Writing for the Long Haul: Reflections

When I started the Writing for the Long Haul series, I wanted to explore what long-term writing careers look like, and to start a discussion of how and why writers keep going after the first few years.

I’ve been delighted to see writers at all stages of their careers enjoying these posts on a not-often-discussed part of the writing journey. I’ve been enjoying them too, and three months in, it seemed a good time to step back and reflect on what I’ve been thinking about and observing as I read.

You, of course, may have been observing and reflecting on entirely different things–so feel free to jump in and comment with your thoughts on long-haul writing journeys.

Long-haul writing careers have ups and downs: Many writers have discussed, in various ways, the uneven terrain of their long-haul careers, and many readers have found this the most useful part of the series. Writers don’t talk about setbacks much in public, so I’m not sure many new writers especially understand that setbacks are normal. A bad year (or five, or ten) is not failure. It’s just a bad year or five or ten. It’s easy for a career to look like it’s on a straightforward upward success trajectory over the short haul. Over the long haul, with occasional exceptions, things get more complicated.

Sales figures are not a long-haul writer’s primary inspiration: Every journey shared here has been different, but no one has said they woke up every morning inspired to write by their sales figures. Poor sales may or may not stop a writer, depending, but either way good sales aren’t enough to keep going. The motivation and even the ability to keep writing are far more complicated than that, and continuing to write isn’t about reaching some magic sales threshold that inspires us or gives us permission to do so. Motivation comes from somewhere deeper, even if where exactly varies from writer to writer.

Long-haul writers are flexible: Often the first book a long-haul writer published was in a very different genre than their most recent book. Some writers work in multiple genres at the same time. Long-haul writers may not be writing to market (like so much else, that depends on the writer), but they are able to shift their focus and the sorts of projects they’re working on over time.

Long-haul careers are highly individual: For anything I’ve said above, you can probably find a series contributor who’s an exception, because no two writing journeys are quite alike. It’s writers more experienced than me who encouraged me, in the early years of my career, to honor my own process. Reading these posts, I think that’s because our processes become more and more individual as time goes on. The comparison game is always dangerous, but it’s also less meaningful the more time that passes. There may be specific roadmaps and techniques (though even those vary) for how to break in as a writer, but sooner or later the templates get left behind, and your career is your career, and not anyone else’s.

The writing for the long haul series is going to take a hiatus until fall, while I meet some of my own short-term writing commitments (translation: I need to hunker down and finish my book), but I do want to continue the conversation, so please share your own thoughts in comments.

Many thanks again to all the Writing for the Long Haul series contributors to date for sharing your thoughts, your processes, and your insights!

Sharon Shinn on managing time
Marge Pellegrino on feeding the restless yearning to write
Sarah Zettel on embracing ignorance and writing your passions
Uma Krishnaswami on honoring unreasonable exuberance
Jennifer J. Stewart on finding community and support
Sherwood Smith on keeping inspiration alive
Mette Ivie Harrison on defining success
Jeffrey J. Mariotte on why we write
Judith Tarr on reinventing ourselves
Kathi Appelt on the power of story
Cynthia Leitich Smith on balancing business and creativity

Sarah Zettel on Writing for the Long Haul

Like many long-haul writers, Sarah Zettel has written in multiple genres: science fiction, fantasy, romance, mystery, young adult, and short fiction. The first book of her American Fairy trilogy, Dust Girl, was one of the most original faerie novels I’ve read, and its sequel, Golden Girl, was just released. She joins the Long Haul series to talk about writing as a learning experience—in all senses of the term—and about reaching beyond that which we already know.

Oh, No! Not Another Learning Opportunity!

If you write, you are constantly learning. You’ve got no choice. I don’t care how detailed and careful you are in your outlining. Every new project is a fresh start, and one of the first things you’re going to find as you’re starting is how little you know about the characters, the plot, the setting. You might, if you’re especially lucky, find you don’t even know how to write the damn thing. You don’t know if it’s really a short story with ambitions to be a novel, or a novel that really just wants to be a little novellita of some kind.

