The Business Rusch: Fighting Uphill

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The Business Rusch: Fighting Uphill

Kristine Kathryn Rusch

The struggle begins when we’re young. Think of it this way: How many parents, upon hearing that their child wants to be a doctor, lawyer, firefighter, teacher, or nurse, says, No, you can’t. It’s too hard or You’ll never make money at that or You’re not good enough to succeed in that profession. Parents guide their kids, sure, but they try to guide their kids toward success, and they try to protect their kids from harm. And apparently, a life in the arts is, in our society, perceived as harm.

Then we move on to school where teachers—who, for the most part, have not succeeded in the arts—judge our “talent.” Again, we hear “You’re not good enough” or “It’s too hard” or “Protect yourself with a real job” as if a job in the arts isn’t real.

Those of us who go on to freelance have a stubborn streak or an extra bit of confidence. We also have more drive than the average person because we have started climbing uphill from the moment we declare our intention to become a writer. We have to fight the naysayers.

Some of us fight by compromising.  New York Times bestseller Tess Gerritsen became a physician before giving it up to pursue her writing career.  As she says in the August RT Book Reviews, “I was a writer long before I became a doctor…. But I’m also the daughter of very practical Asian parents, and they insisted that I’d never support myself in the arts, so I took their advice and went to medical school instead.”

Some of us stubbornly refuse to compromise. I deliberately “wasted” my education—a history degree—by not going on to graduate school or law school. I became a reporter because that was a way to make money as a writer, but I always wrote fiction and always tried to market it.

And even when I was making a living as a nonfiction writer, or hell, as a fiction writer, I got told repeatedly that I was being impractical, that I was “lucky,” that I had better prepare for the days when I could no longer follow my dream.

Preemptive disillusionment, I guess. A protection against the future, I suppose. But it didn’t matter because the writing process itself was disillusioning. When all of us who are fulltime professional writers of longstanding came into this business, there was only one way to make a living, and that was by publishing traditionally.

A traditionally published writer has to jump through a lot of hoops. Rather than appeal to hundreds of readers, she needs to appeal to a few—the editors and the sales force at the publishing company.  Editors issue rejections much more than they issue contracts. Those rejections take the form of tea leaves. Some writers read the tea leaves and decide to leave the business, but the rest of us stay despite even more discouragement.  We fight and fight and fight again.

But in fighting, we bend ourselves into pretzels. Are we good at mysteries? Or better at romance? Should we write the same thing over and over or try something new? Should we sell ourselves like actors do? Or should we hide in our rooms like J.D. Salinger? We take whatever advice sounds sensible to us and discard the rest, not because the advice is sensible, but because we are operating in a closed system in which no one knows exactly what makes a book sell.

If we knew what made a book sell, we would repeat that effort with every single book. That’s what’s difficult about the arts. At a certain point, either the piece works for a certain number of people or it does not.

The certain number of people in traditional publishing are the editors and the sales force. Not the readers. Writers couldn’t get to readers without going through the editors and sales force.  And that’s a finite group who must use their expertise to decide if a book will make a profit for the company or not.

What is that expertise? Experience, yes. A love of reading, yes. And mostly a lot of guesswork. That’s the dirty secret of publishing. Editors, the sales force, and the publishers get surprised by a book selling better than expected more often than they get the actual sales figures right. In fact, most profit-and-loss statements developed on a book before publication are wrong.

There is no expertise in choosing what will succeed and what won’t. There is only expertise in marketing—and sometimes (often) marketing goes awry as well.

In other words, William Goldman’s famous words about Hollywood apply to publishing as well: Nobody knows anything.

So in the past (and really, honestly, in the present) writers market their work to a small subset of people who claim they know how to sell the work even when those people are just guessing. That subset, until 2009 or so, was the only game in town.

Writers had no choice but to believe what they were being told: only vampire novels sell, only romantic vampire novels sell, include a boy wizard and all will be fine, oh—you failed once so you’re unmarketable. And on, and on, and on.

Those of who survived mostly ignored that stuff, and did what Tobias Buckell mentions in one of his recent blog posts. We learned what we could control. We could control how much we wrote. We could control how much we mailed. We could control how we reacted to the insanity around us. We could control little else.

It made those of us who survived decades both hard and crazy. We never believed what anyone told us. We only believed in a promise after it was kept. We knew that even success was evanescent, because it could be (and often was) screwed up at a moment’s notice.

And then there was the money. Because we got told we couldn’t make a living in the arts, most of us never tried. Those of us who actually cared about making a living were told that we couldn’t be artists, that we were crass commercial hacks, that we didn’t “respect” our business. So many of us who wanted a career in the arts didn’t pursue it because it wasn’t logical, it didn’t seem to follow an existing business model.  Most of the smart business minds avoided careers as pure artists—writers, actors, musicians—because it was hard to see a path to profit that didn’t include luck. Many of the smart business minds either became publishers themselves or agents, giving up on their dream to do the work themselves, never realizing that they were making a small percentage off the artist so there had to be money in this business somewhere.

And the money started with the artist. That’s the biggest crazy-making thing of all. Without the writer’s story, there would be no agents, no publishing houses, no bookstores. All of those businesses make their profits off a percentage of what the writer gets for his creation.

But until 2009, the distribution of the writer’s work—getting that work to the reader—required a system that the writer couldn’t easily access on her own. So she paid pieces of her potential earnings to get to market.

And then indie-publishing came about. The self-publishing revolution, in which it became possible to hit those markets without the intervening percentage-takers. And most writers still believe that it’s impossible for them to make a living.

