Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Why I'll Never Make a Living as a Writer

A comment made in response to Robert Swartwood's recent post about the state of short fiction has stuck with me, pestering me like a bad rash. (here's the full entry and comments)

from Jeff (commenter #3):

"I blame us – writers, but also editors and publishers of short fiction. My wife, who is not a writer but an avid reader, is rather fond of telling me (when I am down, depressed, and angry) that if I want people to read what I write, I have to write things people want to read. This advise goes against everything your [sic] taught as a writer, but it is also profoundly true."

Why has the comment held on? Because it is true. Too true.

I've bristled against popular "art" in the past. If art (be it writing, visual arts, music, performing arts...) is boiled down to "paste-pudding" (to steal a term from Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451), it loses something. Make art accessible to everyone, and it is bland. Simple. Easy to ingest. Not art anymore.

Case in point:

Isn't this the kind of joke we used to make in college (while we were drunk)? How did it become an industry?

So call me a snob. I want my art, and my writing, to challenge me. I've felt the short story was the pinnacle of the "art" of writing for some time. Yes, there are wonderful, challenging novels out there, but most of what we're fed is paste-pudding. Short fiction in the highest paid magazines (and most well-read, even though they sport meager numbers) is more original, better written, more "artful" than popular novels--thus making itself (and the magazines which publish it) less accessible...less popular.


I want to hear a little perspective in the comments...give me a piece of your mind, and I will cherish it well (in a jar of on my bookshelf).


Barry Napier said...

Agreed...although, as far as novels go, I have all but given up. AS long as titles like Twilight are selling, I think that formula is going to dominate.

It is also for the very reasons you stated that I also don't believer I'll ever "make it" as a writer. In the meantime, I think it is up to small press writers, unhindered by contracts and sales numbers, to recreate the meaning of our "art". (This is why I am not a fan of zombie fiction).

Aaron Polson said...

You give me hope, Barry.

Cate Gardner said...

We only hear about the bland stuff like Twilight etc and their millions, but I do believe there are a lot of artful books out there, getting published and making the writers 'some' money. I love what Angry Robot books is doing, and they have signed a lot of small press writers to their books.

Aaron Polson said...

Cate - I just fear we will all be lost in the dark, surrounded by thousands of copies of inane books with not a challenging thought to be found. Thank you for talking me down from the ledge.

Rabid Fox said...

Well, I'm used to being poor, so the idea that my writing isn't going to put me in a penthouse is alright with me. Granted, there is something unseemly about how bad writing is lauded in some venues. Or just bad writers. I mean, Joe the Plumber got a book deal--honest to god, Joe.

Anyway, with regards to small markets, I'm late hopping on the short fiction bandwagon, so I'm left to navigate an arid oasis. At least the company's nice. :)

Aaron Polson said...

Gef - Joe landed a nice deal 'cause the publisher knew the advance sales would pay well. In a perfect world, they'd balance that with quality "art" (which might not sell as well).

As for this oasis...you're always welcome.

Kara McElhinny said...

Aaron, I'm new to short stories myself, so I have little introspective about how they will sell in the long run. I do work at a book store and while fluff is selling, there are many people who aren't afraid to reach across their comfort zone and take a look at what is outside the cookie-cutter words box.

The reason books like Twilight sell, is because it's easy to read. 5th grade reading level and for some it massages their egos into thinking they are readers. Many of them don't come back for another book because "They'll never find something they like as much." When really, I think they are just waiting for someone else to tell them what they should think is good to read.

It's quite a conundrum. But I have faith in writing and publishing.

While fluff is good to escape reality every now and then, and many readers are just looking for the escapism, it's the books that really speak to people that make an impression.

(Plus, I totally dig writing short stories!)

Fox Lee said...

I can't speak for all writers, but I write for myself, I write what I love, and I hope someone else wants to read it. Otherwise, I write crap. I doubt Stephen King, or Jack Ketchum (two of my favorites) sit down and ask themselves what the world wants them to write. I say if you love your readers, share your passion with them.

