The Writing Life

Like many writers, I’m fascinated by natter about writing and publishing. Whenever I’m online I check out bookslut and a large smattering of writers’ and editors’ blogs, curious to know who’s being published or not published by whom, how big other writers’ advances are, and what the latest Martin Amis gossip is (scroll down—got to love the London publishing scene).

The internet overflows with such talk. There’s a great deal of angst-ridden discussion about who can call themselves a writer. Do you have to be published to qualify? And if so, what kind of published? Do short stories and poems count or does it have to be a book? Do they have to be professional publications? If you’re paid only ten dollars is that a professional publication? And if only books count, is being self-published okay? Or does it have to be a proper publishing house? What is a proper publishing house?

I must feel some of that angst, since I get miffed when people ask what I do and I say, “I am a writer”, and they respond, “Oh really? How wonderful. Have you published anything yet?”

I’ve still not figured out how to respond to this query. Clearly they don’t mean to be rude, but I can’t help wondering if I’d told them I was a plumber would their first question be: “Have you fixed anything yet?”

Of course, there are many fabulous writers who never published a word when they were alive (Franz Kafka, anyone?) and one of the best writers I know, whose work I’ve been reading and admiring since we were both in high school, has never been published. However, that question “What do you do?” is usually about what you do for a living, how you make money. It’s not a discussion of hobbies, of dreams and aspirations, but of what you do in the here and now to earn a crust.

An even more vexing topic to many writers is the centuries-old discussion about the current dreadful state of publishing (too many books being published, fabulous writers languishing out of print or unpublished while crap like <insert name of bestselling writer you hate most here> is published and sold by the truckload), which has been brought on by the internet/the consolidation of publishing companies/Rupert Murdoch/the drop in numbers of people who read/changes in tax laws/global warming/Satan.

A few days ago an article on by “Jane Austen Doe” appeared that touched on many of these topics. The article generated a frenzy of discussion in places like John Scalzi’s Whatever and Teresa Nielsen Hayden’s Making Light (two of my favourite blogs in the blogverse). Most of the talk (some examples here) concerned the sheer hubris of this pseudonymous writer despairing that none of her subsequent advances came close to matching her first of US$150,000. Most advances are considerably smaller—slice off one of those zeros and you’re somewhat closer to the average advance. Writers have been known to forego advances altogether just to get their babies into print.

It’s a subject we writers are somewhat touchy about. I can’t think of a writer I know who doesn’t dream of such an advance, and not just because of the money (though, hey, money good), but because an advance that big means the publisher is likely to spend still more money actually promoting the book, rather than sending it out into the cold, cruel world with nary so much as a tiny ad in an obscure-but-related-to-topic-of-said-book trade magazine.

A big advance can mean more reviews, placement in dumps at the front of book shops, appearances on radio and television and, with luck, heaps more sales. (Of course, mountains of publicity doesn’t necessarily a hit make: Jayson Blair’s book, anyone? Word of mouth is always the best way to sell tonnes of books. The question is how to get those mouths flapping.)

What struck me most about the article, though, was the author’s extreme romanticism about writing. “Jane Austen Doe” tells the story of someone with great expectations about the life of the writer who is shocked by the cruel realities of the market place. She’s not alone.

Most people I talk to about writing who aren’t in publishing or writers themselves (or living with one) share JAD’s romanticism. Once I’ve established that I am indeed published, they look at me wistfully and say, “I’ve always wanted to be a writer.” Their eyes gleam as they imagine their writer’s life: lying on a beach, laptop resting on their knees, tapping out those lucrative, brilliant words while they occasionally sip at a mini-umbrella-festooned cocktail.

This vision bears no resemblance to my life or the life of any writers I know (and I know way too many). For starters laptops and the outdoors don’t mix: the glare means you can barely see the screen, and sand in the hard drive—not pretty. Many people seem to think writers are richer, more famous, and more glamorous than plumbers, and they’re wrong on every count.

The majority of the published writers I know also have a day job. Most because they can’t afford not to, some because they can’t function without seeing real live human beings several days a week. Those that don’t, like myself, live in terror of the day when their luck runs out and they’ll have to go back to the nine to five (or more) life.

Like “Jane Austen Doe” I love to write (not quite as much as I love reading or sleeping, but it’s at least top twenty in my list of favoured activities). I’m saddened that the kind of books I most enjoy writing (big, fat, detailed, bloody historicals set in twelfth-century Cambodia) are unlikely to pay enough to keep me alive (apparently there’s not a huge audience for that sort of thing. Who knew?).

So, following the example of other writers I know who live by the keyboard alone, I’ve been learning to write in a wide variety of modes and genres. I’m working on a few different non-fiction book proposals about . . . actually, not telling—I’m not having you lot stealing my ideas. I just bet you’ve already run off to start your own big, fat, detailed, bloody historical set in twelfth-century Cambodia. Stop it. Right now.

My first novel, Magic or Madness, comes out next March. If it tanks (knock on wood that it won’t!) I’ll write something else in a different mode in a different genre. If I can’t sell that something else under my own name on account of previous book tanking I’ll sell it under a pseudonym. If that doesn’t work I’ll think of something else and/or get a day job. With luck, one that involves lots of writing.

But in my heart of hearts I imagine my first novel selling in huge numbers, being festooned with prizes and medals, earning the admiration and undying love of all who so much as glance at its glorious and compelling cover. I see my next novel—a big, fat, detailed, bloody historical set in twelfth-century Cambodia—earning a record-breaking advance and immediately being snapped up by Ang Lee to be made into three separate movies, each of which will outgross the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

I had the same sad dreams about my first book The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction a scholarly tome published by a university press which, to date, has sold just over a thousand copies. (Wesleyan Uni Press, by the way, are thrilled by those numbers and have even given me another contract.) But so far Ang Lee has expressed no interest in the film version.

I, too, have imbibed deeply of the same romanticism about the glamorous writing life as “Jane Austen Doe”. It doesn’t matter how many of the realities of the publishing industry I’m familiar with or how long I’ve been familiar with them, a stubborn, really dense part of me expects to get rich at this game some day.

Sydney, 25 March 2004