This is the joy of writing. This is the terror of writing. This is the single inescapable fact of writing.

It’s also, on the surface, one of the major contradictions, because we’re all told to write what we know. But how can you do that when with each project you’re finding out, yet again, everything you don’t know, and never did?

As I go along, though, I find I’ve become less and less a fan of that bit of advice. First of all, it strikes me as restrictive, because it requires you to start your process of creation by setting your sights no further than the consciously familiar. As someone who grew up in a little ticky-tack, all white suburb, I would have keeled over with boredom if all I did was write about what I thought I knew at the time. Second, it’s impossible. It is only by the process of actually writing that you sort out what you really know about a given project from what you really don’t know. So, hampering yourself from the outset by following a quotation rather than your personal interest is adding unnecessary weight to what it already going to be an intense intellectual and emotional journey.

Instead, I go with another aphorism — follow your passion. Write about what excites you. What do you love now? What do you burn to know more about? What you know will surface, whether you want it to or not. But if you set out to delve into what you’re passionate about, you’re travelling light, not heavy. You’ll move quickly into the hard work, and when you hit the point where you’re bogged down—and you will hit it, trust me—you’re less likely to succumb to the exhaustion that produces writer’s block, and more likely to dive into learning whatever fact or technique is going to get you out to the other side so you’ve got yourself a complete work.

This is not easy, especially when you’re writing with an eye to selling. There is so much advice out there, so much temptation to try to write what appears to be popular and so many really bad books that clearly completely enthralled the author who wrote them. To actually strip it all down to just what you’re interested in, and ignore all that, along with any residual feelings of “nobody else is going to be interested in this” is difficult. And when you get past all that, you’re still going to be confronted by your own ignorance about how exactly this particular project needs to be written.

So what do you do? What I’ve been trying to do—and it is hard—is embrace my own ignorance, and my own learning process. Every book is new. I’ve done this kind of thing before. That is, I’ve written and sold 25 novels. But I’ve never written or sold one in this exact way, not with these characters, and not in this exact setting and maybe not with this editor, if I’m lucky enough to find an editor willing to buy. I’m a different writer at the beginning of this book than I was at the beginning of the last one. At the end of this book, I’ll have changed again. I’ll have learned something about the art and craft writing during the process of creating it. I’ll have tried new techniques. I’ll have learned new facts, about science, history, sociology, travel, something, anything. Everything. The act of creating this work will leave its mark on any future creations. That’s way cool. That’s way scary.

That way’s writing.

Sarah Zettel‘s first novel, Reclamation, was published in 1996 and won the Locus Award for Best First Novel. Her Bitter Angels won the Philip K. Dick Award for best science fiction paperback in 2009, and she’s also had books deemed New York Times Notable and ALA Best Books. Her novels include the American Fairy trilogy, the Vampire Chef mysteries, the Paths to Camelot series, and the Isavalta series. She also publishes under the names C.L. Anderson and Marissa Day.

Previous Writing for the Long Haul Posts:

Uma Krishnaswami on honoring unreasonable exuberance
Jennifer J. Stewart on finding community and support
Sherwood Smith on keeping inspiration alive
Mette Ivie Harrison on defining success
Jeffrey J. Mariotte on why we write
Judith Tarr on reinventing ourselves
Kathi Appelt on the power of story
Cynthia Leitich Smith on balancing business and creativity

About the Writing for the Long Haul series

Sherwood Smith on Writing for the Long Haul

I first discovered middle grade, YA, and adult fantasy and science fiction writer Sherwood Smith through her Wren books, though she’d already been writing for some years by then. Today Sherwood talks about keeping inspiration alive over the long haul–for the writer, and for the work as well.

sherwoodwren2When we were young and began writing, whatever our motivation—world renown, mountains of cash, artistic satisfaction, the ardent desire to share the stories in our head, or any combination thereof—I think it is safe to say that part of the fire of our enthusiasm was the conviction that everything we were doing was new! Exciting! Maybe even innovative, or shocking. But it would surely take the world by storm.

