Hi folks! I’m always asked about what it’s like to be a published author by fans, students, aspiring novelists, friends, and randos in bars. Oftentimes, they reveal preconceptions about The Author Life in how they word their questions. Today, I thought I’d play Mythbuster because–just like in the show–the reality is often more interesting than the myth. So here’s five common myths about being a writer, EXPOSED:
1) Authors write novels full time
The real subtext to this is “writers make good money.” Now, obviously authors can make good money. They can make great money. They can even make stupid money (Rowling, King, etc). But most of us make not-so-great money. Which means that, for the majority of us, we don’t get to be full-time novelists. Or, if we are, we’re not necessarily bringing home the daily bacon–the steady, “pay the rent” money may come from a spouse or trust fund, and “book money” becomes a sort of “mad money.”
Obviously there are a ton of exceptions to this rule. There are bestselling novelists with movie deals. There are authors with ENORMOUS backlists, or authors with prodigious outputs (six books a year or so, creating a sort of immediate backlist as well as generating new income). And there are full-time writers, as opposed to full-time novelists, who freelance in other areas of writing (journalism, tech writing, professional writing, etc.).
But the majority of us have a day job, at least until we have that enormo backlist/instant bestseller/HBO deal. For example, I’m a professor. Other writers I know work regular 9-5s. Some authors work in the service industry. Some are in the military, or they’re doctors, or lawyers.
Many of us, meanwhile, don’t really want to be full-time writers. There are times I may fantasize about that life, when I’ve got a stack of grading and a deadline for a book, all due at the same time. But the fact is that working gets me out of my own head, makes me interact with living human beings, inspires me constantly (because people are nuts and fun and constantly helping me understand the world better), and having a day job I love means that I have a constant ego balance. If I’m having a bad day writing, I can go to school and bury myself in satisfying work there. Or vice versa. And if I’m feeling super cool and arrogant in one job, there will be a freshman making a stink face at me OR a negative book review to make sure I don’t get too up my own tuchus.
Lesson here: Don’t quit your day job.
2) Authors choose their covers
Nope. And this bullet point obviously pertains only to trad-pubbed writers. Self-pubbed writers control all sorts of things, one of the nice things about self-publishing (although your responsibility obviously skyrockets in consequence).
Anyway, traditionally published authors control very little about their books. They don’t make their covers, and it really depends on their publisher and their relationship with that publisher as to whether they even have any say in their covers. They often don’t get to pick their own titles. They don’t control what’s on the “wrap”: the back of book copy, where their name is printed or how big, any tag lines, whose blurbs are on there, etc. If it’s a book in a series, they can’t tell the publisher to put the number of that book on the cover.
This is why you get books with red-headed, mixed race heroines and there’s a blonde on the cover. In my German translations, the first two covers sport a mermaid. There is nary a mermaid in my entire series.
So what do we control? What’s inside, for the most part. Although obviously I don’t mean formatting. Or length, as that’s contractual. And I’ve heard of battle royales about plot points in which the author is forced to concede………
Lesson here: Don’t expect, as an author, to have any control about what’s on your books and that you’re getting paid for what’s in them.
3) An author’s publisher pays for him or her to go places
My standard response to this is BLESS YOUR HEART and a sad little pat on the person’s head.
There are authors who have wonderful tours organized and paid for by their publishers. Those writers are, again, usually the bestsellers with the movie deals, etc. An author at my level pays for all of her own travel, unless she’s paid for by the event, itself.
Now, I’m a little different. I also have some travel money from my day job, because my book promotions help me promote our MFA in Writing Popular Fiction. But I’m like a unicorn in that respect, so don’t think any other writers have travel paid for by their employer.
So when you see a writer is going to a big convention in New York, please understand that they’re probably paying out of their own wazoo to get to that convention. And they chose that big convention because it is big: it may be expensive, but it’s a lot of bang for their buck in terms of networking, meeting a lot of readers, etc. That big convention, however, may blow their travel budget for the year. So they can’t go to see you in Nebraska, even though they’d really like to. Because they’re paying for themselves.
And if we are paid for by someone, we’re on their dime. I’m lucky in that I’ve started getting invited AND PAID FOR to do some events. This makes me feel very, very fancy. But if someone flies me out to Hell, Michigan, to incant over their bookstore, I can’t bugger off to Flint to meet with your book club. I would LOVE to, but I gots to dance for the person that paid me.
