The Business Rusch: Reality Check
The beginning of November marks the start of the holiday season here in the United States. Right after Halloween, retailers pretend that they’re helping everyone decide what to buy for Thanksgiving meals, but in reality, they’re trying to get customers into the stores for the day after Thanksgiving or Black Friday.
For writers, November 1 marks the beginning of NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month. It’s become a mighty big thing, with writers supporting writers, and helping each other finish a project as large as a novel in 30 days. I can’t tell you how many of my professional writer friends on Facebook made the same comment on November 1—Write a novel in a month? Welcome to my world, kiddies.
Other established writers are much more supportive. They published tricks for making it through the month. Kevin J. Anderson wrote a blog with tips on how to avoid the empty page. Dean Wesley Smith did an online lecture on increasing productivity.
Me, I watch from a distance, like I have since NaNoWriMo started in 1999. Reporters, who generally write thousands of words per day at their jobs, seem in awe of novelists who can complete a book in a month, expressing great surprise that New York Times bestsellers like Water For Elephants and The Night Circus got their start as NaNoWriMo books. Of course they got their start as a book written fast. The writers got out of their own way.
Okay. That was a bit snide on my part. I love the fact that NaNoWriMo has brought hundreds of novels into print that wouldn’t otherwise have been finished. The more books, the better, no matter how overwhelmed I am as a reader.
But because NaNoWriMo is an established event, it has also become a marker, the way the holiday season is a marker of a year about to end. For some writers, it marks the day they “became serious.” For others, it marks the day they proved to themselves that they can finish something.
This year, though, NaNoWriMo is reminding a bunch of writers that their dreams are harder to achieve than they thought.
Four years ago, self-publishing became both easy and inexpensive. And three years ago, bloggers made it sound like everyone who hit a “publish” button could make a small fortune as a writer. What most beginners missed about J.A. Konrath’s publishing blogs (for example) was that he was always talking to established writers—midlisters, like he was—and not to beginners. He assumed that writers had already learned the basics of good storytelling before they hit that “publish” button.
But writers are writers are writers, and the one thing we do really, really well is make stuff up. For some reason, writers believe that if they finish something, it should not only sell but sell millions of copies.
Musicians aren’t that delusional. Just because they learn a piece of music doesn’t mean they can play it well. Just because they’ve managed to give a concert doesn’t mean the audience enjoyed said concert—or even showed up to hear it.
Maybe because musicians have ears, they realize that learning their craft is hard. Even if the musician got As in school in music, even if the musician was the best singer in his class, he knows he’s still not good enough for the regional, let alone the national, let alone the international stage. Yet writers believe that if they got As in school in writing (or in English, having written only one or two essays), then they’re good enough to sell as many copies of their novels as Stephen King. Or maybe their ego isn’t that big. Maybe they believe that they’re good enough to be rich, just not buy-a-small-country rich.
I don’t know.
But I’ve been in this business for more than 30 years now, and I’ve learned that beginning writers, for the most part, are the most delusional of all artists. Ninety percent of all beginning writers believe they should sell the very first thing they finish.
This has not changed. What has changed is the delivery method.
Once upon a time, these writers would send their novel (or their two novels or their five short stories) to New York editors to get the books published. Then New York editors got smart and told writers they couldn’t sell a book without an agent (and yes, those editors lied). So the writers trundled off en masse to agents, and those agents had to field the same damn slush pile that editors once dealt with.
Then self-publishing became easy. It not only became easy, it also became easy to reach readers. In the early days, those folks with e-readers didn’t have a lot of choice, and what choice they had was pretty similar. Even e-books out of traditional publishers had formatting issues, not to mention proofing and copy editing issues from bad scans. The crap beginning writers put up wasn’t that different in look to a traditionally published book, although, once you got past the bad covers and the crappy formatting to the story, the difference became apparently pretty quickly.
Most traditionally published writers knew what they were doing—or at least had some things right. The gatekeepers guaranteed good sentence by sentence writing or good characters or a good story and sometimes, if the reader was lucky, all three.
