Friday, November 15, 2013

Advice to Redacted

Novelist and screenwriter Chuck Wendig wrote a pretty good response to an aspiring writer who wrote to ask about writing as a career. AN EMAIL ABOUT WRITING, AND MY RESPONSE is a pretty good read, and I recommend it. I particularly liked this bit:
    Worry more about writing good stories than getting published. The publishing industry is just the minotaur in the middle of the maze: the challenge at the end. You still have to get there. You still have to wander the maze in order to fight the monster.
and this is also good advice:
    Don’t chase trends—let trends chase you.
The column is inspirational...but, um, I can't help but feel that Wendig missed the mark on answering the question asked. When Redacted expresses concern that
    I’ve been hearing these nasty horror stories about writers going hungry, being unable to find jobs...

I think he's asking, "How do I make a living as a writer?" And not just a living, but really, "How do I obtain the lifestyle to which I aspire as a successful writer?"

The answer to "how do I become a writer" is very simple: one writes stuff. If one has the least talent and invests the usual 10,000 hours of continuous study and effort, one can likely even manage to become a decent writer. Perhaps with persistence, a published writer. Taking Windig's advice would probably help in becoming a published writer.

The answer to "how do I make a good living as a writer" is, however, entirely different: you can't.

I know just about all 200 or so of the SF writers in Canada, and out of that number, I'd estimate that only 3 or 4—so call it 2%—actually make a decent living as writers. Even Sawyer—unquestionably the best known of Canadian SF writers—recently remarked that he couldn't make a living by writing alone: his speaking engagements are a necessary supplement. (Sawyer is a fabulous speaker, by the way, which cannot be said of many writers. It is not a sideline that most writers could avail themselves.) I could name another 10 or so whose major source of income is writing, but their lifestyle is strictly hand-to-mouth. For example, I remember one of them —one of the better ones—exclaiming over a minor winfall that afforded her the luxury of buying box of tea large enough to last her a month. I strongly suspect that this would be the sort of 'horror stories' to which Redacted was referring. Everyone else basically had day jobs to support themselves. Of course, many of these day jobs involved working as writers—speech writers, technical writers, journalists, copy editors, staff writers, English teachers, and so on—but still, 9-5 jobs working for other people.

So, people who pursue writing as a career in the expectation of being one of the 2% or so of writers who are actually able to make a living as novelists are basically deluding themselves. If one's motivation for writing is to acquire the writer's lifestyle, then one had better understand that that life is about earning the occasional box of tea, not the glamorous life of the best seller. The chances of making it as a big time writer are about the same as a random hockey-playing kid making it to the NHL. Obviously, some do, but um, one doesn't plan one's life around that expectation.

[Having said that, though, my colleague the career counsellor tells the story of a student who explained to him that he didn't require career counselling because he had already decided that he was going to play for the NHL. My colleague insisted that the student develop a 'backup plan' for his education, "just in case" that didn't work out (*snicker* *snicker*); but the student in fact went on to become a huge hockey star, much to my colleague's eternal chagrin. So far be if from me to tell anyone that it is impossible for them to make it to the NHL or the Times bestseller list; I'm just saying wait until after your first $100,000 advance to quit your day job.]

I really have two points here. First, becoming a writer should not be confused with becoming a full-time professional. There are lots of opportunities for writers; indeed, thanks to new self-publishing technologies, there is now no excuse for anyone not to become a writer.

There has been some fascination in social media lately, for example, with the statistic that in Iceland, one person in ten has a novel to their credit. People seem surprised and impressed by this statistic, but I think that response is based on confusing "has written a novel" with "is a full-time writer". Because I'm pretty sure that is not the case. I very much doubt if the market for Icelandic literature is large enough to feed very many writers; nor that much Icelandic literature gets translated (or written in English) to penetrate the international market. What that one in ten figure is really telling us is that in Iceland, people write (and finish and circulate) their novel, even knowing that there isn't any money in it.

