What does that fantasy look like to you? How does it look when you project the image of your professional writer self into the future five years, or ten?
Before I cracked the ranks, I’m not sure what I thought about what my actual life would look like. As a girl, I’d read a novel about a girl tracking down her favorite author, and she found her at a cottage by the sea in England. I thought it might be like that, me quietly pursuing my stories under cloudy skies. There would be a cat on the windowsill, a dog by the fire. I’d have a solid body of devoted readers and the regard of the reviewers and the press.
Scholarly. Solitary. Satisfying.
Since I was imagining this life as a young mother, with two hellion boys screaming through the tumbledown Victorian we bought for a song because it was such a disaster, I don’t know how I though I’d leap the pond to my soft little fantasy, but there it was. That was the life I thought a professional novelist lived.
What do you imagine? It’s worth thinking about. What is your fantasy? What might the reality be? What do you really think you’re going to get out of this dream of yours?
I’ve been writing professionally for more than two decades now, and that life is many things, but it doesn’t have much in common with the fantasy. That makes me valuable to you, the aspiring professional writer out there honing your craft, studying the markets, the sales, the possibilities. What does it take to be a professional writer? What can you expect if you follow this path?
First, what qualities will best serve you?
A professional writer has to be flexible enough to shift with the times and the demands of the market. If you can only write one thing, you’ll be out of luck when that one thing dries up—and it will. If you are skilled at figuring out how your voice and words work, you can be adaptable without selling your soul.
A particular sort of tunnel vision can serve you well in this career. You believe you are a writer with pluck and talent and the brain to learn what you need to know to write good books. You know that it’s only a matter of time before you find the right place for your work. You know that bad things happen—rejections and bad reviews, but that’s okay, because tomorrow is another day. The writer who persists and succeeds knows that good things might happen tomorrow.
A hide like a rhinoceros
Related to the above. Not everyone is going to like your work. Some people will hate it for reasons that have nothing to do with the writing or you. Trust me, people will say awful things about your work. There will be sneers and one star reviews and the literary equivalent of people spitting on your babies. Figuring out how to keep those people out of your head is crucial. The easiest way is to never let them in at all.
Animal cleverness and devotion
A professional writer is a cat, independent and clever, making quick leaps and and clever. She is also a dog, hungry for attention. This might be one of the less attractive aspects of our personalities, but why would anybody spend hours and hours and hours alone in a room, tapping away at a keyboard unless they wanted to get somebody to pay attention to them?
THE CHALLENGES AND REWARDS
The career is a roller coaster—it goes up and down, up and down, endlessly. You make it to the top of a mountain, and plummet down the other side, where you lie, licking your wounds, until you see another mountain ahead of you. While it is true that the occasional writer makes it to the top of a mesa and lives there at the steady, smooth top for the rest of his career, this is rare. It’s like winning PowerBall or being born looking like Taylor Swift.
The money is particularly challenging on this level. You never know, year to year, how much money you will earn (or not earn). It can be delicious to haul in a juicy check, but not so much fun to make it stretch a year or even two until the next advance comes in. This payment schedule is not the easiest way to develop a good credit rating or juggle things like saving for a child’s college. Know how you’re going to manage this, and know who you are in regard to money. Do you need stability? Don’t quit the day job.
Physical wear and tear
It takes a toll physically to sit and sit and sit and type and type and type and stare at screens and stare at books. Year after year after year. Even with great ergonomics, you’re likely to develop issues over time if you don’t take very good care of the body that houses your talent and brain. Find a way to work out the kinks. Yoga is great and you can do it in five minute breaks. Walk, swim, garden….move your limbs in all kinds of different directions. Move your head to look left and right and up and down instead of straight ahead. Get massages regularly. It is not a luxury. It’s your health.
Most careers have built-in disappointment, but there are few with the potential for heartbreak that this one carries. The exultation of a big sale crashes like the Hindenburg when a book just doesn’t appeal to the mass market. You lose the editor you’ve worked with for seven books. There is a natural disaster that keeps your books from making it to the shelves at all. (Blizzards, anyone? Tornados criss-crossing the Midwest? This has been a bad weather year for books.) I can predict with some certainty that you, too, will experience a devastating set back at some point. You will sob over the unfairness, burn with jealousy over the person over there who weathered her storm.
And then you will get up and go back to work. Because that’s what writers do.
Why go through all that? Because no matter what the downsides, for a writer who loves the craft and the pursuit of story, this is the greatest career on earth. I am constantly amazed that it actually worked out for me, that somehow, I’ve actually been writing my entire adult life. Wow. How cool is that?
The rewards are massive. There is the worldly reward of seeing the work in print, of hearing from readers who love it or gained something from it, or even say, “you saved my life.” It’s fun to get a big juicy check (even if it has to last a year). It’s a blast to go to dinner in a swank spot with your editor and/or agent and talk contracts and stories and feel a part of literary history, or a fantasy of What It Might Be Like To Be An Author. It’s fun to be the person in your family who is the writer, because most families don’t have the writer and there is status in it.
But the biggest rewards are intrinsic. For the curious, questing, intelligent minds that turn to writing, there is nothing more thrilling than eternally tackling a pursuit that cannot ever be fully mastered. There is the chortling joy of learning something new, every single book. There is the pleasure of research and world-building and story design; there is detail enough for any geek of any ilk.
And there is the bone deep satisfaction of sticking with it, and seeing a row of books against the wall, work that would not exist at all had you not persisted.
If you spun a fantasy of what a writer’s life would be, what was it? (Or IS it?) What frightens you about a writing life? What draws you?