Very few beginning writers could say the same. Those that did succeed were natural storytellers, whose formatting and grammatical flaws got overlooked because of the story itself.
The writers who had the most success in the early days of self-publishing were the midlist writers whom traditional publishing had abandoned. Those folks already knew storytelling and how to write good prose and the importance of character. Midlist writers are still the backbone of the self-publishing movement, just like they were the backbone of traditional publishing before traditional publishing started to implode on its own blockbuster mentality.
But let’s return to the beginners, those folks who finished their NaNoWriMo book in 2010 and thought, What the hell. I’ll put it up for sale on Kindle and get rich. Those writers started watching their numbers. They started promoting and giving their one book away for free—and magically, they had downloads.
Free books “sold” thousands of copies way back in 2010. That didn’t mean thousands of readers. Just thousands of potential readers who someday might open all the free books they got in the early days of e-reader ownership.
Eventually e-readers became ubiquitous and everyone gave books away for free and free lost its magic appeal. Traditional publishers actually hired staff to design e-books and improve quality and their books got better. A lot more midlisters joined the ranks of self-published authors, and wanted better covers and good proofing. Some beginners wrote more than one book and got better and better and better, publishing a lot of titles, and continuing to improve as well as improve the product they put out (good covers, good cover blurbs, copy edits, y’know, actually competing on the quality level). The result? That one-book writer who promoted the hell out of her one book saw her five sales dwindle to zero sales.
Then NaNoWriMo came around again, and those writers finished a second book. (Magic!) They published that too, and thought maybe now lightning would strike. Maybe they sold some copies. Maybe they got beer and pizza money. But they didn’t make millions.
The tough writers, they entered NaNoWriMo in 2012, and finished a third novel. That’s hard. Honestly, most writers never make it past the first book. But a third novel does not a novelist make. It simply means that the writer had enough stamina to finish three stories. It doesn’t mean the writer learned anything about what makes good stories. It doesn’t mean that the writer learned how to write anything unique to them. It just means they had a little more practice under their belts.
Some of these writers did what they could to improve their craft. They started to write more, and they learned how to publish. They got a clue that they were in business, not in a get-rich-quick scheme.
Other writers just tried to find shortcuts to sell their deathless prose.
But many of them believed that they should have seen millions by now. Or, if they were honest with themselves, at least six-figures annually. But the most successful of the one-book-per-year beginners were only getting a thousand or two a month (I hate adding only there, but that’s what I’ve seen; whiners complaining that they were “only” making a few thousand a month). Those writers who had middling success might’ve made a few hundred per month. Some were only making beer and pizza money, and many not even that.
They didn’t realize that writing is a craft. That it takes ten years or more to learn the craft well enough to hit a level that readers will remember the stories. If the years don’t discourage them, then the word count will. Mystery writer John D. MacDonald said that writers had one million words of crap in them before they wrote work that was original to them. With their voice, and with their attitude, and with their passion.
One million words of crap.
My thirty years of experience has shown me that MacDonald was right. In that million words were some pretty good stories—stories that simply regurgitated the stories the writers had read in their childhood. Some writers are good enough to sell those regurgitations, but most aren’t.
And now the beginners of 2010, those who entered the writing sweepstakes with so much hope, are getting discouraged. Hell, they’re not getting discouraged. They are discouraged. They’re quitting.
This year, they’re not participating in NaNoWriMo because they have to take a vacation with the family or they need a year off or November snuck up on them. In reality, though, they’re reassessing. Or worse, they’re giving up on their writing dreams because they thought being a writer was easy, and they learned that it was hard.
Not everyone is quitting. A lot of writers have accepted the hard task in front of them and are soldiering on, figuring out how to have a career at writing, even if they’re still not selling a lot of copies of their books.
And this split is going to cause problems, because it always does, with each generation of writers.
One afternoon, I was at a workshop at Damon Knight and Kate Wilhelm’s house. We were discussing beginning writers and Kate said that writers who can be discouraged should be discouraged. She said something along the lines of this is a hard business and they’ll just quit later on, so best to get it out of the way now.