Being an editor, I have the (undoubtedly annoying) habit of asking people "written any good books lately?" as a variant on the usual conversational gambit of asking people what they have read recently. But here's the thing: probably one in five answer that they have indeed written a novel (or at least started one), now safely tucked away in their dresser's bottom drawer. Granted that I am probably dealing with a biased sample given the sort of people I am likely to run into, I don't think it is too much of a reach to suggest that perhaps one in ten Canadians have also written (or started) a novel. The difference between Canadians and Icelanders, then, is that Icelanders then go on to share their novel in the reasonable expectation that they have something to contribute to the body of Icelandic literature; whereas Canadians do not think in those terms at all. Quite aside from the fact that we are intimidated by a North American market that swamps any sense of a Canadian canon to which our work may contribute, we tend not to see literature as a conversation between writers, or between writers and readers, but as a way to make money. I very seldom hear people ask, "do you think anyone would be interested in reading my book"; instead they ask me, "will anyone buy it?" It is a subtle but significant difference. If a Canadian cannot believe s/he can make it as a professional writer, the book(s) go in the bottom drawer. But that's crazy. Just because you can't make the NFL team, doesn't mean you and a bunch of the guys can't get in some ice time. If it is okay to be an accountant during the day, and play Hockey Thursday nights in your local league, why isn't it okay to be an amateur writer? But in our capitalist mindset, if a book doesn't sell well enough to pay out on all the hours it took to write it—at an hourly rate equivalent to or exceeding our day-job rate—then it must be considered a failure.

This is astonishingly wrong-headed.

Contrary to the position of capitalist ideologues, market forces are not the only measure of worth. Indeed, Stephen Meyer and David Brown and E. L. James and a host of others are pretty compelling evidence that market forces are a very long way from the best measure of quality.

Don't get me wrong: I have nothing against making money from writing, and wish every writer the best of luck. But the expectation that one should be able to make a full-time living from writing is well, unrealistic. Poets and origami artists have had to face the fact that there are very few full time positions for poets and paperfolders, but thankfully poetry and origami have not died out.

Second, Redacted wants to know the secret of becoming a full-time author because "economics isn't for him". This reminds me of an acquaintance who patiently explained that she had had to quit her job "because I'm not like other people. I cannot tolerate the restrictions of a 9-5 job. As an artiste, I have to have an outlet for my creativity. I have to write!" One got the strong impression that she believed herself surrounded by worker bees who were perfectly content working 9-5 jobs, who didn't get just as frustrated with long hours, annoying coworkers/bosses, and mind-numbing routine as she. In other words, she was a spoilt, self-entitled idiot. There is nothing wrong with Redacted asking how one achieves one's dream job; but it is important to recognize that that is one's dream job, not one to which one is inherently entitled. I note, for example, that my aforementioned acquaintance never in the thirty years since produced a single short story, let alone a novel, while plenty of the worker bees she disdained managed to hold down two jobs, raise a family and still knock out an impressive novel or two.

Or, to put it another way, the complaint that one can no longer make a living as a novelist is kind of a first world problem. There are like a billion people on this planet who can't access clean water, so I find it hard to get worked up over the fact that one can't always quit one's day job to indulge oneself in full time writing.

Again, don't get me wrong: there is nothing wrong with aspiring to become a full-time novelist; but one does not generally get there by starting as a full-time novelist. One gets there by writing. After work, after the kids are in bed, and if they are very lucky, a little bit extra during NaNoWriMo. Once one has had some critical and financial success, one might consider whether quitting the day job to free up more time for writing is a practical option; starting from the assumption that that the world owes one a living as a wordsmith is the road to disappointment.

This is not a popular position. When I say things like this, aspiring writers tend to hear "you're telling me I can never be a writer, and I should give up"; which is, of course, pretty much the exact opposite of what I am actually arguing. I'm an educator as well as a development editor, so I pretty much believe that given sufficient commitment anyone can become a competent writer; and that almost all of my clients could become proficient or brilliant writers. I'm just arguing that becoming a writer should not be confused with becoming a best seller. That aiming at the best seller market my actually demand that you become a worse writer than you are now. That selling your vision, your voice to break into the American mass market may be a really bad goal. What I am arguing is that maybe it is okay to be a part-time writer, to write for an hour or two each evening, rather than all day. (As it happens, most full-time writers only write for part of the day anyway, the rest being spent on marketing and recharging their creative energies, but that's a topic for another column.)