Why? Ah, that’s what we’ll explore in this series, among other things. The series started with last week’s post, “Unexpected Gold in Self-Help Books” and will continue for the next few weeks.

But let’s continue with the way writers were trained. Because the business minds left writing and/or failed to band together with other business-minded writers, the writers who remained never really questioned the system. And most writers have no idea whether or not one of their trusted “partners” – a publisher, say, or an agent—is skimming a bit on the side.

(Publishers have skimmed for years. Lawsuits fighting inaccurate reporting of royalties have gone on for decades, usually against big companies. The audit clause in publishing contracts is, for the most part, a new development, caused by a wave of fraud about thirty years ago. Now publishers are underreporting e-book royalties. Incorrect royalty statements are a common problem, not an uncommon one. And have been from the beginning of traditional publishing.)

Until recently, the writer who complained about the way things got done was labeled “naïve” or worse, labeled a troublemaker. Word got out through publishing circles about the troublemakers, making an effective blacklist.

You wanted to get published in the days when the only way to get your book to market was to go through traditional routes? Then you had to expect a certain amount of underreporting, incompetence, and just plain theft.  Writers who survived looked on that as the cost of doing business, the way that a retail store owner factors in a certain percentage of sales lost to shoplifting.

Even with success, the traditional longterm writing career was crazy-making. Sure, you could be a New York Times bestseller, but reviewers and others could call you a hack and say you couldn’t write. Very few writers could publish their laundry lists. Writer after writer—good sellers all—were told they couldn’t publish anything except the series (or type of book) that made them famous. When the writer tried, they were rejected (yes, still) or the publishing company would actively work to mismarket the “strange” book so that readers would know it was an outlier.

Again, nobody knew anything, so everyone tried to go with what worked before.

All of this should have made all successful writers batshit crazy. Yet most writers aren’t. Instead, they retreat. They don’t talk to anyone about what they do or how they do it—much like they were when they were kids with a dream that the adults constantly disparaged.

Last week in her blog, writer Sarah Hoyt compared writers to battered spouses.  She says that some of what she hears from writers reminds her of the reasons battered spouses stay with their abusers.  I have to admit, I’ve had that same thought myself, but I’ve never written a blog post about it because it seems too simple.

Writers do react badly to any suggestions for change, from leaving an agent who is clearly no longer interested in working for them to staying with a publisher even as the publisher’s contracts and advances get worse.  But I think the way that writers act has a lot more to do with crisis response than with abuse.

The writers who stay in the business become survivors.  “Survivor” is an interesting word because it implies that the survivor went through something traumatic. Indeed, my handy dandy Encarta World English Dictionary defines the word “survive” as managing to stay alive “especially in difficult situations” or “after something such as an accident or war that threatens life.”

Or livelihood. Something threatening.

Think about it: from childhood those of us who wanted to go into the arts got bombarded with reasons why we couldn’t. Then we went through a trial that led to success, but success in a field that considers you only as good as your last bit of work.  It’s not an abuse/abuser relationship because that implies something personal. The abuser has a personal stake in what happens to the abused, just like the abused has a stake with the abuser.

But publishing, like any business, is impersonal. It’s a business, and while the personal relationships might be good ones, the professional relationship between a writer (any writer) and traditional publishing is difficult at best.

Writers who have gone through decades in traditional publishing react the way that people who have been through a major national crisis react.  No two people react to a crisis the same way, particularly a prolonged crisis, and yet each of those people have scars from that crisis.

Both of my parents lived through the Depression. My mother, orphaned early in those years, never believed she had security. She didn’t hoard anything, but she also failed to believe that anything would continue, particularly anything financial. Good fortune, she believed (hell, she knew), could be snatched away in an instant. But that didn’t make her someone who celebrated the good fortune. Instead, she was someone who watched it warily, waiting for it to disappear.

My father, from a stable household with a government paycheck (my grandfather was a rural mail carrier), attended college in those years, and spent money freely.  The financial hardships of that period touched him, but not personally. Still, he understood my mother’s fears, because he had seen so many people lose everything during that time.

I have friends who survived 9/11.  Other friends who have served in various wars.  Veterans in particular react differently to their time in war zones. Some never really come home. Others remain continually on alert. Some only react when something viscerally reminds them of the war itself.

Go back over my list from last week, and then think of those items in terms of survival mechanisms from a war fought mostly inside your own mind.  A writer had to find coping mechanisms to deal with a constant barrage of negativity from the outside. Some of that negativity didn’t just come in the form of words: some of it came in the form of deeds.  People will actively try to stop writers from achieving their goals, sometimes with the mistaken idea that they are “helping” the writer.

No wonder writers have a bunker mentality. No wonder so many writers become quiet and never really speak of their work to anyone else.

For years, Dean and I taught a master class for professional writers, those who’ve had success and had run into a bad patch in their careers. We worked on a variety of things to get the writer moving forward again. One of the most important things that we did was a role-playing game that showed writers how to cope with things outside of their control.  We found that role-playing was the only thing that worked, because simply telling writers didn’t help at all. They had to experience the craziness that was traditional publishing before they could figure out what kind of coping mechanisms worked for them.

We don’t teach the master class any more. Most of what we taught as recently as five years ago is  now out of date. Traditional publishing is only one choice that a writer has, instead of the only choice. The fact that writers now have a lot of choice makes all the difference in the world. Writers can act like normal business people, making decisions based on logic, and finances, and an established business model.