I was so shocked back then. I had just crested my ten-year mark, and I was selling regularly. I thought Kate was unduly harsh.
Now, I understand. Writers come and writers go. Beginning writers fade away. They stop talking about their dreams. They realize that writing is too hard, that it’ll take more effort than showing up for the day job every morning, and they figure they’ll pay attention to writing when they retire. When the family doesn’t take all their time. When they have a chance to “focus” on it.
One day, their writing friends—the folks who’ve stuck it out—will look around and wonder where that other friend went. Why isn’t he coming to NaNoWriMo meetings for the second year in a row? Why isn’t she forwarding writing news? They’ll worry, vaguely, and then slowly accept that he’s too busy to write.
But, some beginning writers who aren’t successful immediately get angry. They tell those of us who’ve succeeded that we did it because we were lucky or we had friends in the right places. They accuse us of lying to them about how easy it all is, when we never lied. We just tried hard not to discourage them.
We don’t discourage because it’s impossible to know which writers will succeed and which ones won’t. Dean and I have worked out a good formula for it, but it’s only a formula, with all the flaws that formulas have.
When we do our in-person workshops on the Oregon Coast, we only accept driven writers. The writers we teach in person must exhibit drive, not that elusive thing everyone else calls “talent.” Over the years, we’ve learned how to tell the difference. The driven writers can learn the craft; the so-called “talented” writer believe the world owes them adulation.
Believe me, we’ve had a few “talented” writers at the Coast Workshops in the early years, and those writers got angry at the amount of work we assigned. They got even angrier when we didn’t bow down in front of their God-given abilities. They got furious when we told them they’d have to work hard to succeed in this business.
We have since weeded out the so-called “talented” writers, and you know what? Those writers from the early years have vanished, while the writers with less so-called “talent” and a lot more drive succeeded. The driven writers had a work ethic. They learned the craft, one hard lesson at a time. Most of those writers are still learning. They come to other workshops or study from writers who are farther down the road than they are. They read novels by their favorite writers and try to figure out how those writers achieved such amazing things.
The driven writers practice, all the damn time.
Most of the NaNoWriMo Class of 2010 are leaving the business right now. Most never realized it was a business at all. They searched for the gimmick; they believed the hype. Most are going away quietly, but a few are getting furious. They’re lashing out—some of them at their driven writer friends who might not have more success (yet) but who aren’t giving up.
The driven writers are just as impatient as the friends who are giving up right now, but the driven writers recognize that they’re reaching for the stars. They’re not people who bought a toy rocket ship and expect it to take them to the Moon. They’re learning to build their own rocket ship and they’ll figure out a way to escape Earth’s gravity well soon.
This culling of the NaNoWriMo Class of 2010 is right on time. It usually takes about three years for the writers who aren’t going to work hard enough to make it to give up. It was that way thirty years ago, and it’s that way now.
Some of the writers, the talented stars of my college creative writing classes, are professors of English now. Others are doctors, lawyers, engineers. None of them are professional writers. The only professional writer I met in those classes wasn’t the professor (who at the time had published one short story for copies). The professional writer was Kevin J. Anderson who, at 18, had already sold a bunch of semi-professional short stories and was taking the class, like I was, to improve what skills we already had.
Stan Schmidt, the editor of Analog, started watching Kevin’s work when Kevin was twelve. He was that good a storyteller that early. But he was in his million words of crap phase. Stan was waiting until Kev had worked his way out of those million words.
I was—and am—impressed that Stan noticed him that fast. A lot of million-words-of-crap workers don’t get noticed until their one-million-and-one word. Yes, it takes that much work. Yes, it’s that hard.
Kev still hadn’t sold to Analog or any other professional market by the time he graduated from college. He was 21 or 22 when he made his first professional sale which was, if I remember right, to the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, not to Analog. Y’know. About ten years after Stan Schmidt first noticed him.
