Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Art of Craft

As I've said before, the frequency with which I update this blog always falls short of the mark, though there's not really a mark for these things. I prefer meaningful posts or touches of humor, or avoid posting altogether. I'm not holding back so much as I have other things to do. In the past month my health has been poor in a particular way that I've had trouble concentrating, a particularly problematic ailment for someone who does a lot of reading and writing. My scheduled projects have fallen behind, except for the ones that simply were due to the publisher's, and had to be finished on time.

I dedicated a book to a former teacher, and I met with her on Friday. She mentioned to me that if I did marry (as I've come to the age where older women start dropping hints about marriage prospects on any occasion) a rich person, I could sit at home and practice my craft without the financial worries that being a starving writer/artist comes with. If you think there isn't a woman artist or writer out there who hasn't had the stray thought, "G-d, if I just married a rich guy, I could focus on my art," I'd like to inform you that you're wrong. In the end our feminist ideals usually win out, but the idea pops up from time to time.

I answered her not that I was against marriage but that being free from financial worries would not necessarily improve my craft. Very much the opposite; rather than spending years obsessing over a single manuscript, trying to make it a perfect work of literature, I have to produce. It used to be that an established author could produce about a book a year and earn a $30,000 advance, and provided they could keep that pace they could pay their bills. Now advances are lower and bills are higher. You have to already be thinking about the next idea while you're writing your current book. You take pay-to-work jobs to write tie-in books to TV shows, novelization of crappy movies, or young adult series crap because there's a check involved - and it stretches you. While this is not true of everyone, I've met many, many writers who are obviously hyperfocused on getting that one perfect novel just right. While publishing is famously littered with examples of famous one-book authors (or authors where only one book became a classic), there's no way of counting the number of wannabes who, having spent a decade perfecting a novel only to discover their writing has changed so much that they can't look at it, should abandon the project and write something new but don't know it. Sitting on my C drive are about 6 novels I wrote in the last 8 years that came close to publication, but were not 100% there, and weren't accepted. Now that I have an agent, she tells me to revise, but some of them I can never seem to get right. One novel she did send out and it didn't sell. We were hoping there was enough there, but the metaphors were too obscure and I understand I was asking the reader to handle too much. In other words, it wasn't good enough to be published. I dropped it and moved on. Since then I've written four novels in a series, the first of which might be good enough to publish with enough revision.

In short: When you have to pay the bills with your writing, you have to write. The constant pressure to perform results in more writing than you might have done in a stress-free environment. This isn't true for everyone, but it's true for a lot of working writers, and it's definitely true for me.

As I was driving home from the chat with my old teacher, I realized how many times in the conversation I had mentioned money - how much I had received for some book or what the work-for-pay offer was and such and such, while she was talking about craft. There's a saying in the publishing world that I heard for the first time at Worldcon: "Wannabes talk about craft. Writers talk about money." This is not meant to imply corruption. Very few people go into writing strictly to make money because there isn't a lot of money to be made. It's something you have the talent and patience and passion for, but when it becomes your main source of income, it is your source of income. You have to produce. And to quote Dilbert's boss, "Pressure makes diamonds." I can't remember Dilbert's witty follow-up to that (Scott Adams loves bad analogies), but in this case, it can actually be true.

16 comments:

Scobberlotcher said...

Excellent post! I agree that most people are more prolific when they have more on their plate. I wrote my debut novel in the 3 year span when I had my 2 children. People always ask me how it was possible to write and take care of babies. For me, it was the thing I looked forward to working on after the babes went to sleep. Good luck on your current revisions and writing. Much success!

SJDuvall said...

I think there needs to be a fine balance. When I was in school, I had time (and some energy) left over to write. But now that I have a full-time job, I write less because of exhaustion. Maybe I just need to find my groove and stop blaming work, but I can't help but want to be able to be home more to write. A girl can wish, can't she?

Judith Mercado said...