But most writers aren’t making those choices. They close their eyes, stick their fingers in their ears, and sing to themselves when someone tries to tell them about all the changes.

This isn’t willful stupidity. It’s a survival skill. It’s a bunker mentality. They focus on one thing and one thing only—the writing—because, in the past, if they focused on anything else, it would destroy what creativity they had left.

Now, however, that bunker mentality will kill careers. Writers have to figure out what behaviors they’ve learned that no longer apply to the brave new world of publishing, and then they have to move beyond those behaviors.

A lot of you wrote to me last week and said you recognized yourself in that list. That’s a good first step. Once you identify the problem, you can actually work on solving the problem.

This week’s column is about the second step. You have to figure out where the behavior came from. Did you learn not to take risks from your parents? Or from some bad experiences in the past? Or are you a natural conservative—the kind of person who never willingly takes risks?

Go back over that list and ask yourself those questions about the points you resonate with.  Figure out where those ideas and behaviors came from.  Because you have to know what caused them before you can change them.

Next week, we’ll start working on individual items and how they apply (or don’t apply) in the new world of publishing.  We’re about to walk into a new battle. We’re already seeing the battle lines get drawn.

The writer who survives—and I use that word on purpose—is the one who knows what her strengths and weaknesses are, both in writing and in business. She is also the writer who is flexible enough to roll with the punches and to make changes where necessary.

Here’s the thing, though. Don’t expect change to be easy. Change is hard. But it’s worthwhile.

Of course, you already know that. You know how to take risks and you know how to make it through a minefield. After all, you’re a professional writer despite what your parents and teachers said. You’ve made it through some of the toughest things traditional publishing can dish out.

You’ll figure out  your path in this new world as well. It’ll just take a while—and a bit of belief in yourself.

Every week, I take some time away from my fiction writing to write these blog posts. I rely on you folks to support the Thursday nonfiction blog, since I rarely try to sell them elsewhere. If you get some value from these posts, leave a tip on the way out. I also appreciate all of the comments and e-mails that I get. Thanks.

“The Business Rusch: Fighting Uphill” copyright 2011 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.




63 thoughts on “The Business Rusch: Fighting Uphill

  1. John, you sound as if you have it down very well. A few months ago, I kind of vomited out a whole lot of stuff about my writing, the industry, etc. to a newish friend who actually thanked me at the end of it for giving her an insight into the world of a professional writer. That was really refreshing, but mostly I still have this squeamishness about sharing. She has talked to me quite a bit about the trials of her teaching career, so we’ve both learned from the exchange. This is something we have to remember, too – in a whole lot of professional spheres, people are being asked to do more and more for less and less.

  2. Well, most likely the metaphor that works best will vary by individuals. We can at least agree that longterm exposure to traditional publishing causes strange and permanent adjustments to the brain.

  3. Actually, Lillian, I’ve trained myself to give a clear, accurate 2-4 sentence answer to “How’s your writing going?” and similar such questions. Followed by nicely asking how the other party’s occupation is going. I not only learn quite a bit about many professions (most people take a lot more than 2-4 sentences and they’d rather talk about what they do, anyway), but I find it pretty much completely normalizes what I do, both to my friends (almost none of my RL friends are writers) and then to me. But it sure felt weird at first, like a drunk answering “Hey, how’s the drinking going?” or a burglar asked, “So how much is there in most houses?” Probably took a year before I could just say, “Eahh, I’m behind deadline on my next book, it’s been going real slow, and I just got a copyedit back, which means I have to take a week and a half out to get that squared away, and then get back into what I was doing before. So there’s more than I can do right now, and the paycheck is a long way away.”

  4. Kris, another one of those quibbly addendums (and I did look at what Sarah Hoyt wrote). Those of us who wish we didn’t know quite so much about abuse often find that one of the hardest things to accept is that abuse is very often not personal at all. The parent who hit you, had sex with you, taught you you were worthless, or the spouse who ran up huge debts, destroyed your possessions, and drove all your friends away would have done exactly the same thing with any other child or spouse that came within reach. Furthermore they quite often assert that this is what everyone does and it’s what’s natural and that you’re crazy if you think everyone else doesn’t (but of course you’re not supposed to talk about it).

    Indeed, quite a few abuse survivors have been through a period of misery when they realized that it wasn’t personal. Mom didn’t hate me; I was a kid and she hit kids. Dad didn’t think I was bad and/or sexy and/or his special girl; I was a kid and he raped kids. Something like the relationship between a mouse and a snake; it’s only personal to the mouse.

    It’s part of the nature of abuse.

    And that, I think, really is a component of the traditional relationship between writer and publisher. Straight up, for generations, many editors (and people above them via the editors) told writers to make their work objectively, observably worse, to produce things they didn’t like, etc. and assured them that this was being professional and it’s what everyone did.

    Surviving abuse requires survival skills too, and if you’re moving from one abusive household to another, you’re “lucky” that you already have them. But moving out of the abusive universe altogether requires taking a hard look at some of your “skills” and deciding not to exercise them, even when your nerves are screaming to do so.

    Just my gloomy two cents.

    1. Thanks, John. I see your point (and Sarah’s). I’m not entirely convinced, and I say that as an abuse survivor, and as someone who has worked with other survivors. I’ve also worked with returning vets, and I still think that the analogy with a cataclysmic event outside of your control holds more than the abuse metaphor. But that’s my opinion, and I’m not a specialist. It’s just what I’ve observed and how it fits into my brain.