Again generally speaking, if we stuck to it long enough we discovered that those early projects into which we poured heart soul, guts, tears, rage, laughter and hopes, might not have been as new, exciting or innovative as we thought.

sherwoodcrownEven if our lack of life experience meant our stories tended toward a blend of everything we had read and either liked or disliked, we were telling the kind of story we loved best. But when many of us became aware that the world didn’t respond with anywhere near the passion we put into the work, we might wonder what we did wrong, or what did They want. Success seemed to point to writing what They wanted, not what we wanted.

I think that this is the point where so many gave up. I can’t make a living at this. I will never get any better. It is just too much work for the money. No matter how hard I work, it seems to disappear into the void, and the only response I see are One Star Slamdunks on Amazon, many of which seem to be about some other book that I did not write. The heck with this! I am going to knit, I am going to garden, I’m really meant to become an editor.

It is okay to decide, That’s it, and move on to other things. No one would say that Harper Lee is any less of a writer for having produced a single book.

sherwoodcoronetsSome still have the passion, the urgency, to press on. But inspiration isn’t as easy as it once was.

My feeling is that the author in “midcareer” (and I firmly believe that many of us will consider ourselves to be in midcareer until they find us face down at our desk, our lifeless, withered hands loose on the keyboard) must sometimes work to keep inspiration alive. It will probably be a different type of inspiration that moved us to write than when we were young. And that’s okay.

What to do to keep the flame burning? I think the first thing is to get out of that comfortable writing environment that it took us so long to build. During those early days of grind jobs, when we couldn’t get enough time to write, we gained inspiration from daily observation of our fellow humans, and from the humor, the pity, the outrage and compassion our interactions caused us to feel.

sherwoodbannerI think killers of inspiration are unexamined literary habits and complacency, but also, there is an insidious one: the conviction that one must speak an important Message. In my years of reading all the works of authors who had long careers, one pattern I’ve noticed is that for many, the earliest, written-purely-for-fun works are those that last, and forgotten are the later ones, wherein the writer—perhaps with sharpened skills, certainly with hard-won wisdom—gave in to the temptation to summarize all that hard-won wisdom in One Great Novel. I’ve tracked down and read some of these, wondering if I might discover a forgotten gem, but wow, what an earnest, vitamin-packed trudge. Every page well meant, earnest, sometimes profound (chapters and chapters of profound) . . . and the only thing easy about such books was putting them down.

Life experience definitely needs to be in the mix, but so does fun. Losing sight of fun not only within the story but also in the writing of it creates an experience that is not fun for all concerned.

We need wisdom, but we also need action. Instinct and control, sorrow and joy, deliberation and recklessness. Cherished ideas, and 52-pickup with cherished ideas.

Does that sound like contradictions? Why, hello human nature! Let me tell you a story . . .

sherwoodSherwood Smith has published more than three dozen novels and two dozen short stories over the past quarter century, including Crown Duel, the Inda books, the Wren books, the Exordium books (co-authored with Dave Trowbridge), and the Dobrenica series. She was also was a teacher for twenty years, working with children from second grade to high school, teaching history, literature, drama, and dance. View her complete bibliography here or visit her on livejournal and at the Book View Cafe.

Previous Writing for the Long Haul Posts:

Mette Ivie Harrison on defining success
Jeffrey J. Mariotte on why we write
Judith Tarr on reinventing ourselves
Kathi Appelt on the power of story
Cynthia Leitich Smith on balancing business and creativity

About the Writing for the Long Haul series

Mette Ivie Harrison on Writing for the Long Haul

YA fantasy writer and nationally ranked triathlete Mette Ivie Harrison is known for her original fairy tales and her fairy tale retellings. She continues the Writing for the Long Haul series by asking a question many of us visit and revisit throughout our careers: what exactly is success?

