Mid-Career Writers

For the last few years Pat Murphy has organised a closed session at WisCon for writers who are in the middle of their career and need a space to talk about the issues that involves. The first problem in doing this was deciding what exactly a mid-career writer is. They decided that you have to be five years out from your first professional sale to attend.

Scott Westerfeld went to the first two workshops and got to discuss Secret Writers’ Business with some of my favourite writers in the entire world. Afterwards he and many of the others were red eyed and seemed to have this new and amazing bond. I confess I felt a pang of jealousy, but I knew I didn’t belong in that room. At the time of the first workshop I’d published a non-fiction book and had one semi-pro sale of a short story. Now, I’ve sold three novels, one of which has been published and I still don’t belong in that room.

Pat Murphy has now come up with a much better definition of a mid-career writer: someone who’s had at least one book remaindered. Ouch.

This WisCon I was involved in several conversations about the problems of being a mid-career writer usually with a bunch of writers who’d all been in the game much longer than me. In one conversation I started burbling on with first-novelist enthusiasm about the business cards I’d printed up, visiting bookstores, and other bits and bobs I’ve been doing to promote Magic. Their eyes glazed over. "Stuff business cards," their body language said. They started to talk about what to do when you’re remaindered, or when you’re told that you’ll have to change your name if you want to sell books for more money. Oh, I realised once again, I am not a mid-career writer.

Here’s why a closed discussion is necessary. People at my stage of their career just slow the conversation down. First-time novelists just don’t get where the mid-career writer is at. Neither do writers who are unpublished. Every time published writers try to discuss the problems with their publishing career online someone comes along (often way more than one person) and flames them. "You should be grateful to be published at all!" "I know loads of brilliant writers who can’t even get an agent!" Blah, blah, blah. Look at the vitriolic attacks on Jane Austen Doe.

I was in my thirties when I started making professional sales. I started sending my stories and poetry out when I was fifteen. I know just how hard it is to get published. I know several unbelievably talented writers struggling to get their work into print. That’s a problem. It just happens to be a different problem to those that mid-career writers have. It’s also a problem if your advances and sales are going down with each successive book (despite them being the very best books you can write). Writers in that position need to be able to talk to their peers without gormless first novelists burbling on about business cards or frustrated unpublished writers bitching at them.

I have a couple of friends who have been very successful with their careers and are now getting big advances, being pursued by Hollywood, sent on book tours, the works, and guess what? There are problems involved with success. The two most successful writers I know have barely been able to write a word in the last year. The amount of publicity they have to do for their publisher has increased by a factor of ten, as has the amount of mail they get, and books they’re called on to blurb. They’re barely home. They’re exhausted. They’ve forgotten what their families look like. But they can’t complain because the most common response they get is: "I wish I had your problems!" which is the same as saying shut up.

Supporting yourself as a writer is a difficult, fraught business with all sorts of different problems at every stage. If you say as an unpublished writer, "I don’t want to hear about your problems! You’re published! I have nothing!" you’re cutting off your nose to spite your face. If you go on with your career, one day the problems of a mid-career writer will be your problems. The book that you have slaved over that is as good a book as you can make it, will die in the markerplace, will be remaindered. When that happens I doubt that you will consider yourself lucky to have been published at all.

So it’s probably worth listening—without envy—to those whose careers are further along than your own.

New York City, 2 June 2005