  5. A few years ago, a therapist told me that my biggest problem was that I had developed amazing coping skills for someone in life and death situations (which is kind of what I grew up with); the problem was I was no longer in life and death situations. I think maybe that’s where many of us are now as writers. We developed great coping skills to deal with an industry that offered us so little control or even insight into how things worked. Now we have more control than ever. Some of us are learning new coping skills (and are feeling all lit up and empowered by them), while others of us are trying mightily to use those old skills in a new world.

    1. Excellent observation, Cindie. And I hadn’t thought of it that way, but probably true. We did develop great coping skills to deal with a dysfunctional industry where we had little control about the final outcome (the product itself and how it got marketed). All of that has changed, and it’s a great amount of freedom. Now we have to learn to live with that freedom. Thanks.

  6. This year, as the bulk of my time has gone into my writing instead of the other areas of my business, I’ve been discovering the impossibility of that question. Unless the person answering has a lot of context already, it’s a bit like a military person trying to discuss theater operations with a civilian: even if the material isn’t classified, there’s simply not enough context or common ground to communicate anything meaningful. Something about “I made shit up all week, and I typed a lot of it too!” doesn’t communicate a lot to those who either aren’t writers themselves or don’t live with one. I find myself, more and more, talking shop with writers and talking about my intellectual and physical hobbies with my non-writer friends. Otherwise, the conversation dies a swift and ugly death.

    In conversations with other authors who’re at my point in their careers, I’ve discovered this is a pretty common theme. That’s got to play into the reticence equation somehow, though I haven’t worked out how just yet.

    Thanks for another fab post, Kris!

  7. Yeah, for me it’s right up there with, “So how long does it take you to write one?” which is ALWAYS the question I get when people find out I do those little Harlequin romance thingies. I must have been asked it a thousand times, and I cannot figure out why, of all things, it is what people are burning to know.

    And I know it’s unfair of me to feel that way. “How’s your writing?” and “How long does it take?” are both innocent and well-intentioned questions, but like you, I cringe.

    Recently read your Davy Moss book, BTW, and really enjoyed it – intense and real and layered. Will be coming back for more of your stuff.

    1. I’m glad you liked Davy Moss, Lilian. Thank you for saying so.

      I get “What are you writing now?” and the real answer is…if I was writing now, I wouldn’t be here, talking to you. 🙂 Otherwise, it’s an impossible question to answer, since I’m writing many things “now,” none of which make sense until you read them. So that’s part of it as well.

      But I’ve learned this. When people I don’t know ask what I do, I say I’m in publishing. That confuses them, so they don’t ask any more or if they do, it’s usually about getting their cousin’s nephew’s best friend’s novel published, and I can talk about that. 🙂

  8. Fascinating post as usual, Kris. One thing that really resonated for me, with a thirty-year career under my belt, was the “keeping quiet” thing. I realize I don’t really talk about my writing to any friends or family. Husband yes, other writers you bet, but no one else. Occasionally people ask, “So how’s your writing going?” and my face must telegraph my reluctance. They usually don’t ask again. And now I’m questioning why I say so little.

  9. The naysaying will keep happening, unfortunately.

    I myself was excited and overjoyed to learn of indie publishing. When I realized Smashwords was a free service, I was over the moon. I was ready to nominate Mark Coker for the Nobel prize!

    Do you suppose any of my relatives shared my joy?

    Not so much…

  10. Although you do have to wonder if the reason that writers never made money is that everyone KNEW that Writers Never Made Money. So, y’know, when you saw a writer who didn’t make much money, well, why question that? Because you KNOW that’s how it’s supposed to be.

  11. We have to fight the naysayers.

    For me, it was a girl back in junior high; I once announced I was going to write a novel, and she disparaged me, good and loud. Laughed at me. That thought has been with me up until I uploaded the first in my novella series – TAKE THAT!! 🙂

    Then came all the “advice” from the “experts” who said, “You can’t make money writing fiction.” I believe that whopper for a long time…until Dean made mincemeat of that myth in one of his posts. (Thank goodness!)

    Now, however, that bunker mentality will kill careers. Writers have to figure out what behaviors they’ve learned that no longer apply to the brave new world of publishing, and then they have to move beyond those behaviors.

    In a way, I’m glad I never managed to snag a trad contract – hindsight is 20/20, even though that’s what all wannabes were aiming for. But I do feel sorry for those writers who refuse to see the writing on the wall; I guess they’ve been in that coping mentality for such a long time that it’s hard for them to come out of it.

    Really, really sad.

    1. Congrats on getting the books out there–and for silencing that voice! Nice work. And on your other point, Nancy. It is sad. 🙁 Thanks for the post.

  12. Until I was 11 my parents thought I was going to be a hippy (so they say) because I was a dreamer. I wandered through the woods making up poetry and stories and songs. Amazing, because by 12 (after some family crises and middle school academic pressure), it was like I boxed all that up and put it on the back shelf in my mind. Until I was in my thirties, I routinely told people that I ‘didn’t have a creative bone in my body’.

    All those years . . . I don’t want to say wasted (I did get a Ph.D. after all, but never a job in my field) but underused. Just think if I’d been writing all that time! Thanks for your post.

    1. Exactly, Sarah. I’ve seen a lot of people “box all that up” and move on. Eventually it creeps back out. I’m glad you’re back to writing. 🙂

  13. Kristine,

    Thank you for this post! I can relate to much of what you have said.

    I’m glad to have the opportunity to read the thoughts and opinions of a more experienced writer like yourself. You’ve let me know that I’m not alone as a writer in my thoughts, worries, fears, and dreams.

