Mark Terry

Friday, February 15, 2008

Are You Hungry?

February 15, 2008
Not physically hungry. How badly do you want to be a writer? How badly do you want it?

This applies mostly to fiction, although I think there's some truth to it if you have plans to be a full-time freelance writer, as well.

I had a conversation earlier this week with a friend of mine and I got to thinking about this subject. I think a lot of would-be writers want to be published novelists (or make a living or make a fortune, etc) to a degree that borders on desperation (or psychopathology). I've met writers (and probably been one) where the difference between a clinical diagnosis of an obsessive-compulsive disorder and the way they approach writing is so insignificant you couldn't weigh it on the most sensitive scale.

I don't think that's healthy, but I suspect it's necessary.

I'm sure there are people who sat down, spent a year or two writing their first novels, sent them out and voila! their writing career was born. They got a big publisher to throw lots of money at them, their careers took off and 30 years later they're still doing it.

I hate them. I am seriously, grindingly, angrily envious.

But they're also in a minority. Most people who want to be novelists (and succeed, let's say), write a lot of dreck that isn't publishable, write some decent stuff that isn't publishable, then write some good stuff that is publishable but maybe doesn't get published.

I also believe firmly that there are a lot of very good writers who for one reason or another have failed in the marketplace. They didn't promote enough, their publisher/editor/agent had no faith in them, they got bad reviews, they got no reviews, distribution sucked, or, just as likely, they failed to catch on with writers for a 1001 reasons, none the fault of anybody except a marketplace saturated with good books, a limited economy and a public drowning in entertainment options.

You want the truth? Or are you happier in your delusions? (You might be. I'm starting to think that's okay. You want to keep writing novels convinced you're going to have a career like Stephen King's if you can just get a break, hey, does that make you happy? Are you like Han Solo, saying, "Never quote me the odds!"? Hey, it's your life.)

Bottom line: Writing a novel is hard. Getting is published is harder. Staying published is even harder.

Harder truth: despite your talent and hard, hard, hard work, it may never happen.

You've got to really want it. Unless you're enormously lucky (not just talented, but lucky), there are going to be some seriously shitty moments in your writing career where you've got to wonder why the hell you didn't take up the tuba or computer programming or selling real estate. Are you prepared to tell yourself (delusional or not), "I'm a writer, this is what I do. I have confidence and faith in my talent and my skills and the stories I have to tell. If I persist, all my dreams will come true."

Are you?

Mark Terry


Blogger spyscribbler said...

I got lucky with my very first story, but don't hate me because I think I started out at a penny a word. I knew absolutely nothing, it was just pure dumb luck and the only "hook" idea of my entire life.

Some people would probably say it's a bad beginning. (Hah! Some people say I'm not published yet!) But all in all, I'm of the belief that we all have the path we most need. (Well, you gotta make sense of the chaotic universe some way.)

I definitely feel "weaker" than those who had their apprenticeships the real way. When I read "inspirational" stories about writers with fifteen books under their bed, I always feel both guilty and ... weaker. I don't think--okay, I actually know--I wouldn't have made it through that kind of apprenticeship.

But I didn't know I wanted to be a writer. The universe had to show me. I still have fears and doubts about how long I'd last if I weren't getting paid. I know I'd write much, much, much, much, much more slowly. I wouldn't bother finishing most stuff, probably.

Lordy, time to get off the couch. Where should I send the check, Mark? :-) Yes, I know I'm a real writer because I've got all the neuroses. Sheesh.

6:50 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I suspect the universe shows us the way, whether we pay any attention to it or not.

Call it fate, karma, predestination or, if you're in the mood--just the way shit happens.

Wanting something don't make it happen. Even working hard and having talent don't always make it happen all the time.

I suppose the trick is being happy with the journey and what the universe gives you.

Or not.

7:08 AM  
Blogger Erica Orloff said...

Powerful blog post.

I used to say I was lucky--that I had this really easy first sale. Then I got to quit and write full-time. But my dad told a reporter (who was interviewing him for a feature on me) that I was denigrating my hard work by saying I was "lucky." That I had put in 12 or so years of slaving away as an editor and also writing in a writers' group, going through detailed criticism WEEK AFTER WEEK for over a DECADE before I completed Spanish Disco, met an agent, got a deal. I still slave at it. You have GOT to want it. And you have to be willing to sacrifice and work hard and learn your craft and suffer through sucky lows and great highs . . . and it is about the journey. But it's still hard.

7:49 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Thanks Erica. Yes, I suspect so.

8:50 AM  
OpenID eric-mayer said...

I agree you need to want it, and also that that might be necessary but not very healthy.

One question writers should ask themselves: How much should we stake -- how much of our hopes, dreams, emotional well being, sense of self esteem, financial plans, etc etc -- on something that is largely beyond our control? A writer can do everything right and still not succeed if the luck isn't there.

I knew a fellow who, I realize in retrospect, really, in the back of his mind, believed that he would write a book and sell it and it would change his life. Didn't happen, and, in fact, it not happening pretty much wrecked his life, or at least his marriage.

Hard work may be necessary but it is not sufficient. And this is true in all walks of life. Heck, I'm just lucky I wasn't born impoverished, in a third world country where I couldn't go to school. It's fortunate I wasn't run over by a truck before I finished my first manuscript. But writing is especially dependent on good fortune. I could write here and explain how Mary and I got our very first co-authored book published because we were so brilliant and hard working and no luck was involved. But it wouldn't be true. I know damn well there are lots of writers out there who have worked harder and written better books who are still not published. We all need to keep things like that in mind.

9:46 AM  
Blogger Josephine Damian said...

To me, the least neurotic writers are the ones who aproach fiction writing as a business - they study the market, they have a plan and they stick to it.