Aaron Polson said...

Hinny - I miss my bookstore days...

I know a few students who have all but said "I read Twilight because it was a big, thick book and I feel like I've accomplished something". Right on, re: ego massaging.

Natalie - I want: "If you love your readers, share your passion" on a t-shirt. (Of course...if that was your pseudonym talking...)

Andrea Allison said...

I watched Twilight for the first time over the weekend (putting off reading the books). It was a good movie but I don't see what all the fuss is about. I don't see how the obsession switch got turned on.

It's sad when you practically have to be apart of the publishing world to know whats good out there. I write what I want and hope someone else will love it too.

Doug Murano said...

As with all things, balance is key. There's nothing wrong with considering your audience (and market) when composing a story. Stephen King writes extensively about writing for his "ideal reader" who just so happens to also be his wife.

In terms of my process, the first draft is just for me. All of my whims and indulgences go into that one. After that, I'm shaping it in ways that, I hope, give it the best chance to be sold and read. That means trying my best to view my stories from the outside--in other words, making a draft others will want to read.

As for where the line is--that's a very personal thing. You can only find it by repeatedly pushing up against it.

Brendan said...

I forget what book I read it in (think it might have been "The Dilbert Principle") and all the specific details, but one day, a guy named Scott Adams, who at the time worked a mundane job as a software developer and liked to doodle on the side, wrote himself a note that said, "I will become a famous cartoonist."

Now, he didn't know the first thing about being a cartoonist, let alone a famous one.

But he placed the note in a prominent place and made sure he looked at it every day. As time went on, he became more serious in his drawing and began taking steps toward his goal of becoming a famous cartoonist. He looked at the note every day.

He has since become a firm believer in affirmations such as the one that worked for him.

What does it mean? I dunno. But I'm not sure I'd ever title a post of mine like that, not if I ever wanted to make a living as a writer, that is. But maybe you don't, and that's okay too!

Aaron Polson said...

Andrea - Reading Twilight (and I did...at least the first book) was like eating a bag of potato chips. Rather addictive, but...

Doug - I'm constantly at war with the line. Good insight.

Brendan - I didn't title the post out of a "defeatist" perspective; quite the opposite. I recognize I'm in the minority, and will happily continue to do the less popular option, as long as I believe in it.

My original post title, for what it's worth: "Pride and Prejudice and Suck...er, Zombies".

Robert said...

I think short stories are definitely a more ... purer form of storytelling. Not much usually changes between the writer's final draft and what is eventually published. Novels, however, are a completely different beast. Because yes, so much more is riding on them, in terms of money, that the publishers seem them not as art but just another product. Sad, but true.

Aaron Polson said...

Robert - Indeed...sad but true. If I was feeding my family with writing, I'd feel different. I'm sure I would.

Anonymous said...

Every day I thank my lucky stars that I don't depend on any sort of writing income. 'Cuz we'd have starved long ago.

That said, I am lucky that I don't feel the pressure to put out a formulaic product. I genre-hop. The novel I'm shopping has been called "wonderful" and "charming", "unique", "fresh", and an agent even said, "I want it" but it's unusual and they don't know how to sell it. Is that daunting? Sure, but I believe in this work, and I can leisurely send it out without the pressures of being financially dependent on it.

And is Twilight my cup of tea? No, but it gets people reading. Girls who didn't read before are reading Twilight, and I can only applaud that.

And when I'm done applauding, I feel secretly happy that I like my stories better. ;)


Alan W. Davidson said...

Wow. Another thought-provoking topic, sir. There's a lot of differing opinions.

That clip was sad, yet hilarious. I suppose the horror genre has to evolve somewhere. I just won't follow. Smart horror can and has been produced. Sweeney Todd, 28 days Later.