When I sold my first YA fantasy, Mira, Mirror, in 2003, I remember imagining my future career. I wanted to be a New York Times Best Selling Author. I wanted to have movies made of my books. I wanted to be a “name,” an author so well-known that the people I sat down next to in the airplane recognized me and people stopped asking if they would know anything I had written. I wanted my parents and my in-laws to brag about me and my kids to tell their teachers that I was an author. I wanted to be a coveted speaker and on regular tour circuit to bookstores and schools and libraries.

Well, none of that has happened in the ten years since, and I suppose it’s possible that the person I was ten years ago would think that the career I have now is a far cry from success. But when I think back to this imagined career, I laugh a little at myself. It’s not what I want now at all. I do not mean to say that those who have had these kinds of successes should be embarrassed. Of course, they can be proud of what they have achieved. I am proud of other authors I have watched find success. But it’s just that I suspect those things are not all they are cracked up to be. And for me personally, being famous would not at all fit my personality.

In the last ten years, there have certainly been some wonderful moments on top of the world because of great reviews. I have looked forward with anticipation to great sales figures when a book was chosen by a publisher and national bookstore chain to have an in-store display. But in the end, I have come to the conclusion that Julia Roberts was right in Notting Hill when she told Hugh Grant, “nonsense it all is.” From behind the scenes, hype over a book is often exaggerated. And even if it isn’t, even if it’s the best book in the history of books, a successful book sale isn’t everything. It doesn’t change your life in the way that you might hope. It doesn’t make you happy in every way. It may not even make you happier than you were before.

I’ve seen enough authors who have had sudden, unexpected success and discovered that they did not have fewer problems than before—they just had different ones. And being jealous of other authors—something I fight on a regular basis—is really foolish. At a race recently, I passed a guy on the run who had started the race about twenty minutes before me. “Wow, you’re blazing fast,” he said, “to catch up to me. Congrats.” I know that the race mentality makes us imagine that we are competing against each other, and we sometimes think this is true for authors, as well. We think that an author who just released a debut to massive sales is “beating” authors who haven’t had the same success. But it isn’t true.

mettehound“We’re all in our own race,” I said to this guy, and I meant it. I began to have a lot more success as an athlete when I stopped measuring myself against the other people who showed up at the race I was at. I couldn’t control how many faster athletes were there, and therefore I couldn’t control my placement overall. But what I could control was my own race. I could control how well I trained, how well I ate, and how much I rested the week before a race. When my only focus was trying to do better this year than the year before, even if by only seconds, I “won” most races, since in my mind I was competing only against myself.

Of course, I don’t have absolute control even over my own body. I might get sick the night before a race, or be sick during what was supposed to be my peak week of training. That affects my results. And during the race, things happen, too. Sometimes I would end up with a flat tire on my bike, which would slow me down. On occasion, I have even crashed in a race. I can do my best to make sure I have the equipment to fix a flat with me, and I can try to keep safe on the bike, but I can’t prevent all problems. But when they happen, I get to choose how I respond to them. I also choose to be proud of myself for continuing to race even when there’s no hope of doing anything more than finishing.

In the writing world, I feel like there is something similar to this mindset. Authors don’t control book covers most of the time. We may give feedback to the publisher, which may or may not (usually not) be listened to. Authors don’t control where their editor works. Sometimes editors move. Sometimes they are let go. An orphaned book is often a terrible thing for an author, but we don’t control this. We can make the best of it, but it’s like a bike crash: grim prospects for this race/this book. Authors don’t control the marketing budget for a book. We don’t control if the book buyer for a particular large national chain likes our book. We don’t control when other authors’ books come out for the year and how those compare to ours.

