Mark Terry

Friday, April 04, 2008

What Do You Want?

April 4, 2008
Hello. If any of you came over here because of my mini-rant on the BookEnds blog this morning, welcome. I'll try to be a little less caustic here. (I'll try; no promises).

For those of you who just dropped in as usual or for the hell of it, BookEnds essentially wrote about some writer who asked them when they should give up, and she asked the responders what their opinions were.

There was a lot of the typical: "I write because I have to" responses, which set me off today. Agent Nathan Bransford asked the same question a month ago or so and got over a hundred responses along those lines. To both of these I have commented:

There appears to be a free-floating obsessive-compulsive disorder out there in the writing community.

Without a doubt.

Here's the thing, and what I more or less said on the BookEnds blog.

What do you want?

This is not a frivolous question, you know. It really isn't.

Do you write just because you love to write? Great, then why screw around with the publishing process? Publishing is a business and there's precious little room for hobbyists out there (except in fiction, where most novelists ARE hobbyists, at least as far as the IRS is concerned). Stop trying to find an agent, stop trying to get your novel published. Save some trees and don't print the damned manuscript out, keep the story in your head and die with a smile on your face. If that's all you want, then don't try to get published. Really. I'm not kidding.

Do you want to write for a living? Then honestly, I'm not sure that novels are the way to go. Even if, for a moment, you say, "But I love stories, I love fiction," from a strict dollars and sense point of view, try to write for TV or the movies. At least there, they're unionized, you get healthcare insurance, retirement and the money is excellent. Of course, as a result, it's wildly competitive, there's a relatively finite number of writers, but unlike with novels where you might get no advance, a $1000 advance, a $5000 advance or the sky's the limit, the minimum for TV and feature scripts can at least pay your mortgage.

But taking that step a little further, I think you should diversify. Try some magazine writing. Try some technical writing, copywriting, trade journals, etc. Even for novelists able to make a living at it--and there probably aren't that many--if they're not bestsellers they may very well find themselves without a publisher, locked out of the industry. It happens ALL the time. Writers dropped not just because their sales decreased, but because their sales were flat or, even because their sales didn't grow fast enough. 

You've probably heard all those stories about editors that nurtured a writer along until their big "breakout." "Yes," they say over a martini, or in the pages of Publishers Weekly, "the first four books were a loss, but I knew she had a breakout book in her."

Bah! This a fairy tale. Sure, it might have happened. It even might, from time to time, happen today. After all, what editor wants to be quoted as saying, "Writers get one, maybe two shots, and if they don't catch on, they're gone, and those of us on the buying end don't give a shit, there's more where they came from. I get a couple hundred publishable manuscripts a week that cross my desk. If I'm desperate, any of them will do to fill a slot on the list. What I'm looking for is the bolt of lightning."

It's not like if they go to conferences and say that publicly that would-be writers are going to keep buying them drinks for long, is it?

Does this mean you should give up your dreams of writing fiction for a living?

I haven't. But as that great sage and philosopher John Lennon said, "Life is what happens while you're making plans."

If you want to make a living as a writer and you've put all your eggs in the fiction basket, you're gambling on long odds. And yes, it might happen. People win the Lotto. First-time manuscripts get picked up for 6-figures and become huge successes. Little indie films shot for $100,000 go on to the huge successes. Little-known actors toiling away as extras or in ads or in dinner theater get a break, get noticed, and are tomorrow's movie stars.

But mostly, you know, they don't.

And, just from a working writer's perspective, I don't know that I've ever heard an aspiring novelist or screenwriter compare themselves to a would-be actress or rock musician.

It's sort of like this. You're a novelist, you think, "My story is wonderful, it's going to get picked up for six figures, it's going to be made into a movie and I'm going to be able to make my living as a bestselling novelist. Here I come."

But if you asked those same people if their 17-year-old son who plays guitar in a garage band is going to go to Nashville and get picked up and become the next Bruce Springsteen, do they get the same support?

If their daughter plans to move to L.A. to become a movie star, does that aspiring novelist say, "Well, I'm just like you. I've gone for it, so should you."

Or do they?

And one last, sort of esoteric thought. Have you ever heard of "cognitive dissonance?" It's a psychological term, and my understanding of it is, this is what you get when the difference between reality and your perception of reality grows too wide, when your perception of reality (YOUR reality) differs so much from what actually is reality that your mind can't continue to support the delusion.

Makes you think, huh?

Well, a little tough love on Friday. Have a good weekend.

Mark Terry


Blogger spyscribbler said...

