Monday, February 15, 2010

Brave New Worlds

If you're a writer, it's very easy to be defeatist. In fact, it's the only easy thing about writing. I have encountered a couple of posts in various blogs or groups I follow that were decrying the "toughness" of the publishing industry. Well, it should be tough.

Show me Rembrandt, hands crippled by debilitating disease, still painting daily as his life unwound...what did he have to gain? Give me Stephen King, who was getting rejected as a 10-year-old, and nailing all his slips to a wall as he continued telling his stories. How about Clint Eastwood, who got only tiny parts until he was in his late 20s, and no doubt saw lots of younger, hunkier guys nabbing up all the juicy roles? Even Hillary Clinton or Sarah Palin, no matter your politics, who overcame all sorts of perceptions about a "man's world" to achieve influence?

I posted on JA Konrath's newbies blog about the beauty of this new age for creators. I was dubious myself, having had the lessons of "professional writing" drummed into my head for 15 years: get your 500 rejection slips, find an agent, be grateful if a publisher likes you, and then work your tail off hustling, under threat that if your sales aren't as good as the next gal's, then you will be dumped. And for all this, you'll get 8 to 15 percent of the cut.

Even now, most of the major writing organizations have "approved publisher" lists by which they measure the professionalism of a writer. "If you publish with X, then you are a pro." Even if that publisher only pays a $500 advance, totally mishandles your book, expects you to do all the marketing, and then ties up your rights for years, even if the book isn't available. Yet if you publish on your own and make $25,000 a year, you are NOT a professional.

That has never made sense to me. While I believe professionalism is an attitude than any writer could and should adopt from Day One and the typing of "It was a dark and stormy night," the point is to find readers and earn money. I'm usually the last one to take my own advice, but ultimately the crafting of a realistic career is my goal.

At DragonCon, I had the great good fortune to talk at length with Chelsea Quinn Yarbro and Gene Wolfe in the guest suite. I would have been far too intimidated to approach them, but my lovely, vivacious wife immediately engaged them in human conversation, having no idea who they were. Both were lamenting the state of the industry and how ephemeral a writer's career was, and both these legends were saying they were only as good as their last books, and despite tremendous contributions to their fields, they might easily see themselves set on the curb next year. And they expressed pity for the newer writers trying to break into this hostile environment.

Of course, every writer should say, "Well, I don't care about the odds. I'm going to make it anyway." But "making it" sure can look like many different things. For me, it was always to be able to tell my stories full time and put all my energy into spinning yarns and entertaining readers, while subtly expressing my worldview. I never aspired to be a bestseller, or launch a cult movement, or hang out in New York coffee shops. I wanted to be near family and enjoy the easy rhythms of the garden, the animals, the forests, and the weather. Why in the world would I ever want to leave the Blue Ridge Mountains?

Now, I can do that. "Can." I AM doing it. Not as fully as I like yet, but increasingly, it's within my grasp and power. I hope every writer feels as inspired, hopeful, and ecstatic as I do about this new era of communication. Not from bitterness or the idea of "revolution," but as a simple, direct line between writers and readers. Take heart, writers of the future. The world is at your command.


cpolkinhorn said...

"Show me Rembrandt, hands crippled by debilitating disease, still painting daily as his life unwound...what did he have to gain?"
Absolutely. And he was just one of the many great artists of that time, totally dependent on the good-will of his benefactors. One unflattering painting of his patron or a family member, a different political view, a wrong word and you were done for, banned from the community of artists, and you could starve to death (no social security). If today's artists and writers think they have a hard life, well . . . think again. Christa Polkinhorn, writer.

author Scott Nicholson said...

Yes, Christa, and just think of those poor minstrels and court jesters or had to entertain at the risk of losing their heads...

Erik Williams said...

Another great post. Scott. Well said.