Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Want To Be A Successful Writer? Then Stop "Chasing Your Dreams"

There's a strange thing that's happened to me over the years, and I'm willing to bet it's happened to other authors as well. When I first announced I was going to be an author people clapped me on the back and said, "You follow that dream, kid. You can do it!" So I did, and when I started getting stories published and my name in the paper or my voice on the radio people who knew me said, "I really admire the way you chase your dream."

But when I complain that being an author is rough on the pocket book these same people roll their eyes and say, "Look, you can't have your cake and eat it too. Either chase your dreams, or get a regular job."

Well. Seems we're going there today.

What's The Problem?

Ignoring the idea that authors are supposed to be broke (which is similar to how people freak out about those on public assistance having a nice car or a good phone, not knowing that those things are relics from the time before that person lost his or her job) the big problem I've found is that 5-letter D word people keep using over and over again.

Being an author is not a dream. Being an author is a job.

This might sound like a little thing; an unimportant semantic argument. It's important to remember that the words we use to describe things change the way we look at those things. No one knows this better than authors, since that emotionally and psychologically manipulative smoke-and-mirrors with language is our stock in trade. As a quick for instance, think of a man whom you would describe as assertive. Got that image in your head? Now picture someone described as aggressive. Different guy, isn't it?

That's kind of the point.

Careers Have Goals, Dreams Just Happen

Here's another reason that D word is such a problem. When you're kicking up your heels and fantasizing about something you don't question how you got from A to B. You don't ask where your audience came from, how many hours you had to put in, or how many books you had to write. You just focus on being famous, and on being able to pay all your bills and do whatever you want with all that sweet, sweet royalty money. Book signings and interviews, lounging in your pajamas, drinking coffee, and just letting that story flow, baby!

If your goal is to become an author then those are questions you need to answer. You need to know how many words per day you can manage, you need to figure out what makes your stories different, and you need to know which publishing route you're going to take. You need to make contacts with publishers and reviewers, and you need to get your name and your work in front of as many people as possible. You also need to polish up your prose, and make sure that your voice is a unique one among the hundreds of thousands of other authors who are trying to do the same damn thing you're doing.

You also need to do field research. For authenticity.

The Facts, and The Legend

In The Man Who Shot Liberty Vance we have a newsman who gets the real story behind a genuine bit of famous Old West gun play. Unsurprisingly the real story is quite different from the myth it's been blown up into, and the film sums up what's going to happen with the famous line, "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

Part of the problem is that authors (and really all artists) have to compete with this sort of thing.

I'll explain. You see, we all know there are professional authors (and painters, and actors, and every other creative profession) out there. We hear about them on the news, we read their books, and we see their numbers. We hear about that couple who self-published steamy romance novels, and overnight they made enough money to get out of debt and pay off their house. We know Stephen King is a multi-millionaire who received a $70,000 advance on his first novel Carrie. Kathy Reichs has written dozens of books, and her work is the basis for the popular TV series Bones. George R. R. Martin has money and fans rolling in hand over fist, even though he takes years to complete every novel in A Song of Ice and Fire.

The problem is that we hear about things like this so often that the public doesn't realize (or just forgets) these authors are the outliers. They're the lucky few who through great talent, a perfect storm of exposure, or the fickle finger of the zeitgeist have the kind of rock star fame we think of when we hear the word author.

And this guy isn't helping.
To make matters worse when we fictionalize authors they tend to get even larger than life. Richard Castle (the character played by Nathan Fillion in the TV show Castle) is an eccentric millionaire who tags along on murder cases for research. If a problem can't be solved by attempting to apply book-writing logic to the real world (a hit-or-miss endeavor at the best of times), then he can often overcome difficulties with a handshake, a signed first-edition, and a big, fat check. We always see him playing with expensive toys, talking about antique alcohol, and getting laid... but you know something we never see him doing?

Working. We see all of the fruits, but none of the labor.

Why? Well because a TV show about a guy who spent his days looking up weird stuff on the Internet to fact-check his thrillers isn't terribly interesting. It's the same way that news stories about authors focus on their followings, the number of books they've published, the number of copies they've sold... but we rarely hear about the number of hours they put in. We don't see the long hours on the road traveling to conventions, or the piles of notes taken as authors try to work through bumps in the plot road or capture ideas for future projects before they can get away. We don't see authors calling up newspapers for interviews, responding to queries from potential readers and reviewers, and the thousand other daily tasks that are all part of the job.

Why? Because while that would present a more honest view of the profession, and maybe even help those who feel being an author is their calling, it isn't sexy. So it doesn't get screen time.

Waking Up From "The Dream"

I just want to re-iterate; being an author is not a dream. It's a job, a career, a calling, a skill, and a craft, but it is not a dream. Authors are creative professionals who manufacture a product, and who then have to market and deliver that product. What we do is no different from any other entrepreneur, except that what we are delivering is ephemeral.

We deliver dreams, but we are awake while we're doing it.

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1 comment:

  1. Although I shouldn’t feel this way, I’m consistently amazed by the perception of the general public that fiction writing isn’t a “real job” – whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean! It feeds into the financial struggles writers endure, just to get by. Yet the public constantly wants new entertainment; snorting with disdain at the lack of quality projects on TV and in films. It’s an almost hopeless situation – emphasis on “almost.” Writing is who I am and what I do. Most everything and everyone else is a distraction.