Mark Terry

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

A Long & Winding Road

October 7, 2008
Anyone who knows me probably realizes that the journey I took to becoming a full-time writer, editor and occasional novelist has been long and indirect. I was almost finished with my degree in microbiology in college when I was bitten by the writing bug. It was about a year before I got something published--a poem--and then another 7 years before I got paid for something I wrote.

Primarily I focused on fiction. Over the years a couple people suggested I try my hand at nonfiction and I was stubborn about not doing it, but when I did I started getting published pretty regularly. 

I remember reading a column about nonfiction in Writer's Digest and the author of the column was writing about someone who had spent ten years unsuccessfully writing fiction and his response was, "For God sakes, why? If you spent the same amount of time writing nonfiction you would have gotten published years earlier."

Despite what I now see as the truth of that statement, I didn't follow his advice for a long time either.

You probably won't either, so I'm not going to recommend it.

You'll do what you want anyway.

If there's one truth I've discovered about writing careers, is that they are unique. There's a fair amount of people who get journalism degrees, work at newspapers, then go into freelancing. There are even some people who get master's degrees in creative writing and get their novel published shortly afterwards.

But mostly, in my experience, there are people who discover they want to be writers and they write. And they get rejected. And they get rejected. And even more, rejected again.

And some quit and some never succeed but keep writing and some break through and continue to publish, either as a hobby, as extra income, or for a living.

Michael Crichton once commented on his old website that he no longer gave advice on how to break in because it was a different story for each person. 

The other thing I've noticed, and it's certainly been true for me, is that once you are "in," whatever that means, it's not usually like getting hired at an office somewhere and all you really have to do is show up and be reasonably competent. There's a lot of hustle involved in writing for a living and a fair amount of luck and, as I've discovered, constant change.

I've been the editor of a technical journal for about 7 years now. I just found out that the executive director of the organization--my boss, essentially--will be leaving the position. She's the second one in my tenure. Both of these women, Stephanie and Cathy, have been good friends and I'm very sorry to see them go. But things change in publishing and you've just got to deal with it. When I spoke to Stephanie yesterday I commented that I'm working with very few of the same clients I did four years ago (her publication being an exception). In fact, even when I seem to have a good relationship with a publisher or client, we don't seem to make it much past 2 or 3 years, often because of changes of direction. Some of that may be that at the beginning of writing full-time I just needed clients, but the longer I did it I needed better-paying clients, so I wasn't all that sorry to lose some of them. Now that some of these are paying better, I don't want to lose them. And I have, for better or worse, lost some pretty good-paying clients that I wished I could have kept, but for one reason or another--often a change of editors--didn't work out.

But I probably will. And you need to get used to that and view it as an opportunity. An opportunity to do something different, to find a client that pays better, that provides more work.

And in the case of fiction, if you're dropped by a publisher or whatever, if you want to stay reasonably sane, you need to view it as a possible chance at a better publisher or a change of direction, a chance to write something new and different.

Mark Terry


Blogger spyscribbler said...

TOTALLY, Mark! Wow, I swear I wasn't copying this post. I lost a family last week with three kids at hour lessons.

But I am SO grateful. I'm going to replace them with fiction. I'm totally psyched. I've been thinking about this a lot the last two weeks.

The one thing I never transferred from my studio business knowledge to my writing business is the monthly income goal. I've set one for writing, now. Before, writing has always been emergency funds, vacation money, or money for a certain purchase. I think if I change it to a Must-Have-X-Amount mentality, things will boost significantly.

And amen about the path. I'm thinking fiction is my game. I don't know. It takes me like 100 hours to research and write these 3,000 - 4,000 word SmartPop essays. I'm just really slow with non-fiction.

Not sure why I seem to be able to kick out a blog or a 10,000 word comment with no problem, LOL. ;-)

7:38 AM  
Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

When Mary and I wrote more nonfiction I think we put magazines and editors out of business. At least with freelancing you can't delude yourself about the work being permanent. You know things are going to change. Working at a "regular" job it's easy to pretend that things won't change but these days probably they will.

10:51 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I think I know what you're getting at. For a while there I was starting to think that any publisher that bought my fiction was doomed to go bankrupt before the book even came out.

I've talked to a couple other freelancers that have had experience with their editor leaving, either for another publisher or being promoted, and the new editor's just not interested in you or brings along people from their last gig, so I know it's not just me.

11:36 AM  
Blogger Zoe Winters said...

I've got some nonfiction projects I'm working on, but in general, nonfiction just doesn't interest me as much. Some forms of it do, but the way to monetize those forms is to use the writing as a skill for the business, not make the writing the business itself. And I know I'm being vague here.

I pretty much follow my passions. I'm fortunate in that I'm able to do that right now. I have a few different passions I'm following and looking into ways to monetize. Some of them are very very long slow building type of stuff that may never bring me a profit, such as the fiction, though I'm still going after it because I've learned my lesson on doing one thing while yearning to do something else.

So rather than ignore it, or put EVERYTHING into it, i've made it one of the eggs in my basket.

Some writers write nonfiction because they just want to make their living writing, period, no matter what that means.

If I had a choice to make money writing novels and nonfiction, or writing novels and teaching a bellydance class, the latter would be where my passion would lie.

I guess in some ways the problem for a lot of people comes in with..."Well what the hell do you tell people you do at a party?" haha. What if your different income streams are too different for you to have a title?

In that case I would just say "self-employed"

2:02 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

My particular path shifted. It used to be fiction or nothing. Then I started making money at nonfiction--sort of by accident and I should probably write about that--and I kept adding to it until one day, when I tripped over a client willing to pay me 85 cents a word for 2000 word articles, that it hit me that I could make real money doing this, and went ahead and did it.

It's a decision I would make again without hesitation--earlier, preferably.

2:15 PM  
Blogger Zoe Winters said...

hehehe, Mark. Nice! :)

I think it's hilarious that you accidentally made money hahaha.

3:59 AM  
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