The Truth, The Horrible Truth, About The Lives of Writers

10/04/98 (Guest Ranter: Paul T. Riddell)

When established writers are first asked by potential writers about the process of writing, the pros tend to be nice. Daring not to wound the darlings' little sensibilities, they spin tales of what to do with manuscripts and what to do with editors, trying not to discourage the beginners but also trying to warn the beginners about the ordeal of being a writer. The emphasis is on encouragement, though: after all, we don't dare tell a beginner that s/he may not have that strange spark that makes an entertaining writer. It'll hurt the little dear's self-esteem.

Well, bollocks on that.

Here's the simple fact of life: most of the characters who believe that they could become writers _should_ be discouraged. Hell, they should be horsewhipped, but that's another tale. I am, of course, talking about the twits who look at writing as an alternative to working a real job; the dingleberries who pass on those great tales about how writers make that proverbial $37.50 an hour. We're talking about the dolts who spend their time prattling about editors and publishers, but amazingly never get around to writing anything. These are the ones who bellow at the top of their lungs about how everybody has a story in them, but forget that (a) that story might not be worth preserving on paper and (b) the story might be worth something, but its promoter probably won't do it justice.

The myth of the writer, as opposed to the sad, pathetic reality, is one of book tours and TV interviews, of turning a few inspirations into a never-ending well of gold. Never mind that a real writer would never sell that line of crap; that's the impression. The reality is a lot more somber for the wannabes: being a writer usually means putting in a full forty hours a week on a soulkilling job before turning around and putting in another forty hours (or more) on a novel or essay. It means having to kick family and friends out of the house in order to satisfy the muse. It means getting laid off from jobs the moment the boss discovers that you have a master on the side, and that the boss isn't absolutely necessary. It means having to make a circle of friends who understand that you only have so many hours in the week for your one true love, or else having no friends at all. It means being ridiculed by complete strangers, abandoned by lovers and family, and having to wonder if the effort was worth all of the pain.

If I make writing sound more like an addiction to opium rather than a career, that's the intended effect. Writing is an evil, filthy, horrible, insidious habit: if you thought smoking was hard to quit, just try to quit writing if you've been hooked. Last year, I quit writing and went back in three weeks; I quit drinking twelve years ago and haven't had more than a beer or two since.

Now, I've been writing in something approximating a professional attitude for nearly ten years, and I've learned something about the process. More importantly, I've learned a little about attitudes, and this essay is intended to correct what you, the reader, may believe about the nobility of writing. Read all the way through: we will have a test afterwards.

For the sake of this essay, I'm going to talk about writing science fiction. Part of this is because I'm familiar with writing SF; part of it is because SF is the only genre remaining where one could sell short stories and get them published. (Unless specifically noted, what I have to say also applies to fantasy and horror; unlike, say, mysteries, Westerns, and children's stories, the supergenre of SF/fantasy/horror is the only literary genre where more than one or two magazines still exist.) The upcoming advice still applies elsewhere, but seeing as how the vast majority of beginning writers I see are ones who want to break into science fiction, it's a good start.

By the way, all of this applies to that alleged great break all writers are supposed to get sooner or later in their careers. All of this advice could also apply to musicians and artists, or anyone with a creative bent, but beginning writers are the worst offenders. Uncle Zonker's Three Laws of Writing are simple: You Ain't Gonna Get Rich, You Ain't Gonna Get Famous, and You Ain't Gonna Get Laid.

The first law, You Ain't Gonna Get Rich, is self-explanatory. Wannabe writers assume that writing is a great get-rich-quick scheme; after all, all you have to do is put words to paper and checks come in the mail, right? This is the reason writers find themselves attacked at parties and at work with that old horse chestnut of "I have this great idea: you write it up, and I'll split the money with you." (My usual response is a variation of a comment made by David Gerrold: I usually look the character right in the eye and respond "I have this great cesspool: you turn it into a jacuzzi by licking it clean, and maybe I'll let you swim in it.")

Well, it's possible to make money using a variation of this plot: it's called ghostwriting, but the ghostwriter or collaborator gets paid up front. (Anyone who waits to get that cut is known as a "goddamn fool" or a "fucking moron" by anyone who knows better.) For everyone else, writing pays nearly nothing.