The whole artsy, "I write because I have to" thing gets to me, too. Yeah, I love writing.

But making money from fiction is like making money from performing. Yeah, it can be done. I think you need to work harder than anyone else, position yourself for opportunities, constantly analyze others' success, be able to improve yourself every day, and be perfectly ready and prepared to go full steam ahead when opportunity knocks.

And then keep doing those things. I don't think those things guarantee success, though, and you probably need some strange balance of self-delusion and feet on the ground to do all that without promise of money. But none of them have much to do with some esoterical, artsy "need" to write.

I love writing, but it's also one of the few skills I have. Listening to scales every day makes me want to tear my hair out, and I can only grow that business so far. Writing is the only other marketable skill I've got. I will make it work because I have to, but if NY doesn't work out, pseudonym has a few options.

But making a living from an art is a skill unto itself that requires instinct, ruthless positioning, and incessant plotting along the lines of, "how can I make some more m/oney?"

It has little to do with artsy "need" to write, and trying to make money from an art has a tendency to slaughter that "need." What's left is probably something much less romantic.

6:53 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

--I find this comparison particularly useful. Partly because, at one point in my life, I considered majoring in music, specifically piano, but I knew that if I did, I was looking at 3:00 to 9:30 or 10:00 every day teaching students, probably all day on Saturday, too. Then, I'd probably get a gig playing organ (at which i have no experience) or piano at a church, so probably some choir rehearsal one night a week. It wasn't something I wanted (although I have moments these days where it doesn't sound too bad).

My guitar teacher, who's about 28, I think, recently graduated with a degree in guitar performance. I don't know Peter's long-term musical/career goals, but what I see him doing is teaching a lot, he's in a couple bands, he does some songwriting, he gigs for weddings, etc., runs an open-mic night at a club and in general, seems to be making a living doing the music thing.

Which is partly what strikes me when it comes to making a living in the arts. Yes, there are people who get to do one thing and are wildly successful, but an awful lot of people, whether it's musicians, writers, photographers, artists, actors, etc., do a wide variety of things. A photographer might do art photography, but also shoot weddings or do commercial work or set up a stock photography website or do high school senior pictures. An actor might teach acting or do local theater or put together children's productions or workshops or write plays and scripts and be agreeable to ads or voiceover work when necessary.

But I keep running into the aspiring novelists who seem to think, "novelist, that's it, I'm gonna make it" and seen from a wider perspective, the odds are bad and it's rare and difficult. Experience has taught me that, so I guess if I could be delusional for a decade or longer, why can't everybody else be?

But that doesn't necessarily mean, especially when I'm having a crabby drizzly day, that I have to hop on their delusional train and reinforce them.

7:19 AM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

It's easy. Just give them the bolt of lightning. ;)

8:29 AM  
Blogger Allie said...

I know I'm going to get jumped on for this, but I do write because I "have to." And I don't mean that in some sort of deep tortured artist way, which I think is how a lot of people say it -- like it's this noble martyr thing -- I mean that my head gets cluttered and writing is the best way I've found to clear it so that I can focus on other things.

Sure, if I didn't write, I wouldn't curl up and die, but I'd probably be busy spinning stories in my head when I should be keeping my eyes on the road, or balancing my check book, and it wouldn't be good for anyone involved. I guess I write as a way of managing my ADD.

That said, I also work at it. The initial brain dump isn't the end result. I work on story and character and dialogue and all that stuff -- very hard. I try to craft a story people will actually want to read. I don't vomit the contents of my brain on the page and declare it brilliant -- which is, I suspect, another part of the "I write because I have to" annoyance.

But I also don't have any delusions about publishing being easy or that I'm entitled to a six figure book deal just because I wrote a book.

Sure, it would be nice to make a living writing fiction, but if it doesn't happen, I may give up on publishing, but not writing -- the same way you didn't give up on music after you realized it wasn't the right career choice for you.

9:24 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I'm not jumping on you, but there's a definite trend with people in writing being asked why they write and saying, "Because I have to" or some version of it.

David Morrell deals with this quite eloquently in the beginning of his book on writing and the same issues come up.

I think it's quite reasonable to write fiction simply because the act of writing a novel is as satisfying or more satisfying than reading a novel. Just the way I play guitar with no intention of being Eric Clapton or probably ever playing for money. (Certainly no time soon, and that's not my goal).

But although a lot of people seem to paint for their own pleasure, write poetry for their own pleasure, play guitar, sing, play piano or whatever for their own pleasure, sculpt, etc., without ever considering doing it for a living, writers of novels not only almost always then expect to be published, and then indulge with the notion not of just getting published, but of making a LOT of money, of being a bestseller, etc.

