Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Fictional Facts: The Open Ended Life Of An Author

By Jay Stringer

So this happened.

After I read it -and played a very small violin- I started to think about what it was saying.

The world is nasty. Writers used to be able to live off writing alone, but since the credit crunch they're all broke. Life aint what it used to be.

You have to admire it. It's a really solid piece of fiction. Really solid. It should win an award.

Much of the piece centers around Rupert Thomson. I want to make it clear here- I'm not mocking him. He's a fine writer with a strong body of work. It's a real shame that he's finding himself at 60 with no safety net or pension. No doubt things haven't worked out as he thought, and nobody should ever feel the right to pour salt on that.

But to the piece as a whole? How much salt you got?

There are many myths involved in writing. Some feel that the work is easy. Some feel that writers sit around all day doing nothing (huh, well.....sometimes.) Some feel that the life of a writer is all plain sailing and laid back doodling. I don't mind those assumptions because they don't affect me. If people want to think this job is easy, fine, let them try it. The grass is always greener on the other side so I don't hold any grudges from anyone who thinks my field is verdant.

Plus, I've done my share of hard jobs. Manual work. Dialler work. Retail. Debt collection. I've done jobs that are physically hard and ones that drain your soul and, compared to them, sod it, writing is easy. So no harm, no foul.

But the assumptions that annoy me are all about the very things this article raises. being an author, it's all about money, it's all about your books selling by the thousand and you making enough from one book deal to keep you comfortable.

These assumptions, I think, are dangerous. These set people up to potentially have a good run of things for a while but then find themselves at 60 without a safety net. I've had well-meaning friends and family who, when I've talked about my next project or impending deals, will crack jokes about me being able to look after them in their old age. And the jokes come from something. They come from assumptions.

And the reason these assumptions annoy me, is because we're guilty of inflating them. Us. The writers. We like to have a little glamour and mystery attached to what we do and so we don't talk about the hours we put in at other jobs. We don't talk about the friendships or relationships that get damaged by devoting our 'spare' time to writing. We don't talk about pensions or savings or mortgages.

Let's take one line from the piece;

"roughly speaking, until 2000, if you wrote a story, made a film or recorded a song, and people paid to buy it, in the form of a book, a DVD or CD, you received a measurable award."

Roughly speaking? Measurable? This quote speaks to the fact that even as he put the words down, the writer knew he couldn't define this argument or back it up.

Writing has always been an uphill financial struggle for most writers. The majority of working musicians have always been pushing the rock up the hill with very little to show for it. Film is an outlier, with huge sums of money always lining the pockets of the headline talent, but that distracts from the many people working on a film for scale, for peanuts or to meet the bare needs of a mortgage. Noticing that life can be difficult for writers based on a few established names hitting hard times, is like noticing that being a musician is tough because Bruce Springsteen has yet to sell a million copies of his latest album.

And the expectation -often from writers- is that once you're "in the club" as a published writer, then you have some universe given right to always earn your money from writing. I saw a lot of this a few years ago when I was railing against the way Alan Moore was being demonised simply for sticking to an ethical line he had drawn in his career. He said he didn't want DC Comics to continue to use characters he had created and writers screamed blue murder, "how dare Alan Moore tell writers they can't earn money." As if that was anywhere near what happened. Writers can earn money writing something else. and you know what? If writing isn't paying all of your bills, flip a burger. Deliver some mail. Work in a shop.

Of all the writers I know, and all the ones I've spoken to over the past decade, the ones who earn all of their money from writing are in a very small minority. And good luck to those that maintain it. They're there through hard work. But the rest of us? We have other jobs.

The article itself compares Rupert Thomson to Elmore Leonard. Leonard worked full time for many years before he could leave the day-job. And in many other ways the article doesn't do Thomson any favours. We're meant to feel sorry for someone who can no longer afford to rent an office in London? For someone who has been forced to commission a builder  to make him an office? Seriously? As I said at the top, we shouldn't crack jokes at the expense of anyone who finds themselves in tough times, but the articles author does Thomson no favours here.