One of the great lies told by nonwriters about writing is that an average writer makes an average of $37.50 an hour. Compared to making $7 an hour at the average office postion, this sounds like great money. Let's dissect it, though. Assuming that a writer could get enough assignments to remain in a forty-hour week, 52 weeks a year, with no time for research or reading or rest, that comes to a grand total of $78,000 a year. This money is possible, if you've been writing for years and you never get any rejections. In reality, though...

Again, let's take a look at science fiction. The average magazines pay from seven to 15 cents a word, with an average short story running about 4500 words in length. "Science Fiction Age", for instance, pays an average of ten cents a word; that means that an average story offers a full paycheck of $450. Sounds good, right? Well, discounting the fact that you're competing with literally thousands of other beginning writers for space, the fact that the average SF magazine has space for maybe five stories per issue, and the fact that only the most incredible writers stand a chance of getting more than one story a year published in any given magazine, that $450 might be all of the money you pull in over a given year. Writing may pay after a while, but not right away.

Okay, so you assume that you'll skip out on writing short stories: all the money is in writing novels, right? Well, it is if you're already established, and people will crawl through broken glass to buy one of your books. Almost every book publisher that handles science fiction pays a whole $5000 per novel for a first-timer: if everything you write turns to gold and disappears from the shelves, you might be able to make that $37.50 goal...if you write a full novel once every three weeks.

To consider _that_ goal, let's look at it this way. The average novel runs about 350 pages. Someone as prolific as Stephen King still only gets about six pages a day on average: on a good day, I might get nine pages a day, but that's also usually a week's output. (Of course, I usually write nonfiction, which has completely different requirements than fiction.) Let's assume that you're as fast as Stephen King: making that 350-page count would take you just short of 60 days, assuming that what you've put to paper is any good. A more realistic goal is about six months per novel, which, assuming that you're able to sell your novels, means an annual income of $10,000. That's below the poverty level.

The main fallacy of writing as revenue generator is that you'll constantly produce material that will sell, from the moment you start. In his book _Stalking the Wild Asparagus_, Euell Gibbons pointed out that those who wish to collect wild-grown food must go into it with a love for it: those who look at wild gathering solely as a means to save on the grocery bill will end up with a foul-tasting mess that satisfies half of their hunger. Writing (or guitar playing, or blacksmithing, or computer programming) is best done by those who look at it with love, instead of merely a way to collect a paycheck. Trust me: if you don't love writing, it'll show.

To sum up, when people ask me what they should do if they want to become writers, I say "Don't quit your day job." This isn't a smartass quip: I'm deadly serious. Regardless of what "Writer's Digest" may tell you, quitting your job the first time you sell something to write full-time is a guaranteed method of dying of starvation underneath a highway overpass, unless you have a considerable inheritance stashed away somewhere. Forty years ago, it was possible to make a passable living from freelance writing after a year or so; nowadays, unless you have the connections to get past the slush piles, you'll be lucky to make enough to cover a dinner and a movie every month.

All right, so writing doesn't pay. That might be reasonable, but you're writing for the publicity. You want to be invited to speak at college lectures; you want to appear on David Letterman or "Politically Incorrect"; you want to stand on a podium and hear crowds stretching toward the horizon chanting your name. In short, you want the fame normally attributed to rock stars and/or Charles Manson.

Well, good luck. For the most part, if you had the charisma or the self-confidence to gain that kind of adulation, you wouldn't be writing. Unlike music, politics, or business, writing doesn't require contact from the general public. A writer doesn't _have_ to perform on cue for his/her audience, and that's exactly the talent that this sort of fame requires. It's especially important to consider this as a first-time writer: sitting around waiting for Jay Leno's crew to call, just because you sold a short story to some little magazine that pays two cents a word, is going to get lonely after the first year or so, and calling them to ask about a booking will usually get a response of laughter, unless you have some sort of gimmick.

Let's put it another way. A very dear friend of mine is one of my favorite writers, and I have yet to see him put out any work that wasn't his absolute best. The man's a bloody genius, and yet he has one thing that keeps him from taking over the literary community: he has a slight speech impediment. I've watched him do readings at science fiction conventions, and it breaks my heart to watch an audience trickle out because they can't get past his stammer. If not for that attitude from listeners, I'm certain that he'd have to turn away people from admission-only readings nearly anywhere.

