Monday, July 26, 2010

Tilting at windmills

Three of the things that happened last week began with a member of my virtual writers' group starting a virtual conversation on the question why each of us writes the genre we write. He began the discussion:
This is a little different than 'why do you write' per se.
Naturally, this got me thinking about why writers write, per se. As readers have seen in my prior posts, questions of genre or category puzzle me.

The tumultuous state of the publishing industry in these distracted and e-bookish times is generating much gnashing of teeth and rending of garments, in the blogosphere and elsewhere. Even forecasters of a future that's not apocalyptic are expecting a roller coaster ride between here and wherever there turns out to be. Many of the blogs I read in this space feature industry insiders (a.k.a. agents and  employees of publishing houses) trying to slap some sense into industry wannabe-insiders (a.k.a. authors looking to get published). In case you haven't copped on yet, I'm in the latter camp.

A second thing that happened last week was that Eric of Pimp My Novel, held forth on the topic You Ain't In It For the Money. He shot straight from the hip:
it's important for you to realize that you're not likely to make a ton of money with your writing. It is, in fact, unlikely that you'll even be able to quit your day job.
Okay. I get that (Eric clarified this morning that he meant "writing fiction" but I assumed...).
The point, meine Autoren, is this: do this because you won't be happy doing anything else, not because you want to be the next James Patterson or J.K. Rowling (as nice as that'd be).
[Eric likes to address the writers who read his blog in affectionate German or French"]
Thing number three comes courtesy of Nathan Bransford, who on the very same day as Eric had a slightly different angle, in his post titled In Praise of Reading Slush. Nathan described the slush pile -- the many, many manuscripts through which he and his colleagues hunt for the rare publishable work -- as:
full of half-baked ideas, the truly out-there, the very occasional undiscovered gems, but mostly good-solid efforts by perfectly respectable writers, who are up against simple math that simply isn't in their favor: maybe one in a thousand, if that, make it from slush pile to publication with a major publisher, and the odds are getting steeper by the day.

One in a thousand? Maybe? If that? With odds getting steeper by the day?


This year I attended the San Francisco Writers Conference. I blogged a bit about it. In fact, it's more or less because I attended the conference that I started to blog in the first place (cf. the historical record in the right-side nav bar).

Anyhoo, there were about 700 writers at the SF Writers Conference this past February, or so we were told. Looked to me like a big, big bunch of people up there on Nob Hill. So what Nathan is saying is that seven tenths of one of us who attended SFWC will get published with a major publisher. "And the odds," he said, "are getting steeper by the day." Statistically speaking.

Okay, that's a little disingenuous.

One of the other things we were told at the SFWC is that the fact we showed up didn't exactly qualify us, but made it more likely that agents and editors would find we inhabit the "mostly good-solid efforts" fraction of the slush pile. Inhabitants of the bottom of the pile, we were told, tend to think there's no reason to bother understanding how the publishing industry works. The result? Their submissions tend to be things that aren't going to get picked up by a publishing industry editor. Statistically speaking.

We conference attendees, on the other hand -- the compliant elite -- having forked over hundreds of bucks, were told how to write books that people will want to read. More or less. There were no magic potions on offer, alas. But, practically speaking, we did get to meet, converse with, and pitch to agents and editors who then either invited us to send a query or didn't. If one was asked, one's query was not part of the slush pile, ipso facto. So, what are the improved odds? One in five hundred? Two in three hundred?

The point is, at those odds, and for the pennies paid out by major publishers to unproven authors, especially authors of fiction, if an income were one's goal one would be better off pulling espresso. Speaking in terms of, say, hourly wages. Consider that next time you order a cappuccino. In fact, next time you order a cappuccino, ask your barrista how her manuscript is shaping up. Could be an interesting conversation.

I suspect Eric is right. Most authors and would-be authors with a grip on reality write because they wouldn't be happy doing anything else.

As evidence, I offer a bit of recent experience with which I am familiar. Mine.

