Publishing/ Writing

Writing and risk, redux

Chau asks:

Is being an author financially “safe”? Does being an author carry risks that other fields do not? I suppose what I’m asking is, “What is the life of an author like”?

In reverse order, again:

What is the life of an author like? This is almost an impossible question to answer, because every author (and every person) is different. But here are a few things I’ve noticed that either happened or became much more pronounced after I’d been published:

  • It’s a lot harder to take in stories without taking them apart. With any kind of narrative, anywhere I encounter it, I’m nearly always double-tracking: getting to know characters and following the plot, but simultaneously thinking about structure, stakes, how quickly the conflicts are established, the rhythm of the prose. It is far rarer for me to simply fall into a story. This isn’t a phenomenon exclusive to writing — I think similar things happen whenever you acquire sufficient knowledge/passion about a subject. When I was serious about theater, I’d double-track at every performance I attended: lighting, set, and costume design occupied as much of my attention as the actors. (Actually, this still happens sometimes.)
  • You develop an awareness of your audience. (Hi, folks!) This is simultaneously wonderful and terrifying. Wonderful because hey! People are reading your stuff! And sometimes they completely adore it! And tell you! Terrifying because as soon as you have an audience, you also have a set of expectations. Was your first book about unicorns? If your next book is about zombies, you will hear about it from the disappointed unicorn partisans.
    • Caveat: This process may be different for folks who got an audience before being published traditionally. Fanfic writers, webcomics folks, zinesters, bloggers, vloggers, others, what do you say?
  • Your ideas about what “success” means keep changing. Before I was published, being published was my sole goal: the fence to jump, the rock to scale, the Hellespont to swim. Once I was on the other side, though, I saw nothing but more fences, more rocks, more mythologically significant bodies of water to cross. I’m not saying you’ll never be satisfied (or maybe I am?), simply that the goalposts are always moving.

Does being an author carry risks that other fields do not? Yes. Obviously, unless you’re doing, say, reporting in a war zone, the physical risks to life and limb are minor. This is not mining, or heavy machinery operation, or farm work, or firefighting, or combat. But there are other kinds of risks. Friends, family members, and lovers will see themselves in your work. They may be flattered, but they may also be deeply hurt. Either way, you may not have had them consciously in mind at all when you created those characters or situations. Also, as a writer, you spend a lot of time in your own head, which is not always a pleasant locale.

Is being an author financially “safe”?
funny pictures

Seriously, no. Financial security is extremely unlikely as an outcome of a writing career. Lots of authors have day jobs, partners who support them, and/or a lot of debt. Especially in The Current Economy ™. But if you’re serious about writing, the bleak financial prospects won’t make a difference.

As always, I welcome additional thoughts and questions!

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  • Sara
    December 29, 2008 at 12:00 pm

    Re: Financially safe – Being a writer is basically like owning your own business. You control your output. You are responsible for determining where your income will come from. If you can’t make enough to live on with one project, you’ll have to take on a few more. If times are slow, you’ll have to market yourself and/or step up your output. I make a living as a writer because I combine several sources of writing income, from freelance advertising to a contract gig to novels. Is it “financially safe?” Oddly, I feel a bit safer now than I did when I was at a 9-5 job and subject to layoffs, etc. Perhaps I’ll be singing a different tune at the end of 2009, what with the Current Economy and all, but something tells me more and more people are going to have to find ways to make their own income, so perhaps us writers won’t seem like such odd birds. I will put in a pitch, though, for an improved health care system here in the old U.S. of A. If my husband weren’t able to provide health benefits through his job, I’d be feeling a heck of a lot less safe, that’s for sure!

  • Chau
    December 29, 2008 at 3:48 pm

    Hi Sara,

    Thank you for answering all of my questions through the blog! It is really wonderful to have such informative answers to my curiosities and questions.

    “Also, as a writer, you spend a lot of time in your own head, which is not always a pleasant locale.”

    I really appreciate this line – it says a lot. Even as an amateur writer, I’ve learned that being in ones head and creating stories and fantasies are all wonderful – but when done too often, it can ostracize the world around you. It is especially disappointing when you wake up and not find dragons and fairies in your own world =)