For what it's worth, writing accounts for about a third of my income. I work a day job, full time. Sometimes that's six days a week. I don't go on expensive holidays (the only time I've been abroad in the past ten years was to attend a writers conference.) I write my novels in whatever time I can fit in between the day-job and being sociable with friends and family. I have a very understanding wife. I also can't afford to rent an office, certainly not one in the city. My first two published books were both written on the sofa in the living room. It wasn't until the third book of a three-book deal that I had a writing desk. Two years ago we moved to a new flat (rental) to get a second bedroom that I can use as an office. That spare room, by the way, is roughly the same size as the "garret" mentioned in the article, and I wouldn't be able to pay a builder to make it for me. We are currently saving a deposit for a house, and the switch to a  mortgage over rent might give me some freedom to get away with working less hours at the day job, but it will also bring 30 years worth of a different kind of stress. And I do all this as someone with a learning disability that makes my chosen career the hardest one I could possible have gone for.

And this is in a period of my life when my career has been going well. I'm happy with my sales. I'm happy with the work the publisher did on them. I've made friends off the back of it. I'm optimistic about my next few projects.

I have half a plan to try writing full-time at some point in the next year, dependent on book deals and weather I get something good written. But if that plan goes away? I'll continue to work at a day job. If I go full-time but then the money dries up? I'll go back to having a day job. There is no existential crisis here for the soul of the author.

If you're out there reading this and you're thinking of getting into writing or publishing, ignore the myths. Prepare for long hours. Prepare for challenges in making ends meet. Prepare to strain a few friendships and skip a few breakfasts. Prepare for a job that is built around uncertainty. Prepare for needing a back-up plan and a mortgage, and for the fact that the writing income can go away at any time.

And prepare for the fact that none of those things will stop you- you write because you love it. You write because every word that you put on the page is a victory over all of the demons that tell you to stop.


John McFetridge said...

Well, film is an outlier, yes, but that's because it's really a mix of art and commerce. Most jobs on a film crew are trades - electricians and carpenters, etc., - and in the "olden days" they were unionized and paid normal wages and benefits and so on. Because they're just jobs, some electricians work on construction sites and some on movie sets.

The people working for "scale" or for free on movies are usually more on the arts side of things. It's kind of sad how a love of art often goes along with an acceptance of being exploited, but there you go.

Joelle Charbonneau said...

There really is a misconception about authors and the financial rewards of writing a book. About a dozen or more times a year I hear aspiring authors talk about how they want to write a book so they can quit their day job. I then let them know the four figure amount I got as an advance for my first novel. The are shocked because to them all writers must be making tons of money. For some reason, everyone understands that actors wait tables and sculptors or painters hold other jobs or that photographers take as many shots of weddings as they do of their amazing artistic works. I'm not sure why, but writing is viewed differently.

I used to say that my goal as a writer was to make about $30,000 a year. I wanted to be able to contribute to the household and feel like the amount was enough to justify all the of hours I dedicate to the job instead of to my friends and family. I figured it would take years to achieve that goal and was prepared for the slog. I can honestly say that I'm lucky. The stars aligned and I have gone past that goal. For now. Who knows what tomorrow will hold. As long as I get to write - I'm willing to take whatever comes.

Steve Weddle said...

>>>>>In 2008 I sold a book-in-progress for $200,000 ($170,000 after commission, to be paid in four installments), which still seems to me like a lot of money. At the time, though, it seemed infinite. The resulting book—a “paperback original,” as they’re called—has sold around 8,000 copies, which is about a fifth of what it needed to sell not to be considered a flop. This essentially guarantees that no one will ever pay me that kind of money to write a book again.

It took me a while to realize that my book had failed. No one ever told me point-blank that it had.
It was more like the failure occurred in tiny increments over the course of two years, after which it was too late to develop a solid Plan B.

I spent some of the advance on clothes that no longer fit my body/life, but mostly I spent it on taxes—New York even has a city tax, on top of the state and federal kind—and rent. I lived alone for three years in Brooklyn, paying $1,700 a month ($61,200 all told) for a pretty but small one-bedroom within eyeshot of the Brooklyn–Queens Expressway.<<<


David Cranmer said...

Spot on, Jay. Like you, not making fun of the writers. I'm in the same rickety boat but that article is, uh, general fiction.