But as writers, we can all set our own goals. We can measure ourselves against our own goals, our own previous books. And I think this is far more valuable (and more sane-making) than using other, arbitrary and supposedly more objective ways to find success. Sure, you can use sales numbers or movie deals or number of twitter mentions or starred reviews to decide if your book is good, if you have “won” your race. But as soon as you do that, you are giving up power over your own career to other people. You may imagine that you can control such things as the weather on race day, but this is just your imagination. It may work better for you if you accept that some races, you’re going to have rain, and that it’s possible to enjoy racing in the rain every once in a while. I have certainly faced some rain in my writing races the last ten years.

After agonizing over the sales of a book that went nowhere and received the nastiest reviews I have ever seen (Tris and Izzie), having a major contract canceled, and feeling for a couple of years as if my career as a writer was over and I wasn’t ready for it, I have come to see that my career is under my control and that I have actually had a lot of the kinds of success that matter to me. I have been racing as a writer against myself, giving myself new challenges each year, and finding ways to be proud of myself even when I’ve had a crash.

While I look back at my early paint-by-numbers view of success with a rueful humor, I can’t say that I’m unhappy that my career has taken the twists and turns that it has. I’ve learned a lot along the way, about myself and about what writing means to me, and about what other people control. And what they don’t control is my writing. Despite all of the bad times, I have woken up every day and sat down to write. I have always had a new book in mind, and usually three or four books that I needed to write. I consider that an enormous success, that I’ve kept the faith in myself and that I have continued to want to be a writer.

I still sometimes fear that my career as a writer of YA fantasy may at any moment be over and that I may have to change my name or reinvent myself completely. Yeah. So what? If I can’t run anymore, I can swim and bike. If I can’t swim, I can run. There will always be a challenge ahead of me, and I have found an enormous confidence in myself that I can face those challenges, whatever they are. I guess that once you’ve dealt with what used to be your worst nightmare, the other nightmares pale in comparison. I’ve lived through bike crashes and they scare me less than they used to. I’ve lived with crippling IT band issues, with a stress fracture in my foot, with disappointment and disaster. And I survived. I’m a survivor, and maybe that’s the most important definition of my life as a writer.

I still care enough about sales in a vague, distant way that I court them in an effort to maintain my ability to keep getting contracts so that I continue to sell books. But I also like the place that I am in now, after the rain has stopped falling. Maybe this is the eye of the storm, but I like the fact that no one is telling me what I should write next, or how to follow up a certain book’s success. I love the freedom and time that I have now to write books that appeal to me for quirky reasons that may make no sense to anyone else. I like that I can experiment beyond the genre that I first had success in.

I want to break genre rules and conventions. I want people to throw down my books and complain that I didn’t give them what they wanted. And I want other people to think for hours after they put my book down about the ideas that linger. I suppose there may still be some part of me that imagines that someday in the far-off future, my books will receive their final due. But that isn’t the time I live in. I live in now, and ultimately, my satisfaction in writing comes only from myself. I am in my own race here, too. That may sound narcissistic, but it is also very simple. It means that my satisfaction can’t be taken away by reviews or bad sales or missed expectations.

The illustrator Charles Vess once told me that he had spent a lot of his career telling himself that “this” (whatever project he was currently working on) was “the next big thing.” And after a lot of “next big things,” he looked back and saw that none of them had been the next big thing. That has been mostly my experience, as well, but I have found a kind of satisfaction there. I am pretty sure that even if I had met all the goals I had set out for myself 10 years ago, I would still have had to deal with the same self-doubts that I dealt with without that success. And they might well have been more exaggerated and more difficult to sort through, on the stage of public scrutiny. I don’t regret working them out as I have, and I don’t regret the books that are mine.