Audiences are notoriously fickle beasts, and getting those TV and radio interviews you crave so much require a completely new set of skills than those used by a writer. A typical audience expects a dancing bear routine: lose its attention for one minute, and its members scurry out on little rat feet and disappear into the night. Harlan Ellison gets invited back to "Politically Incorrect" and "The Late Show" because he's a fascinating conversationalist and tireless agent provocateur; Hunter S. Thompson got on "Late Night With Conan O'Brien" in '97 because he wanted to blow up things with his personal arsenal on national TV. None of 'em, nor any writer you could mention, was asked "Read some of your recent work for us, please." Unless you also worked as a public speaker or standup comedian at some time in your life, most radio and TV talk shows don't have much of an incentive to invite you to speak.

Garnering publicity is much like going to a job interview: you have to promote yourself constantly if anyone will remember you, which is something that constantly flusters wannabes who assume that promotion is beneath them. On the other hand, excessive promotion can blow up in your face: the main reason why Kristine Kathryn Rusch receives so much derision in the science fiction industry isn't due to her being a bad writer, but instead mostly because her picture kept appearing over and over in trade magazines such as "Locus". Had those pictures been connected to legitimate events, it wouldn't have been a problem, but when those photos were showing off her new softball uniform, for instance, it got to be a bit much.

(Of course, I can say all this because I've been lucky enough to do one morning rush-hour radio show interview and one college lecture. Ooh, ain't I hoity-toity.)

Besides, are you sure that you really want people to see or hear you? One of the best advantages to being a writer is that nobody has to see or hear you: the sort of fame you're demanding requires a face and a voice to go along with the printed words. I've seen fans of one particular writer literally scream and run out of the room because their impression of their hero was destroyed by actualy laying eyes on him; I have a voice that Fran Drescher finds nasal and annoying, so the folks who come to my readings usually leave when their seeing-eye dogs drag them out.

Which leads us to the tertiary lobe of this essay: the likelihood of getting laid because of your writerly talents. In response, let me drop a few comments from two disparite sources.

Back in 1993, when his book _Virtual Light_ came out, a reporter from "USA Today" asked William Gibson if he got any groupies thanks to his books. Gibson said (and I paraphrase, not having the interview directly underneath my nose at the moment) "Oh, yes, can you imagine some blonde in a teddy in the middle of the night, saying to herself 'I'm lonely; why don't I call some middle-aged, married science fiction writer?'" Nine years before, when Dee Snyder's band Twisted Sister was more than a trivia question, a different reporter (we hope) asked Snyder about groupies, and he said "They weren't interested in me before I was famous, so why should I go after them now?"

Trust me (and this isn't bitterness talking), writers don't get crowds of screaming groupies following them everywhere, especially when they're first starting out. You WON'T get a multitude of readers wondering "Gee, I like this person's writing; I wonder what they're like in bed?" after your first short story gets published. I should amend that: you might, but are these the sort of people you want to sleep with in the first place?

Some of the people reading this essay are going to get all huffy and puffy, as I've just destroyed most of your illusions. All I can say is "Good." A few others will decide to give up on writing as a career: if you want fame, riches, and sexual partners of your choice, go start a band and stay the hell out of writing. A few, though, will get angry at my presumption of their motivations, and decide to show me one. These are the hope of literature.

Writing isn't easy, nor is it glamourous: it's almost literally painful. Writing fiction requires the author to pull out big bloody chunks of his/her psyche and shape them into something presentable to the public at large, and that's not a job for the typical computer programmer or waitress who assumes that coming up with an idea is all it takes to become successful. A successful writer is one who can get past the distractions, bypass the self-doubt, and still put ideas, characters, and situations onto paper in a form that might interest others. These are the people whom, when they receive rejections, don't scream about conspiracies to keep their work from publication but ask themselves "What could I do to make this better?", and throw out work when when they realize that the characters or motivations have fatal flaws. Considering the ease of telling everyone within the immediate vicinity that "I'm a writer" without ever having to write anything, the real writer is the one who writes first and gets accolades as they're earned.

Now, this essay won't discourage a single wannabe writer: as with music, art, and business, the capacity for self-delusion is infinite. However, for those who really want to become writers, maybe this will piss you off to the point where you try to prove me wrong. That was the point, and I hope I succeeded.

--Paul T. Riddell is a Michigan-born, Texas-raised essayist and satirist currently living in Dallas. His work has appeared in "Tangent", "Fuck Science Fiction", and a multitude of other publications. For more insults, visit "The Healing Power of Obnoxiousness" at

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