What Are You In This For?

Do you believe in kismet? I’m asking because the quote in this graphic, which I stole from the IndieView’s Facebook feed (and thanks for posting it, Big Al!), reminded me a little of an article posted by Kristine Kathryn Rusch on her blog last week. I blogged about Rusch’s article on my own blog over the weekend. But I thought the topic might also spark a broader discussion.

Rusch makes a distinction between “career writers” and what she calls “one-book writers.” A one-book writer, she says, is somebody who basically wants to tick a box on his or her bucket list. This is the person who wants to hold a book with his or her name on the cover, and to see that book on a bookstore shelf – in short, to be recognized by the literary establishment as a “published author.” She goes on to say that most of the writers she has met, over the course of her career, fit this description. They may have more than one book in them, but they’re not trying to make a living at their writing – either because they have other interests to pursue, or because they’re convinced it’s impossible. Generally speaking, she says, these folks wouldn’t be satisfied by going indie. It’s not that they don’t want to make money from their writing; it would certainly be okay with them if the Bestseller Fairy sprinkled their work with her magic dust, so that they topped the New York Times list with no effort whatsoever. It’s the learning curve that stops them. It’s that they’d have to find editors, beta readers, cover artists, video production people, and promoters – or figure out how to do all this stuff themselves – and they’re convinced they’re incapable.

(These, by the way, are the people who are ripe for scamming by the likes of Author Solutions and Publish America. These writers don’t know anything about publishing or promoting their work, and here they’ve found a company whose lovely website says they can do all that stuff, no problem. So what if the price tag is several thousand dollars? Maybe that’s what it takes to be published. Right?)

A career writer, Rusch says, is someone who is committed to making a living at writing. This person might try several different avenues to writing-as-a-career over the course of a working lifetime – journalism, copy writing, technical writing, freelancing, even writing greeting cards – but always with the aim of making enough money to pay the rent. For them, going indie is a business decision. Getting a traditional publishing contract is more of a crapshoot than ever, and they – we – don’t have time to wait around until some self-appointed gatekeeper decides our work can make them some money. The lights would be cut off for non-payment long before that happy day, if it ever came at all.

That’s not to say a career writer is a hack. Any kind of writing requires attention to the craft, and career writers are often justifiably proud of their skill. Because why go through all of it – the much-less-than-a-lawyer income, the “when are you going to get a real job?” questions from well-meaning relatives – if there’s no intangible payback?

Ann Patchett, in this quote, is apparently at a crossroads in her writing career. It’s one that I think both one-book writers and career writers face eventually, when the reality of Life As a Writer hits them between the eyes. Do we write only to be published, or only to keep a roof over our heads, or for a “salvation…[that] would only be emotional and intellectual”?

She goes on to wonder whether that “salvation” is reason enough to keep writing. I suspect the answer would differ, depending on what you’re in this for.

Author: Lynne Cantwell

Lynne Cantwell grew up on the shores of Lake Michigan. She worked as a broadcast journalist for many years; she has written for CNN, the late lamented Mutual/NBC Radio News, and a bunch of radio and TV news outlets you have probably never heard of, including a defunct wire service called Zapnews. But she began as a fantasy writer (in the second grade), and is back at it today. She currently lives near Washington, DC. Learn more about Lynne at her blog and at her Amazon author page.

23 thoughts on “What Are You In This For?”

  1. What am I in it for? Why, the money, the fame, the adulation, the awe …POP! Dang someone just popped by bubble.

    Good post Lynne. There are writers and then there are us (or is that ‘we’)

  2. I embraced the inner-author hiding beneath the surface back in 2007 – when I’d reached the end of the rope so far as teaching went. Loved teaching – hated the politics. I worked only in a ‘blogger’ capacity until about 2010 when, after getting positive feedback from the posts I had written, I decided to take a stab at ‘bigger fish’. I’ve made all of about $7 with my eBooks whereas I’ve done a wee bit better monetarily as an editor. (And best of all with everything I edit – I feel as if I become a better writer of my own books.)

    I’ve run into many a one-book writer – They’re really passionate … about that one book hoping they’ll end up like Harper Lee who had one BIG hit and then sort of slipped into a life away from the spotlight even though the people behind the spotlight begged for her the step back into it!

    Perhaps one day I’ll have success. Who knows? Perhaps one of the authors I’ve helped along the way will have success therefore granting me bragging rights.

    But until that day comes – I’ll just keep on writing. And if Oprah should ever invite me to hang out with her because she simply adored one of my books, I would like to think I wouldn’t become jaded and would continue to write! :o)

  3. Thief. 😀

    This really caught my eye when it came up on my blog feed.

    I read Rusch’s original post, too, and it drove home a couple points, for me. I think writing it did the same for her.

    Everyone’s goals for being a writer or author are different. Therefore, those who make decisions that make no sense to me, may well be making the right decision, for them. Or maybe not, due to the second point.

    Some of the goals might be based on incorrect assumptions (publishing myths) about what reaching that goal means. For example, seeing your book on the bookshelf at Barnes & Noble or the airport bookstore would be a kick. So would sneaking onto the NYT Bestseller list. I get that. But how many who have that goal are using it as a shorthand for that, plus the fame and fortune they believe goes along with it? (Rusch did a post recently specifically about the NYT bestseller list and how that is big in her mind for what she thinks it means, at least on an emotional level, even though she now understands it doesn’t signify what she once thought it did.)

