Judith Tarr on Writing for the Long Haul

Judith Tarr was already a well-established fantasy writer when I met her as a new writer and new fellow Arizonan. She was one of the first people I thought of for the Writing for the Long Haul series, so I’m pleased to continue it with a post from Judy on how she’s reinvented herself, financially and creatively.

Writing Beyond the End of the World

It’s rather appropriate that I should be talking about this subject as a guest on Janni’s blog—considering Faerie After and its prequels. When she invited me to play in this series, I realized that what I have to talk about is the question that writers dread to ask: “What happens when the world ends? When the last contract is done and, for whatever reason, there’s no new contract to take its place? What will happen to me?”

This past week I’ve been guest-blogging on another friend’s blog, over at Catie Murphy’s place. (The first of the three-part series is here.) I deliberately focused outward there, talking about The Industry and the people caught up in it, rather than about myself, personally, except in terms of facts and figures.

Here, with Janni’s permission, is where I’m making it about me.

2008 was a bad year. Just about everybody felt it, and publishing hit a huge brick wall and tipped over. It survived, of course, and in some ways is doing better than ever. But for me, the wall had already reared up and smacked me in the face; what the general mess did was show me that it wasn’t actually, as I’d tended to think, all my fault that sales had tanked, advances had dwindled, and the options that I was presented with had shrunk to basically zero.

I was a Critical Success. That meant stacks of great reviews and sales that, at the time, ranged from at best OK to actively meh. Now, those hardcover and mass-market numbers would hit genre and specialty lists and nudge a major or two. In the early years of the millennium, they were not nearly enough to support a career.

I did try. I put together proposals in the progressively narrower range of subgenres and settings and subjects that my agent told me he could sell. I sold a YA, but I didn’t do it right, in retrospect. Adult agent, teen imprint of adult-oriented genre publisher. But also, the market didn’t take to it. The next one made the rounds for several years, but kept getting the dreaded and frustrating, “Editor loves it, Marketing has no idea what to do with it.” I was down by then to writing a full novel on spec under a pseudonym, from the heyday of pitching to an editor at an sf-convention lunch and getting a multi-book contract.

So that was it. For going on three decades I’d measured my worth by the number and frequency of my contracts, and the amounts of my advances. By that measurement, I was over. Dead. Done for. There was nothing left. No words. No story. Why even bother? No one wanted anything I had to sell.

But a body has to eat, even if its career is dead. If that body has a horse farm, its horses need hay early, often, and in substantial quantities. The editing skills were still there, and in enough demand to pay a few bills. The farm could take in boarders and acquire a roommate and run occasional writing retreats.

And there were friends who were readers and fans. Many more, and more devoted, than I’d known I had. Some helped me keep the farm when it scraped bottom. Others helped me realize, slowly, that I wasn’t dead to them. My works were alive, and loved.

In the early days of my career, that would have been strictly an emotional boost. There wasn’t much one could do with backlist then. By 2009, that was changing—and one of those friends, once my editor, now my colleague, said, “There’s this group of writers I belong to, that’s putting backlist up online and figuring out ways to make it profitable again. Go ahead, contract the Founder. Ask her about joining the group.”

That group was Book View Café. And that, along with those friends and fans who had stayed with me when I hit bottom, was the beginning of a new and altogether unexpected chapter in this writer’s life.

It was slow at first. That thing about contracts and self-worth—not easy to overcome. Having enough backlist to keep me busy for years, scanning and turning into ebooks with the help of the co-op at BVC, gave me a focus and a purpose.

But a writer writes. And that means new works. New ideas, new projects. Without a contract to give shape and form and, in my messed-up head, validity, it was hard to focus, and even harder to finish anything, let alone a full-length novel. Why? Why bother? And of course the answer was, “Because writing is as important to you as breathing, and you have friends and fans and readers who want to read what you write.”

