Friday, July 6, 2018

Stuck in the Middle, Guest Post by Sam Wiebe

Sam Wiebe is the author of the Vancouver crime novel, Cut You Down, Invisible Dead, and Last of the Independents. Wiebe's short stories have appeared in Thuglit, Spinetingler, and subTerrain, and he was the 2016 Vancouver Public Library Writer in Residence. He lives in Vancouver.


That’s from Sam’s website bio. It’s accurate, as far as it goes. What it doesn’t tell you is how Sam has won awards and may well be the tip of the spear that brings private investigators back to their deserved position at the apex of crime fiction. Sam didn’t just stumble onto this. He’s as thoughtful about the craft as any writer I know, so I was delighted when he agreed to be this week’s guest poster.

One more thing few people know about Sam: Even though he’s from Vancouver, he has an
affinity for hush puppies. (Not the shoes, dumbass. The food.) Find some from Claude Cooper’s and Sam will follow you anywhere.

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Stuck in the Middle

“If you want to write commercially, abandon pretense and go for the throat.
If your field is literature don’t worry about the market.”
Jack McClelland, shared to me on Facebook via John McFetridge

I’ve been thinking about this quote a lot lately, as I try to figure out where my career is going.

I’m lucky. I’ve written only the books I wanted to, and the response to them has been overwhelmingly positive. But I’m also not sure where to go from here.

There isn’t a lot of advice for the mid-career writer. Other than a couple columns—Chuck Wendig’s was pretty good—it’s not an area that attracts a lot of philosophizing. People want to know how to break in, or how to make millions overnight. Few people want to know how to sustain a writing career once you’ve breeched the walled city.

As Harlan Ellison wrote, “The trick is not to become a writer; it is to stay a writer. Day after day, year after year, book after book.”

I didn’t know anything about the publishing world when I started. (Not much has changed.) It’s a problematic business, especially when success is measured by two things which might not help, and may actually hinder, a sustained writing career: giant advances and first week sales. It’s a business that moves slowly, when it moves at all, and a business in which writers are not often ‘looped in’ with marketing and publishing decisions that affect their fates. (There are several columns to be written on these topics, by people much smarter than I am.)

To go back to the McClelland quote: I’ve never worried about the market, but the genre I write in is commercial to some extent. I think of myself sometimes as being in the middle, between someone writing just for themselves and just for an audience. It comes back to the advice of “write the book you want to read.”

The middle is a dangerous place to be, career-wise. Your work is in market competition with books written for no other reason than to sell. On the other hand, as a genre writer, you’re shut out of a lot of the protections and awards that gild the careers of “literary” writers. You have to make your own opportunities, but at the same time, you’re writing something you care about. Any business success serves only to sustain a writing career so you can write more things you care about with fewer distractions.

Writing comes first, business second, but the distance between those isn’t as big as I’d once believed, and they’re interrelated in ways I’m only now appreciating.

Anyway, there’s no conclusion to this, no, “And here’s where I learned sales don’t matter…” We all have books to write and bills to pay, and I love to see conversations about doing both.

(Editor’s Note: Sam has expressed things here I’ve thought quite a bit about myself. Expect to see more on this topic from him and me in the near future.)

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