was a teen-ager I was mostly fine, but it was a long road. I had an older sister who died, from what we now believe was cystic fibrosis. It made my mother and father nervous parents, and I was pretty frail to start with.) to being a warrior the canals of Mars, or fighting the kragen in the seas of the Blue world, or changing history like ‘Mouse’ Padway.  I could not have respected and admired a profession more. I wanted to be like them, even if I would never be their equal in my eyes. (How do you tell who the vanity crowd are? : they’re the ones denigrating the greats of yesteryear to make their pathetic efforts look better).

And then there is the response you get from some readers. You’ll strike the right chord, and your book will mean the world to them, go on the comfort-read shelf, and be re-read. Some of them will write to you and tell you so. It’s not about the money, but you feel like you did something worthwhile.

And then there is also being too obstinate to quit.

 

25 Comments Post a comment
  1. I share with you the sickly child who doctors thought would be in a wheelchair and on oxygen by the time I was 30. Thankfully they were wrong, but it did circumscribe my life and I was a late developer due to it.

    September 9, 2019
  2. *Grin* My money’s on “too obstinate to quit” where you’re concerned.

    Me? Yeah, it’s driven by all the books I lived in, as a child and teenager. To reach out and grab that delight, that adventure, the vicarious danger.

    I wonder how much of the resurgence of _Good_ SF is a result of the “New Age” slump? How many of us started writing because we could no longer satisfy our adventure addiction, and had to cook up our our own?

    September 9, 2019
  3. Draven #

    c4c

    September 9, 2019
  4. Zsuzsa #

    I write because I can’t not do it. I’m reminded of the anecdote from Madeleine L’Engle where she described getting yet another rejection on her thirtieth birthday, deciding it was time to admit she’d never be a writer, putting away her typewriter–and then immediately pulling it out again after she was hit with a sudden inspiration for a story about failure.

    I write because the voices in my head demand to be let out into the world. I’m still working on getting some of them up on Amazon, and if people will give me money for them, I’d be thrilled. But I think even if trad-pub were still the only way, and I knew I didn’t have a snowball’s chance in Hell to make in, I’d still have to write.

    (As a side note, my MacBook keeps trying to auto-correct “trad-pub” into “toad-pub.” Do you think it has opinions on the industry?)

    September 9, 2019
    • “I write because I can’t not do it.”

      I didn’t used to write. The stories built up, and became quite a thing to carry around. But I read, and that satisfied whatever big hole is in there that needs filling.

      Then finally the reading became very unsatisfying. After reading the umpteenth version of “Everything sucks and then they all die” I decided I was done with that, and damned if I couldn’t do better.

      So I did better. I worked until the story that had been percolating for 20 years came out on the page and sucked less than what I was seeing in the bookstore. A Real Live Professional Writer told me “this is great, you have to finish this!” So I did. Then another, and another. Now there’s five, with # six in progress and a short story nearing completion.

      Publishing? Yeah, I’ll get to it. Learning to Art is time consuming, but I’ll get there. Real Soon. ~:D

      Trad-Pub? They’ve made it abundantly clear they don’t want my business. Not even a rejection? Yeah, they’re not interested. That’s only fair I suppose, I stopped reading their stuff after all.

      September 9, 2019
    • Mary #

      I started writing because of word deprivation — had to bring books back to the library and get none out! — but stick to it because the ideas get out of my head that way.

      September 9, 2019
  5. 23 skidoo

    September 9, 2019
  6. adventuresfantastic #

    ” (How do you tell who the vanity crowd are? : they’re the ones denigrating the greats of yesteryear to make their pathetic efforts look better).”

    This. Every time another great of yesteryear is publicly vilified, I read fewer new writers (present company excepted) and more of that writer’s work.

    September 9, 2019
  7. Celia Hayes #

    Every once in a while, you have that lovely experience in the real world, of meeting people personally who like your books, very much. I did, last week – meeting a small book club for lunch, who had read one of my books and not only liked it very much, but had intelligent questions to ask about how I went about creating it.
    That kind of thing keeps a writer’s morale up for a good long while …

    September 9, 2019
  8. So: you might say for the first few books ‘why am I doing this? (when I’m selling [only] tens or hundreds…) is still justified in the effort as building towards that dream of doing something you loved…in the hope of eventually building a career and earning a reasonable living.

    God, yes. ^This, so much this. But now I’m on novel/novella #13. When is that reasonable living going to arrive?

    But there’s a big group in between the top 1-2% and the ‘only my mum and my partner bought it’… I’m there. Many of you are.

    Yep, I’m there, and wondering when, if ever, I will really connect with my audience. I know they are out there. But only a fraction of them have stumbled upon my work.