    You inspired me so much that I wrote a post on my own site about your blog, and provided a link to your posting.

    I hope your words give many writers comfort, inspiration, and courage to continue to follow their dreams. I know you have done this for me.

    With thanks,

  14. Thank you for that, Elizabeth. My son also is autistic, and I’m a stay at home mom. We don’t homeschool, though. He doesn’t listen to me well enough for that, lol. Parenting an autistic kid is different than parenting a neurotypical kid, that’s for sure – it’s a lot more intense. But I write anyway, and he and I have some interesting conversations about stories and how they work. He loves telling stories and pretending that he’s making movies, so I like to think I’m a good role model for him there . I think when parents put their dreams away “for the good of the kids” there tends to be a lot of anger, expressed or unexpressed, and that isn’t very good for anyone.

  15. Good stuff, Kris. A note for those who think having children forces the choice of writing v. caring for the children–cautionary on all sides, in a way, but also hopeful.

    Our son is autistic. I sold my first fiction when he was two; my first book when he was three. After that, I wrote a book a year–and often some short stuff as well–while parenting him, including 12 years of formal homeschooling. My husband worked away from the small town we live in much of that time, so I was the default 24/7/365 caregiver. He is now in his 20s, and has vastly exceeded the expectations of the professionals who saw him as a toddler, living in his own apartment in a city 50 miles away, attending community college classes. This was, to put it mildly, a helluva lot of work and required changes in how I wrote (and what I wrote, in that I couldn’t write what I’m writing now when being interrupted every few minutes.) By the time my husband lost his job (in 2000) I was making enough to support us, and have since.

    As you said, Kris, writing fiction professionally is a tough gig, and requires a solid work ethic. And I think using kids as an excuse not to go for it isn’t fair to the kids–not only do they get the guilt (“I could’ve been a writer except I had to put you first…” = “It’s your fault I’m not…”) but they miss the example of a parent who is willing to demonstrate what it takes to meet tough goals…including a career in the arts. And speaking as one of many mothers who’s combined writing full time with parenting full time, I will say that the results of our choices are a lot of good kids. Just as with other working mothers–the notion that a working mother is neglectful is hogwash. So for those who worry that taking that hour a day to write means your kids will turn out bad…forget it. Write anyway.

    1. Wow, Elizabeth, thank you. Thank you, thank you. It’s nice to have someone who has gone through it talk about it. I can’t since I don’t have children, but I know many of my friends have great children and successful writing careers, so I know it can be done.

  16. I too grew up with my parents constantly telling me to get a “real job” so I could be “secure” because you “can’t make a living as a writer.” So even though I banged out a spy novel on an old Underwood typewriter in my teens and wrote lots of short stories, these words wore me down until my writing became a trickle and I even stopped for almost 10 years. That was one of the hardest, most depressing times until I realized I had to start writing again. And yet I was still plagued by the you “can’t make a living as a writer” belief so I kept dabbling and not really going for it. Until a fateful initial acceptance of a novel came over the transom and I had to decide: was I going to keep dabbling or go for it?

    I chose to go for it, even with the disparaging voices in my head and now I’m writing more than I ever have, have jumped into self-publishing with some sales (!) and am learning tons from generous folks like you and Dean. I’m heading back to Oregon for 2 more workshops next year and feel like I’m training for the Olympics, that I need to push myself to get ready for it and I’m absolutely loving it! So now when those voices dare to come into my head, I take a deep breath and tell them to shut up. Then I get down to work. And I’m able to do that because of the generosity of pros like yourself and Dean who shed a light on what the writing life is really like and how to get the hell out of your own way. For that, I’m so grateful. Thank you! (And this comment got a bit away from me, sorry about that!)

    1. You’re welcome, Rebecca. And I know you’re not alone. A lot of writers quit for the very reason you mention. A lot of what I did at the Master Class (and still do in some of our classes) was to get people to love writing again–and to play. That’s really important. As you know, now that you’re back playing. Which is a great thing. And I need to look for your stuff online as well. All this reading to do. All this good reading to do. 🙂

  17. I am something of an opposite, in that my mother encouraged me to write and thought I could be published, but I resisted. At the time, I didn’t think it was what I wanted to do with my life. And in hindsight, I don’t think I could have survived that publishing environment. The thought of handing control over my work and my career to a publishing house is soul crushing. That is why I am so excited about this new world of publishing. The choice to self publish is so liberating and I can’t wait to get involved.

    Now I have an 8 year old daughter who wants to publish. I told her she can’t publish her notebooks full of Narnia and Thundercats fanfiction (grin) but that with time dedicated to learning and practice one day she will write something good enough to publish and we will do it together.

    1. Good points, Sarah. I think the new world of publishing is really helping writers come into their own. And you can always make a single book for your daughter of her fan fic. Just for the family. (You can do one copy only on Createspace) I’ll bet she’d find that cool.