This weekend, Saturday morning to be more precise, I got up around eight o'clock. It was the weekend, okay? I slept in a bit. (Translation: I was having a hard time dragging my arse out of bed.) As is often the case on a Saturday morning, I was feeling a bit listless. Wrung out. It had been another busy week at work, each weekday bookended by some hours of editing, reading, writing, and dealing with those silly little details that most people call "life." Eating, cleaning house, worrying about an aging parent, paying bills, being nice to loved ones, collecting the car from the shop, writing that e-mail one didn't have time for at the office. Wheeee!

So, feeling listless, I diddled. I e-mailed, I fussed, and I fiddled. By ten-thirty I was just about finished stalling. I double-clicked on my word-processing program, about which I have written in a hostile tone this very month, and opened the chapter I'd been editing the day before. Time for another read through, which, feeling listless, I rather dreaded.

But ... guess what? Not half-a-paragraph in? That listless, punky feeling started to drain away. Just like in the Roto-Rooter commercial! Simplify a clause here, cut a sentence there, sharpen a verb in that exchange, delete an unnecessary attribution a few lines down. By a quarter past eleven I was feeling great!! I printed out my chapter and headed off to a favorite cafe, to read in hard copy with some expertly pulled espresso flowing through the old bloodstream.

(In college I had a roommate who is a Native American -- Hopi -- and when he came into our room to find me hunched over my desk he loved to shake his head incredulously, giving me that you-white-guys treatment about the "black marks on white paper" that so obsessed me. He was only teasing, of course. We're still pals, and he still likes to read. In fact, his daughters are named after characters in a novel that reinterprets Arthurian myth.)

But ... have I trained myself to find satisfaction only in the arrangement and rearrangement (and rearrangement and rearrangement) of words on pages? Have I tricked myself into this odd obsession? Are my tendencies biological? Are they natural? Is my love of language neurotic? Is it silly to hunger for excellently told stories?

Well, I don't know. The truth is that answers to questions of motive, habit, and pathology don't matter much to me, in a day to day sense. I'm going to say that people who just plain like to wallow around in language represent a major fraction of Nathan's slush pile, the "good-solid efforts by perfectly respectable writers" fraction.

Glass half full? We write because it makes us happy. Glass half empty? We write, as Eric put it, because we wouldn't be happy doing anything else.

And the likelihood that those of us who hope to be published are tilting at windmills?

That's not going to stop us.

Thanks to Dream in the Dark of Day for the coffee...


  1. I've been pondering this a lot, lately. Hm. I could really ramble about this, but I'll just say that for me, the process of being a writer the last few years is about figuring out why I do it when there's zero chance of "success" if you let that be defined by people with a stake in it. There's freedom in letting go of making a living, in letting go of "their" (the publishing industry's) power over us. It frees us to be good because we want to be good, not to please them. It frees us to hunt out those 1000 e-readers who will love our work, and get fulfillment from that. Anyhoo, I won't ramble to much. I'm just in love lately with taking back their control over me and breaking their monopoly on hope. In the words of Kevin Spacey, "you can't tell me what to do any more."

  2. Nicholas Taleb says writers are hunters of the Black Swan. A Black Swan is a highly improbable event, so improbable that if you were to plot it on the Bell Curve it would be so far out on the long tail that it would (under Gaussian assumptions) be not worth taking into consideration. Taleb chose the metaphor of the Black Swan because, so far as any European had ever known, swans were only ever white -- it wasn't until Europeans invaded Australia that a black swan was discovered. Thus the Black Swan was something "no one ever could have predicted."

    A writer's odds of being successful (let alone being Stephen King or -- ha ha -- being a billionaire like J.K. Rowling) are really lousy, so bad you'd better start out with some other reason for writing than worldly success. On the other hand I know two successful writers -- my husband who writes & edits for a legal information service and a poet who makes a good living (she says) as a technical writer (software instructions, I think). My guy has talked novel, play, he's even written a couple songs, none of which have brought in a cent (nor is the novel more than notes), but it's his writing that pays the bills.