And today, anyway, it set me off and my frustration with that whole end of the industry burst out.

9:42 AM  
Blogger Steve Thorn said...

"when your perception of reality (YOUR reality) differs so much from what actually is reality that your mind can't continue to support the delusion."

Heh heh, your mind can't continue to support the delusion of reality-reality or YOUR-reality?

9:54 AM  
Blogger Allie said...

I can see why it's annoying -- especially when you are actually dealing with the publishing industry and you're reading a lot of comments by people who are still on the outside looking in.

I'd like to suggest that it maybe has less to do with why people write, but their sense of entitlement about their writing. That "I just know it's going to happen for me" idea about publishing.

I think it stems from the fact that everyone thinks they are special these days. My generation (I'm 31) had some of that -- everyone gets a ribbon just for participating. But I have a friend who has a 13 year old son who plays basketball. They don't keep score at his games because they don't want anyone to feel like a loser. Because, you know, losing a junior high school basketball game could really ruin a person for life.

I think we're creating people who don't know how to be good losers anymore -- who think they are special for just existing and don't have it in their mind that they could ever fail. Or that failing is some horrible mark on your character that can never be erased.

I think that's sad, because the best lessons I've learned came from falling flat on my face. And I think there's something to be said for knowing the odds and putting your hat in the ring anyway, because the chance of "winning" is worth the risk of getting your ego bruised a little.

But the idea that it's just gotta happen because that's what I'm meant for -- well, I can see how that can get irritating. I'm going to try my hardest to learn the system and work hard and see if I can make it work -- that seems like a much healthier perspective.

Hope I didn't derail too much there.

10:13 AM  
Blogger Eric Mayer said...

I really can only reiterate what you've said. To think you are going to write a living writing fiction is somewhat like thinking you are going to make a living by winning the lottery. Writing fiction for a living isn't a career. There are too many talented people who want to do it, hardly any money to be had, too much luck involved. Anyone who is dreaming of getting published, and thinking of making a living, needs to consider this -- getting a book published, by a major publisher, increases your chances of making a living at it only slightly. Unless you are one of the few tabbed for bestsellerdom by the publisher, chances are your first book (or if you're lucky and get two chances, your second book) won't sell well enough and there's your "career" for you.

Is it defeatist and pessimistic to say this? Well, is it defeatist and pessimistic to recognize the truth? I wish I had realized this years ago. I would've enjoyed writing a lot more if I'd realized the outcome was not likely to be "making a living" because then rather than concentrating on the outcome that never happened and feeling frustration and disappointed I could've concentrated on the process and not only enjoyed myself more but probably written better.

If you need to write, write what you enjoy. Forget about what editors and agents want. Write what you want and then look for an editor or agent who likes it. If that happens, and publication follows, that's icing on the cake. Trying to write what editors and agents want might increase you chances, rather like buying three lottery tickets rather than one increases your chances.

As you point out, artists who make money often don't make money in the "ideal" way. A musician is more likely to make a few bucks playing greatest hits from the seventies at a local club than writing his or her own music.

And I'm not even going to get onto what allie said about our creating a society where everyone feels entitled and special and is insulated from failure. Boy is allie ever right on. We all have strengths and weaknesses. I have never understood this business of "self-esteem" which seems to entail feeling self-esteem for everything. Even stuff we are lousy failures at we are supposed to feel self esteem over. What's the point of that? And, actually, vanity publishers probably prey on that attitude.

10:36 AM  
Blogger Erica Orloff said...

Hey Mark:
Great post. My living is made 80% novels . . . 20% other gigs (all writing and editing). I write to make a living, and I write because I am passionate about. I write because I'm not particularly qualified to do anything else. But if someone came to me and said, "I am going to pay you $150,000 a year to garden (another passion)," I'd do it and never look back. I don't "have to" write.

That said, I am truly one of those parents who would be really bummed inside if one of my four kids ends up working for "the man." I know there's security and all, but I just tend to think . . . I wasn't put on this earth to punch a clock for 30 years. It doesn't appeal to me in any fashion. My oldest is a musician. My younger daughter is destined, I think, to write or paint. Older Son would love to write comics or games . . . Demon Baby is aiming for World Domination and evil minion sidekicks. I tend to steer my kids that way, toward things with a hint of wanderlust and dreaming. If Demon Baby had a garage band and I thought they were decent, I would totally tell him to go for it. And part of that is--and this is really my main point--that unlike the lottery . . . talent and perseverence count for something. Yeah, someone has to win the lottery. But if you have SOME talent and you are willing to put in the years and the grind and the learning and so on . . . at SOME point you really COULD be the lightning.