If I was "lucky" enough to be published when my work was mediocre, I'd still be stuck at that level. The biz seems to want you to stay at whatever level you started because of branding - however small your readership, it's more profits for the publisher if they have to do nothing to promote you - your books automatically sell to the same people each time a new book comes out.

I think that's why they push you to have a series - I think series is a ghetto that's very hard to break out of.

I'm glad I'm finally having some success after 20 years of trying as opposed to when I was younger. I like to think I'm a lot more savvy about the biz now than I was then.

9:59 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Yeah, I agree 100%. I've heard of (although maybe it's apocryphal) of the aspiring writer who tried and tried and when he wife finally told him to get a job, he committed suicide.

And I'm familiar enough with clinical depression to think there's more to that story (assuming it's not bullshit), I do think an awful lot of people in various forms of the arts, writing, acting, music, think their lives will be over if they don't achieve whatever version of success they see in that field. There's something wrong with that, I think, but I don't doubt it's true.

And yes, I note regularly that on the grand scheme of things I've been enormously lucky. I was born in the U.S. to middle-class white parents. I'm male. I'm healthy. I'm educated.

I could have been born to an abusive set of parents in Bangladesh or some other 4th world hellhole with no opportunities or with health problems.

I've wondered that, too. There's something to be said about the "seasoning" that goes on as you age and struggle through things. I know I'm a stronger writer for having failed at a variety of it. I've never really thought about how the publishing market keeps you at a level of ability, maybe because I think you can grow and dazzle within a genre or series, although it seems to me there are dangers there. If a writer and their main character grows and changes too much, they may lose that audience that was created out of that original character.

I'm thinking Sue Grafton to some extent now. I know I've changed as a reader over the last 20+ years of her series, but her character hasn't changed too much, although in some ways she has (not necessarily for the better) and for me, I'd actually like to see Kinsey grow a bit more than she has.

As for this whole post, maybe it's just The Rolling Stones: "You can't always get what you want, but you just mine fine you get what you need."

10:35 AM  
Blogger Aimless Writer said...

I don't think the hardest part was telling myself I am a writer..but telling others.
-I'm a writer.
-What do you write?
-Where can I buy your book?
-Oh, I'm not published...
It was hard to walk up to a local detective and ask for his technical help for the book. Its easier now, but in the beginning saying it to others was the hard part.
Other then that, what keeps me going are the immortal words of J.A.Konrath; What do you call a writer who never gives up?

5:00 PM  
Blogger msnetta said...

it depends on your visions of grandeur. i think every fiction writer dreams of becoming Stephen King, but he had his hard times, too.

it is luck, it is talent, it is insanity, but it's also persistence.

points well made and so noted.

great post.

7:11 PM  
Anonymous Reenie said...

I have a love/hate reaction to this post. Argh, the truth always stings a bit. :) I wrote my first novel fully expecting to be published right on the spot. I’ve since learned I have a better chance of winning the Lottery. I know my books are great stories, but obviously I don’t tell them as well as they could be told.

I was a total nitwit when I wrote my first novel. I didn’t especially need the money, though it would’ve been nice… it was the fame and glory and notoriety and movie rights and rubbing shoulders with fame that seduced me. Yup, I was a total nitwit. But with no regrets.

8:26 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

If it makes you feel any better, I have a love/hate relationship with this post, too.

In fact, it's probably safe to say I have a love/hate relationship with my own fiction career.

I recognized a long time ago that when it came to fiction, I had grabbed a tiger by the tail.

9:44 AM  
Blogger Lisa R. said...

Yet, sometimes it's easier to be lucky than to be good. Problem is, once you're lucky, you had better either also be very good already, or get good very quickly.

As for those folks who, upon being introducted to you as a writer, immediately want to know if they've read your stuff...wouldn't you love to turn it around:

You: What do you do?
Them: I'm a plumber.
You: Really! Have I sat on any of the toilets you've installed? Are they really fabulous toilets? How much do you get paid these days for a toilet installation?

5:40 PM  
Blogger Josephine Damian said...

Aimless Writer:


Took me twenty years but I finally got a short story in a print mag - proof positive for JA's motto.

7:47 PM  
Blogger Monte Davis said...

Good work on the "...for a Living" series, Mark (which I just found via Catherine Shaffer's LJ). But this post gets to the heart of it.

All readers (but especially aspiring writers) project wondrous things onto the writing life... mostly as naively as the teenaged athlete convinced that s/he will be the next Eli Manning, Nancy Kwan, or Tiger Woods.

Well... if you've seen the movie Bull Durham, consider its portrayal of Kevin Costner's career journeyman vs. Tim Robbins' young "phenom." In the real world, there are a lot more of the former than of the latter. Ditto for writing, both fiction and non-.

I'm lucky to have found a prosperous niche in corporate freelancing. It has very little to do with "being an author" as I imagined it in my teens; all it offers is the chance to learn about things that interest me, meet and interview a lot of interesting people, distill it all into the best expression I can manage, get very well paid for it, and get a lot more audience feedback than I ever did publishing books or articles in national magazines. Sad, ain't it?

7:56 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Ultimately, I'm very happy as a freelance writer and am making a good living. That doesn't suck at all.

8:36 AM  
Anonymous Reenie said...

Mark: Yeah, but you grabbed that tiger’s tail and didn’t let go. Bravo!

I l-o-v-e-d what Lisa R. wrote. So true.

I’m such a nobody in the publishing world – a few articles in a couple of CA publications and a nonfiction book about Laguna Beach, but I will never forget the terror and utter unease I felt at the one and only book signing I was required to endure. Nothing bad happened, but I was even horribly ill at ease with the praise I was given. I really and truly would be lousy at promo – would be pure torture. Omigod, and then there was the big fancy-pants oceanfront party the publisher hosted - I was still drinking then, thank God.

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