Fellow Southern Arizonan Jeffrey J. Mariotte has published dozens of books in almost as many genres: fantasy, science fiction, young adult, thriller, horror, comics, non-fiction, short fiction, and others I’m no doubt forgetting. Here Jeff asks a question at the heart of this series: why do those of us writing for the long haul keep writing?
In It For Keeps
Here’s something many non-writers don’t understand: if you ask a writer to think about something, in many cases, that thinking will be done on paper or with a keyboard—not in the head but through the hands.
We’re strange that way. To organize our ideas, we need to put them down where we can see them. That may be why we became writers in the first place—to find out what we think of the world around us.
So when Janni kindly asked me to contribute something to her “writing survival” series, I agreed, even though I had no idea what I would offer. I guess I’ll find out, through the writing down of my thoughts, and hope that what I learn about me is something that can also be of value to you.
My first professional sale was to a sf/fantasy anthology called Full Spectrum, published by Bantam Books back in 1988 (though I had published journalism—unpaid—going back to the mid-1970s. My breaking-in period was a long one). After that I wrote a variety of things for money, most notably comic books, and my first novel, Gen13: Netherwar (a collaboration with Christopher Golden) was released in June 1999. So I’ve been a working novelist for about 14 years, and a professional writer for longer than that. In that time I’ve written, alone or in collaboration with others, something like 51 books, 47 of which are novels, and well over 130 comic books and graphic novels, and a couple dozen short stories.
The question at hand is “Why?”
The answers are legion, and that’s really what we’re here to talk about, right? Why we do what we do and why we keep doing it. One more digression, then—I’m also a bookseller, co-owner of a specialty bookstore called Mysterious Galaxy, which just celebrated its 20th anniversary. Before that I worked for another bookstore for a decade. In that time, I have known a lot of writers. Many of them are still writing, but some just quit. They were dropped by their publishers, or their books didn’t sell, or they simply lost interest. In some cases, I don’t know what happened. They were writing and then they weren’t.
I have never understood that.
I have published a lot of books. I have supported myself and my family on my writing, but only for a few short years. Most of the time, the books have been a side thing, work done on weekends and evenings, around the day job that was my primary source of income. For most of my books, the advance is the only money I’ve ever seen—if I was earning royalties on 50+ books, I’d be living pretty comfortably, but I’m not. Some of those advances have been pretty good, and I’m not looking down my nose at them, but the truth remains that if money had been my only motivation, I’d have been better off chasing a different career path than I did.
The real answer to the “Why?” question, then, is not “For the money.” It’s also not for the fame, for the groupies, for the author tours with first-class flights and luxury hotels and fawning fans waiting at every stop. Some writers may get those things, but you can count them on your hands and feet (and they could afford those things on their own, but they’re who the publishers spend money promoting anyway).
No, the real answer is that standalone sentence above: “I have never understood that.”
I can’t quite imagine life without writing. It is, as mentioned, how I find out what I’m thinking about any given topic, or life in general. It’s how I process the world and make sense of it. Writing about imaginary people and their lives is how I try on different skins, learn how other people think and feel and react.
By writing stories, I can find out what it’s like to be a pirate or a superhero or a murderer. I can live inside the head of a man or a woman, straight or gay, optimistic or suicidal. I can be an accountant or a cop or a starship captain, and not just for a brief flight of fancy, but for months at a time, slipping out of my own life and into my character’s.
I could, I suppose, even inhabit the thoughts of someone who never writes. That would be hard, though.
I keep writing because I wouldn’t know what to do with my brain if I stopped. My mind thinks of stories, of scenes, of situations, and of the characters that inhabit them. It does that without conscious bidding, automatically. It stops, sometimes, for periods of up to ten or fifteen minutes at a stretch. But then it’s off and running again.
I’m fortunate in that my life, for these past thirty years, has been centered around books and writing. My family understands and accepts what I do, even when it doesn’t bring in millions of dollars, because my wife is also in the book business and my kids grew up in it and most of my friends are that because they’re also involved in it. A more supportive community, a person could not have. And that’s key to longevity in writing, I think. Sure, you can embrace the stereotype and be a suffering artist, living alone in a garret (Really? A garret? Do they still have those?). But true career longevity is much easier to attain with people around you who get what you‘re doing, who value your skills and your efforts, who understand that when you’re staring off into space, you’re not (just) daydreaming but you’re working. If they also earn a decent income, that’s a plus too, because as noted previously, published books does not necessarily equate to financial success.
If you have to write—if you’re driven to it—you will write. If you’re good, and disciplined, and persistent, and catch a few breaks, you will eventually be published and paid for your writing. But every story, every book, is its own thing, and that fact that you published the last one doesn’t mean you’ll publish the next. Writing professionally is an undertaking rife with rejection. Even when you’re published, there will be people who don’t like what you’ve written, and will say so. Anyone who thinks it’s easy to write professionally—easy to do, easy to keep doing, easy to accept the sticks and stones constantly hurled your way—is probably someone who’s never done it.
It ain’t easy. Never has been. Never will be.
So how do you last? How do you survive that first decade, and keep going?
Every writer has to find his or her own pathway there, and beyond.
But part of it (the biggest part) has to be that one crucial area where the imagination fails.
If you can conceive of stopping, of giving up—if you can picture yourself living a life in which you aren’t writing—then maybe you shouldn’t be writing. At least, you shouldn’t be planning for the long haul. Because it ain’t easy, and for the vast majority it never will be. It’s fulfilling, even necessary, for some of us, but not for all. So if you can imagine quitting, then you might want to do it today and avoid the rush.
If you can’t—if writing is as much a part of who you are as breathing and eating and loving and laughing—then you’re probably in it to stay.
Welcome to the club.
Jeffrey J. Mariotte is the award-winning author of more than 45 novels, including the supernatural thrillers Season of the Wolf, River Runs Red, Missing White Girl, and Cold Black Hearts, the horror epic The Slab, the thriller The Devil’s Bait, the Dark Vengeance teen horror quartet, and many others. His most recent novel is Star Trek: The Folded World. He has also written short stories, nonfiction books, and well over 100 comic books and graphic novels. In addition to writing, he has worked in virtually every aspect of the book business, as a bookseller, VP of marketing, senior editor, editor-in-chief, and co-owner of the specialty bookstore Mysterious Galaxy (in San Diego and Redondo Beach, CA). He lives on the Flying M Ranch in rural Arizona and can be found online at his website, as well as on Facebook, and Twitter.
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