Wednesday, January 31, 2007

If You Never Made Another Dime on Your Writing…

If you never made a (nother) dime on your writing, would you still write? I stumbled upon this question the other day on the blog A Walk on the Weird Side. I’ve asked myself this question before, only phrased a bit differently: If I won the lottery and no longer had to write to put my kids through college and help pay for our Whole Foods habit, would I still write? Oh, yes. But…

The BUT is always the telling part. Yes, I’d still write, but I’d write something different. I’d write the stories swirling around in my head that will never be written because I know they’re not marketable. Not only would I write those stories, but I’d write them the way I want to write them, full of descriptions and flights of fancy, with no looking over my shoulder or second guessing how my readers might react to various potentially unpopular elements.

Don’t get me wrong. I still enjoy writing. But I don’t LOVE the writing process the way I did before I was published. There is a trade off. Before we’re published, writing can feel self-indulgent, even selfish (particularly if we have a young family). Once we’re published, we’re getting paid, so we can reassure ourselves we’re doing it for the good of our family (although when the demands of the book deadline conflict with the needs of the child who wants to talk about her day at school, the angst is still there). Yet with publication comes a host of considerations that rarely occur to the unpublished, and an expanding awareness of the choices made with each keystroke. Often, our gut instincts as a writer pull us in one direction while our understanding of the marketplace pulls us in another direction. The marketplace doesn’t always have to win, but we ignore it at our peril.

Because in the end, there is another question: Are we writing to please ourselves, or to be read by others? If my lottery winning self were to write those untold stories now swirling around in my head, and I wrote them the way I want to write them, would I be happy if no one published them? No. Would I be happy if someone published them but no one read them? No.

In a perfect world, I could tell the stories I want to tell the way I want to tell them, and millions of people would buy them. That actually happens with some lucky people. I say lucky, because success in the marketplace all too often has little to do with one’s ability as a writer and a lot to do with catching the right bandwagon.

But if you’re not one of those lucky people, if you’re marching to your own drummer and you realize the parade is two blocks over and going in the other direction, what do you do?


Steve said...

God what a hard question. Sometimes I think I've been two blocks off my whole life.

When I was a kid, everyone told me that making a living in art was a pipe dream (all the good caves had already been painted, and it was getting harder to find mastadons to pose). Once I did get to that point, I felt (and still feel) a lot of pressure to do what pays.

It's hard to strike off in a new direction, to ignore a demonstrated market. Visions of cooking oatmeal by candle light dance in my head.

But if Dean Koontz had listened to his fears (and those of his publishers), he'd still be hiding in the mid-list. His career has made several quantum jumps. Each one involved huge dramas with his publisher, sometimes his agent, and the looming specter of failure.

Imagine fighting for a much bigger marketing budget to promote a book everyone's worried will turn off all your existing readers.

He was lucky. So far it's worked.

And of course, we never hear about the ones that don't...

Charles Gramlich said...

I've often fantasized that I'd win the lottery and start my own small publishing company. Then I'd hire people to handle printing, distribution and sales, and I'd write exactly what I wanted to write. The thing is, with the Talera novels and Cold in the Light I did write exactly what I wanted to write. But even though I believe there is a market for them, I've made virtually no money that can justify my faith in them. I think that's part of the reason why I've gone three years without writing a novel. To answer your question, though, I care much more about being read and having people enjoy my work than I do about the money.

cs harris said...

Charles, I guess the money is the sign that our books are being read and enjoyed by a lot of people. And if you don't have a day job anymore, it assumes larger importance.

Making a living in art--or writing--is not for the faint-hearted. And you're right, Steve: for every Dean Koontz success, there are surely thousands of failures.

Kate S said...

Ok, I'm starting to think the answer is we're screwed any way we go. :)

Like Charles, I fantasize about starting my own company and publishing all those writers who deserve a chance but whose books aren't the type you currently see on the best-seller lists. But then we're back to great books that no one reads.

Yep, screwed. :)

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