11:10 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Eric & Erica (no relation, that I know of),
A lot of it comes down to, as I suggested, what you want?

My oldest son either wants to be a writer or a musician. I think that's great. I've commented to him with being a musician, just be aware there are a lot of ways to make a living-teaching, playing, writing; and sometimes even the most successful orchestral musicians continue to teach and give masters classes; that it's okay to have a job where you teach during the week and have a band that does shows on the weekend and sells CDs and T-shirts without being the next Madonna or whatever.

When it comes to writing, I am alternately encouraging and cautious, suggesting that that's great, but to stay open-minded about different ways of making a living as a writer--novels, TV scripts, videogame scripts (a new and upcoming market), as well as all the yawn-inducing crap his old man does for a living.

My youngest currently says "videogame tester" so we've encouraged him into computers, because if you write the games, you can test them as well. (And did you know, there are actually university programs for videogame design? Michigan State University, my alma mater, has a big program in it now).

"Demon Baby is aiming for World Domination and evil minion sidekicks."

Two questions:
1. Are the odds better than hitting the NYT list?

2. Why didn't I think of that? (Hey, maybe for my second career!)

11:22 AM  
Blogger R.J. Keller said...

Found you through the BookEnds post. Yep...I'm one of the nauseating "I have to write" crew.

Not to support myself. I'm quite aware that the chances of being published are slim. After all, the market is tough and I used up all three of my genie wishes on two Red Sox championships and a chance encounter with a celebrity-who-shall-not-be-named. And even if that were to happen, I'm even more aware that published novelists--for the most part--don't make a whole lotta money.

But because I enjoy writing, I should I stop trying to find an agent? Fie! I write damned good stuff, and I'm gonna keep on trying. Am I going to quit my day job? I'm not quite that delusional. But what about you? Yes it's a business, but what about the creative process itself? Don't you LOVE to write? Don't you get antsy when you haven't done it in awhile?

I'm not ashamed to say I Have To Write, even if it makes me look like an artsy loon with OCD.

(I enjoyed your "Seven Deadly Sins" post very much, by the way.)

1:21 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Whenever I say I'm going to quit writing fiction, my wife just rolls her eyes. She's been hearing this for over 20 years.

So, do what I say? Or do what I do?

For God sakes, everybody who's ever read my blog knows I'm just as full of shit as the all-is-positive-chase-your-dreams crew.

But sometimes I think it's a good idea to inject a little bit of "reality" into the conversation.

2:07 PM  
Blogger Erica Orloff said...

If you ever peruse my Demon Baby blog, I can tell you that I think World Domination, evil minions, and one of those Four Horsemen, at least for Demon, is significantly a better shot than NY Times best-seller-hood. He is well on his way to taking over the world. And then I'll just have to report to him and his Dark Council.


3:15 PM  
Blogger spyscribbler said...

Mark, she's not fibbing! It's true. Demon Baby is going to take over the world. I'm certain of it.

3:17 PM  
Blogger R.J. Keller said...

"Whenever I say I'm going to quit writing fiction, my wife just rolls her eyes. She's been hearing this for over 20 years."

I'll tell my hubby. He's only been rolling his eyes for 7. Strengthens the eye muscles, that's what I say.

Reality is good. VERY good, and we all need it; especially writers, who spend so much time away from it. Sorry if I came off defensive. It wasn't until I reread my comment a moment ago that I realized it probably sounded that way.

I'm just glad to have 'met' so many talented people today.

8:28 PM  
Blogger Merry Monteleone said...

hmmm... why oh why did Erica point me over here on this beautiful Saturday afternoon...

Okay, I have to write, not as in a compulsion in that artsy through the looking glass you don't understand my brilliance kind of way... but in the way that if I hadn't decided to put in the effort to research and hone and work on craft and ridiculously obsess on the goal of building a fiction career, I'd still be scribbling stories into a notebook that no one would see. I've been doing it as long as I could write, in the same way that you play guitar, because it's fun...

It's also one of my better skills. The realist in me knows my writing is more marketable in the business arena, and I have done freelance writing, which is okay. But, when I'm doing business and online content full time, I don't feel like getting down to the work of fiction - because, yeah, I love my stories but they're work - that's I think where the annoyance comes from in hearing people say they 'have to' - they seem to discount the mind numbing, soul crushing, bounce your head of the wall twelve times because you can't get the bloody sentence right aspect to writing... which makes you wonder if they actually write or just wax philosophical about it...

ah, so for me, I'm a realist. I want to write fiction because I love it. The goal, obviously, is making a living at it, but I'm aware of the longshot variable involved there. But, as Erica said above, there are degrees of work and talent and, you know, work, that go into making a successful writing career... along with timing.

