I have spent an inordinate amount of time this year Being a Writer, and far less of it doing the writing part. Oh, the words get done. In fits and starts and large binge sessions, I squeeze out stories in a few days and large swaths of whatever novel is in progress over a week at a time.
But an increasing amount of my waking hours have been spent reviewing contracts, answering e-mail, attending events, practicing speeches, going round-and-round with Hollywood people, asking about checks, recording podcasts, making videos for Patreon backers, printing chapbooks, weighing foreign rights deals, and playing at ‘‘being an author’’ on the internet, which involves trying not to waste too much time there or say something stupid enough to result in an internet pile-on.
I got into this business because I enjoyed writing, but, increasingly, I look upon the whole endeavor as somewhat dreadful but necessary, like taking out the trash. ‘‘Being a writer’’ has never really meant writing one hundred percent of the time, but it sure was a great dream to have, as a kid. When you realize that once you get on the ‘‘being a writer’’ treadmill you’re expected to produce work on time and often, it can become a job as tedious as any other. I have deadlines every month for a short story and various rewards for fans who support my work on Patreon. Then I have the task of working to resell and repackage that work for other short story markets. I have inquiries to field about other types of work, offers to weigh, and – currently – no fewer than three novel projects I’m working on, with a fourth I will be completing on spec next year after I clear out some of these outstanding pieces.
I don’t like the business of writing, though many people want to discuss it with me. I came to the understanding that being a writer means being a small business, not just writing, some time ago. But the last two years my responsibilities have picked up to such an extent that the seams are beginning to show. I have carefully stitched my life together to have a day job, a novel career, a freelancing life, and get some travel time in there to connect with colleagues at a few conventions every year. While you will hear early and often that it’s not at all required to go to in-person events, the fact is that the likelihood that you’ll be invited to more anthologies and considered for special invitation-only projects does in fact go up if you meet some folks in person and appear to be a real human who enjoys speaking to other humans. It’s been shown time and again that human beings enjoy doing business with people they like, not just people they consider talented. In-person events also remain the Holy Grail of sales teams everywhere, because selling something to someone in person is infinitely easier than selling it to a stranger. That said, for those of us who got into this because we preferred sitting around in the woods in the dark writing in blood under a strong bit of candlelight, the whole idea of speaking to humans as part of the writing process is, frankly, terrifying.
There was a point at which I realized that I didn’t just want to write, I wanted to be a writer – and those are, indeed, very different things. Many of us write for pleasure, for ourselves, for friends and family, for our children. We write in journals or in locked forums or listservs with limited audiences. Going out into the world with the intent of transforming that passion into a small business, however, is a very different enterprise. It’s scarier and more uncomfortable. I had to learn how to engage in small talk, and read contracts, and weigh long-term versus short-term goals and offers. Writing as a profession is one of the least romantic jobs out there; writing just to write still remains fairly sublime, in comparison.
I’ve been deep in work on the third and final book in my Worldbreaker Saga. I have been working sporadically on the book for some time, but only recently figured out the ending. Alas, by the time I figured it out, the book was already terribly late, and I found myself typing madly to try and make up for lost time. What I found, during this week-long rush, was that I had forgotten just how much fun it was to be truly immersed in a project. It had been so long since I’d taken time off my day job to just sit down and give myself over to the process that I had started to forget why I enjoyed writing in the first place. Instead, I’d been worried over contracts and offers and the state of various projects being pitched around. I had been delegating out admin work, responding to e-mail, drowning in mailing supplies for marketing swag, and desperately trying to figure out how to set up my mailing list drip campaign (now there’s a sexy writer phrase if ever there was one!).
None of that was writing a story, or a novel. It was the ancillary stuff that needed to be done in support of the occupation itself, in support of the business of writing.
I expect that there are other folks who are better at this balancing act, writers who can spend all day creating the perfect three-word phrase, but I’m not one of them. I wish I was. I want to spend more of my precious time with the words and story. I want to level up and become a better prose stylist. I want to continue to improve how I plot my novels and how I play with themes and language. But where would I find the time to write, as overwhelmed as I am in the business of being a writer?
We are admonished, often, in this business that you are only as relevant as your next book. You are always aware that the industry is looking behind you, always behind you, for the next great talent. Trying to be the best writer – the best stylist, the best plotter, the best deadline-maker – and the best at the writing business (and keep a day job with health insurance) is akin to asking every writer to be superhuman. It simply is not possible to juggle all of these tasks at once and do them excellently. It never was.
When I hear about the writing profession as practiced by many of my colleagues, I see a lot of the same patterns. The more successful a writer becomes, the less time they have to commit to writing. There’s more traveling, more wheel-spinning with various side projects, more contracts to read, more career strategy to hash out. I know I’m not the only writer who would happily retire to a cabin in the woods the moment I had a breakout novel. What strange circular logic is that… to dream of writing a novel so successful that you can be free to… take as long as you’d like writing another novel, without worrying about your career or health insurance or where your next contract is coming from.
I hear often from new writers who long to make a living writing that these are, of course, good problems to have. Yet I have written eight books, and the way things are looking here in the US, I will always have to have a day job so that I can keep my health insurance. I work very long days, 12 or 14 hours sometimes, and when I’m not typing for one job or another, I mainly just want to sleep. There is no bright brick road leading to the Emerald City after you publish that first or fifth or 15th novel. There’s no key to the writing house in the woods that cleans itself and does all your laundry. The laundry still piles up, and more besides.
There is, as ever, just this, your only reward: the work. The writing, the process, is the greatest joy and pleasure you will ever take from being in this business. So ensure you are spending as much time doing it as possible.
Perhaps I will today, too. Right after I finish this column….