Mark Terry

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Plotting Your Writing Career, From A to...

September 16, 2006
I started posting this as a response on yesterday's blog about James Reasoner and got carried away and thought it might make a good entry in itself.

Well, I wouldn't look to James Reasoner as the model of ALL writing careers.

You might note that Jo Rowling has only published six novels to-date and needn't ever write (okay, maybe just one more) another novel ever again, at least from a financial point of view.
Quality is an issue, of course. That isn't to suggest that Reasoner's books aren't quality. But he's toiling in a bit of a different vineyard than many novelists, and since he's been doing it for a long time, must be pretty happy there.

I remember reading a Writer's Digest article years ago by somebody--and it may very well have been Reasoner--who was making a living, and a decent one, writing category fiction for the Mack Bolan series and others like that, getting advances for each book that were, oh, I don't know, $7000-$12,000, say, and as a result, writing 6 or 7 a year or so.

The next issue of WD, someobody wrote in to talk about what a hack he was and he should be up to $50,000 advances by this time, etc., and I thought, "An unpublished writer thinks they know what's going on out there in the real world. What an idiot."

It's just not that cut-and-dry. Here's an example of two fulltime writers I know. One received a 6-figure 3-book contract, and after the success of those, he's also received another. He's published a lot of short stories, is making a good living. And he wrote a novel in a slightly different genre under a pseudonym (I've read it) and to-date hasn't sold it. He's also written screenplays, I believe, and to-date hasn't sold them yet either. Will he? I think in time he'll do both, but maybe not. [Okay. This is Joe Konrath.]

Another writer friend of mine [Doug Stanton] is quite successful in the nonfiction arena, and he turned an article he wrote in Esquire into a nonfiction book proposal. He got a decent, though not amazing advance, he actually got booked onto talk shows on the basis of the article (not Oprah, but somebody else pretty big), had lots of articles written about him, and HarperCollins, his publisher, reneged on about 300 of its authors contracts, including his, and the book didn't get published. (They tried to take the advance back, too, but he, his agent and his lawyer told them to kiss his ass and he kept the money). Now, he could have folded after such a disaster, but he didn't. He continued to work, and a few years later he wrote another article, this time for Men's Journal, that he thought would be a good nonfiction book, and he wrote a proposal and his agent sold it for $500,000 and a production company optioned it and the book was on the besteller lists for a few weeks. ["In Harm's Way"]

The point I'm making is that if anybody thinks they really have a handle on how to have a writing career and what that writing career's shape is going to be, they're probably full of crap. There's no straight line.

Yes, maybe this writer's career in Writer's Digest could have been different... and maybe not. I think of the vast majority of novelists who make something like $3000 to $8000 per book and complain constantly about how life isn't fair and they could have had a career if their publisher had paid more or they only had time to quit their jobs and write more and I just kind of shrug and think, "We do what we do, right? We choose it and it chooses us and it's maybe better to accept how things are and work to make things how we want them to be."

Well, at least that's what I say on a day when I'm in a good mood. Catch me on a day where the rejections come in the same time the Visa bill does, the check from my publisher disappears into a black hole, my dog barfs on the rug and my sinuses are acting up. I'll be glad to piss-and-moan about the inequities of the world. In the meantime, keep on writing and submitting, because there's not much else you can do to help a writing career.

Yeah, Mark's version of Karmic Activism, I guess.


Anonymous Cherye Barta said...

Mark - to each his own. Some do well and others not so well, but you at least are having fun, huh? Just wanted you to know, I got THE DEVIL'S PITCHFORK and am on Chapter 4. So far, so good.

3:32 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

Glad you like it. You can order it, huh? Official pub date is Oct 1, but that's good to hear.


5:27 PM  
Anonymous Cherye Barta said...

Yes Mark, I ordered it from Waldenbooks store last week and they had it in last Thursday. I always order what I know wont be in the store. Probably will have to order Rob Browne's book, too.

8:58 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

Well, thank you again!

9:56 AM  
Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

I think a lot of my disenchantment with writing stems not from what the publishing industry is like as from the fact I got deeply involved in writing before I realized what the industry was like.

When I got hooked on the idea of writing, when I was in my early twenties, I had a very unrealistic view of writers and making a living as such. Over the years I learned better, but even, a decade or so ago, when Mary and I started seriously writing books, I still did not have a clear idea of exactly how tough the industry was.

The upshoot is that I didn't really go into writing with my eyes open. I was choosing to devote a huge amount of effort on the basis of misapprehensions.

If I knew then what I know now (as the tried and true cliche goes) I might not have spent quite so much time on writing (but probably would have anyway) but I certainly wouldn't have invested so much hope in it. If I had had a realistic view and realistic expectations I wouldn't have had to adjust my expectations.

Mind you, when I was tenty, there wasn't much realistic information available to aspiring writers about the publishing industry and even ten years ago there ws a lot less. Today, with the internet, endless writing sites and blogs and lists, anyone can get a clear picture of what writing for publication really is like before deciding to undertake the task.

Beginning writers should really take advantage of all the information out there -- like your blog here -- and educate themselves.

11:16 AM  
Anonymous Dory said...


Loved your comments today!

Eric's perspective was right on.

Fodder for next month's writers meeting. ;)


2:36 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

"The upshoot is that I didn't really go into writing with my eyes open. I was choosing to devote a huge amount of effort on the basis of misapprehensions."

You and me both, Eric. I got started late in college after reading about Stephen King writing four unpublished novels and then writing "Carrie" and getting first a $2500 hardcover advance, then a $400,000 paperback advance--in 1972! The numbers blew my mind. Luckily, if it were only money I never would have stuck with it.

I'm still waiting for the $400,000 advance, though. (Sort of waiting for the $2500 advance, come to think of it).

I can listen to aspiring writers and their optimism with more than a bit of jaded reality, because my early experiences had been awful--partly due to my ignorance of the industry. The Internet and blogs have definitely been a blessing (not an entirely unmixed blessing). I think it's possible to get a more realistic view of the industry today than you could 20 years ago. Unfortunately (back to mixed blessings), I think the perspectives you get from blogs like mine and an accumulation of others can give aspiring writers somewhat warped views of publishing.

One of the things I try to emphasize is that having talent won't get you published in the short run. Having written a good book won't get you published in the short run. Then, getting published won't necessarily translate to sales or decent royalties.

I liked Joe Konrath's recent post about numbers, and he compared it to gardening, noticing (finally, I think Joe started to see this) that some well-tended gardens don't grow well, some that are ignored grow great, etc. You do your best and hope for the best, but there will always be at least some aspects of writing success that are out of your control.

3:43 PM  

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