  18. Kris, I hope you don’t mind that I divert slightly from your main topic but – I sympathise with Sarah (above). I myself have five sons and a raging desire to write full time. Can’t do it now or in the foreseeable future because I gotta keep those boys fed and give ’em the best I can. That’s a conscious decision I made long ago, to put family first, even if I put the writing aside for a while (a short while – I will never give up – never!) But one thing I have to say: that in these posts and also in personal correspondence Kris and Dean have always supported that decision and reaffirmed that family must always come first. Sometimes (during the summer when I don’t teach) I can get a lot of writing done, and sometimes (especially in the fall when I have many hours of teaching sometimes six or seven days a week) I can only manage an hour or two of writing a week. But over time when I add it all up I realize I can get a lot of work done. I’ve traditionally published around fourteen short stories, have self-published two books and a whole bunch of other short stories, and I have several more books worth of material in the finishing stages. Sure, family first. But never give up on the writing. The writing, in fact, has made me a better man and a better father, and my older sons greatly admire me for it. It’s wonderful when your progeny appreciate what you do. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

  19. My 16 year old daughter and I were going through some old boxes and she
    found drawings and poems I’d done over thirty years ago. She sat there
    stunned…”These are beautiful; look what you did!” Then she asked the
    million dollar question, “Why did you stop until now?” The subject of
    her question has been in the back of my mind for as long as I can
    remember. I knew the answer and I must say it was a pleasure to read
    your blog and know that I was not the only one that endured the pelting
    of such a short-sighted litany. Only today it is different. The world is
    a place I meet on my own terms. I am stubborn as hell and as determined
    as they come, but I only sing to myself in the shower and I never put my
    fingers in my ears.(grin) Thanks for the post. Well said and so true.

    1. Amber, if you say it’s self-pubbed, most bookstores won’t take it. If you start your own publishing company, and don’t tell anyone who owns the company, a bookstore will take it if approached in the proper manner. Look at my husband’s Think Like a Publisher series to understand what I mean. You can find it at In particular, look at “Selling to Independent Bookstores.”

  20. “Writer after writer—good sellers all—were told they couldn’t publish anything except the series (or type of book) that made them famous. When the writer tried, they were rejected (yes, still) or the publishing company would actively work to mismarket the “strange” book so that readers would know it was an outlier.”

    Bingo. I knew this in theory, but hadn’t seen it in practice until I came across S.E. Hinton’s book “Hawke’s Harbor.” I was surprised to say the least — I’d been a huge fan of “The Outsiders” and had tracked down all of the books listed on the inside front cover. Had I somehow missed this one? So I re-checked my paperback copies of her best-known works and confirmed it. The publishers had typecast Hinton as a writer who focuses on young adults facing some sort of crisis, so when Hinton turned in a quite excellent vampire novel, they buried it.

    Thank you for writing this series, Kris. It’s an eye-opener for sure.

    1. You’re welcome, Susan. I have Hawk’s Harbor. I remember when it came out. It was buried in the back in a bookstore, and I was shocked. I hadn’t heard of it at all. Poor treatment for such a stellar writer, and it’s so common. Thanks for the comment.

  21. Thanks, Kris. =) That – right there – is exactly the kind of encouragement which puts a smile on my face and keeps me plugging along.

    Chrissy Wissler has all my fantasy writing and I’m publishing all the romance under Christen Anne Kelley.

    As a side note, my novel ‘Home Run’ is in the copyediting stage and I’ll be sending you a copy as a big, giant thank you. You’ll be happy to know my first reader (aka husband), pointed out I didn’t have a ‘dad’ confrontation in there and he was right. I put it in, fighting tears the whole time, but I did it. Okay, so maybe quitting the day job wasn’t the hardest thing I’ve done…

    Thanks again. =)

  22. Well, Kris, I can definitely say the education you’ve written on your blog (and Dean’s) and your amazing workshops has completely overhauled at least one writer. Without your advice and all your wonderful business sense I wouldn’t be where I am now, which is at home, writing. Full-time.

    It was probably the most gosh-darn scariest thing I’ve ever done. I walked away from one of the best, steadiest jobs I could have (the fire department), but again even that scary factor came from all those years of being hounded that writing isn’t a career. You can’t make a living as a writer. What you need (and want) is the long-term, steady job with great benefits…it took some time to figure out that wasn’t what I wanted (and I was always bored out of my mind and writing at work – you’d think that was a clue or something).

    I’m not one of those writers who’s survived decades in traditional publishing, but it sure wasn’t easy just to reach the point of seeing myself as a professional writer. Everything you wrote about growing up with a dream of being a writer was spot on the money and really resonated with me.

    Thanks again for sharing your wisdom. And I am so seriously excited about being a writer right now – and to think that self-publishing allowed me to kiss the day job goodbye. Nothing feels better than being in control of my own career.

    1. Thanks for the post, Chrissy. I’m glad it’s helped. And did you put up your work under your own name? I need to look for it, because I loved what I read at the workshops. 🙂 Congrats on kissing the day job goodbye. 🙂

  23. Kris,

    I have never gotten much encouragement from anyone about my writing, but neither have I gotten much discouragement. What I have gotten for the most part is indifference, which can be even more devastating. It’s probably an old saying, but I read it by Harlan Ellison: “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.” That’s what I have had to fight more than anything.

    That and one more thing: The person who tries to discourage me more than anyone else is – me! I have to constantly fight my own efforts to disparage myself. “You’re no good – you’re fighting a losing battle – you started too late and will never catch up” – and so on. Actual material victories are still few and far between, and I have to pick myself up contantly after multiple falls on my face, brush myself off, and keep trying.

    1. Ah, John, you talk about a whole other issue there–the ways that we sabotage ourselves. It’s a good point. The key is exactly what you talk about–not how many times you fall down or how long you stay on the floor, but how often you pick yourself back up. Thanks for the post.

  24. Kris, this is the first post you’ve written that didn’t resonate with me at all. You begin by saying it’s a “myth” that writers cannot make a living at writing. You finish by comparing those who believe that myth with abused spouses. I’m not sure that’s accurate in every case.

