anghara (anghara) wrote,

Writingly things again

As a certain coppervale said while commenting on another writerly thread:

The most effective and concise statement I know about doing this kind of work came from a mentor of mine in comics:

"If you really want to do this for a living, no one can stop you. But if you don't really want to do this for a living, no one can help you."

That's hitting the nail on the head, that is. Word.

There's something about ALL the "glam" professions that attracts the glib and the unwary and the innocent who have yet to learn better - because that, at first, is all you see - the bright light and the glitter, and the front of the stage while you're taking your bows while the audience is giving you a standing ovation, and the spotlights on the paintings in the museums (usually by Grand Masters long dead and largely unappreciated during their lifetime - what do you think Van GOgh could have done with thirty million dollars, and that was for ONE painting...? And would he have ever done another...?)

And the perceived magnificence of the Writerly Existence, you know,the stereotype reinforced by a handful of superstars - sure, if Neil Gaiman or J K ROwlings come out to play they're recognised and mobbed and there are lines around the block twice and into the next street, and their shelves are full of their own books rendered in strange foreign tongues or shiny awards and they have long since ceased to keep a scrapbook of their reviews because there's just too many of them to clip and they're uniformly glowing anyway. The kind of writer who owns a mansion in the country, fully paid for, with waterfront views or facing some magnificent mountain over acres of estate, and within it a wood-panelled study with a fireplace which always has a fire lit and never needs cleaning out.

Let me tell you a fairy tale.

Once upon a time there was a child who had a dream - and it was a dream of words which spilled out from the child's mouth, and her hands, and onto a page, and the child looked at bookshelves full of neatly stacked volumes and read the names on the spines and thought those names must be Gods.

She grew, and the dream remained.

She gleaned a few hints about the world behind the dream, but the dream remained.

And then a fairy godperson turned up and waved a wand, and lo, the dream was a reality at last.

The child who was now grown woke up one morning, and there were a dozen book contracts in her filing cabinet, and she found she was running out of shelf room for the editions in strange foreign tongues (and some of them were REALLY strange...)

An overnight success, you might say? But let's look at how long the night was.

She wrote her first (probably too awful to contemplate) novel-length story when she was about 11 or 12. She wrote the first GOOD novel-length manuscript when she was 15. She published a few short stories here and there, and a bunch of poetry (but not in highbrow lit magazines), she began writing book reviews for free for a local paper because it gave her a byline and a scrapbook and a jumping-off point. She did travel writing, journalism, hackwork-for-hire and advertorials and even (this is a confession, folks) ads for people like real estate companies. Some of it paid bills. SOme of it served as more material for the scrapbook.

She wrote a novel she felt good about, but she wrote it in the lab while she was pursuing a "real" career - science. And the novel languished for a decade. She published more stories, this time in anthologies; she won a few competitions. She even got an agent, briefly, and that early agent sold her first book - a trio of short fables, sold to a tiered education publishing scheme, aimed at readers of 14+ - and she got her first advance, in the hundreds and not thousands of dollars. (That little book, by the way, is STILL bringing in royalties every so often - it's in its ninth printing, and it was published way back in 1995.) She then got a tiny local publisher to bring out her autobiographical volume, which was printed in 1500 copies and when it went out of print it was, you know, GONE. In the same year she did that, she co-wrote an email epistolary novel with a man who lived across half the world from her, whom she eventually married - but the book they co-authored, although it went from concept to bookstore in less than six months and earned out its advance AND brought in some royalties in the first year, is now also out of print. She then persuaded the local branch of a big international publishing house to take a look at the novel she wrote in the lab so many years ago - and they published THAT. The story was split into two books, but even combined the advance for both books barely made it into four figures. The books got good reviews,were nominated for a couple of awards, but then that edition, too, went out of print.

Cut to America, and the advent of the 21st century. The child with the dream is writing another book - and this one, this one takes off.

Or does it?

Translated into ten foreign languages from the original English, and doing pretty well in most of them by all accounts (including a second printing of the Spanish edition less than three months after first release) - but it limps a little in the States, where a generous advance had been given. The follow up to that book is picked up by at least five of its foreign publishers - but we're still working on the States.

In the meantime, there's more books - a trilogy, this time, aimed at the YA market. Another advance that might be considered really good - but ladies and gentlemen, if you thought this was money that was handed to you on a silver platter, think again. You write the first draft of the book, you probably tweak it into a second draft before you consider it good enough to send out. You then depend on an agent (if you have one, which is by no means a given) to get a publisher interested in that story (and that is not a given either). Once you get that publisher, you are given back your MS by your editor, and it has comments and questions and suggestions and some non-negotiable suggestions which need to be addressed before you return the MS to the editorial offices. You were paid a fraction of your advance when you signed your contract; the rest, if you're lucky and the contract was well negotiated, follows upon your submission of what the contract calls "an acceptable manuscript", which means one that your editor approves - and often there's QUITE a bit of work to do before you get to that stage; and if you have the other kind of contract, another fraction of your advance is paid when you do this, and the rest when the book is actually published - and all this is very tentative. I've had an "on-signing" payment come in a year after signing, and the "on publication" payment is often only DUE at least a year after the original contract was signed, and then you have to wait another six months on top of that...

That child, the child in the fairy story.

She still gets starry eyed when she looks at her contracts drawer or "her" bookshelf. SOmetimes it doesn't feel real. But by this stage she knows that she has to roll up her sleeves and get messy. This is one of the most subjective careers there is, and EVERYTHING depends on impressing other people at the right time, and if you're to do that you have to work for it, sometimes work hard for it, sometimes work harder than you believed it is possible to work. An office job can be left behind at quitting time; you might get tired and cranky but you don't bring a retail job home at night; you work as hard as a waitress, making sure the service is prompt and what is delivered is what was asked for, and you can't depend on the tips.

Writing STAYS WITH YOU. You wake to it, you work with it, you leave the computer but the story's still in your head, you walk the dog or clean the cat litterbox and you're hashing out a plot point in your mind, you forget to do laundry or put the rubbish out on collection day because you're too tied up in what you're doing, you miss appointments because your week isn't a 9-5 work week and days don't mean what they mean to weekday-working folk who think that Saturdays are for rest and relaxation - but it's just another writing day, for the writer. It's not a colleague, this career, it's a lover, and it's something that follows you around and shapes you and changes you and makes you accomodate its whims and its passions and makes those whims and passions your own. It's like drinking a cup of starlight, and you find that you're filled with it, to overflowing, to the extent that people who meet you might sense it seeping out of you through your pores - and at the same time the beauty of it is burning you up on the inside, with an insistence that it be told, be shared, be allowed to burst out, you are the core of a small sun waiting to burst into flame.

And most overnight successes have had to live with that starfire for years, if not decades, before their sun became bright enough to be noticed in the firmament. And for some unlucky enough to carry that fire, the sun NEVER gets a chance to shine. It's like that original person I quoted above, said, if you really want to do this for a living, no one can stop you. But if you don't really want to do this for a living, no one can help you.

Another quote comes to mind, from Richard Bach's "Illusions" : "You are never given a dream without being given the power to make it come true. You may have to work for it, however."

You want to write? Have my blessing, and have at it. Just remember there is no "secret", no magic handshake, no password, and you are entitled to nothing. You may be given *everything*, however.

There is no shortcut, no formula. There is only you and the words. There is only you.
Tags: cogitations, writing, writing life
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