Tuesday, August 17, 2010

What reward for writing?

Many of us assume, wrongly, that all writers pretty much have the same desires, that we define "success" in the same way, and that it's all about sales figures and royalties.

So I've been thinking about what writers want out of their writing and their writing careers. We're coming off three decades of growing sales (until recently) of popular fiction at least, and most of us know at least one writer who hit it big and made a million or more during this time, and maybe a few others who have made pretty good livings just on their royalties and advances.

Okay, I'll stipulate that at least the latter, if not the former, has probably become less likely than in 2002. That is, it's not going to be all that common for novelists to make good upper-middle-class income solely from their novel-writing. (Maybe it wasn't COMMON before, but it was certainly achievable in certain genres.) There will always probably be the blockbuster novel and the novelist who gets and stays on the bestseller list and gets advances of more than a million (that was always pretty rare, and probably won't get that much rarer), but $80K writing income a year-- fewer and fewer of those, I fear.

Anyway, this will of course make literary writers grin, because they (most of them) probably never expected to make a living just on their writing income. But I think maybe we pop fic writers might need to think about the motivation for writing now too.

What do you want out of writing?

Usually when I ask that, writers will say that they want to be on the NYTimes bestseller list, or they want to make enough in writing income that they can quit their jobs. But these were always pretty unlikely for most writers, and with industry compression and consolidation, the likelihood might be somewhat less. The consensus I keep hearing is: "More writers published, but less money for each." Kind of good news/bad news.

I'm reluctant to say this, because I grew up in a union family and tend to suspect that whatever justification comes from less money is justification for exploitation, etc. I mean, really, we OUGHT to earn good money if we write good stories! But so far the universe has never rewarded my "ought" with "t'will be," so no matter what I want for all of us (weeks on the bestseller list, long lines at mall booksignings and our agent begging to go down to Cinnabon and buy us a magical no-calorie pecan sticky bun, and advance checks with a lot of digits before the decimal), reality bites. So leaving open the possibility of fame and riches and Jude Law optioning our latest opus (co-starring Robert Downey, Jr.), let's talk about what we really want.

Let's say you accepted -- like poets and lit fic writers do early-- that Jude and Robert and fame et al are not likely. What would constitute writing success to you? What would make you content and/or happy with your writing career?

Also-- what do you want? What do you hope to get out of writing your stories? And what does your "want" mean about what you value?

To be more practical, publication can help you get a job. For someone like me who teaches, I hate that aphorism, "Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach." Published books mean, so there! I can do both! The value is reputation, but actually credentialism. I can brandish the booklist as a credential of worth along with my teaching experience.

Publications do open doors, especially in academia. In fact, a couple well-published, well-reviewed books will generally substitute for a graduate degree or a PhD if you want to apply to be a "visiting writer". And usually they don't care much how much the book sold, as long as the publisher is "respectable," because so few academic books sell more than a few thousand copies. So "a publication or two that helps me get an academic job," that's another reason we might persist at this even if we don't bring in the big bucks.

What about more personal reasons? For example, a songwriter I know said once that she would be happy if she wrote a song that years later, people sang along with (knowing the words) when they heard it on the radio. That sounds to me like a good "want" and a good definition of success. What's the value that makes that "success" to her? Reaching listeners, having an effect? Mattering years later?

Another writer told me recently, "I want fan mail, not necessarily thousands of letters, but personal letters telling me what the story mean to them." That's about having an effect (and learning about it, of course). Many of us have a bit of the diva in us, and a publication does set you apart (no one writes fan mail to their accountant!) in a significant and flattering way. And there's nothing wrong with that, is there?
What are some other good reasons to go on writing and trying to get published, if fame and fortune on the JK Rowling scale are probably not in the future? Well, proving ourselves, yes. Really, writing a novel and getting it published is such a rare achievement that most people, even siblings and parents, tend to be impressed and might even say, "I guess you're not so worthless after all." :) (The downside—they tend to have an exaggerated estimate of the size of your advance and might expect you to pick up the check for family dinners.) A lot of writers have long-suffering "patrons of the art" (you might call them "spouses") who decide their sacrifices were worthwhile after all.
And take it from one who knows—when a boss says scathingly, "So how's that book of yours coming?" there's nothing like being able to retort blandly, "Pretty well. (Publisher) is releasing it in February."
So a publication can create credentials, some measure of fame, and vindication too. What are your motivations? What is necessary to achieve them? And here's the toughie— is what you're working on and the way you're working likely to achieve that? Let's face it, what we might write if we say our dream is "NY Times list" might be different than if we decide our dream is actually "getting a creative writing teaching position in academia" or "exploring this elaborate world that I have been mentally building for decades."
Barbara Sher suggests that when we think of as-yet-unrealized dreams, we analyze what really fires us up about that dream, and work on that possibly more easily realized aspect. (For example, she mentioned that someone who still dreams of Hollywood at 45 and figures that she'll never attain it might realize that she really wants to act, to be part of a group of actors, and then fulfill what she really desires by joining a local theater group.)
So if your motivation is, "Making a difference in (some social issue) with my writing," you might be frustrated if you keep trying to write trendy thrillers. And if your motivation is "making Grandma Chastity proud of me," you might rethink your career path in erotic romance (then again, you never know… Granny might have a hot fantasy life!).
The best motivation for writing was given to me by Monica Pradhan, who realized that she was likely the only published romance novelist in her age group who was an American woman born of parents born in India. She said that even after a dozen published novels, she realized there was one novel only she could write because of her unique background and set of talents. And so she wrote a novel about modern American women who consider that old-fashioned solution to romantic conflict, the arranged marriage.
Ever since, I've thought of that—what's the book only I could write? That's actually become something of a dream for me. (The POV book, don't laugh, was my first attempt at realizing that dream. What, you thought I wrote it for the fame and fortune? You think Jude Law might star in the screen adaptation?)
I'm not saying that writers shouldn't get paid and well, or that we should all give up dreams of financial security through our books. But I do wonder if in aiming for that we might not be making it harder to achieve something else. What do you all think?
If you knew fame and fortune weren't forthcoming, would you still write? (Pace Dr. Johnson, who said, "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.")
What would you say is your reason for writing ("except for money")?
What specific reward do you seek? What attainment or achievement makes or will make you feel that you're a success as a writer?


