I’ve met a number of authors who’ve told me they really just want to try it. They just want to see if they can finish a novel, self-publish it, and just sort of “have it out there.” They’ve even said things like, “I don’t need it to make any money.” And you know what? That’s fine with me. There are all sorts of things you can do on a strictly amateur level. For instance, I “play” guitar—badly. Very badly. I’m not in a band, nor will I ever be. No one will ever pay me to play the guitar. So then should Jimmy Page come to my house and demand I turn over my guitar because I’m not taking it seriously? It’s either be a professional—make a career out of it—or hands off? Of course not. You can go shoot baskets with your friends without any ambition to play in the NBA, right? So yes, by all means, write some stuff. Try it on.
The rest of this post, though, will be for those of you who do aspire to the life of a professional, published author—just like Jimmy Page aspired to the life of a professional, recording guitarist. If that’s where you have your sights set, if it’s the writer’s life for you, then be in it for life.
That means writing—a lot. A lot of words. A lots of short stories, a lot of poems, a lot of notes and outlines—many of which will amount to nothing. It’s about, yes, writing query letters and synopses and all the stuff everybody hates that goes along with the business rather than the art of writing. And yes, my friends, it means writing whole books—more than one whole book. I have two completed novels sitting unpublished—and they very likely never will be. So what?
The book is a job, the books are a career.
How many jobs have you had in your life? I’m fifty-seven years old and am going to think back now and count on my fingers…
I came up with eighteen jobs since the age of fifteen, and I bet I’m forgetting a couple. My first job was watering lawns at a condo complex for the summer. The longest I spent in one job was fifteen years at TSR/Wizards of the Coast, and I’m closing in on that number with Athans & Associates. The shortest: I worked half a day at a Blockbuster Music store—but that’s a story for another day. Still, if I can work half a day in a record store and get the hell out of there, who says you can’t write half a novel, realize it’s not working, and get on with your life?
Being a “full time” writer of fiction is hard—essentially impossible—so you better get your life around it, yeah? Don’t quit that day job unless you get a better day job. In “The State of the Literary Jonathans,” Emily Gould wrote:
Most authors have day jobs, which is nothing new; Herman Melville worked as a customs inspector. The difference in 2021 is that traditional side careers are less viable and also less “side.” My 50-plus-year-old friends worked as typists and came home with creative juice left in the tank. Employers today demand 24/7 access to your mind and soul and claim to be “like family,” which is accurate in the darkest sense. The competition for tenure-track MFA jobs is so intense that candidates are virtually clawing one another’s eyes out over the chance to move to, for example, Arizona. The other way authors used to make a living was journalism. In 2021, that’s like working as an aspiring actor to subsidize your true passion, waiting tables.
But if you write a novel, surely everything will be rainbows and unicorns and riches, right? No… not necessarily. In Bird By Bird, Anne Lamott cautions:
Publication is not going to change your life or solve your problems. Publication will not make you more confident or more beautiful, and it will probably not make you any richer. There will be a very long buildup to publication day, and then the festivities will usually be over rather quickly.
A decent advance for a genre novel might be in the general neighborhood of $50,000 (likely less)—and let’s be honest, even if you don’t live in as expansive an area as I do, how long can you live on $50,000 that comes in probably three installments over maybe two years, minus your agent’s commission and taxes? And as for it being over rather quickly, the publishing business—not unlike many other businesses, especially the entertainment business, can be summed up not as Woody Allen said: “It’s dog eat dog… No, it’s worse than dog eat dog, it’s dog doesn’t return other dog’s phone calls,” but: What have you done for me lately? Book came out? Great! What’s its BookScan numbers look like? Not exactly Stephen King, are we? Back to the end of the line! So then of it isn’t a get rich quick scheme, and is just as hard to maintain a writing career than to establish one, why do it in the first place?
“I looked forward to the struggle of the writing life,” said Susan Sontag. “I thought of being a writer as a heroic vocation.” And I agree—it is a heroic vocation. At least it’s an ancient and honorable profession, and that’s a good enough reason to do it.
Other authors have other reasons, like Elias Canetti, who said, “My pencils are safer vehicles. As long as I write I feel (absolutely) safe. Maybe that’s the only reason I write. It does not matter what I write. I simply mustn’t stop.”
And so then don’t fucking stop. Keep writing. Finish something! And then… “…when you finish a book, whatever its reception, there is some dislodgment of the imagination,” John Cheever told The Paris Review. “I wouldn’t say derangement. But finishing a novel, assuming it’s something you want to do and that you take very seriously, is invariably something of a psychological shock… To diminish shock I throw high dice, get sauced, go to Egypt, scythe a field, screw. Dive into a cold pool.”
