So my question is this: For whom do we write? And before you answer that you write for yourself, and that you’d write even if you knew you could never sell anything, think long and hard about whether that’s really true. It’s my knee-jerk response; it’s certainly the answer I want to give and want to believe. The truth is a bit more complicated. I write for myself because thus far I’ve been able to make something of a living at it. There are easier ways to make a buck (at least there were; they seem to be disappearing) and I would never deny that I have chosen this career path because I love it, and because I have to write to be happy. But again reality rears its ugly head: If I couldn’t sell books I’m not sure that I could afford to write them. Oh, I’d write in my spare time, but I used to be an academic; my wife still is. I have friends who are lawyers and doctors and business people. I’ve seen how hectic their lives are. Once they’re done with work and family, they don’t have a whole lot of spare time or energy for creating worlds and writing novels.
I write for me because I can afford to, because I’m fortunate enough to do for a living what I love to do anyway. But if I’m to be completely honest, I write for myself and also for a whole host of other people. I write for my agent, because she has to believe in my books to sell them. I write for my editor, because he has to contract the book before it can be published. I write for my readers, because their purchases of my current novel make the next contract possible. I’m pretty sure that my fellow professionals would join me in admitting that they don’t — can’t — write solely for themselves. And what about those of you who aren’t professionals? I’m sure that you take great pride in your creative accomplishments — as you should — and that you write to satisfy your passion for storytelling. But don’t you also write because you want to see your stories in print? I’m an amateur photographer, and I’m also a musician. I do these things “for myself.” Still, I was thrilled when I was able to display my photography in a gallery. I used to perform music in bars and restaurants and to this day I occasionally fantasize about doing so again.
I am a writer, which should come as no surprise. I expect almost every other blogger out there would consider call themselves writers and I also expect that many of my readers would consider themselves writers (or artists of another medium). I think it’s also safe to say that the vast majority of us are at a point where we practice our craft solely for ourselves, with little professional or monetary gain. I know I do.
As a blogger, I do this for free. I make no money off of it, in fact, it costs me money (in hosting fees, domain, etc…). I suppose one could consider the amount of free novels I get as a sort of reward for the work done, but in the end, A Dribble of Ink, like the majority of non-professional blogs, is a labour of love. The reward for me is to have a place where I can articulate my passion for Speculative Fiction and help spread that passion to other like-minded people.
Of course, like most writers, I have ambitions. I dream of the day when my Work-in-Progress (a contemporary Fantasy called Through Bended Grass) is a full fledged novel, lining the shelves of bookstores and climbing the charts on Amazon. Still, I know that I am just a drop in an ocean of aspiring writers, and my novel, no matter how good, will be one among many when it hits the slush piles. Does this discourage me from devoting endless hours to finishing it? Not at all. There’s always that burning desire to get the story out on paper, a feeling any artist can attest to, and the fun, the challenge and the reward is in the writing of it.
Coe touches on this honeymoon period, when aspiring writers can write for the sake of the craft and the pride they take in it:
What’s my point? Simply this: Nearly all of us who love art begin with that passion to create. We start by saying that we’re going to do it for ourselves, for the sheer pleasure of creating and celebrating that accomplishment. And we mean it. But I would argue that all art is inherently a performance. Painting, taking pictures, singing, acting, dancing, and yes, even writing — especially writing — it’s all done for an audience. When a child creates something that she thinks is beautiful her first thought is to show it to someone else — Mom, Dad, a teacher, a friend, a complete stranger if no one else is around. And I don’t think that impulse ever really goes away. Nor should it. Because art is inherently interactive. Art is about creation and appreciation, passion harnessed and passion evoked.
What’s most interesting to me is how the paradigm of being a writer shifts once it becomes a profession and how it’s not always so peachy keen as us wannabes think it is. A little Twitter conversation between Matt Staggs (Twitter: @deepeight) and Jay Lake (Twitter: @jay_lake) got me thinking about this:
‘Turns out I’m way too busy to run a D&D game. Part of going from fan to working pro, I guess. Sad in some ways.’
‘@deepeight Dude, writing has really interfered with my reading career’
‘@jay_lake Yeah, kind of sucks, huh? There are some good things about just being a fan.’
As a hobbyist/wannabe novelist, I’m perfectly happy to write with no other reward than the writing itself. It’s liberating and keeps my mind from gathering cobwebs. But is this what I have to look forward to, if Through Bended Grass does make it to store shelves? To join those downtrodden professional writers chained to their typewriters, forced to ignore all the great things that led to my original love affair with Speculative Fiction in the first place?
By Coe’s own admission, artists begin with a passion and curiousity for a medium, about what would happen if they applied their own touch to it. As soon as one becomes a professional, though, other factors enter the picture that determine the course of the artist and a modicum of freedom is stolen.
Tobias Buckell has been struggling with this, and recently wrote an article about how he is shelving his current Xenowealth series and trying shifting his focus to a new novel called Arctic Rising, in an attempt to broaden his audience.
Sadly, the sales have not been as strong as everyone around me wanted. Crystal Rain did somewhat okay in hardcover in libraries and online sales, but not as much on the book shelves (particularly at Borders). It did get Wal-Mart distribution in paperback, however, which was nice. Ragamuffin, sadly, suffered from very low orders (almost no presence in Borders in hardcover) and limped out there. Sly Mongoose was a nice rebound in the big picture, selling more copies than Ragamuffin but not quite as much as Crystal Rain: but mostly online. Sly Mongoose was hardly carried in actual bookstores, but has sold fairly briskly online. Last checked, I think over 60% of sales have been online with Sly.
It’s been a symptom of: bookstores order 100, sell 50, then order 50 the next time, and sell 25, and then for the third book order 12.
Sly Mongoose got incredible reviewer love, my agent and editor both are happy with everything I’ve done. About half or more of my income, despite the slowing bookstore orders, still comes from writing novels. So I’ve been pretty chipper. But as I finished the Halo book and looked back at restarting Duppy Conqueror, which I have somewhere between 10-20,000 words of, my editor and I sat down to chart out what we could do to get bookstores re-interested in me (particularly now that I had NY Bestseller next to my name with the Halo novel).
So my editor, agent and I, decided to reboot. We didn’t want to change my name (this is usually what authors do at this point to ‘fool’ the bookstores, often quite successfully), but send a signal with whatever I work on next that I’m doing something different, that is not associated with the Space Opera series to see if we can dream a bit bigger and go for the brass ring. I had two novels I owe Tor still, so why not?
This is a startling example of an author being forced to write not for himself (considering Buckell began work on another Xenowealth title, one can assume that that is where his interest as a writer lies), but rather for what he (his editor and his agent) feel his potential audience wants. Buckell seems to be at a crossroads where he’s having to to sacrifice a bit of that freedom (so liberating in the early days of a wannbe-writer), to be able to stay in the game. Is it fair? Probably not (especially considering Buckell’s Xenowealth books are terrific, and deserve to sell many more copies than they apparently have), but it’s part of the juggling act that authors not named J.K. Rowling, Stephen King or Dan Brown have to deal with.
Now, this is not to say that Buckell is sacrificing any of his integrity as a writer by selling out simply for a pay cheque. Quite the opposite, actually. Buckell needs to pay the bills, Buckell’s publisher needs to pay the bills and to do that they need to sell books. Buckell, his agent and Tor obviously see an opportunity to move Buckell’s career forward, which, in turn, will allow Buckell the freedom he needs to get back to to the Xenowealth books. It’s less about saving Buckell’s career as it is about opening more doors for Buckell and all of his works. If turning to Arctic Rising and Halo: The Cole Protocol allows Buckell to write Duppy Conqueror and further novels in the Xenowealth series, is that such a bad thing? Further, it’s not as though Buckell’s being forced to write a spiritual successor to Twilight to pay the bills, but rather he’s tackling projects that might have been lurking at the back of his mind. He might not be writing exactly what he wants to write at the moment, but it’s not like he’s working on something lacking in passion or curiousity, either.
Peter V. Brett, author of The Painted Man (REVIEW) is on the other side of the fence. He’s writing a sequel to his successful debut novel, but is inundated with the pressure that comes from having to move from hobbyist to full time writer, while satisfying a newfound legion of fans. He writes:
I woke up this morning knowing I was going to finish the book. I went to sleep at 3am last night, my eyes practically closing by themselves, knowing that I only had a little bit left to write, and that there would be no real obstacles left in doing so. Dani knew it, too, and packed up the baby to go to her parents’ house, so I could finish up in peace.
But then an interesting thing happened. I had an anxiety attack. A pretty bad one, as these things are measured. Usually these came when I was despairing that the book would never be finished, but I never imagined I would have one at the idea of writing “the end”.
Of course, it was the first time in my life I ever wrote the words “the end” knowing there was a paycheck on the other side of them. Not to mention the crippling fear that people won’t like Desert Spear because I didn’t just re-use the proven-successful template of The Painted Man/The Warded Man.
When Kermit the Frog was nervous before his movie audition in The Muppet Movie, Dr. Teeth gave him a valuable piece of advice: “Ain’t nothin’ to it, but to do it,” he said.
Despite the fact that it came from a gold-toothed drug addict made of felt, I never forgot that advice, and I cling to it whenever fear or anxiety or nerves try to stop me from doing something. It’s gotten me through some difficult times.
So what does this mean for us wannabes? We all want to quit our day job and become full-time writers or painters or photographers or musicians, but is the grass really greener? One piece of advice I’ve heard constantly from professional writers, agents and editors alike is that writers looking to break into the industry should understand the industry – know what’s hot, what’s not. A good friend of mine, Shawn Speakman (of Suvudu) wrote a novel a few years ago. It was good (I read it), but when he shipped it around to various agents and publishing houses he constantly received replies that boiled down to, ‘It’s good, but we’re looking for Urban Fantasy. Do you have one of those, instead?’
Now, Speakman is just one writer looking for a publishing deal among many, but his story is a familiar one. Perhaps they were being polite (but let’s face it, when have agents and publishers really played nice with manuscripts in their slush pile?), but that repeated question of ‘Do you have an Urban Fantasy, instead?’ kept coming up and forced Speakman’s hand. Instead of continuing with his Epic Fantasy trilogy, he went back to the drawing board, pulled out a niggling idea from the back of his mind and started outlining an Urban Fantasy. A year or so later, The Dark Thorn is almost done and the game’s about to start again: querying agents and editors with a solid manuscript, but this time in a genre they asked him for.
Now, was Speakman writing exactly what his heart told him to write? No, not really, but is he more likely to end up as a published writer because of it? Sure, the response of the agents and editors he queried seems to indicate so. Whether Speakman’s book gets published or not, he was willing to take the plunge and committed to writing for someone other than himself. More accurately, though, I suppose I could say that he took the plunge and committed to writing for more than just himself: he was writing for an audience (agents, editors and the seemingly endless stream of Urban Fantasy fans), which, like Coe says, is the point, right?
In the end, as much as any artist works for themselves, I think there’s always a niggling sense of searching for approval in any artist. Kurt Vonnegut is the perfect example:
Vonnegut “has said…that a writer achieves unity in his works only by writing as if to one person – in his case to his dead sister” (5). It is after he begins to address his late sister that his work reaches a radical new level in depth and artfulness.
Vonnegut found a singular muse and that allowed him to free himself of the other constraints of being a writer. His sisters’ influence would go onto craft the rest of Vonnegut’s career as a writer (starting with The Sirens of Titan, published shortly after her death.) Vonnegut lived in a different time, and had a much higher level of success than any new author can ever dream of, and so was able to narrow down his audience to just one person. That may not be a reality for an author today, especially those looking to live off their writing.
Vonnegut’s message (to find a muse and to write to them, exclusively) and Coe’s message (that there are many different reasons to write) seem to be at odds. When one digs just under the surface, though, I think the real message is revealed. That message is simply to write for whatever it is that drives you to write – your child, who loves everything you write; a growing audience of fans; a burning desire to find out what happens; a way to keep your mind sharp; your sister; or yourself.
Simply put, writing itself is the reason and the rest is just an excuse.