metteironmomI also do not regret that I have spent the last ten years largely at home with my five children and my husband as they moved from spanning ages one to nine, to spanning ages eleven to nineteen. I have had a real life that has not been particularly hectic. I have been able to drive my kids on errands, not worry about deadlines, enjoy a career as a competitive triathlete, eat good food that I make myself, and generally have a series of adventures that I suspect that a certain kind of success might have stolen from me. My oldest daughter attends MIT. My second daughter will be enrolling in Berklee School of Music in the fall and last year, I dragged three of my middle kids to do a relay in a half Ironman, for which I have a photo that they all beg me not to show. I don’t think these are “compensations” for the successful author life I have missed. I think that in reality, I chose this life, possibly unconsciously, as I made one choice here and once choice there. I have success, and it is my own.

metteMette Ivie Harrison’s latest novel, The Rose Throne, is about two princesses who can’t afford to follow their hearts–They have to choose to take power or to be destroyed. Her first non-fiction book, Ironmom, will be published this summer and is part memoir, part how-to manual on her triathalon experiences from rank beginner to a national ranking. Her other books include The Princess and the Hound and its five sequels/companion books and Tris and Izzie, is a retelling of Tristan and Isolde.

Find her online on tumblr, twitter, facebook, and livejournal.

Previous Writing for the Long Haul Posts:

Jeffrey J. Mariotte on why we write
Judith Tarr on reinventing ourselves
Kathi Appelt on the power of story
Cynthia Leitich Smith on balancing the business and the creative

About the Writing for the Long Haul series

Jeffrey J. Mariotte on Writing for the Long Haul

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.

Previous Writing for the Long Haul Posts:

Judith Tarr on reinventing ourselves
Kathi Appelt on the power of story
Cynthia Leitich Smith on balancing the business and the creative

About the Writing for the Long Haul series

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

Cynthia Leitich Smith on Writing for the Long Haul

Cynthia Leitich Smith was one of the first writers I mentioned the idea of a Writing for the Long Haul series to, and when I did, she commented that those who keep writing are “writing survivors.”

I’m thrilled to kick the series off with a post from Cynthia on what writing survival means to her.

I owe much of my publishing success to my lack of financial security.

When I hear others talk of the pain of rejection or the unfairness of market whims or the challenge of staying motivated, I think of my mortgage, the payment due on my health insurance, and the cost of my guilty pleasure—Whole Foods hummus.

Of course that’s not the whole equation. While many of my children’s-YA books have sold well (and a few not-so-well), I don’t initially conceive or craft them from a commercial perspective.

Instead, I’m a creature of two brains.

One: the literary artist with a commitment to diverse (defined broadly) protagonists and an experimental bent with regard to age markets, techniques and forms. I’ve published funny picture books, quiet multicultural books, quasi-memoir essays, and YA adventure-fantasies with a feminist and intercultural bent. I’ve won awards and made bestseller lists and seen books go out of print.

Two: the fierce, savvy business person who takes all that—coupled with speaking and teaching fees—and cobbles together a base salary. In the latter years I’ve earned more, in the early years less, but having a baseline goal keeps me pounding the keyboard, hitting the road, and stretching in new directions.

I have a respectful patience for the inner artist but always hold her accountable.

You’re in love with that niche project? Fine. How are you going to market it? Not the publisher—you. Whatever the house does, that’s icing. You encourage it. You work it. But it’s your name on the byline.

Your sales figures can and will be held against you. Glancing around the conference floor, you notice how many of your once-popular colleagues are no longer in the game. Doesn’t anyone else miss them?

How do you carry on? What are you going to do?

What you’ve always done. Choose yourself, your book, whatever you’re trying to say in the whole. Do it in such a way that lifts up everyone, that doesn’t apologize for mattering, that shows a sense of purpose. Recognize but don’t dwell on the uncontrollable. Where there is potential for forward momentum, give it grease with as much good humor and dignity as you can spare.

You’ve stumbled before. You’ve fallen before and started over from scratch. You’ve made a fool out of yourself. You’ve also helped build readers and community and changed lives for the better.