Jordan McCollum said...

I've been thinking about this a lot lately, since I don't have very specific goals (beyond getting published, LOL).

I recently saw one of my friends get a fabulous review, and I printed that out as the goal for the type of review I'd like to get one day.

I was thinking about how enthusiastic some of my friends' editors are about their projects, and I decided I want that kind of relationship with my future editor—where the editor will go to bat for me, and take a chance on me. (I wonder if that isn't typical, though, you know?)

And a third one, I just finished another friend's latest novel. While it's "just" a mystery, and I figured out who the bad guy was (I feel so smart!), reading the novel was such a rich experience—the layers of emotional motivation, the sensory information, the characterization, the imagery and the writing were all so well developed it really came to life for me. I want to create that experience for someone else.

My reason for writing is largely entertainment for myself and future readers—but I don't think that precludes good storytelling and/or good (possibly even lyrical) writing.

If I knew fame and fortune weren't forthcoming—well, right now I'm targeting a regional market, so that's a foregone conclusion. But if I knew publication weren't forthcoming, I would still write, but I would write less (and pursue my other, much-neglected hobbies) and I would revise MUCH less.

Jami Gold said...

I actually don't want fame touching my personal life, and while fortune would be nice, I've said here before that I have no intention of ever quitting my day job - no matter how much I make. So I definitely fall into the "want to connect with people/make a difference" camp.

Success would be that one stranger telling me that my stories made a difference in their life. Maybe that's why I don't get discouraged, as I believe that goal is achievable. :)

ClothDragon said...

I wrote a post about this on my blog -- that my goal has always been to make a difference, though not in the way most people think of that. I love genre. Those books my first creative writing teacher called dime-store novels. (I dropped his class pretty quickly).

I didn't have the greatest of childhoods and reading was the best of escapes. I hope to offer that escape to others. Books that suggest that there is more to life than what you grow up with. The really, really nice thing about that, when I wrote that post, I listed Santiago by Mike Resnick as one of those books that I loved, that I still have, that I reread every few years -- and he wrote a nice note at the bottom of my post.

Made my week. It was almost a year ago and I'm still happy when I think of it. It was here if you want to read. But putting something positive of my own out there has always been my goal.

Edittorrent said...

Making money is a perfectly legitimate reason to write. Don't discount it! But there are other reasons, too -- I mean, we write this blog for free, and it's a very satisfying experience.

Come to think of it, I write this blog for the same reason I write pretty much everything else: because of my lifelong obsession with story and narrative.

But I would like to be showered in cash. Any time now. (waiting)


Julie Harrington said...

I want a few things from writing.

I'd love to make some money. I never expected to really be living high on the hog or anything, but a nice base salary? Bring it on.

I'd love to have my writing get decent reviews. I don't need it to change anyone's life or be earth shattering, but make someone laugh? Brighten their day? Give them some entertainment or even (gasp!) make it a book someone feels compelled to keep and reread on and off over the years because they remember it fondly? I'll take that. :D

I had someone tell me the other day that they re-read something I wrote and that it helped get them through a personally dark time and made them feel less "alone." It was surprising and sweet and I read it and thought, something I wrote did that? That's... wow. I never expected that. But it was wonderful. I'd like to do that again.

But mostly I just want to write and publish and do what I love to do because I don't want to be one of "those" people who look back on their lives and realize they spent at least 5 days of their week -- all their lives -- doing something they hated.

I don't need a fancy sports car, a huge house on the beach, to be a household name, or anything like that. But should a movie company approach me and say they want to make a movie out of something I wrote (cou-hunted! it's available-gh!), I wouldn't say no. ;)


Denny S. Bryce said...

Oprah. I want to be on the Oprah Show, but guess what? I'm screwed. She quit. No more show. So without Oprah, what do I want? Seriously:)...

Consistency. Of course, I want to be published, but next to that (or even on the same level as being published) I want to deliver a consistent high level of good writing, good story telling, that readers enjoy for as long as I can write.

