Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Writing as a Career

Writing is such a strange career: I almost never meet writers who are "comfortable" with where they are.  In my day job, I'm a computer specialist, specifically an Enterprise Administrators managing over 550 domain controllers in 370 sites nation-wide.  And while everyone wants more money, folks are pretty happy with "where they are".  I know that back when I decided writing was a dream job (emphasis on dream) that had little to do with reality, being an Enterprise Administrator was my ultimate goal.

So naturally, having reached that goal, I no longer want it.  Story of my life.  Anyway, I mentioned this computer stuff not to make your eyes glaze over but as a point of comparison.  Because writing, in a lot of ways, is never what you expect, and your goals have a way of morphing into something completely unexpected and nerve-wracking.

When you start out, you just want to write.  You might never care if you get published, the writing is enough.  That's sort of a misty, happy-crappy initial stage.  For some writers, there is no desire or need to progress.  Sigh.

They are the lucky ones.

But for a few, the idea of getting published takes root.  Then really weird things start happening.  Just like the acting world, I've seen the development of "strata" of writers. 

And note, having an agent will make some of the upper strata easier or more possible, but in no way guarantees the writer will ever make it from one strata to the next.  Even having multiple agents doesn't always help.

Night-Writers:  This is the first strata.  They are the equivalent of those actors and actresses who get occasional "gigs" at community theatre or perhaps even a paid, local production.  For writers, this means you have squeaked through the door to publication by smaller publishers, e.g. e-publishers.  You get royalties, but there is no way to live on the money because you may make $50-$300 per book and it may take 6-months to write a book (or a year, in my case).  Hence the term, night-writer.  You have to keep that day job, just like all those wait-folks working in restaurants determined to someday get their big break.

The advantages, however, are that you don't necessarily have to conform to what is popular in fiction.  Publishers are more willing to take a chance on you, since they don't have to pay you an advance up-front.  You can work at your own pace.  You have creative freedom.

The disadvantages are fairly obvious.  You aren't making enough to even receive minimum wage for the time you spent writing your book.  You're responsible for all your own advertising and promotion, which is typically more money out of your pocket and may actually require you to spend money earned at your day job.  Most likely, you won't be able to walk into a bookstore and find your book: they are typically sold via Internet sources, even if your e-book is sold as a paperback.  Not a bad thing, just an ego note.

The Commercials:  So now, the writer has made it to a level that actually pays advances.  These are still smaller publishers, but they do pay advances ranging from $500 to $1000.  Just like actors in commercials--you can earn money, and it's fairly nice money, but not enough to live on.  Unless you can write really, really fast.  Again, if it takes you about 6 months to write a novel (I take about 6 months to a year, or longer) then you may make $2,000.  Still not enough to live on.  At least for me.

The advantages, though, are that you may actually find your book in a few bookstores (ego boost!).  The publisher may do some (small amount) of promotion and may already have some distribution channels which will help you.  They also, typically, don't lock you into a multi-book contract with outrageous deadlines, so you still have some scheduling freedom.  And you may retain fairly good creative freedom, but...maybe not.

Publishers in this range tend to have stricter guidelines about length and types of stories they will publish.  But they will accept manuscripts from writers without agents, so that is a huge plus for some writers who have difficulties finding (or working with) an agent.

The Soaps:  Yeah!  Okay, so you're not a glamourous writer lounging around with a chef, gardener, housekeeper, and two or three hangers-on.  But you have the chance now to actually make a living if you don't mind earning slightly less than those on welfare.  Seriously, many writers consider this "mid-list" or at least a living wage, but if you quit your job, it's best if you're married to someone who is working.

You get multi-book contracts, e.g. a three-book contract.  Just like a soap actor, you have a little job security (unless the soap actor pisses off someone and gets written out of the story).  You get an advance somewhere in the range of $3,000 to $25,000. 

The publisher does a little more in the way of promotion, plus they have distribution channels, so you'll actually find your book in a bookstore.

This is the stage all non-published writers who want to be published aspire to (unless they're totally starry-eyed and think they'll leap right to movie star).  They (often naively) think if they just reach this stage, they'll be all set.  For some, this may be true.

But you know, some folks are just never happy and writers seem to be more angst-ridden than almost any other group of people I've ever meet.  Because so many are at this stage and completely fraught with performance anxiety and other woes.  Which is actually understandable, given the fact that writers when they reach this stage, often (foolishly) give up their day jobs, thinking they have it made.  Or because they have to in order to keep up with the writing schedule imposed upon them by their publisher.

This is where it really does get to be like the soaps.  Because mid-list writers are like actors, slightly nicked by a knife and then thrown into an ocean of sharks and told to pretend to be terrified.  The camera is rolling.  They could be "written out" at any moment and be swallowed up again into relative obscurity. 

The advantages are that you're finally able to--possibly--make a living.  The disadvantages however, really start to be noticeable, just like those sharks.  You now have to meet a schedule imposed by your publisher.  This can be a huge problem for folks who take a little longer to write and polish a book. 

There is no guarantee of a follow-on contract.  Each contract is a separate negotiation and future contracts may depend *gulp* upon how well your previous books sold.  This means that pretty much each book needs to be better than the last.  Not as easy as it sounds.  Your muse needs to buckle down and write every day, regardless of physical or emotional trauma.  And having a multi-book contract does not mean they will automatically accept your second or third book.  They may decide it doesn't work for them and that's the end of the contract.

Or, you can wake up to find whatever genre you wrote is no longer selling and no publishers will even talk to you.  Your agent may give you a nice kiss on the cheek, a pat on the head, and a goodbye forever (except to get those royalty checks on past sales).

Talk about performance anxiety.  You have to fight for every scrap.

The Movie Stars: We all know these folks.  As a writer, you can become a movie star with your first book, a la Allison Brennan, or you can work your way up like Jennifer Crusie.  Regardless, at this level, you have an agent.  You have no other job.  Your mere name brings dollar signs to the eyes of agents and publishers.

At least for a while.

If you think all worries are over at this point, you are sadly mistaken.  One bad book can be forgiven.  Two bad books...maybe forgiven.  But three? Hmmm.  Four?  Well, sweetie.  There are always the soaps.  Or commercials.

In fact, nothing is certain at any stage, except:

 *  What you write tomorrow must be better than what you wrote today.

*  You'll never be completely free of neurosis.

*  You'll never know if/when you'll get that next contract.

But you know what?  While writing may make eventually me crazy, if I don't write, I am crazy.


Anonymous said...

I am a senior in high school and am considering a profession in creative writing. I love to write, especially fiction. Most of my influence comes from sci-fi and fantasy; such as Harry Potter and especially STAR WARS. But I wonder if I am good enough. I look over my writing and I find that it is very plain and unoriginal. My second choice is dance; modern and classical ballet and if that dosen't work, the marines. Do you think it would work in the 21st centuary if I pursue this profession?

Amy said...

Anything is possible, and I much prefer plain writing so I would not immediately discount that. There are so many opportunities that I would be a fool to discourage anyone. You can always get a writing-related job to pay the bills while you pursue creative writing, if you wished to do that. Or even join the marines and write in your spare time.

There are a lot of folks who are professional writers, however there are also a lot of changes in the market and things are really tightening up.

I am not a risk-taker, so I am drawn to more practical courses like joining the marines and writing on the side to hedge my bets. However, some folks who are able to enjoy taking risks may be able to forget the day job and just write.

There are many roads to Oz, as they say.

Wish I could be more helpful, but I don't want to discourage you unduly (even though it is my sense that most people would need another job just to pay the bills).