    It’s still, for most who lack the marketing or following, mostly a long hard slog, simply getting discovered.

    Exactly. I’m in that long hard slog.

    I could not have respected and admired a profession more. I wanted to be like them, even if I would never be their equal in my eyes.

    Yes! Being a writer seems like the most wonderful of things, and I always wanted to be one, even when I was convinced that you had to “one of the chosen” and that I was not. When I realized I could tell stories, it felt like a miracle. I didn’t have to be one of the anointed after all. Who knew!

    And I love building worlds, creating characters, and watching/writing as world and characters collide!

    And then there is the response you get from some readers. You’ll strike the right chord, and your book will mean the world to them, go on the comfort-read shelf, and be re-read. Some of them will write to you and tell you so.

    I love it when this happens! It does not happen often for me. (Where is that audience? See above!) But it does happen.

    And then there is also being too obstinate to quit.

    Yeah, I gotta plead guilty to that, too. 😉

    September 9, 2019
    • When does the reasonable living arrive?

      No idea yet, but my writing income now covers about half my bills. That is long tail sales as well as more recent works.

      I can’t not tell stories, and people like them, so why not? Especially now that the infrastructure exists to make it easy to find decent to great cover art, good to fantastic editors, and all sorts of software for the formatting and upload. Plus it allows me to vent my frustrations in socially acceptable ways. 😉

      September 9, 2019
      • Congrats on covering half your bills with writing income! Way to go! I’m with you on the need to tell stories. 🙂

        September 9, 2019
      • I just want to write my stories. If someone is entertained, yay! If someone loves the stories, I dance around the room for joy. Also, I want to write because I want my children to enjoy reading. (Son still occasionally asks when I will find time for Sparrowind and the sequels, but he sees my exhaustion firsthand, so…)

        I mean, Watership Down was originally a story made up for the author’s children. So… yeah.

        I’ve been seeing bunches of indie-published books on Amazon with really professional covers, and wonder where they get those artists, and how much they cost. Out of curiosity, really.

        September 10, 2019
      • A sneeze erased the ‘congratulations on the bills money!’ and hit post. *sigh*

        Sorry about that. *ahem*

        CONGRATULATIONS!!!! *happy dance* *throws confetti*

        September 10, 2019
    • Have you followed Dorothy Grant’s excellent pre-release methodology? And keep hauling.

      September 9, 2019
      • I’m hauling! Thanks, Dave.

        Up until recently, I’ve not had enough reviews to get placement in newsletters such as ENT, etc. I’m still on the edge of qualifying, but I hope to get a spot for a first-in-series (with 13 reviews) when I release its second-in-series this coming January.

        I’ve heard one needs 20 novels out (not 12) in order to really start the snowball. #13 this January, and 7 more to go! 😉

        September 9, 2019
    • elainethomp #

      waves paw. Part of your audience, here. I’ve liked some more than others, but I’ve read a lot of it.

      September 9, 2019
  9. Reziac #

    Why am I doing this? Because otherwise all these characters get to live rent-free in my head….

    September 9, 2019
    • I read “Like the sperm…” and then didn’t get any farther because by brain is an eight year old.

      “Why am I doing this?”

      Because the movie is playing on the back of my eyes no matter what, but if I write it down they move on and start a new movie. Also, the characters are less cranky and the weird dark shit stays down in the dark where it belongs. We do not want that bubbling up and getting on things, its sticky.

      September 9, 2019
      • And I KNEW that would affect some readers like that 😉

        September 9, 2019
        • That’s because your brain is an eight year old, Dave.~:D

          September 9, 2019
  10. BobtheRegisterredFool #

    Yeah, maybe I’ll quit before or after figuring out this current mess. Barring managing that, as far as money goes I’ll have to work towards skills transferable to other occupations. Because organization and writing regularly can’t only be used for fiction.

    September 9, 2019
  11. Why do I let those stories go?

    To riff on Pancho and Lefty, “Out of kindness, I suppose.”

    September 9, 2019
  12. I’ve been writing this, my first novel and my first novel series, because I’ve seen some of the books that have come out and I’ve been disappointed at best. Annoyed at worst. There are some great stories out there…just, the Doyleist in me wants to see more. Books that I’ve read that I’ve pulled out and wondered “where is the rest of it?”

    (But, then again, I’ve thought that some of David Weber’s latest novels have been too short; we need to clone David Drake and separate him out into his RCN, Slammers, and “other books” personality; replace John Ringo’s basement air conditioner freon with liquid nitrogen…)

    And, damn it, if the books aren’t going to be written by other people, I’ve better get to writing myself…

    September 10, 2019

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