How about the science of parsing the meaning of rejection letters? Never in my life have I paid so much attention to the minute variants of a form letter. Indeed, never have I taken heart from rejections which also include something like, “You are a gifted writer, but….” When I got that one, my spirits soared, only until I checked with a writer friend who received the exact language from the same agent. It could have been worse. The agent could have ignored me. She didn’t have to say those glowing words to me. So I can thank her because I’m able to feel that on a scale of 1 to 10, perhaps my writing is edging away from the 1 and inching its way to a 10.

Dave said...

One of your best posts. It's amazing how often writers talk about $$$ rather than x's and o's. But I think it was ever thus. Feel better.

Anonymous said...

I'm a better writer because of the financial pressure. I'm more concerned about paying the cell phone bill than making one particular sentence perfect. I move on to the next sentence. Then the next. Then the next. Before I know it, the book is written and edited and I move on to the next.

I'm married to an engineer. He's ridiculously stable in his job and we could live off one income. My advances are fun money for us. But I still keep a silly part-time job and keep an aggressive writing schedule. The pressure and time constraints make me a better writer.

Tara said...

Great post. I know my financial situation motivates me to write.

Debra L Martin said...

Thanks for filling us in on the not so glamorous side of a writer's life. I find that I work better under deadlines because I don't have the option to obsess over a word, a sentence, a chapter. Write it and move on. Get the words on the page and then you can always go back and edit.

Good luck with all your writing projects and I hope your health improves.

Anonymous said...

Ah ha ha, you feminists! I married a poor guy with a big heart, and now I have the best of both worlds: money pressure AND the time to write!

_*Rachel*_ said...

Really good post. If I was a full-time writer, I'd sit around in my pajamas constantly checking the web. So, back to school for this girl.

So very true, so very good to read.

Jm Diaz said...

I loved your post. I have a full-time job, and two boys that just soak up attention. Though this boy has never been a victim of the "need-to-marry" hint (except my mom, who used to worry about the raising of her grand kids). Moving on.
Writing, is my mistress. I sneak away two or three times a week to work on my novel, and get it just right. I want my book to sell, because I want to leave Engineering behind and make a living as a writer. I guess what I'm saying is, I'd like to formalize my relationship with writing. Having that want, I believe, is what keeps one hungry to do better each time. If money wasn't an issue, most people would just hire a ghost-writer.

Jess said...

I have a question (it may be sort of stupid). What if you're actually looking for pay-for-work writing jobs? How does one get the job of writing Buffy tie-in novels? Are their job boards for these things or do you already need to be published to be considered for these jobs? Any information or even a nudge in the right direction would be appreciated!

Anonymous said...

Never once wished I'd married a rich guy so I could sit around. What would I have to write about, if not my work experiences?

Anonymous said...

Although I certainly aspire to being published, I've never expected to make writing my full-time job. I've already got a full-time job (university instructor), but I've always thought that those who aim to make their living entirely through writing are being a bit presumptuous. It's hard enough just to get one book in print, let alone make a career of it.

Thomas said...

I agree wholeheartedly. Too many people, mostly those who don't actually produce content, lament the business aspects of creation, in your case writing, in mine producing films.

It seems that the intersection of commerce and art offends some people though I doubt such people have ever stopped to consider how professional and economic pressures can drive one to produce their best work.

If anyone cares, I had some similar thoughts on this subject

Laura said...

"Pressure makes diamonds" So true. Thanks for the reminder. I think the pressure has been bad this past year for everybody. I do have to say that I was sorry to hear about you feeling poorly and hope you are feeling much better as I type this. I got a piece of advice, and I truly wish I could remember where, that writer's tend to live in their heads so much that they need to take the focus outside of themselves to get balance. This might sound trivial, but I thought this might be something for you to keep in mind. It's hard to squeeze in time for our well-being during the day, but a small walk or just a stretch every now and then or just sitting and becoming aware of the treasures around you, what you put on the walls to inspire your writing, is a way to "get out of our heads." Sending you healing thoughts. Great post.

Steve Axelrod said...

Thomas Mann: "Bankers talk about art. Artists talk about money."