That said, the great thing about our world is technology. I’d love to Skype with your book club in Flint. And it’s free! Just get in touch to arrange it.
Meanwhile, writers need to be careful about making promises they can’t afford to keep. Cons are expensive. Book tours are expensive. Budget! (I’m bad at this)
Lesson here: Writers need to budget for travel and readers should understand that budget comes from the author’s own wallet. And refer to #1 for how slim that wallet can be.
4) Writing is about being in touch with The Muse
The problem with muses is that they’re inevitably complete assholes: gone when you need them, all too present when you don’t. That said, while many non-writers and aspiring writers think that writing a novel is about inspiration and ideas, it’s really about what we call BiC, or Butt in Chair.
I always use the metaphor of a marathon to represent writing, especially writing a novel. Writing a novel is not fun, in the same way that muscle fatigue, nipple chafing, and blistered feet are not fun. There is like a few weeks of brainstorming that I imagine is like signing up for the marathon: planning your training, getting your t-shirt and gear, etc. This part of the writing process is “fun” and, genuinely, about ideas. This is where you’re like “Yeah, that’d be cool! Wow! I’m so clever! And then BAM, it’s all resolved! I’m a genius!”
Then you start the real writing (the actual marathon training). First of all, it’s slow. It’s tedious. Even if you write like the wind, a 90,000 word book takes a few months. And most people don’t write like the wind. An idea that was shiny and beautiful in week one seems like a pile of dessicated poop by month five. Those glorious connections you forged in your brainstorming? They don’t make a lick of gotdamned sense in reality. And then once you complete the rough draft, you’ve got another few months of revisions, because rough drafts suck (they’re supposed to! They’re rough!).
Finally, like a marathon, you’re not guaranteed to finish, let alone get a gold metal. Your book may languish in a desk drawer forever, after being rejected for publication. Or it may languish at #2,400,499,399 on Amazon’s sales ranking, after it’s self-published and makes exactly $23.97 profit on a year’s effort.
So don’t think writing is fun. Or easy. Or particularly satisfying, unless you’re one of us lunatics who finds satisfaction in the process. Because by the time you actually see your book on the shelf, you are so over that book it’s not funny. You’re hopefully already halfway through your next book, and probably at that stage where this new book feels like it’s killing your soul, little by little, day after day. So you see your published book on the shelf and you’re like, “Aw, that’s so nice, there it is,” immediately followed by, “Now what am I going to do with that stupid plot point in chapter eight……..” and off you go tearing out your hair over the new book.
Lesson here: If all you want is to be a “writer,” you’re going to fail. You have to really enjoy writing. And by “writing” I mean “being a masochist.”
5) Other writers are our competition
I hear this most from non-writers, who say things like, “Oh, your book is out the same day as Anne Rice’s! Are you pissed?”
Now, the majority of my fellow writers will auto-scoff at #5. There are a few exceptions I’ve met over the years, but they are very few. The fact is that most writers understand that writing is not a competition. Here’s why:
Readers are nuts and they’re bad with money. I mean that in the best way possible, of course, and I’m a reader too, so this totally applies to me. But yeah, readers are incapable of buying just one book. If I go to the bookstore to pick up SEP’s latest, I will sit in the car and scold myself for a good ten minutes, “You will only buy this one book! Just this one! No more!” An hour later I’m back in the hippie spaceship, clutching fifteen paperbacks to my chest, wondering what the hell just happened and what I’ll eat that night, since I blew my entire weekly budget on shifter romance.
So I hope Anne Rice’s new book is out the same week as my new book. Because someone is going to go in to Barnes and Noble, telling themselves, “I WILL ONLY BUY RICE’S BOOK.” And they’re going to end up back at home with my entire series in a bag, having no idea where the last hour of their lives went, but being about $50 poorer.
And yeah, Rice is going to CREAM ME in terms of “sales ranking,” but I don’t give a shit. Because I bought her book, too. It’s Anne Rice fercrissakes! She gets to cream anybody she wants.
I know Rice is going to succeed, because she deserves it. And I want my other writer pals to succeed, because they deserve it, too. So I’m going to pimp their books, and tell everyone to read them, and hope everyone does. I’m a reader. I love good books. This isn’t a competition.
Lesson here: Be supportive. Build community. Support other writers. Never forget you’re a reader, first.
So those are some common myths, BUSTED. Let me know in comments if you have any other questions, or anything to add.
And for those doing Nano this year, keep at it! This stretch is the hardest but you’re almost there! xoxoxo