Writing is a craft, folks. If you have trouble remembering that, then do this. It’s the season of the holiday concert at every school in the Western world. Go listen to the best kids in their grade school/middle school/high school perform for parents and teachers. And realized that those good kids are getting As for music. Then ask yourself if they’re ready to perform alongside Tony Bennett or Blake Shelton or Beyoncé. Ask yourself if those kids belong on an international stage.
Maybe one in a million might be ready. But I’m probably overestimating.
Those kids have years of practice ahead of them, years of learning the craft of music before learning the art of music.
Just like writers have years of learning the craft of writing before learning the art of writing.
If you don’t understand what I mean by that, well, then, you got some practicing and reading and listening to do.
Three successful NaNoWriMos is worth celebrating. Most writers never make it that far. Hell, most writers never make it through one NaNoWriMo.
But most professional writers smile a little when they think about NaNoWriMo. Because we’re writing all the time. And improving our craft. And when our books don’t sell well, we wonder if we might be at fault—if we told a flawed story or if we chose a difficult subject matter. If we self-publish, we worry that we might have a bad cover (and we fix it).
But mostly, we shrug off the unsuccessful novels and move on to the next novel. Because we’re not artists. We’re professionals.
Most people don’t expect a gold star for showing up at their day job every day. They just expect a paycheck.
The same with professional writers. Just because we wrote 50,000 words in a month doesn’t mean we get a gold star or a spot on the New York Times bestseller list. Hell, it doesn’t even mean we get a paycheck. It means that we better get ready to write another book next month.
Because that’s what we do. We write.
It’s our job. Yes, we love our job (most of the time). But we also work at it.
It’s reality check time, folks. If you’re thinking of giving up because you’ve written three NaNoWriMo novels and none of them are making you rich, then figure out what you can do differently. You can improve your craft. You can write more.
And you can remember that writing is a career, not a God-given path to fame and fortune. You can remember that you’re three years down a road that takes a minimum of ten years. Or you can give up.
Writers with drive don’t give up.
Writers with drive eventually succeed.
So ditch the idea that talent is all you need. Figure out how to stay in this for the long haul.
Because November is National Novel Writing Month. And December is another novel-writing month, and so are January and February and March.
Join the ranks of professional writers. Stop treating writing like an event, and make it a part of your daily life.
Use NaNoWriMo as your jumping off point, and keep those habits into the new year. And eventually, with enough practice, you’ll find that your novels are selling and your attitudes have switched. You won’t notice the arrival of NaNoWriMo. You’ll simply see it as November. Another month, another novel, another step forward in your career.
That’s when you’ll realize you’ve become a professional writer. I’ll wager you probably won’t even notice the date when you made the transition.
It took years of work for me to make writing my day job. Some days I still struggle to be productive. Sometimes I use any excuse I can not to show up at my computer. Yet I get it all done.
And getting it done includes working on this blog every week. As long as you all are willing to support it financially, I’m going to keep doing it. Provided, of course, I still believe I have something useful to say.
So if you’ve learned something or you enjoyed something or you’ve been coming here for a while, please leave a tip on the way out. I appreciate it.
“The Business Rusch: Reality Check” copyright © 2013 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.
SPECIAL NOTICE: I’d like to put out a call to those of you who are traditionally published. I need to update my Deal Breakers book for 2014. I have quite a bit of material, but I would like to see what I’ve missed.
So if you received a traditional publishing contract from a major publishing house and/or an agency agreement from an agent, please black out all the personal information and send it to me. I’m particularly interested in the contract clauses you negotiated away and/or that you walked away from.
I also would like to see the clauses you’re proud of getting. The ones where you feel you triumphed in your negotiation.
I need the entire contract, because a contract is a living document, and what it says on page 13 has an impact on what it says on page 2. Please black out your name, the name of your agent, the advances, etc., and send me the file.
I promise, I will not use your name or any personal information, except that I might say something like “a first-time author” or “an author who has published novels for fifteen years” or “a bestselling author.” I won’t even use a personal pronoun to give your secret away. And I’ll be the only one who looks at this.
If you want to see how I do this, look at the Addendums post from earlier this year. (And yes, that will be in Deal Breakers 2014.)
Thank you! I appreciate all of the help.
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