Saturday, April 28, 2012
by Kristina Wright
I'm a bit boggled by these emails, coming as they from strangers not familiar with me or my work or even an idea about what it means to be a "full-time" writer. I'm equally boggled by the comments from friends and acquaintances alike (and sometimes strangers, too), who alternately joke about my "smut" writing or say things like, "I don't want to get a real job when I retire. I want to be a writer." Sigh... But I do know what they're trying to say, I really do. What I do is not "real" to most people and I realize that. From the outside, what I do looks easy. Fun. Not work. Not effort. I try to explain the realities, but their eyes glaze over. Writing in and of itself is a very boring occupation to hear about. Writing is to other careers what golf is to sports. No one wants to hear about it, but from the outside it looks easy enough for anyone to do. What's the big deal, right? You just write your fantasy or your dream from last night or an updated version of some story you read in high school. It's as easy as hitting a little white ball into a little cup in the grass. How hard can that be, right? Until they attempt to do it. Then they're looking for the magic backdoor into the world of being a full-time writer. The fun kind, of course.
I say I write full-time and I do, but it's not 9-5 or 10-6 or Monday through Friday with weekends off. It's when I can, as much as I can. It's 11:30 AM until 4 or 5 PM, Monday through Thursday and sometimes 8 PM to midnight on those nights, too. It's a few hours on Friday when my husband gets off work early and Saturday from the time the babies nap until Starbucks closes at 9:30 PM. It's some Sundays when I'm under deadline, it's even when I'm sick or tired or invited to go do something more fun. It's staying up 3 AM writing a proposal on Thanksgiving morning when I have to get up at 7 AM to put the turkey in the oven. It's thinking about and plotting stories when I wake up in the middle of the night, when I'm driving, when I'm playing with the two year old or putting the seven month old to bed. It's cobbling anywhere from 30 to 50 hours a week from my schedule to do the only thing I've ever wanted to do. That's what writing "full-time" means to me. And sometimes I long for a regular schedule, normal hours, weekends and holidays off, not to mention a steady paycheck and vacation time and health benefits. Full-time writers don't get any of that. Sometimes we don't even get a royalty check-- I've seen royalty statements with negative signs in front of the numbers on the bottom line. Has a non-writer ever seen one of those from their full-time job?
I don't think my schedule is what people have in mind when they say they want to do what I do. Not most of them, anyway. They don't want to hear about the hours, or about the sheer hard work that goes into writing. Or about the rejections that come for stories only I love. They don't want to know that they might put in six months of hard work into a manuscript that will never see the light of day. I have several manuscripts like that. Books that taught me a lot about writing but will never be published, which means I will never make any money on them. That's the other thing aspiring writers are most interested in, after the easy and fun work schedule-- the money. They envision bucket loads of cash raining down on them from the New York publishing gods. The polite ones assume I make more money than I do, the rude ones ask me outright how much I make. The answer varies from, "Not much" to "Enough to keep me in coffee" to "I can't complain" to "How much do you make?"
Here's the harsh truth none of them want to hear or believe about their own future-fantasy writing career: precious few full-time writers are just writers. We are freelance copyeditors and proofreaders. We ghostwrite memoirs and write advertising copy for the local freebie newspaper. We do technical writing and text book editing. We are fact-checkers and researchers. We are librarians and bookstore managers. We are anthologists and bloggers and artists. We teach three sections of College Composition at the community college each semester and we teach Writing the Personal Narrative at the local literary center. We hold writing workshops in library meeting rooms and we review books for a dozen different magazines and websites. We design blogs and websites for other writers and creative types and we do lots of things that have no real name but are somehow writing-related. Sometimes we do many of these things in any given year-- and we still don't make enough money to buy a new car or take a proper vacation.
Aspiring writers don't want to hear the harsh realities of the easy and fun job of hanging out at Starbucks all day. They want to be the next Stephen King or Suzanne Collins or E.L. James. They want to be famous. They want that Glamour Shots photo they had taken five years ago (or that photo of them on that yacht that one time in St. Thomas) to be on the back of a shiny hardcover book in the front of Barnes & Noble. They have already chosen their pseudonym, it's a combination of their mother's maiden name and their favorite Jane Austen character. They spent a lot of money on a shiny new MacBook Pro but so far the only thing they've written are Facebook status updates about their muse and how they love the writing life. Mostly, they play Solitaire and drink $4 espresso drinks and send vague query letters to agents about the book they're going to write if the agent can get them a three-book deal. When they haven't gotten a response (much less an offer of representation) from an agent within the week, they write Facebook status updates about how the publishing industry is a clique, a dinosaur, a closed door to talented newcomers. Then they play another round of Solitaire and tell themselves they need to self-publish like what's-her-name who made all that money on Amazon writing those vampire stories. Except they never bother to learn the ins and outs of successful self-publishing and none of the writers they have emailed randomly will tell them the secrets of being full-time writers. They assume it's because those writers are intimidated by someone more talented-- they never assume those writers are too busy writing, editing, teaching, etc., to tell them the truth: the only way to be a full-time writer is to find a way to write full-time, even if you also have a full-time "real" job, even if you have kids and a house and a chronic illness and elderly in-laws and, and, and... The only way to be a writer is to write. That is not what they want to hear. So they write a shitty review on Amazon for a book they never read, write a Facebook status update about how author X is a hack and her book is illiterate trash, then they go back to playing Solitaire, smug in the knowledge that when they do finally get around to writing and self-publishing their book, they will have the last laugh.
Does that sound harsh? A hack smut writer in her ivory tower pooh-poohing the brilliant aspiring writers who only need a bit of advice and an introduction to my agent, editor or publisher in order to become The Next Big Thing that I can never hope to be? Yeah, you caught me. Sorry. God knows I make so much money and I'm so wildly successful that any question about how to obtain my fun and easy lifestyle is to be perceived as a threat and immediately condemned. My apologies. Let me make it up to you and buy you a coffee while you tell me about your muse. What's her name again?
What do I tell those questioning souls who email me for advice? I tell them all the same thing and, oddly enough, not one of them has ever written me back to thank me. I guess I didn't tell them what they wanted to hear. But here is what I tell them: read a lot. Read everything. Read in the genre you want to write, yes, but also read outside of it. And write. For the love of all that is holy, write your ass off. Don't write erotic romance because it's the hot new (old) genre right now. Don't write horror because you have a lifelong crush on Stephen King (I did and I do). Don't write children's books because they're short and therefore must be easy to write. Write what you love to read. Write what inspires you and makes your heart go pitter-pat. Write the story you're carrying around in your secret heart even if it doesn't fit into any genre category. Write without thinking about the money, because the money might be years in coming if it comes at all. Hell, write without thinking about who might read what you're writing. Write to please yourself. To turn yourself on. To scare yourself with how far off the deep end you've gone. Write with your real name at the top of the page, to remind you of who you are, not who you want other people to think you are. Forget about finding an agent or submitting your manuscript to a publisher until you actually have a manuscript to submit-- a manuscript that has been written, edited and proofread, then read by a few trusted souls and edited again. A beautiful, as good as it can get manuscript that is representative of your very best work as a professional writer. Don't have that yet? Then you're not a writer.
There are countless books and magazines and blogs about How to Be a Writer and I encourage all aspiring writers to read and understand as much about the craft as they can. But at the end of the day, the only thing you have are the words you have written. And if you haven't written any words, you are not a writer.
Oh, and one last thing: that word-- aspiring? It's bullshit. You either are a writer or you're not. Which are you?