    For one thing, I believe you are leaving out an extremely important part of the equation: children. Writers and artists who choose to have children make the decision (I hope) to put them first. It’s one thing for me to starve in a garrett when getting my career off the ground; it’s quite another to condemn a couple of toddlers to that. My parents, far from discouraging me, were role models: an artist and a literature teacher. They encouraged my writing at every possible step. But they also held down day jobs because they put me and my sister first. Maybe they weren’t good artists or writers, I don’t know. I do know that my father did not have Robert Motherwell’s career and my mother did not become a full professor of literature. Were they untalented? Did they not work hard enough? Did they not BELIEVE in themselves enough? Were they discouraged by others? No to all of that. The bottom line was that they could NOT make a living at their respective arts without a day job. Period.

    I wish I had had more time to write. I could have had more time, if I’d been content to neglect my kids, or let them grow up in a dangerous neighborhood. Buying them a safe environment to grow up in — the suburbs — took all my time and energy for years. And when I came home at night, I couldn’t hole up in the study; they needed my attention even more than my paycheck. Could I have made that kind of money writing? Maybe. But GETTING THERE would have entailed sacrifices I was not prepared to demand from my kids. I wrote, I submitted stories, I got turned down. For decades. The only “outside discouragement” I got was from the *expletive deleted* gatekeepers in publishing. Writing, or more properly speaking, getting published, was a gamble that never paid off. No responsible parent supports a family by relying on long shots.

    You hit a nerve, here, and maybe one you weren’t targeting. I have every sympathy with those writers who have had to struggle with active opposition, or discouragement from those who should have supported them. I just hope you aren’t overstating your case a bit, when you imply that any writer who wants to badly enough can make a living, can support a family by writing. Risk taking is important, yes, both for personal and artistic growth. But we have to keep in mind that for some of us, the risk is not just for ourselves, but for those who depend on us.

    1. Wow, Sarah, clearly I hit a nerve here, and as you said, it wasn’t one that I was aiming for. Nor is anything you mention in your post in mine. I do not compare writers who believe the myth to abused spouses. I did reference Sarah Hoyt and say that she had made that reference. If you read what she wrote (and clearly you haven’t), then you will understand that she’s talking about writers who stay with their agents/editors/publishers even when it’s counterproductive. That’s what I mentioned, and then I said this: “But I think the way that writers act has a lot more to do with crisis response than with abuse. The writers who stay in the business become survivors.” I don’t say they’re survivors of abuse, but of a system that limited them, a system that doesn’t exist any longer.

      I never said anything about quitting day jobs nor did I say anything about raising children from the writer’s point of view. I was talking in general about attitudes that artists get raised with in this culture and how those attitudes can hurt when the artist approaches the business world. That’s all. You might want to read my posts on day jobs (When To Quit Your Day Job is the first) and on risk ( in the Freelancer’s Survival Guide. Because if you read those, you’ll realize that you’re putting opinions in my mouth that I do not hold and never have held.

  25. A bunker mentality. A solid wall of concrete around me shutting everything out. Just me and my writing…

    You and your husband speak frankly about your experiences in the business. You are providing something for me that I could not get on my own. It basically boils down to basic stuff: Here are the people who are successful in this business and here are the things they all have in common. Anyone who wants to start a small business in any field meets with the professionals. Very basic stuff. Get to know people who work in the field. See, for example, if those are people you actually want to become (there is an illustrative story about everyone’s favorite satanist Aleister Crowley and his ambitions to become a chess master).

    I would love to go to writers’ conferences. Just shaking a successful writer’s hand could tell me volumes about her or him. I can’t. The flights alone would cost me two grand. Add hotel rooms, food, local transportation… Everything I learn about successful writers, I learn from their subordinate clauses. Their attitudes, their personalities, their ways to handle situations. And I only learn it after I have encountered these situations myself.

    Bunker mentality. I had thought that being able to live with the pressure would do the trick.


    I also need to be able to write fiction while the walls are burning. Or some intangible dread builds up in the back of my head featuring my latest idea of what could go wrong.

    And then there is the two of you shouting wisdom into the digital void, your voices carrying as far as Munich, Germany, I can assure you.

    ‘Thank you’ doesn’t quite cut it, but… Thanks. Not sure if I would have ever come off to any good start without you.

    1. You’re welcome, Eric. I think we writers are fortunate now–all artists are–because we can communicate electronically, making the writers conference less necessary. In some ways, writers can get more personal attention throughout the web than they can at a conference. Times are changing. Thanks for the post.

  26. So much to say to all that! When I told my father I wanted to be a writer, he came back the next day with the statistic that, at the time, only 400 Americans made a full-time living as freelance writers. He could have made that up for all I knew, I was 16 and only thought that would make me part of an elite few. Hah!

    I spent 6 years doing menial jobs and only sold 1 story, so I eventually got a practical education and a good job. My wife went the other way working hard at her second love, becoming a chemist. Only when that and her resulting teaching career were rudely yanked away from her by illness, did she return to trying professional writing. She had never given up writing, just never tried to sell it.

    I’ve dragged her to many SF cons over the years where she’s seen the wrong turns so many young writers make. Her question to traditional publishing has been, “Why does everyone in publishing, from editors to secretaries to agents, make a decent living, but the providers of what they sell have to fight for scraps?”

    I haven’t been able to bring myself to ask one young writer we’ve met if he’s really been careful with his contracts. He’s got 3 books out and is doing well, but I worry that they’re conning him into giving away his e-rights. I don’t want to be one more voice saying, “You’re doing it wrong,” but I worry none-the-less.

