Friday, May 14, 2010

A Humble Man, With Good Reason

I have made a conscientious effort to adjust my expectations as a writer as I learned about the field. First I recalibrated my assumptions about how much promotion a publisher would provide, and how effective it might be. Okay, I’ll have to do a lot of that myself.

Then I learned how few writers can make a living from it, even though they appear “successful” to the public at large. That’s fine, too. I never planned to get rich, I can live with writing as tip money. Maybe it will pay for the annual Bouchercon trip. It’s all good.

Of course, getting an agent is an enormous pain in the ass. I know they’re busy, but the advent of e-mail should make the “if you don’t hear from us, we’re not interested” answer a thing of the past. It takes ten seconds to hit Reply and drop some Auto text into a message and send it back. Still, I hung with it and actually found two agents the old-fashioned way, through cold queries. The first relationship dissolved amicably, the second not as much, though I’ve since learned I may have been a little hasty, so I’ll eat that one.

A few bits of encouragement got me to thinking I might be getting closer to a deal, so I stepped up my study of what happens after you get a contract, and learned that, no matter how much bullshit has to be endured to get an agent and a contract, it probably increases after you get a deal. Edits, copy edits, marketing, all compete with trying to write the next book, and there doesn’t seem to be much consideration for the fact you’ll be balancing this against a full-time job while you’re at it.

That’s a writer’s life: lots of bullshit, no money. If you have some success and cop a contract, the money goes up a little; the bullshit goes up a lot. The only reason to fool with it at all is the joy of losing yourself in the actual writing.

Except now that’s not so much fun, either.

Adrian McKinty has a book trailer from comedian Lewis Black near the bottom of his blog. (Take a minute to check it out. Black is, as always, a riot, and Adrian’s blog is always worth checking out. I’ll wait here for you.) Black sums up exactly how I’ve come to feel about writing: it’s like having homework every night.

I’ve treated writing as essentially a second job for almost ten years now. Two agents thought enough of my writing to hire on. Writers I respect have said kind things, and I’m proud of being included in Todd Robinson’s newest Thuglit anthology. I’ve written five novels in that time, with a sixth just a polishing draft away from completion, with nary a sniff from an editor. (With one exception, which doesn’t count.)

I have a concept called the “Income to Bullshit Curve” I like to use when making career decisions. Picture a standard graph, with a line running diagonally from the lower left corner up and to the right. The vertical axis is Money; the horizontal axis is bullshit. For any job to be worth the effort, the point where you are needs to be above the line. It may dip below for brief periods; all jobs do that. It can’t live there.

The point occupied by my writing on the Income to Bullshit Curve is 0.0001 inches up the income axis; right now it’s pretty far to the right on bullshit. It’s a bad deal. The weather’s nice, I have a couple of family trips planned, it’s baseball season, and I’m too old for homework every fucking night. It’s time for a break.

I’ll finish the WIP; it’s too close not to. I’ll send it out. It would be stupid to spend almost two years on it and not make the effort. Other than that, I’ll write what I want, when I want. Blog posts as the spirit moves me. (I’m having fun with the new sports blog.) Flash fiction. Maybe a novel, though I’m more likely to update those already on the disc, maybe post them via Smashwords or something. If it gets to be fun again, I’ll dig in. If not, I’ll look forward to having more time for recreational reading.


Declan Burke said...

Dana - You should patent the Income to Bullshit Curve.

As to the rest - finish the WIP, take the summer off, watch the baseball. One of the best things I ever read was an interview with William Golding, in which he was asked about his writing routine. "Well, when I'm writing ..." he began, and that was the first time I realised you don't always have to be writing. In fact, all the time writing is like only breathing out. It can't be done - at least, it can be done, but not very well.

Take a few months off, do some reading, recharge the batteries. It'll all come back. It's not like you have a choice, anyway. You can give up booze or cigarettes, but you're still an addict. Same goes for writing or you wouldn't have come this far. And having come this far, it'd be a mortal sin to stop now. Even if you could.

Cheers, Dec

Jay Stringer said...

Take a breather, like Dec says. Read a couple of really good books and watch a couple of really bad movies.

It'll all come round again.

Vanessa O'Loughlin said...

Hi Dana, I totally agree with Dec, if writing is your thing you can't stop - the ideas will just keep coming, but I read recently that creativity is cyclical and what empties must refill. Keep at it, and you'll get there, you really will. A pal of mine Sarah Webb, a best selling author, says the difference between published and unpublished authors is bum glue! You'll reach a tipping point where it will all start coming together and then it will happen for you. Would love to hear more about what you are writing!

Naomi Johnson said...

By all means take a break. When an avocation becomes a thankless task, time to stop and allow time to restore your perspective.

Six novels, 0 published? Not the time to give up. Ask Carla Buckley and Sophie Littlefield - each of them wrote 9 novels before the publishing break came.

Chuck said...

And yet, people still have a romantic notion of writing. Amazing, innit?