I hope that there's a shift in education and the school age kids start to read 'smarter' fiction. Then again... perhaps the Alistair Maclean and Trevanian I read as a boy were the fluff of their time.

Cathy Olliffe-Webster said...

Like Mercedes, anything that hooks young people on reading instead of video games is a small miracle. We all have to start on something... with me it was Nancy Drew. I can't bear them now but when I was nine they were high art and I went through them with frantic fervour.
Whether we write for ourselves or write for a particular audience depends on whether we need writing to feed us in a literal sense.
You can write and be paid for it - I can think of no better writer training and understanding of human nature than being a reporter.
You can also be a novelist or a fiction writer and fight for your art. Don't give it away.
Our reasons are important.
Me, I don't care about money for my work because I have work that is satisfying. I write because it fills something in my soul and my payment is comments from people like you.

Anonymous said...

And some buggy whip makers re-tooled to make steering wheel covers and upholstery for cars, while others continued to make buggy whips for the dwindling buggy whip market. They made some damn fine buggy whips, that nobody ever saw.

I don't know art from a hole in the ground, but I'll tell you this much. That buggy problem people were having sure got licked. I haven't seen a recalcitrant buggy that needed disciplining for a pure age.

Me? I'm painting my ass blue and farting homespun advice on Youtube. Gonna have a million hits. I can smell change in the air!

I think it's change I can smell.

Aaron Polson said...

And Mercedes, I like your stories better, too.

Alan - When kids read "smarter" fiction at school, parents call for censorship. Sheesh.

Cathy - I hear you, re: getting kids to read, but some of them are stuck on the vampire knock-off gravy train. How do we ween them?

Alan - But they're reall nice whips...

K.C. Shaw said...

I'm commenting before reading all the other comments, so if it sounds like I'm copying someone else, I promise I'm not.

I think there's a balance to writing what you love to write and writing for the market. If you're just writing what's popular, it's going to show that you're not really engaged. If you're writing what you love, it may be awesome but it also may not find a market (or not a large market). The trick is to write something accessible that still interests you. That's how ground is broken anyway, because it'll seem really fresh to everyone who reads it without being too noncommercial to those who sign the writers' checks. At least, that's my humble theory.

Jamie Eyberg said...

I enjoy reading much of popular fiction, although not Twilight which I read the first book and didn't care to move on. I also enjoy reading some more challenging fiction. I end up writing whatever I want. I don't write with particular markets in mind, most of the time, and I enjoy what I do. My own theory is 'what would I like to read' and write that. I know I will never make a living doing that and I am fine with that. As long as I am happy with what I have written.

Laurita said...

Excellent post. The unfortunate thing, I think, is that the books that will attract non-readers also suffer from poor writing. Twilight and P&P&Z are perfect examples. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is 80% original manuscript with 20% random zombie refrences thrown in. It's rather pointless really.

Katey said...

It's like the difference between network television and cable-- the latter used to be such a tiny niche when I was a kid, reserved for soft porn and foul-mouthed humor. These days it's way more. You won't get a show like Dexter on a big network, but it's some fucking good writing, intelligent, witty, scary as fuck-- but also very popular now that people have access to it.

Why shouldn't publishing go the same way? People want the good stuff, people are smarter than the big presses want to think, but testing that means taking risks. Big publishers don't stay alive by taking risks, but niche ones do. Hey, it worked for Showtime.

Erin Cole said...

Damn the truth hurts. I finished a novel...I'll admit, compared to my short stories, is probably like the paste-pudding you mentioned. I do like my book, am proud of it, but I love to write short stories and I find them more original, raw, and entertaining than my book. Why this is so has actually been a recent reflection of mine. Maybe I feel I have more freedom with short stories, less time with less at stake equals more flexibility?

I do hope to make a living at writing and I’ve gathered it will be writing popular books instead of selling short stories. Still, I'll never quit writing short stories—that's where my heart is and where the fun in writing is at.