Mark Terry

Monday, January 11, 2010


January 11, 2010
A friend of mine is a writer. He doesn't do it for a living, although he has at one time. He's had jobs/careers in a variety of areas, including journalism, computers, and marketing. He's currently an elementary school teacher, where, as far as I can tell, he's quite happy. He's had three novels published and dozens of short stories. He's also written several well-received biographies.

Recently, my friend realized that he was closing in on 50-years-of-age and time was sort of limited. He took a hard look at his publishing history, how well his work was received, how much time he had to give to it, and decided he needed to focus on one type of writing. That writing is likely to be the nonfiction books, particularly in that each one takes about 3 years to complete. His nonfiction books have received awards, critical acclaim, and decent sales. His fiction, which he likes to write more (probably) haven't received much of anything except some nice reviews and fairly modest sales with precious little money.

I spoke to him recently about this and he commented that if he tried to continue to write fiction simultaneously with the biographies, it would take him 10 years to write the next biography, and since he was 50, he was acutely aware that it was time to prioritize. It was also, he said, an extremely difficult decision.

Oh boy, do I hear him. Which is why we talked about it.

I'm fairly certain that by now most published and unpublished novelists have heard the expression: Repeatedly trying to accomplish something the same way with no success is the mark of insanity. (There must be a better way to say it).

At the very least, it's a sign of an incipient obsessive-compulsive disorder. Medication may be in order.

It's a complicated topic. Very few--some, but not many--whip off a novel manuscript and get it published. Generally they have at least a few "trunk" novels, sometimes many more. And, in fact, I would guess that most novelists have a bunch of unpublished and unpublishable novels laying around before they succeeded.

So how long? How persistent should you be?

Well, no answer. And I'm not at all convinced that my friend won't slip in some fiction here and there while he works on his next book (under contract).

I face this a lot, though. I think by most standards my nonfiction is quite successful. My fiction, although nicely blurbed by some well-known writers, doesn't generally get reviewed, is more or less critically ignored, and to-date isn't really gathering tons of readers and as a result, isn't delivering much money, either.

So how long should I keep hammering away at it? Have I, as a matter of fact, passed the point of gentlemanly OCD into What's-Your-Dosage-Land?

No answer. None whatsoever. Twenty-plus years ago an editor at St. Martin's Press "almost" published my second novel manuscript before being talked out of it by an associate. At that time we were guessing an advance would be $15,000 or so. In that I was making about $20,000 a year at the time, that seemed pretty amazing. Now, in 2010, I'd be fairly happy with a $15,000 advance, even though my income is significantly higher than $20,000 a year.

The time goes by quickly and it's sort of shocking to step back, take a breath, realize you've traveled quite a huge distance since you first tried writing novel; it's also slightly startling to realize that you set off on the journey with an expectation of a certain route and a specific destination, only to discover you wandered off course somewhere and maybe that's fine, the territory you're traveling in actually might be better than the one you were headed for.

So what do you think? Is there a point where you've crossed the fuzzy gray border of nutty behavior with your pursuit of authordom?


Blogger LurkerMonkey said...

That's been my question of the year.

I read lots of publication stories, and just yesterday, I read the publication story of a woman who ultimately sold a book to Random House in a multiparty auction. Previous to that book selling, she had another book that went to acquisition at two houses, but was rejected both times. And she wrote, "I was DEVASTATED. You don't get any closer than that."

I chuckled. Well, actually, I thought, you can get closer than that. You can get to acquisitions, then do two rounds of rewrites, THEN get rejected.

So ... I've really been wondering lately if 1) I need to change my approach or 2) I'm just wasting my time. And I don't have a good answer. I can see an argument for doing something different—different genre, different "kind" of story—but then I see an equally compelling argument for sticking to my guns and giving it another shot—I must be doing something right to get so close.

And as for wasting my time, I finally decided if I'm having fun, then it's not wasting time and left it there.

But I wish I had an answer ...

6:06 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I wish there was an answer, too. I just took the dog for a walk after writing this post and my brain was buzzing about it. I remember reading "Six Figure Freelancing: The Writer's Guide To Making More Money" by Kelly James-Enger, and she'd had a couple novels published and her comment in the book was along the lines of, "My largest advance was $15,000 and what I mostly discovered was I didn't have the energy for the marketing required."

Well, yeah, me neither, and her advances were larger than mine. I'm tempted to dare myself to just NOT write fiction for a month to see if I can do it.