Be well, be sane, and keep on keepin' on. Me, I think the bullshit's worth it, and maybe that's not because I love writing but because I can do no other thing (and as the years go on, I mean this literally; my skill-set fades as I keep this one knife dutifully sharp).

Declan and Stringer said it well enough. Take time. See if you want to come back to it. You do, you do. You don't, hey, more time for drinking and reading.

-- c.

sea minor said...

i'm faintly jealous of you and your position. it sounds like you've knocked on a lot of doors and some of them have opened. maybe what you found behind them was unexpected, but now there's no going back.
i've written as a second job (unpaid, more or less) in a concentrated way for 5 years or so, with less drive for twenty. i spent some years of my life putting together magazines and doing all jobs from selection and editing to proof reading to posting.
sometimes i wonder what the hell i'm doing. usually i remember that it's just who i am. i'm doing what i need to do.
i sent a story in for thuglit this time around. it was the wrong story, i know, but it didn't make me feel better to get a rejection. you're in. congratulations. celebrate. somebody out there who knows what they're on about has given you validation. they're saying, 'you know what? when you told everyone you wanted to be a writer, that you are a writer, you were right about it'.
my paid job is tough as old boots. teaching kids who don't want to be there, or putting them back together when they're broken isn't easy - i'd rather be writing-but i guess i'm both teacher and writer (some success, little money). one day i think it's going to happen. if it doesn't, i'll know i did all i could. if there's bullshit to swim through i'll put on a mask and pull out a snorkle and get pull myself through the shawshank tunnel till i reach the river, fresh air and a bar of soap.
wishing you all luck and wanting to offer support, i also want to say 'pull yourself together man!' 'get a grip', 'stop feeling sorry for yourself'. your good. you must know it. agents do. publishers seem to. thuglit are amazing and they do too. give yourself a slap, a day off, but don't you dare get out of the saddle.
to finish, maybe you should make a different kind of graph. one axis the pleasure you get from putting word to page, the other how sterile life feels when you don't.
smell the coffee man, break a leg, put on the goggles.
and the very best of luck to you.


ps (i lose friends quickly, in this case maybe even before there's even been an introduction)

Dana King said...

"In fact, all the time writing is like only breathing out."

I hadn't thought of it like that before you mentioned it, but that's exactly how I feel. Time to step back and take a few deep, cleansing breaths.


Dana King said...


I'd forgotten about the inspirational effects of bad movies. Been a while since I saw one that gave me an idea of how it could have been done right. Thanks for the reminder.

Dana King said...


Another good point. Twice today I caught myself thinking of ideas and had to remember, "You're noit writing now." Maybe I do just need to let critical mass build up again.


Dana King said...

That's exactly what has happened. Though I complain to the Beloved Spouse how I'm not going to let that happen, I've found myself too often working the rest of my life around what is, so far, an avocation. Then I always feel as though I'm behind on something.

I didn't know that about Buckley and Littlefield. Thanks for sharing.

Dana King said...

You're right, the bullshit's generally worth it, or none of us would have lasted as long as we have. I've just spent more time below the curve than I like lately, and it might just be time to let a little out of the bullshit balloon.

Dana King said...

Well, your comment has helped you to make a friend here. Everything you said is right, but I needed reminding. I've been thinking of posting something like this for several weeks, but kept talking myself out of it because it sounded too much like feeling sorry for myself, which was exactly what I was doing, though it seemed for more like noble suffering at the time. Thanks to all for some empathy, and a gently boot to the backside.

Nigel Bird said...

thanks for easing my conscience and for reminding me why i put myself through all this too.
good luck.

Charlieopera said...

This is the 2nd or 3rd such similar post I've read recently (others from other writers). Doctor Stella thinks it's temporary blindness born of frustration.

Declan nailed it. You're not going to have a choice, brother. The key (and it isn't easy and it doesn't always work) is to ignore the bullshit (and there's plenty, no doubt), and "stay focused" (did I just quote Marv fucking Levy?)

You can take "breaks" but don't kid yourself, there are no breaks; your mind will be working whether you're typing/scribbling or not.

I earn something like $.000000015 per hour writing my dopey books and I wouldn't stop if forced to drop the "15" at the end of that string ... not because it kept me from going to jail or because my wife insists it's what keeps us together (because I'm impossible when I'm not writing) ... but because my mind is working on something whether I want it to or not.

Go have a few cold ones, down a few shots, throw up, go to sleep and wake up, kiss the wife with passion, tell her you need a couple hours alone time and forget the bullshit end of writing and sit down and write.

You'll be fine, brother. The blindness is temporary ... very temporary.

Dana King said...

No worries. A good friend isn't afraid to say what needs to be said, even if he's not sure how it will be received. I appreciate the thought, and that you stopped by to share them. Don't be a stranger.

Dana King said...

Damn, I was hoping only to do it until I needed glasses. You're right though. I took a walk this morning and my mind kept wandering back to writing-related topics. I guess just declaring the writing holiday was enough to get parts of me working again.

Thanks for the thoughts. I appreciate them, and I know you well enough now to know to pay attention to what you say.