Right now I can concentrate on the writing because I'm not working - I'm a sahm of three, so I can't concentrate on the writing as much as I'd like, but that's another thing. Next year I'll have to start earning an income, and I'm thinking office work with my fiction as a side (and less if at all paying) job... I could pursue freelance writing again and work from home, but I'd rather keep the writing for the fiction and do something I like less for the money....

And yes, any of my kids that wanted to pursue the arts would have my firm backing because I do equate the dream of writing for a living with being as difficult as a successful acting career. The thing is, those terrible odds decrease considerably when you don't try at all.

Great post, by the way...

10:40 AM  
Anonymous Alex Fayle said...

To reiterate what everyone else has said: Great Post!

Right most of my income comes from writing - webwriting. Fortunately I have a partner with whom I can share expenses and we live very cheaply.

Although I've been writing practically all my life, I got serious with it last year. I had run my own business for a while before moving in this direction, so I've gotten used to fluctuating income (don't like it but I'm used to it). I work just enough to pay the bills to give me the life I want, which includes lots of relaxation and writing time (yes, the choice of order is on purpose).


2:37 AM  
Anonymous How Not To Write said...

Mark, I think you hit it on the head when you said it was an illness.

Being a failed writer is the easiest thing in the world. No one cares what you do, no one has their eye on you. Hell, there's even some sicko cachet in claiming some writerness.

You get a bit of attention and an appraising eye from people you don't know. Or at least it seems that way to me.

This is exactly why I quit writing years ago, and then quit the year after that and the year after that.

Had my best "I QUIT" session last summer. Weeks and weeks of pure bliss. I started getting a full night's sleep and stopped grinding my teeth to dust. Hell, I even went on vacation with the family.

Just recently, I convinced myself that I should start writing fiction again. I started with the usual hemming a hawing and then I went into it with both hands hammering on the keyboard.

This is a little like when I convince myself that I ought to go ahead and take another stab at home repair. Plumbing is an especially dangerous mistress.

6:37 PM  
Blogger Bernita said...

Thank you, Mark, for voicing what has annoyed me to no end.

(And Spy and Allie for their intelligent perspectives.)

5:15 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

You're hilarious. And yes, plumbing is something I have quit repeatedly and wish I could quit for good. It's not healthy for me and I really suck at it.

5:52 AM  
Anonymous How Not To Write said...

Sucking at things can be OK as long as you keep it in perspective. That's why I invented the Suckage Quotient (SQ):


With SQ, the higher the number the less you suck at something. I know this seems backwards and it is. I suck at mathematical metaphors.

Using this formula, my Plumbing SQ is .22. I have little skill but I'm always desperate and have a very strong desire to succeed... (.2/(.95*.95))

On the other hand, most of my friends will tell you that I suck at golf. I mean really, really bad. I have no skill whatsoever. Yet, I also have no desire and I'm certainly not desperate. This gets me a Golf SQ of 10! (.1/(.2*.2))

Maybe I ought to play more golf?

Now, after writing for 20 years, I'd like to think I've developed some measure of talent. If nothing else, I know where the bodies are buried. Unfortunately, I'm really quite desperate to be "a writer" and the measure of my desire is right off the charts. As a result, my Writing SQ is .51. (.5/(.99*.99))

How can I fix this? Well, desire isn't going to go away so easily. I think the best I can probably do here is to lower my desperation factor. Still, even if I lowered the desperation all the way down to .1, my Writing SQ would hit 5.

But is a 5 good enough?

Well, let's measure it against something I know I'm good at... Something like programming.

I'm not the best out there but I can sling some code. Out of 100% I'll be generous and give myself .85 for skill.

The problem with programming is that I hate computers. No, hate isn't a strong enough word but I can't think of anything at the moment because my writing skill has dropped to .3 so let's stick with hate. That means that my desire is way low, like .05 low.

Also, since I've got skillz, I'm not really all that desperate. I'm like a long-legged blond trying to hitch a ride outside a truck stop. I just put out my thumb and brakes lock-up. So, I'll put my desperation at .1.

If you calculate that, you end up with a Programming SQ of 170!!! Yikes!

Guess I'd better keep the day job.

8:52 AM  
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