Well and good, and I love them all, but I spent half my life brainstorming with my agent and editor, then being offered contracts, then writing to deadline under those contracts. Without that ecology, that structure of creation and execution, I had no idea how to go about choosing a project, let alone finishing it. I’d gone from too few choices to too many. I could do anything. Anything I wanted. But what?

Then came another friend, who said, “Try this new thing, it’s crazy, but it works—you know about crowdfunding, right? Well, there’s this formalized version of it called Kickstarter, and I think you should try it, because I believe it would work for you.”

I was skeeved out a bit at first. All those people out huckstering, begging for money. But I watched, and I saw how it worked, and I began to realize that it was something new but also something quite old: the storyteller in the bazaar, telling stories for coins. I took that novel that hadn’t found a publisher, and tried it—and succeeded. And there was a deadline, a contract of a different kind, an editor at BVC, and in the end, a book: Living in Threes.

This year I tried something even closer to what I used to do and be: a Kickstarter for a novel in progress, selling on extended proposal, as it were. It did even better than the previous campaign, and generated a short story thanks to the sheer amazing energy of its backers. And that’s this summer’s work in progress. With several other works progressing around it, from bare idea to big chunk of collaboration written and waiting for more.

It’s still a struggle. I’m not the arrogant kid whose cruising speed for fiction was 2500 words a day, who would ramp up to 15,000 or more at the end of an Attack Novel, and who could turn out a nearly clean draft in six to nine months. I’m lucky to get 500 words a day these days. Some days, it’s a sentence. Maybe two.

But they’re words. The joy is coming back, gradually and sometimes shakily. I’m a writer again.

Not that I ever stopped being one. I just had to realize that life is change, and writing shouldn’t be totally dependent on an agent’s taste or a publisher’s whim.

I also realized, slowly, that for all the trauma and the drama and the hard times, I was lucky. I had gone through my own collapse while the publishing world I’d grown up in had also changed profoundly—and I was forced to adapt. I had to learn to resurrect my backlist, master social media, make crowdfunding work for me. And most of all, I inched toward creative independence. Toward writing what I wanted to write, after decades of writing to market.

That’s hard. It’s also tremendously liberating. In the context of the writer I was, I have nothing left to lose. But I’ve gained a whole new world. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Judith Tarr has published more than 40 fantasy novels since her first book, The Isle of Glass, came out in 1985. She was a World Fantasy Award nominee for her Alexander the Great novel, Lord of the Two Lands, and won the Crawford Award for her Hound and the Falcon trilogy. She also writes as Caitlin Brennan (The Mountain’s Call and sequels) and Kathleen Bryan (The Serpent and the Rose and sequels). Caitlin also published House of the Star, a magical-horse novel from Tor.

When she’s not working on her latest novel or story, she breeds, raises, and trains Lipizzan horses on her farm near Tucson, Arizona. Her horses frequently appear in song, story, on her blog, and on facebook and twitter. Both her new and backlist books are available from Book View Café.

Previous Writing for the Long Haul Posts:

Kathi Appelt on the power of story
Cynthia Leitich Smith on balancing her business and creative sides
About the Writing for the Long Haul series

8 thoughts on “Judith Tarr on Writing for the Long Haul”

  1. Incredible story, Judith. Thank you SO much for sharing the details with honesty and triumph! I had what I call The Famine during 2002 – 2010. Eight years between published books, including a difficult agent change – even though I was writing like crazy. It’s a tough and brutal business, often really wonderful, too, but if we’re writers deep in our guts we end up writing anyway. 🙂

    (Judith and Janni, I’d love to know more about how Kickstarter works if you ever have time to post about that. I’ve been seeing it around a lot the past couple of years, but I really don’t know how it *works*, especially for a writer. What do you offer your backers, how long does it last, how do you get started, etc? Thanks!)

  2. Wow. Thank you Judith for an honest, detailed and inspiring trace of your career path. For today, at least, you’ve shut down my authorial whining impulse!

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