6:18 AM  
Blogger Erica Orloff said...

I've consistently (about 10 years now) hit well above the mark you're aiming in terms of income. It's a combo of fiction, ghosting, and freelance editing. Some writing (usually marketing-related). It's a good gig when it's steady and smooth, and I tend to feel very fulfilled.

The BUT to that . . . is it's easy for me to say remain persistent when I have what amounts to a "system" that enables me to do both. My best year in fiction, I think I earned about 40K from the fiction side. I once wrote a nonfiction book that got me $25K up front (might have been 30K, I have to check). I get to do it without it being an either/or question.

But I can see . . . that perhaps as markets tighten and the whole recessionary/book biz situation continues to hang on, I may very well be asking this was a much harsher eye.

6:27 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I think if I were bringing in more money fiction-wise--and it wouldn't have to be tons, I don't think--I'd be better able to justify the time. And I was thinking about the current publishing market, too, which, is to say, shitty. I realize that, small press or not, I'm actually pretty lucky to have a book contract. There are some pretty successful mid-list authors who've been dropped lately and there's a lot of competition for the spots, which I suspect are going to shrink a bit this year.

And some of it, as I was walking Frodo, had to do with exactly what I might want out of life/work, too. As I rather crassly commented, I rather like trips to Disney World, resort vacations, tropical beaches, boats, and frozen drinks with little umbrellas in them, too, and I can have more of those with my family by making more money. I've also got a 16-year-old who will be going to college in 2 years and how we'll pay for that remains something of a mystery, although I guess student loans will be a big part of that answer.

6:37 AM  
Blogger Erica Orloff said...

Since I have four kids, the mysteries of paying for college are a HUGE stress. Along with braces. Along with we haev sh*tty health insurance. So I hear you. My son longs for MIT. I think he could one day get in, and MAYBE as a Hispanic, get some money towards it in terms of scholarships for minorities. But pay for it? Really? No chance right now. So we'll be looking at state schools like Virginia Tech--and even that will be tough since I will have two in college at the same time (just brilliant family planning).


7:06 AM  
Blogger Eric said...

I agree with Jon that it isn't a waste of time if you're having fun. Conversely, the way things are, if you aren't having fun it probably becomes a waste of time very quickly indeed. I suspect that anyone who is capable of selling fiction is bright enough and industrious enough to make a lot more money doing something else. If your main interest is in achieving the goal of being published, and you're not enjoying the process, I don't think there's much point, but then, if the goal is that important it may be. I can't speak for others.

I didn't try to write a novel until I was in my late forties. Which is probably too late to leave it. (I should've married a co-author sooner!) I had hoped Mary and I might have had enough success to spend more time writing fiction, because we each had plenty of ideas for different sorts of books. Alas, that didn't pan out and now that I'm almost 60 I can see that lots of things I've always wanted to write won't ever be written. I was never really interested in getting rich, (no, I was not completely deluded!) but I had hoped to gain a little more writing time.

Of course so long as you enjoy writing books, even if you consider it a hobby, it's like having a lottery ticket. You never know.

9:41 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Your final point is excellent. And even given the lack of real money (to-date), it's still a kick to call myself a novelist and have the books on the shelf.

Part of the problem--not new to readers of my blog--is when I try to shoehorn novel writing into my business model, which is when the cognitive dissonance kicks in.

1:12 PM  
Blogger Natasha Fondren said...

Where I always struggle is with pseudonym vs. real name, which is sort of what you go through with fiction vs. non-fiction/unreliable vs. reliable. But pseudonym is a bit sick of giving her profits to others. She wants to strike out on her own, but that would definitely burn bridges with reliable income.

So then real name pops in, and thinks she should be "out there" trying for NY, and things really get mucked up, starting with which book and which novel questions.

So business model? Hah! I'm dizzy. I'm not sure which way to turn. My answer was to write something for everything and write fast, but the whole "write faster" thing isn't working for me anymore.

I'm struggling with it all. 'Cause really, it's gambling, LOL.

7:07 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

You may have just pinpointed part of my neurosis. Generally speaking, when I do freelance work it's on contract or assignment and even if the pay's so-so I know there's money at the end. With the majority of my fiction, I'm writing it on spec and it's a gamble, and that may be what really drives me crazy. I'm not to that point--not with this current publisher, anyway--where I can sell books on proposals. I did two with the last publisher, but then again, they dropped me.

5:09 AM  

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