Let me give you an example: H. A. Hargreaves was a university English professor who devoted roughly one week every second year to writing short stories. But over his career he produced two short story collections, North by 2000+ and Growing up Bronx which represents a respectable output. Indeed, I have argued elsewhere that the stories in North by 2000+ have had a profound influence on Canadian SF. Hargreaves never expected nor made a living from his writing, but he nevertheless made a truly significant contribution to Canadian culture and became a hugely important part of the conversation with other writers, critics and readers about what makes writing Canadian.

It is not necessary to be a professional writer to count yourself a writer. Writing doesn't have to be a career. Authors who disdain 'amateur' writers are not just pompous, they are suffering from false consciousness: they have been duped into believing that schooling is about job training rather than education; that culture is only valid if it is an industry; and that the only measure of success is income. Instead, they should be celebrating the opportunities to join with all writers and readers (most readers these days being other writers) in the conversation that is Canadian culture. They need to recognize themselves as a 'class' and develop the class consciousness that rejects the divide and conquer logic of professional vs amateur. They need to embrace readers and beginning writers and self-published writers as their brothers and allies in lobbying for more recognition of the arts. They need to become, in Gramsci's terms, the organic intellectuals that are the vanguard of the revolution to—

Oops, sorry. Getting carried away there. Baby steps.

Write your novel, your stories. Strive to get better; strive to have something to say. Stop asking if you can make a living at this. Do it because you have something to say; because you were blessed with a muse; or simply because self-expression is more enjoyable for you than stamp collecting. If you ever get good enough to actually make significant amounts of money, well, bonus!

But if you're in it for the money and the lifestyle...have you considered buying lottery tickets as a more viable career option?


  1. Really good points, Robert! I am sharing this one shortly. I have told a few people similar advice, that get-rich stories like 50 Shades or Wool are like those diet ads that say "Results Not Typical" in the tiny print.

  2. I find it fascinating about how few Canadian sci-fi authors make a living from it.I had no idea it it was so low.

    I do like to think of writing as a job, but that's in terms of "This is something I need to do regularly" rather than "this is going to pay the bills." I do hope that it will someday pay the bills, but this post is a useful recalibration on that as the end goal. Do I want to share the stories I have to tell, or do I want to make money? The answer is undoubtedly the former, as nice as the latter would be.

    Thanks for this!

  3. Agreed, very good points. My only contention is with what we include in the "job description" of novelist. I think the same points about the percentage of people who can make a decent living as a full time novelist apply to almost any creative profession. I don't know a single blogger/writer/painter/etc. who doesn't include some sort of related work or "sidelines" in their business, be that speaking engagements, advertising, or what have you. But they don't call themselves "part time bloggers" or "part time artists." I think perhaps rather than say outright "you can't make a decent living as a writer," perhaps we need to be telling people that yes, you can, you just need to realize there's more to being a novelist/blogger/writer/artist/etc. than the actual act of creating a product (whether that's a novel, a painting, or a blog post).

  4. A very thoughtful piece. You make an important distinction between "writer" and "full-time" writer. With determination and grit, anyone can be a writer, but to actually make a living off of it is quite another. And success is not always measured by income. It really grates me when I hear the phrase "if you become the next J.K. Rowling." Kudos to Rowling for her achievements, but for the rest of us it means we get measured by misshapen yardsticks.

    When we write with dollar signs in our eyes, we lose perspective on what's really important. I find it helps to create an intention - why I write - and this intention keeps me grounded, whenever I start thinking about fame. It helps me get back to what's really important.

    I appreciate your point that breaking into the American mass market might actually be a bad idea, but I wish you would have said a little more about that. You rush to the next point without saying more. I think I know what you meant but maybe you can provide some clarification.

    From what I see, in order to write a book that millions of people buy, you have to write a book that appeals to and pleases millions of people, a book that has a vast audience under its umbrella. Best-sellers are fun to read but not that good. When I read them, I feel like I just ate a whole bag of cheese puffs: empty calories, no nutrition, and a mild feeling of “ugh.” Not sure I can write a book that leaves me with a feeling of “ugh.”

  5. Thanks for airing an important topic, Robert.