Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Is the Writing Enough?

One of the writing blogs I subscribe to is Camille Laguire's The Daring Novelist. She doesn't talk about how-to or logistics or the business and such with every post, but it's worth watching her blog for when she does, because when her posts head in that direction, they're always worth reading.

On Monday she got down to the heart of the matter and discussed whether this writing thing is worth it. She said, in part:


The thing that got me fretting over this was the subtext of something a young writer said to me the other day. I was advocating the idea of devoting a couple of years to just writing -- no marketing, no business, just getting books done -- so that you'd have 5 or 10 books in hand to launch your career.

The response, to me, was shocking and a little heart-breaking: But what if that first book is a failure? Why waste several years of hard writing work before you even know if the market will like your stories?

The implication -- within context -- was that writing is a waste of time if you're not successful at it NOW. Write one book, then if if flies, write more later. If it doesn't fly, then it's a waste of time to do this writing thing.

If you wanted to be a doctor, would you start out by setting up a clinic during your first year of medical school, and base your decision on whether to become a doctor on how successful your clinic was? Shouldn't you be more interested in finding out whether you enjoy the work, or whether you can handle the workload? Shouldn't you be looking at grades and feedback from instructors to judge whether you're any good at it -- not the dollars you make at it?

Look, if you want to be a writer, you've got to love to write. That's what you will be doing, day in and day out. Writing writing writing. If you want to know if you can weather the hard times in a writing career, and if it's "worth it" you don't start with whether you can reach a bestseller list or win a Pulitzer.

You start with whether you can walk the walk.


I think this is something every writer has to think about at some point. Is it worth it? We've all heard the one about how so many writers don't actually want to write, but rather they want to have written. That circles around the point, but Camille gets right to the center of it. Is writing enough? Do you enjoy the writing more than anything else? More than being published, more than getting checks, more than reading great reviews or getting praise and cookies and fansquee from readers?

All those other things can be fun and satisfying, and I think everyone enjoys some ego stroking whether they admit it or not, but if you don't love the writing more than any of the other things, then really, is it worth it? If what you're really after is praise and recognition, there are easier ways to get that. If you're in it for the money, there are definitely easier ways to get that. When everything else dries up, or if you never get any of the other things however hard you try, the writing itself has to be enough. If it's not, you'll probably find it hard to stick with the writing long enough to give the rest of it a decent chance of finding you.

Read the rest of Camille's post -- it's good stuff.



Suzan Harden said...

Camille's a smart cookie.

Those ego strokes are nice I have to admit, but the need for immediate gratification will flush out the writers not in it for the long haul.

As for me, well my blood pressure has gone from 185/135 when I practiced law to 100/60 now that I'm writing almost full-time. That's all the incentive I need.

Angie said...

Suzan -- as someone taking blood pressure meds, I agree that that's an excellent reason to keep writing. :)

But yeah, there has to be something deeply satisfying about creating characters and worlds and stories to keep a writer going these days.


Stewart Sternberg said...

Thanks for the post. I will check out Camille. I don't think it is a good idea to have a horde of novels sitting there..for several reasons..

First, we change as writers from one work to the next. If we write five novels in five years, I would argue that number five is being written by a radically different person in many ways.

Second, I think the market changes. Sometimes keeping your ear to the ground and writing to the marketplace makes the different begin being published and not being published.

Angie said...

Stewart -- one thing to keep in mind is that Camille is coming at this primarily from the POV of someone who's indie publishing, although she's done it the other way, too.

Some publisher's idea of what "the market" is doing means a lot less when you're publishing yourself. (And really, how often are the NY publishers right about that anyway? How often do they sink millions into a book that doesn't come close to earning out, and how often does a book like Harry Potter get rejected fifty times by people who are supposedly experts on what the market wants?) There's more than enough market out there for all sorts of niches that New York won't touch, but which have plenty of readers to make it worth a writer's time even if their book isn't the next Harry Potter.

Plenty of writers who want to sell to New York will keep the same book circulating for five years or longer, if they can get their agent to agree to keep trying. The smart ones are still writing during that time, so they might well have two books come out in subsequent years which were written quite a few years apart. If NY will take them, how many writers would say, "No, I don't think I want to sell you my older book, come to think of it?" :)

If you're indie pubbing, you have a much better chance at catching and holding the interest of some significant body of readers if you have several books to release close together -- maybe once every other month, something like that. If you're only releasing a book a year, you're going to have a really tough time building a decent income stream, unless you win the publishing lottery. Someone will buy your first book, go looking for more, see there's nothing, and wander away. Six months or a year later they don't remember your name and won't go back to look for your second book. Having five or six books ready to go when you start gives you the best chance of building an audience from the beginning, of having something to offer that reader who read your first book and has come back looking for more of your work.

Also, while the writing itself needs to be enough to hold you through the a long stretch of little or no progress on your writing career, the fact is that (again, unless you win the lottery, which isn't something to count on) if you want to have half a chance at making your living with your fiction, a book a year isn't enough. Whether you're publishing through New York or small presses or indie pubbing, one book a year won't cut it unless you're household-name level famous. These days, a $10K advance from a NY publisher is pretty good, and $20K means you're doing quite well, for a midlister. A newbie's more likely to get around $5K, and that's not actually the lowest advance I've heard of. Most people can't live on even the $20K/year, though. You have to either become a bestseller -- which is pretty much out of your hands -- or you have to sell three or four books a year, or even more.

Indie pubbing, you have the option of publishing novellas (or novelettes or shorts, but they don't make as much money) rather than only novels, so even with a day job you can publish multiple books per year. And there's no publisher (or agent, gack!) to tell you your new book isn't quite right for them.

And I don't know that I agree that we necessarily become "radically" different between book one and book five. We might, sure. But there are plenty of writers out there who've published ten or twenty or more books, and who are still recognizably the same writer, even if they've switched genres in the process. Their skills will have hopefully improved, and they might've learned some new bits of craftsmanship, but if I as a reader liked a writer's third book I'll probably like their tenth or twentieth too. And that's what matters, no?