Then start writing the next one, even while trying to sell this one, because no matter how much you suffer over it, at some point, it leaves the nest, one way or another. And, just like Eudora Welty, we have to let go:
I correct or change words, but I can’t rewrite a scene or make a major change because there’s a sense then of someone looking over my shoulder. It’s necessary, anyway, to trust that moment when you were sure at last you had done all you could, done your best for that time. When it’s finally in print, you’re delivered—you don’t ever have to look at it again. It’s too late to worry about its failings. I’ll have to apply any lessons this book has taught me toward writing the next one.
And this is still true, even for younger, contemporary authors, including Ocean Vuong:
If I had a chance now with every book I wrote, every page would be a little different. Commas would be moved, words. And I think that’s beautiful, actually. That’s a good thing. It reminds us that the artist and the mind and the poem still grow. The poem is like a tree, and the book is a photograph of the tree. You take a photograph of the tree, but the next day, the tree has new cells. The next year, it has new branches. We have to make peace with the fact that a book is actually just a photo album, and that the organic psychic life of the poem is already growing somewhere else, somewhere inside you. And we pin it down.
Remember, we’re talking about doing this not just for a book, but for a career—a life. And that means not just writing, but getting it out there somewhere, because only when it’s out there somewhere does it have any value at all. Isaac Asimov may have written more books than anyone, so it must not come as a surprise that he said:
You must keep sending work out; you must never let a manuscript do nothing but eat its head off in a drawer. You send that work out again and again, while you’re working on another one. If you have talent, you will receive some measure of success—but only if you persist.
Got a rejection letter? Fantastic. Next! Please stop thinking you’re going to finish a novel, immediately send it off as is to an agent who’ll shout, “Brilliant!” then give it to one editor—exactly the right editor—who will join in the chorus of “Brilliant!” and immediately send your book off to the printer so it will be on the front table at Barnes & Noble next Monday.
In “Repeat After Me: ‘I Am Not the Great American Novelist,’ ” Michael Bourne wrote:
Every writer fails. It’s just the nature of the beast. You can’t will yourself to stop writing bad fiction. You can only, slowly, over time, learn from your mistakes so you can start making different ones. This requires, first, that you see your work clearly and honestly and cultivate a trusted circle of writers and editors who will catch what you miss. Then you have to listen to what they’re saying and not only fix the problems but understand them so you don’t go on endlessly repeating them. And finally, you have to remain patient because you’ll fail again in new and different ways. It’s the only way you’ll ever succeed.
Really want to still be doing this in your fifties? Sixties? Keep writing, and keep learning! “At the age of sixty,” said the brilliant Japanese author Kenzaburo Oe, “I started to think that my method could be wrong, my image of how to create could be wrong. I still elaborate until I cannot find any open space on the paper, but now there is a second stage: I rewrite a very simple, clear version of what I’ve written. I respect writers who can write in both styles—like Céline, who has a complicated style and a clear style.”
Mix it up—try stuff! Italo Calvino, said, “What I do have is the fear of repeating myself in my literary work. This is the reason that every time I must come up with a new challenge to face. I must find something to do that will look like a novelty, something a little beyond my capabilities.” He stretches and so should we all.
The writer’s life is a life of continuous education, of striving to get better at it, because the one thing—the only thing—you can control about the subjective world of writing and publishing fiction is the quality of your own work. “Don’t take yourself too seriously,” Matt Labash warned, “but take your work very seriously. Care about the things you write about, even if they’re trifles. Because if you don’t, nobody else will.”
And for you fantasy authors out there, remember to enjoy the genres—let your “fanishness” drive you. J.R.R. Tolkien said as much in “On Fairy Stories”:
But the land of Merlin and Arthur was better than these, and best of all the nameless North of Sigurd of the Völsungs, and the prince of all dragons. Such lands were pre-eminently desirable. I never imagined that the dragon was of the same order as the horse. And that was not solely because I saw horses daily, but never even the footprint of a worm. The dragon had the trade-mark Of Faerie written plain upon him. In whatever world he had his being it was an Other-world. Fantasy, the making or glimpsing of Other-worlds, was the heart of the desire of Faërie. I desired dragons with a profound desire. Of course, I in my timid body did not wish to have them in the neighbourhood, intruding into my relatively safe world, in which it was, for instance, possible to read stories in peace of mind, free from fear. But the world that contained even the imagination of Fáfnir was richer and more beautiful, at whatever cost of peril. The dweller in the quiet and fertile plains may hear of the tormented hills and the unharvested sea and long for them in his heart. For the heart is hard though the body be soft.
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Editor and author Philip Athans offers hands on advice for authors of fantasy, science fiction, horror, and fiction in general in this collection of 58 revised and expanded essays from the first five years of his long-running weekly blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook.