Wednesday, January 12, 2011

What makes you a "real" writer?

Sandra Parshall

This is a dangerous period, when I’ve just finished and turned in one novel, haven’t started another yet, and have far too much time to think.

One thought is inevitable: Do I really want to do this again? Do I want to spend another year of my life with people who exist only in my head?

And that leads to: Is this work, or just an extraordinarily time-consuming hobby? There’s no shortage of people who will say that because I don’t make enough money to fully support myself by writing, it’s a hobby, not a career. Never mind the starred reviews. Never mind the Agatha Award. Never mind the books on library shelves. To some people, only money counts, and I don’t make enough money from writing to be considered a real writer. I’m not working; I’m just amusing myself.

The thing is, when I’m sitting here tearing my hair out because I can’t get a scene to go the way I want it, or writing madly to meet a deadline, it sure does feel like work.

The knowledge that I won’t make a ton of money and see my name on the New York Times bestseller list doesn’t lessen my desire to write the absolute best book I can. I’ve published three books that received fabulous reviews I will always treasure, and I don’t want to produce one that will be dismissed as weak and boring. The relatively few people who buy my books, and the far greater number who borrow them from libraries, deserve the best I can give them.

I’m hardly alone. Only a small percentage of writers earn enough to live on. Those with families to support often work at other jobs and write in their off-hours. It’s a foolish writer who quits his day job when his first book sells reasonably well. The second book might tank, and it’s best to hold on to a steady source of non-writing income. Midlist writers are losing their contracts and moving to small presses or being offered far smaller advances than they’ve received in the past. Is writing no more than a hobby to these people?

Publishing is a scary world these days. The profession of gentlemen has become the enterprise of cutthroats. If you’re published by a major imprint and don’t sell as many copies as they expect, you’ll be dumped long before you have a chance to build an audience. If you’re with a small press, you’ll have much more security because small publishers, while they want and need to make money, aren’t driven by the quest for blockbusters. They want to publish good books that will earn some money for both author and publisher. But it will never be a lot. You may have to cope with people (including other writers) who don’t consider you a “real” author because your big advance wasn’t announced in the press.

And you may reach the point I reach after finishing a book, the “Is this work, or just a hobby?” point. Knowing the mental labor that’s involved, knowing how little respect some people have for your efforts, you may ask yourself if it’s worthwhile to do it all again.

You might feel a bit like Tinkerbell, losing your sparkle as you fade away. I hope you – and I – will find people willing to clap if they believe in us, and keep on clapping until we’re swinging through the air again, high above the doubts and fears.


Vicki Lane said...

Oh, how I can relate to what you're saying. It's a lot of work and anguish for not that much return. But having caught the fever, one always hopes that the NEXT book...or perhaps the one after that will be the Big One.

Maybe it's the fever that makes one a 'real' writer.

Sandra Parshall said...

Vicki, I'll clap for you if you'll clap for me!

Sheila Connolly said...

Yes, it's always the next book that will hit the NYT list!

I have to say, in the course of my checkered career I've made more money as a temp receptionist than I have in writing, but there are compensations. The response you get from strangers when you say, "I write mysteries" is entirely different from the response to "I answer phones."

But don't you get involved with your characters? Aren't you curious to know how they will grow and change? And when a series stops (mine or someone else's), I keep thinking there should be a funeral. Someone is gone forever.

Pauline Alldred said...

The writer who hasn't been published yet looks at all their friends who've published half a dozen books and wonders if she's joined a strange group that could have been called the misfits in high school. The published books are well written and exciting but, if they're not made into movies, will they disappear into obscurity.

I'm not going to give up my efforts or supporting authors I admire.

Sandra Parshall said...

What bugs me is that some *writers* don't respect small press authors -- or any other authors who don't make a lot of money. Writers, of all people, should know that sales figures are no indicator of quality or of the blood, sweat, and tears the author put into the work.

Gigi Pandian said...

For me, it's all about personal perception. I became a writer the moment I started taking myself seriously as a writer -- no matter what anybody else says. I'm only part of the way down the path to publication, but it's an interesting path and I intend to enjoy it regardless of the size of press or amount of money it generates.

And Sandy, you better not stop writing your books!

Laura DiSilverio said...

Real writerhood is defined by your attitude toward your writing (as Gigi suggests), not by anyone else's reactions to your writing or your income. Do you file a Schedule C? I'm betting you do. If so, even the IRS considers you a "real" writer. Keep on writing your excellent books!

JJM said...

You're a writer if you'd continue writing even if you knew the book won't get published. You're a writer if writing is as necessary to you as breathing, and eating, and sleeping. You're a writer if everything you see and hear and do is filed away, formally in a notebook or simply subconsciously in your mind, for later reference and inclusion in a story. You're a writer if you study everyone you meet as a potential character, or part of one.

Mind you, you might not be a good writer (unlike present company) -- and I'm sure each of you can instantly call some wretched scribbler or t'other to mind -- but even so ...

As for me -- I'm clapping for all of you. :)

--Mario Rups

Sandra Parshall said...

Thanks for the encouragement, Mario. :-)

Diane said...

Sandra, you are a writer/author. Period. And a very good one. Rich or not.

The market today - maybe the last decade? - is really publisher oriented instead of writer oriented. Reminds me of tv today vs, say, the 1970s. Many good shows were given a chance to get an audience and grow. Mash, Barney Miller - examples of shows that didn't balloon the first two weeks, but became big hits. Now it's a few shows, get shuffled from one day to another, so no one can find them, and then they are gone. I think in writing it's the egotistical big-business publishers (in the place of the networks), instead of the writers and readers (i.e, tv's shows and viewers). After all, even we readers are held hostage to where a book is sold (another plus for the existance of Amazon, etc) and publishers that don't advertise their authors. I'm getting more and more for self-publishing for that very reason. The publishers make the bucks, but give little support for their authors. Cut out the blasted middleman.

JJM said...

Sandra: you're most welcome. (It's always nice when speaking the truth is also encouraging. [grin])

Diane: self-publication, e.g. via the Kindle, looks like it will be the only real refuge for a growing group of good writers who are independent through no fault of their own. The most obvious problem will be self-promotion. I love seeing things like the blog-tours, and venues such as Facebook and Dorothy-L are very valuable, but ultimately the audience there is relatively limited. Still, if publishers don't promote their writers, there's not much choice ... It's a sad, sad world out there. :(

Anonymous said...

Sally C. says, Regarding a writer's output, is Margaret Mitchell (Gone With the Wind) not a writer because she only had one book? It's quality, not quantity, that counts. IMHO, a handful of high-quality work is better than piles of poorly-written fluff.

Donis Casey said...

I'm going through the exact same thing right now. Do I want to put myself through that once again? And yet when the fever comes over you, you've gotta write, don't you? I think the drive to create is sacred. It's just discouraging that it doesn't pay.

Dru said...

::Clap, clap, clap::

Every book I buy, I thank the author because they gave me pleasure with the stories they presented to me.

Keep on writing and you are all authors/writers to me.

Sandra Parshall said...

Donis, I'm sure you and I will be presenting more manuscripts to our shared editor for a while yet.

Dru, thank you. :-)

Norma Huss said...

Sandra, I'm clapping! I know exactly how you feel. But.... a couple of weeks ago a neighbor's daughter brought a copy of my book over for me to sign and was thrilled to actually meet a real writer! (That's me?)

Sandra Parshall said...

Yes, Norma, that's you! And I'll bet that reader didn't ask you whether you can pay your mortgage out of your royalties. Hearing from people who have actually read my books and liked them is what keeps me going. I wonder if the average reader has any idea how much a kind word means to a writer.

Martha said...

Hey, was Van Gogh an artist? Money is not the measure though of course we want and need it.

Please don't give up writing unless you hate doing it. Lots of us readers depend on you wonderful writers. Hang in there!

lil Gluckstern said...

Yes, Sandra, you are a writer. I know I look forward to your next book. Someone mentioned the Kindle. Well, I bought mine so I can continue to read the authors I like, and respect, without being dependent on the bean counters( to use someone else's word) that seem to run the show these days. I wish you all luck.

Kaye George said...

I'm not only clapping, I'm counted as what you call one of the relatively few. I'll never not buy a Sandra Parshall book!

But, as a small press author, yet to make my debut, I can tell you that, at least at some, it's required to sell a certain number of books before they'll consider publishing a second one. The pressure is everywhere.

I think my highest paying job was janitor in a tractor factory.

Margaret said...

Sandra, Please keep writing. I love your books. You kindly sent me an ARC of Broken Places, and it was a wonderful read. I know it is difficult to write and to not get the financial return, especially in these hard times. As a reader, I try to buy as many books as I can, but I also ask my library to order all the books I would like to read. In recent years, the library has ordered mysteries from many small presses, much to my delight. One might ask was Emily Dickinson not a poet if she only wrote for herself, her poems only being published after her death.
Margaret Franson

Sandra Parshall said...

Thank you all for your comments -- and for clapping. :-) Yes, many artists have labored in obscurity, making little or no money from their work. Even our honorary dad, Edgar Allan Poe, lived in poverty. The world is too much focused on money these days.

NancyM said...

I'm a swimmer. I swim several times a week, and it's become a big part of who I am. Am I fast enough to compete? Graceful enough to be on a synchronized team? No way. My goals are different from those kinds of swimmers. My needs are different, too. (I like the dopey-looking goggles that don't gouge big circles under my eyes. I have big enough circles already, thank you!) I'm not making money at swimming, but I'm still a swimmer. I don't begrudge other kinds of swimmers that designation because they're different from me. (OKay, I might be a little jealous of that young woman who blasts past me every other lap. I'm not crazy about the wake she kicks up, either!) The swimmer identity is in my own head--something I decide for myself.

I can relate to your crisis of faith, Sandy. Keep writing.--That's what makes you a writer.

Unknown said...

Hi Sandy,

You're a real writer/author, make no mistake about THAT.

I'm going through the same thing. In fact I've been on a two year hiatus because I hated the marketing part so much. The skills involved are like apples and oranges. Very different. Personally, I think it sucks that publishers can't make an effort to promote their writers. I've heard this from so many writers regardless whether they're from big pubs or small pubs. It's not a nice business once you get past
the polished ms. (however, I do like doing book signings even if only one person does buy my book.)

I supposed you can only measure your professional vs hobby status
is if you go ahead and write the next darn book in spite of being sick to your stomach as you begin.

Also, remember, many, maybe even most of the great and'/or popular writers didn't earn their livings as authors. We're all looking at the Stephen Kings, Janet Evanovich's, etc. We can't compare. We're different.

Good luck with your decision. Personally, I know you're a professional and a very good writer, so I'd keep going.

Patricia Guthrie

Chester Campbell said...

Hi, Sandy. You've obviously touched a nerve here with all the comments. Having been published by two different small presses, I know exactly how you feel. I had a brief thought the other day about whether I really wanted to keep spending my time writing at this stage in my life (I recently passed 85), but then I sat at my laptop and pounded out a few more pages. It's what I've always enjoyed doing, and I can't see stopping now. The people who read my books and say - "I really enjoyed that one. When will the next one be out" - think I'm a writer, and that's good enough for me. Keep up the good work!

Anonymous said...

Of course you're a real writer. Your publisher is real, the advances and your earnings are real (have any cashiers at your local supermarket refused your money because i's not real enough?), your Agatha is real (as far as I know, you didn't buy a teapot at Target and stick on a label proclaiming yourself the winner), and those readers who write you letters and buy your books, are,I presume, not avatars.

I have a question you should ask those Sarah Palins of the writing world: During all the time they were working so hard to get an agent or a publisher, how would they have reacted if told that they weren't real writers?

You're a professional writer. I'm a writer whose goal is publication. I'm not a professional yet. But I'm damned well a writer.

Writing, like acting, painting, etc., is a state of mind and a core of one's being as much as it is an occupation. We wouldn't even be having this conversation if we lived in France :)

Carol Baier

Kathleen A. Ryan said...

Thanks for such an honest, thought-provoking post, Sandra.

I love this quote from Richard Bausch: "I don't teach writing. I teach patience. Toughness. Stubbornness. The willingness to fail. I teach the life... When you feel global doubt about your talent, that is your talent. People who have no talent don't have any doubt. And it's figuring that out and learning how to put all that stuff behind you and just do the work..."

I clearly remember him saying "I don't teach writing, I teach patience" when I listened to him at the AWP conference in NYC in '08. He also said something along the lines of (and I'm paraphrasing) "anything worth reading took a long time to write ~ a little bit at a time, over a long period of time, and there's a lot of doubt along the way."

I felt such relief.

cindy sample said...

Hi Sandra. This is the only blog I had time to read today but it was well worth my time. After working all day on my sequel, I was questioning my new "non-profit" career when I received one of those surprise emails from a new fan who loved my book. That's all it takes to keep me going. Of course I still have to keep clipping coupons but I'm not going to stop writing.

PS - I loved Broken Places

Anonymous said...

What a great post, Sandra. It's so refreshing to hear someone say that they're fine with their current success.

Congratulations on all your kudos: book sales, library "rentals", awards, & good reviews.


Ellis Vidler said...

Well said, Sandy! It's hard work, and something compels us to give it our best. But it's certainly not the money. I'd be out on the street in a week if I had to support myself with my fiction. Still, I can't quit. And I sincerely hope you don't either. I'm also a reader!

Kathleen Ernst said...

Chiming in very late, here--but in my mind, you are indeed a writer. It's the hard work, the desire to do the best we can, that earns the title.