Six impossible things

Career decisions

First things first: I think we may have the comments problem fixed, though I may have to reapprove people the first time. I’ll try to keep an eye on it, but anyone who doesn’t see their remark after a day or so, please email me.

A writing career is a lifelong thing, and it can go in many directions. One can choose a category like Romance or mysteries and stick to writing just that type of fiction for one’s entire career, or one can write in several categories, perhaps each under a different pen name. One can make a nice living doing work-for-hire fiction under a house name, or stick to one’s original work, or begin in a supposedly less-literarily-demanding genre with the intention of learning one’s craft and “working up” to something more demanding and/or prestigious.

All along the way, opportunities come up, and the writer has to make choices about them: which agent to choose, whether and when to leave an unsatisfactory agent; whether to submit a short story to an anthology that isn’t quite what you’d normally write in length or theme; whether to accept an invitation from a major publisher to edit an anthology or a line of books; whether to join a bunch of your writer friends in starting an e-magazine or publishing a specialized chapbook to raise money for a particular cause; whether to try to branch out into screenwriting or novelizing scripts or writing for major or minor role-playing games; whether to do a “franchise” project (where a newer writer pairs with the writer of a well-established series to write books related to that series); whether to put time and effort into finding speaking engagements or stick to writing; whether to teach writing classes for the local college or community ed center; whether to do a how-to-write column or blog.

Some of these choices come around more than once, or from either end: a franchise project may be offered to one as a new writer working on someone else’s series, and then fifteen years later, one’s editor may propose it as a possible avenue for expanding the audience of one’s own series. Some of them never show up at all, for a given writer. Some of them show up indirectly, or have to be chased down (rather than the writer waiting for them to drop into his/her lap).

In my experience, the best results come from making these choices based on what the writer really wants and really wants to do. This is a lot harder than it sounds for most people, because it requires a fairly high degree of self-knowledge and honesty, and because there are a lot of different pressures on writers that can obscure things.

I’ve run into more than a few writers, over the years, who started off wanting to write category fiction (that’s SF, fantasy, Romance, mysteries, horror, etc.) but whose writing teachers or crit groups told them they were “too good” for those fields and that they shouldn’t “waste their talent” writing anything but mainstream or high literary fiction. Most of them eventually quit writing altogether; the ones who’d stayed were usually unsuccessful, unhappy, or both.

Writers get pressured by editors and publishers who want (and will pay extra for) the next book in the writer’s bestselling XYZ series, but who aren’t interested in anything else. Fans, too, beg for the next volume about their favorite character (and express massive disappointment when, inevitably, the writer’s vision of where the series is going differs from their own).

Friends, peers, and family are even harder to resist when they express their opinions, pro or con, of various opportunities that come along. (And they always seem to have strong opinions.) One long-time friend of mine lamented my decision to novelize three of the Star Wars movies when that opportunity was offered to me. “You’ll end up writing nothing else, and we’ll never have another original Pat Wrede book again!” he said (for several years, every time I saw him). Another friend could not comprehend why I turned down a “great opportunity” to get into editing (which I have never had any desire to do and which I would almost certainly be very bad at – I think I’d be fine at helping people polish up their manuscripts, but I don’t think I’d be at all good at picking out the saleable ones in the first place, and anyway, it’s not really my idea of fun.) A family member doesn’t understand why I never tried to parlay that aforementioned Star Wars novelization into a career in screenwriting (which, again, no interest and not my skill set).

In short, there hasn’t been a single one of my career decisions, from quitting my day job to accepting or turning down various projects, that someone in my life hasn’t second guessed. Every time, whether the person is pro or con, they predict either career disaster or eventual long-term regret at missing an opportunity or getting tangled up in something I don’t want to do.

The predictions have all ended up being wrong. I attribute this in large part to the things my father taught us, most notably that one’s work should, first and foremost, be fun (and an “opportunity” that doesn’t look like fun isn’t really an opportunity) and that the “success” of a project or a career isn’t defined by money or acclaim (not that those aren’t nice to get), but by whether one has learned something and/or whether one is happy with the outcome.

I’ve seen quite a few writers make choices that have been remarkably successful, whether that was leapfrogging into writing movie scripts, getting into ebooks early, becoming a writing teacher, editing their own line of books, or switching to a new genre in mid-career.

I’ve also met and watched quite a few people who have made similar decisions that didn’t work out in one way or another. The indie magazine was too much work for no money (and put the writing career on hold for five years); breaking in to screenwriting didn’t work and left them unsatisfied; agreeing to teach workshops provided some money but took so much time that they didn’t actually get to write; there was no money in writing literary fiction; there was no prestige in writing category fiction.

Some of those writers ended up deeply regretting those decisions. Others, who had the exact same outcome, are happy with their choices even though the results weren’t ideal; they got something they wanted out of the stint in Hollywood doing screenwriting, starting the magazine, running an indie bookstore that went bankrupt, editing a niche anthology, or whatever. And it doesn’t much seem to matter whether the outcome of the decision was “good” by traditional measures like money, awards, or career advancement; some of the writers who got those things are really unhappy, and some of the ones that didn’t get those things would make the same choices again because they like what they got instead.

The real key is what I said before: knowing what you really want (as opposed to what everyone around you thinks you should want) and being honest with yourself when what you want is money (but your friends, fans, writing teachers, etc. all sneer at “hackwriters”) or a short shelf of books that you are proud to have written and/or had fun writing (even though your friends, fans, etc. disagree with your idea of quality and/or value big advances and bestseller sales over fun). If awards and prestige matter to you, deep in your heart, you will likely not be as happy as you could be with a big advance and a movie deal that come with mockery and sneering from the prestigious reviewers. If money is really what matters, awards won’t make you happy for long unless they bump your sales (and thus income) figures.

And if what really matters to you is overnight success…pick a different field. Or buy a lottery ticket – your chances are better.

  1. I think this is the key to happiness in a lot more than just writing.

  2. Lots of good points being made here. I appreciate the insights.

  3. I’ve been (self) publishing for a year now. Along the way (via writers groups, a review or two, pieces on blogs and/or prestigious publications) I’ve seen the sneers, the comments about my kind of fantasy, and sometimes my books in particular. Okay, so snide comments DO hurt when they’re actually aimed at my book (nothing that a glance at the books the reader DOES like won’t fix, though) but the other ones–the ones about genre fiction in general, and fairy-tale fiction in particular–they actually make me laugh. Why should I care if someone finds my books low-brow and not particularly literary? Let people turn their noses up. I write books that I love writing. That I have immense amounts of fun writing. And quite honestly, I’m beginning to find an audience that has fun reading them, too.

    I suppose this is all by way of saying that for me, writing and publishing is all about the fact that I enjoy it. I love the craft, and the excitement of creating, and the satisfaction that comes from finishing and publishing. The fact that I’m beginning to find my audience also helps immensely. I mean, who doesn’t love it when a reader tells them how much they enjoyed their book? I’m never going to be one of the great literary writers–I’m nowhere near clever enough, for a start. But I do enjoy my writing, and I’m starting to make a (very small) amount doing it. What’s not to love?

Questions regarding foreign rights, film/tv subrights, and other business matters should be directed to Pat’s agent Ginger Clark, Curtis-Brown, Ltd., 10 Astor Place, 3rd Floor New York, NY 10003,