Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Only Thing I Know Is I Don’t Know Anything

By Martha Reed


I had lunch yesterday with a writer friend who has finished her first novel and is now contemplating her second. She said something in particular that I found very interesting: that as she shops her novel to the agents and publishers and it takes longer and longer to find a print source it becomes less and less important to her if it ever gets published because she’s already started on her new work and she’s convinced it’s going to be so much better than her first one that she’s almost lost interest in it.

I told her she’s in a very lucky and wonderful place if she’s convinced that her current work in progress is that much better; that means she’s learned something from writing the first one and she can take her creative work to the next, higher level. I could see, too, that she’s become more confident in her ability to frame and tell a story, and she’s relaxed into it; she doesn’t have to worry about finishing it – she knows she can.

We laughed a bit at the place we found ourselves in at that table; both of us wishing for the magical three book contract and eager agents and I gave my phony acceptance speech for my Oscar Best Picture screenplay. We both hoped that someday our writing endeavors might pay us enough to scale back to working part-time but even that seemed almost childish – like wishing on a star or blowing out a candle on a cake. We are both writers and we will continue to be writers long after every other role life has pressed on us has passed. Will fame and fortune ever be ours? The question seems pointless as long as we keep doing our best work – that is what truly matters. The awards are great, don’t get me wrong but they don’t help one bit when you sit your butt back down and get to work on Chapter 12.

She asked me what I knew of the publishing world lately and I had to admit that everything I knew has changed – again – since the last time we met. Publishing houses have merged, agents have migrated, small and mid-size presses have gone out of business, POD has acquired a nasty backlash, query letters and agent pitches seem to be more in vogue than getting any actual story written. Not to mention that if your story has a vampire in it you may have missed the boat. Let me save you some rewriting and change your vampire to a werewolf now because even Frankenstein’s monster has been done to death.

We also decided we were in a wonderful place regarding time. We both work day jobs and the jobs pay our bills. That gives us the freedom to write when we want – and write what we want. I don’t have to cough up 500 words on Significant Pittsburgh Architects and she doesn’t have to construct an article on Single Parenting On A Budget. So what if it takes me three years to write my next novel – get over it, that’s just how long it’s going to take. I think it’s time for authors to push back – we’ve been patsies for too long. Who’s the talent here?

In the end we discussed writers with contracts who have to produce two or even three novels a year and I’ve decided I don’t want to take that path. In my previous life I took a passion – Arabian horses – and turned it into a profitable business but the problem with business is that the bottom line is it’s work. I don’t want to turn my passion for writing into just another job. She agreed with me. Of course, show us the money and we might just change our minds.

7 comments:

Tory said...

I remember in High School, when my whole life was folk dancing, realizing the same thing. If I did dance for a living (even harder to conceive of than writing!) it would take the fun out of it.

Still, what I've learned from writing and book marketing discussions helps me so much in my current job. I do training and development for a community mental health agency. Doesn't sound very similar. But marketing trainings, I've discovered, is not that different from marketting books. "Creating a buzz" is the same in every business.

And writing adds such a richness to my life, the way I think about and view things, that I wouldn't trade for anything!

Annette said...

I'll be tuned in when you give your acceptance speech, Martha!

Martha Reed said...

Tory, I agree. I had no idea writing could be such a part of my life when I started; it's hard to explain to the new writers just starting out themselves. I let enthusiasm take over and hope for the best.

And stranger things have happened. I saw Charlaine Harris posing on the red carpet awhile back. Who knew? A writer!

Joyce said...

Excellent post, Martha!

Wilfred Bereswill said...

Give me a job that I love doing and I'll take it in a heartbeat.

I'd love to be writing under a publisher issued deadline instead of a self-imposed one.

Thanks, Martha.

Kathryn Lilley said...

It is indeed a changing industry, Marhta! For example, there's been a relatively explosive growth lately in digital books. I agree that one shouldn't worry so much about about the changes, and start celebrating the opportunities.

Jennie Bentley said...

It does become a different animal when you've got the magical three book contract and you have to write the books by a certain deadline, and accept your editor's revisions and decisions about what flies and what doesn't. Yes, it's work. Fun work, work that beats most other jobs I could be doing, at least most of the time, but work. Speaking for myself, though, much as I enjoy writing and would probably be doing it even if I never got published, I'd rather have the contract, with all the drawbacks, than not. No, I can't write whatever I want whenever I want, and not write at all if I don't want to, but I'm getting paid to do what I love, and that's worth a certain amount of aggravation. IMHO.