Linda Nagata: the blog at Hahví.net

Career Day

October 23rd, 2009

I did a Career Day presentation at the local prep school today. It went more or less like this:

When Mrs. Hart asked me to participate in your career day and talk about what it’s like to be a writer, I agreed at once. Then I assured her that by the time I was done talking I would have convinced everyone present that they did NOT want to be a writer. So beware.

I write fiction. Novels, to be specific. So when I talk about being a writer, what I really mean is being a novelist. Making a living writing non-fiction is a whole different world and honestly I know almost nothing about it.

In its essence, the typical workday of a writer is utter simplicity. You sit down in front of your computer and you write. Or you try to convince yourself to stop surfing the web and start writing. Or you start thinking about all those other things you really need to get done and since you’re not making any progress on your writing anyway you might as well do them. And wow, the house sure is dirty.

In other words, it takes a lot of self-discipline and a lot of focus–we could say “obsessiveness”–to be a successful writer, because whether you finish a project or not all comes down to you and your own personal drive. In typical employment–in an office environment, or in the field–you have to account to someone for your time and your production, you have deadlines, and evaluations, and concrete tasks to complete. If you don’t show up for work on time, somebody notices. Even if you run your own business, you are accountable to your employees, your creditors, your clients. But when it comes to writing, you are almost always on your own. You might have a supportive spouse who reads all your work at the end of each day; I’ve heard of writers who do, but I don’t know any. Maybe you’re under contract and you have a deadline–but knowing that a manuscript is due in 18 months isn’t a real strong motivator for sitting down today to work. So that’s a big part of the job–just showing up at the computer and writing until the book is done.

Another big factor in a writer’s day is isolation. Most writers spend hours and hours everyday on their own. Personally, this doesn’t bother me. I’ve always been something of a hermit. But a lot of people find it really hard not to be able to stop and chat with someone every now and then throughout the day. Perhaps that’s what MSN is for, or writing in a coffee house . . . though I’m sure I couldn’t manage to get anything done in a coffeehouse. But the isolation is something to consider.

There’s also the dilemma familiar to most self-employed people: when is it okay to stop working and relax? You don’t have fixed hours. If you didn’t get very far with your writing during the day, should you work into the evening? Should you spend all your weekend writing? If you have a day job, do you do anything besides write in what is amusingly known as your “spare” time? If you’re single and unattached, the answers to these questions might be easier, but if you’ve got a significant other, a spouse, children, you owe them something of yourself.

The next big issue: Money. Well, money and ego. You will need to deal with these every day. Money you will rarely see, and as a consequence your ego will be frequently bruised. Yes, it is possible–though it’s not common–to make a lot of money as a writer. But even a successful writer is not going to get a paycheck every two weeks. Could your ego handle going two years without an income? Could your bank account handle it? Could your spouse? When you’ve spent two years writing a novel that sells for $20,000, is it time to start thinking of a career change? Can your ego handle not being a stellar breadwinner?

Novel writing is a sole-proprietor business, and like any other, it has expenses. Right off the top is a standard 15% commission to your agent. So that’s $3000 out of your hypothetical $20K advance. And since you’re self-employed, you get to pay all of your social security tax instead of just the half that an employee would have to pay. No health care plan, of course. But you do get to deduct the cost of some equipment . . . assuming of course that you have an income.

Then there is research! I think research is often seen as one of the romantic perks of being a writer. If you’re going to set your novel in Europe or Australia or even Seattle, you have to know what it’s like to be there, right? If you’re doing a historical novel, you need access to great libraries with lots of material on your subject. Or you will need to interview people who know about the science or profession that you want to write about. You will want to see where they work, you will want to ride along with them in the squad car . . . .

And most of this absolutely demands travel, which costs a lot of money. So, even though you have a great idea for a novel, can you afford to research it? My agent used to encourage me to move from science fiction into techno-thrillers. This was really good advice, except that I couldn’t afford it–the research, that is. Of course this is the great advantage of science fiction and fantasy–you get to just make stuff up.

As a writer, it’s important that you maintain a social circle–regular people are great of course, but you also need to know some other writers or excellent readers. Your book is unlikely to sell unless it is very close to being “publishable” when the editor sees it–editors don’t really do a lot of editing–so it’s very important that you have reliable readers to point out the problems in your manuscript. Just make sure your readers are also eager to point out all the good stuff too, because no artist wants or thrives on only negative feedback. (And if a reader gives you ONLY negative feedback, they are not the right reader for you.)

Like so many other industries, publishing is undergoing huge changes. When I started publishing, there wasn’t a lot I could do–economically–to promote my work. I would make a few cents in royalties for every paperback that sold, and at that rate of return it didn’t make sense to take out ads or travel the country promoting my book. (Some authors do get book tours paid for by the publisher, but this is rare.) These days there is a lot more an author can do by way of self-promotion. Of course you must have a website, a blog, and a twitter account. You’ll be way ahead of the game if you can get gigs as a public speaker–especially if you can get paid for it. But always be ready to attend community events like this one. You can offer online writing workshops. And you can even self-publish.

Self-publishing used to be looked down on. People would think “Oh the only way she could ever get that book published is to publish it herself.”

There certainly are advantages to having a publisher. The big one is that a publisher will (usually) pay you money up front–though with small press publishers this isn’t always the case. Also, publishers will (sort of) edit the book, they will have it copyedited, they will typeset it, take care of the layout, the cover, the printing of it. They will get it to the distributors, and if all goes well they will get it into the bookstores. They will send out copies to publications likely to review it. They will clip the reviews and gather great quotes for the paperback version. All this saves the writer a lot of time that can instead be spent writing (or avoiding writing).

On the other hand, your publisher may decide to publish a paperback original, instantly removing your book from the consideration of a lot of reviewers and awards. They may put a lousy cover or a horrible title on the book and you will have no way to stop them. They may forget they are editing your book and not contact you for six months. They may accidentally destroy all the warehouse stock of your book. They may print so few copies of your book that there is no way, mathematically, that it could ever be viable in the marketplace. Most editors will tell you they care about the books and the authors they work with, but the truth is that publishing works on the shotgun principle. Fire off a bunch of books, and hope one of them hits the target. Editors care, but they don’t care anything like the order of magnitude that you care about your book.

So for the clever, new-media savvy entrepreneurs out there who are not shy about self-promotion, self-publishing is worth looking at. If you can get a contract, consider it carefully. But remember that a contract with a New York publisher is no longer the only game in town.

There is another big advantage of being a writer: once you start to get known, you may find yourself involved in odd, and sometimes lucrative, side projects. For example, a year ago I was working with a Japanese media company, doing story development for a proposed docudrama on nanotechnology. Last spring I was lucky enough to be asked to deliver a presentation at a cultural festival in Mexico City. I have a friend who wound up founding a company doing creative promotions after being asked to work on an Internet game developed to promote the movie AI. I have another friend who has become a very successful speaker and instructor, with long-term engagements in Europe and Toronto among other places. Not that’s romantic.

Of the group of writing friends I started with years ago–most of whom are award-winning writers–the sobering fact is that none are actually making a living writing novels, though all are still involved in writing, one way or another.

Someone once said, regarding young writers, “If you can be discouraged, you should be.” Those are words of wisdom. On the other hand, despite everything I have just said, I love being a writer. The freedom, the flexibility, the self-fulfillment are all great benefits. If you want to be a writer, go for it, but have a back up plan. Have a day job. Be adaptive. Be creative. Develop a thick skin.

And good luck.

Posted on: Friday, October 23rd, 2009 at 3:37 pm
Categories: Uncategorized.

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