Mark Terry

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Where's the focus?

January 27, 2010
Regular readers of this blog (and yes, there must be more than two or three of you, right?) must realize that I focus, in my fiction, rather a lot on how difficult it is to make money doing it. Granted, for people struggling just to get published, their sympathy must be close to zero. Still, you can't struggle for years to get published, finally get published, get offered $1000 for something you spent 12 months working on and be completely pleased with the outcome, financially.

I think about this a lot. I suspect, even if I weren't a full-time writer dependent upon my writing for car payments, mortgage payments, heating bills, gas in my car, food on my table, and the occasional vacation, I'd still obsess about the money end of fiction writing, such as it is.

If nothing else, how much we get paid is a score card.

And yet, the other day I was thinking of Robert B. Parker's long list of books--and he was notoriously honest about working for money, the more the better--and thinking how if you keep at it and have a little luck you'll have a large body of work, a collection of your day dreams bound on your shelf, or perhaps, in the future, digitized (so one good computer crash or power outage can wipe out your entire legacy, oy vey, ain't technology grand?).

Today I picked up the book ZEN GUITAR by Philip Toshio Sudo. I read a section or two every couple days, particularly when I'm looking for some sort of emotional/psychological/mystical guidance (thanks, Spy). And today I read:

"Many people today are obsessed with the bottom line. We see students who focus on getting the right report card grades rather than learning; business executives who sacrifice research and development monies for better quarterly profits; musicians who compromise their music in order to land a recording contract.

"In this dojo, there is no bottom line. How we do something here matters more than the end result. The black-belt guitarist knows to focus on the process, not the product.

"Most things in life lie beyond our control--we can't simply snap our fingers and produce the desired result. All we can do is perform our duties the best way we know how. If we do things the right way and our spirit is correct, the results won't matter. We can hold our heads high regardless of the outcome.

"In Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, the fisherman Santiago goes eighty-four days without catching a fish. Yet throughout the dry spell he stays focused on the process--the proper way to catch a fish. He fishes the right spots. He keeps his lines precisely at the right depth. In this way, he knows the drought is no fault of his own. 'I would rather be exact,' the old man says. 'Then when the luck comes you are ready.' This is the way a black belt approaches Zen Guitar."

Recently, I got an assignment from one of my biggest clients to write a report for a private company. Essentially the client is acting as a middle man for this company. I'm being paid $10,000 for the project, but the client, in letting me see the entire proposal, inadvertently showed me that the company is paying $55,000 for the whole project. (This isn't about economies of scale and how writers are underpaid, although I suppose that's a consideration. It does put me in a position of being more knowledgeable in the future--as well as considering peddling my wares directly to customers instead of through publishers, but that's a different topic for a different day). I got a little stressed, not about the project per se, but about the fact that there was so much money on the line, that somehow this company was expecting $55,000 worth of report. Granted, the company makes about $200 billion annually, so they probably spend more than $55,000 a year on paper clips. But the point is, once I stopped hyperventilating about that, I started focusing on the actual report, on the process of doing what I regularly do. And I realized that, ultimately, I'll give them the best I can within the time limits of the project, and they'll have to be happy with that. I can't actually give them more than my best, can I? I can only do what I've done time and again, as well as I can, focusing on the process that everybody thinks delivers what they want in the first place.

So focus on being the best writer you can, telling the best story you can. And living with the results, no matter what they are. (And consider asking for more money).


Blogger Eric said...

I agree with this absolutely, although it is hard to do. I remember the great Phillie (and Cardinals) pitcher Steve Carlton used to say that when he was on the mound he never even saw the batter. All he thought about was making the pitch he wanted to make in the situation. And if he put the pitch he wanted in the right place, then he'd done his job and if the batter managed to hit it, so what? It would be good to be able to take the attitude of writing what you want and if it is rejected so what.

9:10 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Well, yeah. It's hard to do. And, I'm not sure it's a good idea to remain blissfully ignorant of market trends. Nonetheless, "focus on the work" remains good advice.

10:09 AM  
Blogger Natasha Fondren said...

It makes me happy that you are still reading it! It's a great book. You make me want to read it again!

I freak about money and my writing speed. I keep saying to myself: "It's what and how you DO that matters, not what you achieve." The other one is, "Focus on what you're giving, and not what you're making." LOL. I'll let you know if they work.

11:55 AM  

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