There’s wisdom to be gained from all that and stories that can help someone else. All of your fellow survivors have successfully reinvented themselves at least once and so can you.

Do for yourself what you do for your stories.

When all else fails, begin again.

If only because hummus is expensive.

Cynthia Leitich Smith is the New York Times and Publishers Weekly best-selling author of the Tantalize series and Feral series. Her award-winning books for younger children include Jingle Dancer, Indian Shoes, and Rain is Not My Indian Name. She first published Jingle Dancer in 2000.

More about the Writing for the Long Haul series.

“And they’ll say they want your story / but they get confused / by all those words you use”

Robin LaFevers on why writers need to embrace the naked. (No, not that kind of writing. I heard you, there in the back.)

“The act of writing is not only about claiming our truths, our selves, but having the courage to not apologize when we do. Our writing is where we need to be our bravest and most fearless selves. You can’t write your best work if you’re not all in—and once you’re all in, you’re vulnerable. We don’t serve our audience—our true audience—by holding back.”


“… the writer only writes the first half of the book, it is the reader herself that writes the second part of the book. All that white space we leave in the book is filled in by the reader’s own personality, world view, and expectations, and there is simply no way we can control that. And if we tried to control that by adjusting our stories to gain those readers approval, we could very well destroy the parts that created such a strong, resonant connection with other readers.”


“The ideal of perfection is incredibly seductive but it is also unattainable, and the act of pursuing it will cause some of the most interesting and genuine parts of ourselves to wither and fade. But we are, all of us, terrified of being exposed for the fraud we secretly fear ourselves to be … Writing is about being brave, taking risks, accepting and embracing our essential humanness; it is not about being comfortable or safe or a way to stay invisible.”

But really, of course, you should just go read all of it.

“This is the same place / no not the same place / this is the same place we’ve been before.”

Dani Shapiro on writing and scale and careers:

“Solotaroff wondered where all the talented young writers he had known or published when he was first editing New American Review had gone. Only a few had flourished. Some, he speculated, had ended up teaching, publishing occasionally in small journals. But most had just . . . given up. ‘It doesn’t appear to be a matter of talent itself,’ he wrote. ‘Some of the most natural writers, the ones who seemed to shake their prose or poetry out of their sleeves, are among the disappeared. As far as I can tell, the decisive factor is what I call endurability: that is, the ability to deal effectively with uncertainty, rejection, and disappointment, from within as well as from without.’

“… my internal life as a writer has been a constant battle with the small, whispering voice (well, sometimes it shouts) that tells me I can’t do it. This time, the voice taunts me, you will fall flat on your face. Every single piece of writing I have ever completed — whether a novel, a memoir, an essay, short story or review — has begun as a wrestling match between hopelessness and something else, some other quality that all writers, if they are to keep going, must possess.”

More than a bit of cane-thumping follows, with many of the same arguments about publishing’s newly fallen state being made that I remember from 20 years ago. But amid that, the author’s point about writers needing to be willing to struggle and persist and fail, and most of all resist the need for, even expectation of, the instant score–when every overnight success is so quickly spread and shared–are well taken.

(Link via tltrent.)

“Away you will go sailing / in a race among the ruins / if you plan to face tomorrow / do it soon”

Faerie After first pass pages (aka page proofs, aka, typeset copy) printed and set out in front of me.
– Red pen in hand. (Also a green one and a purple one, both of which, sadly, turn out to have dried up.)
– File of copyedited manuscript up on screen
– Quia leaf pendant around neck

One final time into the breach with Liza (a small breach, a breach concerned with typos and commas and verb tenses), and then it really will be time to set the manuscript free.

For me. Liza gets to hang with the folks at Random House for a time–and by hang, I mean spend time with editors, copyeditors, designers, production staff, printers, marketing staff, sales staff, between the pages of an ARC, and then, next spring, make her way into the world. She has things to do, in her story and out of it.

But first, I’ll follow her into the dark one more time.