    1. Frank, I love your reaction to your father’s attempt to discourage you. I think that’s what so many of us did, those of us who survived. A famous writer once told me that “those who can be discouraged should be discouraged.” I always thought that a bit arrogant.

      I love your wife’s comment. That’s so true. And yes, I worry about a lot of folks. That’s why I’m trying to bring education here. I figure it’s here, if folks want to listen, and if they don’t…well, it’s their career. But it’s taken years to get to that point.

  27. When I was a teenager, my mother destroyed all of my writing because she disapproved of my subject matter. She also told me I was a dreamer and actively discouraged me from pursuing the arts as a career. I find it a little ironic that she now respects what I’m doing because I’m making some money at it. But she’s a Depression kid, so maybe she can’t help herself. I like your idea of a bunker mentality, Kris. I see it in myself, and in other new writers. The strange thing, to me, is how many writers do see their publishing relationships as personal even when they’re not. I don’t know if this is related to the bunker mentality or not, but I see it all the time. Writers who want to view their agent or editor as a buddy/mentor rather than a business associate. Maybe people are grasping desperately for allies in a situation they find incredibly stressful. I’m the type who’ll withdraw and view everyone suspiciously when I feel threatened, but different types may feel the need to align themselves with others, especially people they perceive as powerful and able to protect or help them.

    1. Tori, what your mother did is just shocking. And devastating. I’m glad you made it through.

      On your other point, I think you’re right: so many writers see the relationship as personal. Although to be fair, when I came in, we were told that our relationship with our agent was “like a marriage.” That encourages the personal, even when it’s not. And you’re right about types. We all react differently. That’s why one-type-fits-all solutions just don’t work.

  28. This is such an excellent post that I’m hesitant to disagree with any part of it, for fear that people will disregard the accurate and helpful majority of it.

    So please consider this one specific point regarding the second step: instead of trying to determine what caused the beliefs or actions to develop, try to recognize instead what is maintaining those beliefs or actions in the present.

    Psychologists have learned over the past several decades that people do not, in fact, need to understand how certain thoughts or behaviors developed. Most of the time, it’s enough to find out what is maintaining them now and learning how to change them. The difference,and it’s not insignificant, is a focus on the present (which is mutable), rather than the past (which is not).

    I’m excited by this series of blogs, and I can’t wait for the next one!

  29. Another great post, Kris.

    I come from a decidedly non-artistic family and got the parental “But you must do something practical to earn a living first” lecture from the beginning. So I did not go to film school, which was what I really wanted to do, but studied something more practical and still failed to find a job after university in spite of a very good degree. Writing actually suits me a lot better than filmmaking, but sometimes I still wish I would have gone to film school instead of compromising.

    Interestingly enough, my parents respect my writing a lot more now I am self-publishing my backlist stories and actually making a bit of money.

    Discouraging kids from the get-go is bad and it’s something the German school system is very good at. One of the “practical” things I ended up doing is teaching and I try never to discourage a kid, no matter how impractical their dreams may seem. I always tell them, “It won’t be easy and you will have to buckle down and work. But if you really want to, you can do it.” I have two kids in my English class who are aspiring writers, kids who were labeled not academically gifted at that. I encourage them as much as I can, talk to them about writing, etc… You can see how happy they are that an adult is taking them seriously for once.

    1. Cora, good for you with those kids. I hadn’t thought of the school systems in that way, but you’re right: Even in America there’s a school of thought that the more you discourage, the more you encourage the tough kids. (Never mind the ones who end up broken on the floor.) Tough love, apparently. Thanks for the post.

  30. This is a great article, and helps me understand just what the heck was going on before the Big Internet Bang spawned this New Universe of Publishing.

    I’m young, new, and failed to receive an Arts education (beyond “Here’s a house full of books and no TV. Shut up and read, son!”), so I missed out on most of the myths & misconceptions & “Old Universe Thinking” (as detailed in this and the last post).

    I like that nobody really knows how it’ll all shake out, but the framework I’ve thrown together only has two ‘rules’: Write More and Don’t Sign Anything (Yet).

  31. The disparaging of artists who “make it” looks quite widespread, through many kinds of art. I guess part of it is a way of “othering” the artist and a way to avoid facing our own unfulfilled dreams.

    WRT abused writers: have you been introduced to the work of Rory Miller? Besides his “Violence, a Writer’s Guide” [*] and some workshops he does on that, he’s pretty good at describing the way social AND “real” survival changes our brains –he’s got a psychology background AND a LEO one–. If I follow your points, publishing would make for a “resource predator” mindset, like, say, a mugger.

    Also, on Vets: are you familiar with Dr. Shay’s work? [“Achilles in Vietnam” and “Odysseus in America”]

    Your role playing is what, in other places, is called “scenario training” or “adrenal stress training”. It does kinda work, does it not? 😉

    Take care. Also, this kind of posts [mine] might seem a bit from the left field –to say nothing about the ones I do NOT send ;)–; if you’d rather I didn’t, or I did privately so as to avoid derailing things, no hard feelings.

    Again, take care.

    [*] –I’d say it’s required reading for any action writer–. You can get him at

    1. Thanks for all of the recommendations, Ferran. I’m not familiar with Rory Miller. Will need to look it up. I have Dr. Shay’s work around here somewhere, but only dipped into it for a book I wrote a while back. Haven’t read it all. You’re not derailing anything. I appreciate the comments.

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