Huh. Is There Any Money In That?

Crossposted to the Deadline Dames.

First, an announcement. Readers AleBB and Amanda N., please email me and tell me which mug/shirt you want. I have your addresses, but not the exact prizes you want.

Also, if you check out the latest (March ‘10) Romantic Times, I’m in there with Nalini Singh, Anne Rice, and Debbie Macomber (not to mention some fellow Dames, I think). We’re all talking about angels and demons, and having a great time. Plus, there are some Dame books recommended in that article!’

Now. It’s Friday. I’m supposed to do a Friday post. But what I really want to do is get back to the book that’s been bugging me. It’s a bright sunny windy day, and the itching under my skin can only be a work of fiction dying to get out. So, it’s going to be a Friday Four! I’m going to answer four common questions I get asked when I tell people I write for a living.

Seriously. These are the things I get asked/said to me most often when I tell people what I do. Enjoy!

1. Huh. Is there any money in that?

I’m very lucky that I can support myself by writing, and I do it by being pretty careful what I spend money on. (I’m helped by the fact that my priorities do not seem to be the average person’s set of priorities.) When you’re only paid twice a year and expected to live on chunks of your advances for months at a time, you have to budget pretty carefully. Also, you need to build up a safety cushion for those times when the royalty or advance payments dry up. It happens.

So yeah, there’s money…but only because I’m careful.

2. So how long does it take you to write a book?

It depends on the type of book. There’s the brute work of typing 60-100K words (and quite possibly twice that amount if there are multiple drafts, endings, and revisions). There’s the research involved, which can add hours and hours (even if it is Internet-based, which I don’t recommend…but that’s another blog post). There’s the time between revisions/drafts to let it sit and cool down. Then there’s the emotional energy and time one invests into a book.

For example, the Watcher books were relatively painless to write. They were fun and I had the structure down after the second one, so it was a matter of relaxing into the structure. I could probably write one of those every couple months, if I wasn’t doing anything else. Contrast that with the Jill Kismet books, which take a lot out of me. I need a year for each Kismet book, period. This is partly because I have other projects going at the same time, but it’s mostly because Jill’s world is a very dark place and the emotional toll of entering that world and suffering with her, as well as feeling her triumphs, is very large.

Oddly, short stories sometimes take me longer than novels, because the word count is so limited–I have to have everything just right before I draw my sword and make my cut.

So, that’s actually a very complex question. There are books that took me three years to write, books that took me a month and a half of intense effort, books that sort of dumped themselves out of my head whole. Writing a book is an incredibly complex process, with all sorts of factors affecting it. So I usually say, “From a month to three years, it depends on the book.”

3. I always wanted to write a book. How do you get published?

Persistence. Sheer dumb brute persistence. And luck, but the harder you work, the more likely you are to be lucky.

There are many ways to climb the mountain to publication[1], as well as many ways to climb the mountain of a sustainable writing career. The bedrock all these ways rest on is not quitting and learning.

You do not have a guarantee of getting published. All you can do is maximize your chances. Plenty of people do not bother to maximize their chances and so, just clog up the pipes with slush. But I can tell you this much: if you quit, it’s CERTAIN that you will never get published. If you don’t keep producing work and submitting, of course you’ll never get there. It’s a question of whether or not this matters enough to you.

The other half of the answer is learning. I never open a finished book of mine without wincing at things I could have done better and feeling the urge to correct/revise. Never. Part of that is simply my work ethic; the other part is that I an consistently and constantly trying to learn more about language, grammar, what makes stories work, what makes writing work. I rarely read for pleasure anymore; instead, I’m “looking under the hood” and seeing how the story is put together while another part of me is searching for typos. It’s become a reflex by now.

If you aren’t wincing and thinking you could do better when you open up a story/document you wrote six months ago, it’s time to focus on some more learning. I sincerely believe this is not a finite process.

4. I’ve got this great idea for a book. Why don’t you write it and we’ll split it 50-50?

Writers sometimes joke about this, but it isn’t really a joke. People actually say this to me. The only thing that saves the top of my head from blowing off while steam shoots off my ears and I reach for something sharp is the fact that most people don’t have the faintest idea how much work it is to write a book. They know that they walk into a bookstore and see the finished product and it takes them ten minutes to buy it if the line’s super-long around Christmas.

They do not see the months or years it took to write that book, the different drafts, the revisions and proofing process, the waiting for publication schedules to line up…I could go on. It’s like people thinking a television commercial only takes thirty seconds to film because that’s how long the finished product ends up being.

I used to try to explain this to people, but two sentences into the explanation people’s eyes would glaze over. People largely don’t care to hear about how their conveniences or consumable entertainment actually comes into being. Listening to that is too much like work, and I suspect it drains some of the “magic” from the mental image people have of writers.

So now I just settle for taking a deep breath, reminding myself that dismemberment is frowned upon in most social situations, and say, “Sorry. I’ve got my own books to write.”

The funny thing about this is most people just nod and move on with the conversation. There is, however, a slight but definite proportion of people who are actually offended when I say that. I suspect they are some of the same people you read about here. I actually had one man say to me, “What, my ideas aren’t good enough for you?”[2]

*snorts* So here’s what I wish I could say: “It’s not that your ideas aren’t good enough. It’s that I’d rather spend my time on the line of my ideas that’s stretching out the door and around the block. Other ideas are free to wait in line, and I’ll get the money for the actual effort put into writing them, thank you very much. Next!”

Ideas are a dime a dozen. What makes a book special is the time, care, and effort the writer puts into expressing the idea and its consequences, the effort spent revising until it’s as good as it can be, the effort the publisher puts into it from their end, and the ongoing engagement the writer cultivates with the readers. Five seconds of “hey I have an idea!” isn’t worth much when stacked against those months or years of backbreaking effort.

Anyway. So there you have it, the four most-common questions I’m asked when I tell people I write for a living. Someday, just to shake things up, I’m going to tell someone that I shave gorillas for a living.

They’ll probably say, “Huh. Is there any money in that?”

[1] Note that when I say “publication” I mean traditional publishing with all its quality control. I do not mean self or vanity publishing.
[2]At that point I realized I was dealing with irrationality, and took refuge in absurdity. “Yes. My cake is burning, thank you.” And I walked away.

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