    I think the changing landscape of publishing has changed the real meaning of some things that might have be true in the past. But for those who have had a goal for a long time they might not want to admit things have changed. And publishers need to keep some of the myths alive, not only to keep signing authors, but to keep Author Solutions in business. However, there are some instances where an author’s goal to see their book on bookstore shelves across the country might also be good for other goals (like living on their writing). Hugh Howey is an example of someone who I think understood the book on bookshelf goal and didn’t let it get in the way of his other goals.

    1. Hey, I did say “thank you” for the quote. 😀

      You’re right, of course. In the post I referenced, Rusch was talking about people who criticize her (somewhat hard-nosed 🙂 ) attention to the business side of writing. She had trouble understanding where those critics were coming from, until she figured out they are one-book writers who just want to have their books on the shelf at B&N. She’s a career writer, and so she approaches writing as a business — which means making choices that pay the rent, even if they won’t necessarily get your work into a bookstore.

      And let me be perfectly clear: I would have no problem at all with making the NYT bestseller list, even for a minute, and even though it doesn’t guarantee financial success any more.

  4. Great post Lynne. Your post, and the original, did make me wonder about my own motives for being a writer. I suspect there’s a continuum with one-book writers at one end and professional writers at the other. I have some of the characteristics of both but I am working on the ‘professional’ part of the equation. Not there yet though.

  5. If ya wanna write, write. If it’s just one book, then it’s just one book. You still wrote. But yeah, a writing career takes more than ticking that ol’ box on the bucket list. Most careers do. Hobbies are different. It’s still rewarding, whichever route you take.

    Great post, Lynne.

  6. I write because…well…I’m good at a fair number of things. I could get a decent paying job in a couple of different fields (have one, in fact). But I don’t as a rule find those things very *fulfilling*.

    I enjoy writing. I’m fairly good at storytelling. And I’d like to do something for my living that gives me back more than just a paycheck.

  7. In my humble opinion, we are many things (potentially), every last one of us, and throughout our lives we choose which part of ourselves we are going to ‘mainly’ focus upon. Whichever part we concentrate on most we, generally, identify ourselves as being. Whether that is an artist, an athlete, a draftsman, a singer, a dancer, a mother, a father, an actor, a machinist, a prostitute, an entrepreneur or a writer and so on. You can of course be a combination of, and more often than not are; however, I believe the thing in which you place most focus is what you and others recognise you to be. Ideally of course making a living at what you love being most is the ultimate goal; the recipe, if you like, for a happy, contented soul. Writers write!

  8. There are actually more categories than just two, and I think it’s vitally important for writers to sort out who they are and what they want..even though that might change in time.
    The reality of this is the argument against something that really gets my goat: all the “experts” shrilling that “you have to be a businessperson”, “you HAVE to be an entrepreneur”. Or really, “you have to be anything.” Because, in fact, you don’t. You can be a grandmother who just wants her many offspring to read her family history before she dies. A poet who just wants to set it down and toss it out there. A kid who just wants to prove to himself that he can do it. A total dilettante who wants to look deep. Some creepy horndog who thinks being an author will impress chicks. And guess what–it’s all equally valid. You don’t have to be what some turkey hawking their wares says you have to be, you don’t have be anything at all…just write a book and publish it.

    1. Well, sure, Lin. But people who want to write for a living are going to have to learn the business aspects at some point. Knowledge is not only power — it keeps you from getting taken for a ride. 😉

      1. If you’re in something make money, you’re in business.
        I’m addressing the often-screeched directive that EVERYBODY writing has to be in business, that you HAVE to be an entrepreneur.
        That’s what my post was about

  9. Great post, Lynne. When I started writing, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with it; I just loved to write. Years later, I still do. If I could spend the rest of my life supporting myself on writing and editing, I’d be pretty happy. Everything else is a cherry on my sundae.

  10. The post and comments cause me once again to reflect that writing is not unlike acting and many other careers in the arts/entertainment where many are called and few are chosen. Many have wanted to make a living at acting, painting, doing standup, sports football/baseball/golf/bass-fishing, you name it. Few accomplish it and those that don’t aren’t necessarily without talent. And it has always been thus in writing. Poe attempted to make a living exclusively from writing and failed. And if you want to complicate the discussion further, what does “make a living” mean to you? Does it mean the 4 bedroom house and 3 cars and big screen TVs and eating out twice a week? Or is the bohemian crash pad in the Village (or what would pass for it today) and a “family” of sometimes friends and acquaintances what you expect as a writer while you put your message out? It is a discussion that has no end point, only increasingly complex issues and definitions depending on who enters the discussion.

    1. Eating out only twice a week? I need to re-evaluate… 😉

      There’s a spectrum of lifestyles between the McMansion in the exurbs and the twentysomething group house. Some years ago, I co-authored a nonfiction book called Live Simply in the City. (Good luck finding a copy; we didn’t sell many.) Back then, I was attempting to live simply, mainly by figuring out what material goods I needed out of life and paring back my spending to that level. I’ve gotten away from it over the years, but I think I need to take another look at it, especially if I ever hope to make a living from my writing again.

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