Making money, however, would be very, very nice.

Edittorrent said...

@Denny Don't give up on the dream! Think big! An Oprah primetime special featuring YOU! :D


Riley Murphy said...

Great post!
I write because I want to.
Because I have to.
Because no matter what successes and/or failures came before in my life - the desire to create through words, is the only artistic outlet that does it for me.

Wow, thanks for making me say that.


Anonymous said...

I hardly ever respond, but...

I grew up feeling incredibly singular. I made a lot of compromises for the sake of societal invisibility, and I had to invent a lot of myself from scratch because I had no role models.

But I am not the only person in the world like me. And I want to provide entertainment for people like me. People who are not the default. Non-exploitative, not for the voyeurs around us-- for us.

Anonymous said...

I write for myself.

Okay, okay, I know that's a cliche but let me explain. I am not an artist or a musician, I don't build houses or work with my hands. I can cook, but, let's face it - if you cook and you're any good, the food has a distinct lack of permanence. Writing is the way I create, how I leave my mark, no matter that I am unpublished and, therefore, few people see it.

When I finish a story I always print it out. Then I stare at it in wonder. Wonder that this amalgamation of words was created by me. Wonder that I can now hold it in my hand, give it to a friend, read it over in bed late at night. That moment is all I need.

Sure, publication would be nice - and definitely affirming - but i don't need it and the day I do will be the day I stop writing.

Anonymous said...

I write the stories I want to read. Going hand-in-hand with that is the idea that at least one other person might want to read the same stories that I do, and that any story I happen to get published will somehow find its way to that/those readers and make them happy too.

Of course the ultimate goal is to write a story that lots of people want to read, while still being something I can enjoy as a story in its own right.

C.L. Gray said...

I want to make a living writing and speaking about the men and times I write about. I'm not there, yet. But that's my goal.

Edittorrent said...

Anon-- love that "people who aren't the default." That's a good description of good characters too.

Adrian said...

I write because I don't just want to consume. I want to give something back. My dream is to have a few novels with a few fans. Bestsellerdom is not necessary.

Making a living at it would be fantastic. And I think you're quick to discount the idea that it will soon be possible for more writers to make a decent living than ever before. All this bad news in the publishing industry is bad for the gatekeepers: the publishers, agents, distributors, and--to some extent--the retailers. In the end, there's going to be more money for more authors than ever before. Technology (recommendation systems, social networking, crowdsourcing) will replace the gatekeepers and enable the long tail. The physical expenses of printing and distribution will vanish, and there won't be any more gatekeepers to take a cut. New revenue streams will become feasible (advertising, product placement, customization, who knows). Demand is growing. People do read. They read more than ever. They're currently doing it on the web instead of in books.

Wes said...

I started reading books published in the 1800s about the American southwest and was astounded at the things that happened. I thought this stuff would make great historical fiction. I tried to find some but couldn't find anything good. So I thought what the hell, write it yourself. My goal is to blow the lid off some treasured myths. That the Spanish missions weren't so godly, that the hacienda system was exploitive, that there was an active slave trade in Indians and Mexicans, that scalp hunters hunted Indians for bounties (Cormic McCarty deals with this in BLOOD MERIDIAN), and that there were numerous revolts and invasions. So I want to tell stories that convey the unvarnished truth of the times, people, and places. Some money would be nice, but..........

Sylvia said...

You described my feelings exactly with your paragraph about recognition. I spend a lot of time reading / writing / proofing and I would like people to acknowledge that. Honestly, just for the neighbours to say "She's a real writer" rather than "She sits typing at the computer all day" would make my dreams come true, even if not a single one ever read my book. But self-pubbing wouldn't work for me, I need that sort of "Publisher is releasing it in February" response. Also outside validation would make a difference to my partner, I think.

I like the idea of the book that only I could write. I think the novel that I have been working on this year (first draft done, letting it sit a while now) maybe is that to a degree, because the main characters are from the two cultures that I know best (UK and US). But the idea has certainly given me something to chew on.

Jami Gold said...

Yep, it's me again. I just wanted to say that this post made me think so much that I ended up doing a whole blog post on it (Do you know what will make you happy? - http://tinyurl.com/2ecsx86). LOL! Thanks!

Wes said...

I only know one person who makes her living from writing. She's a member of my critique group, and she's published 70+ Harlequin romances. It's her sole source of income. But she claims she only makes $25 an hour. Not a great monetary reward for a lot of work. So I quickly disabused myself of the notion of making money.

Now that I think about it, I know two. An old friend was a screen writer on a couple of successful films (The Wild Bunch, for one) and a mini series. But she's a social worker now, and a darn good one.

Wes said...

One more comment, then I'll stop. My old friend is still writing. She's been commissioned recently to write a screenplay from a book.

Edittorrent said...

Adrian, if you know how writers can make money writing (not just continually marketing their writing, sigh), you should set up as a consultant. :) We keep hearing this is going to happen, and of course, it has for some writers. And if you know how most writers can make good money, you should write a book about that! :) In addition to your other projects of course. I'm pretty free with your time and energy!