Sunday, August 22, 2010

What Other People Think Writers Do

With the online class I teach in writing for children, the topic came up this week about family expectations. Several students commented on how, since they'd started the course, their families seemed to expect that any minute they'd be churning out a best seller. As our focus this semester is chapter books, that's not very likely! But then again, I doubt any writer's family (apart from the kids, perhaps) would even know what a chapter book was, and how it was different from a picture book or a novel!

The Too-Tight Tutu (Aussie Bites) My very first published children's book was The Too-Tight Tutu (Aussie Bites). It's a chapter book in the Puffin series and came out in 1997. Thirteen years later, it's still in print, and has been published in the US and the UK, and about to be published in China. In Australia it's sold around 46,000 copies, which sounds like a best seller! But when you spread that over 13 years ... hmmm, not so much. And the illustrator gets a good part of the royalties, too.

My own family often hints at the idea of a best seller, possibly imagining us all swanning off to a tropical island somewhere where I'll continue writing while they lie around in the sun, drinking tropical-type drinks. Or maybe that's my version of it! After many years of writing and publishing, and a great deal of reading, plus a lot of market research and industry knowledge, I doubt anyone knows in advance what might become a best seller. Certainly Stephanie Meyer's publisher didn't, nor did JK Rowling's. It's an educated guess, at best, and a lot of hope.

That's what keeps a lot of us writers going. Hope. Hope we'll get that story published, the one we've reworked ten times. Hope we'll get good reviews. Hope that it sells well enough that it earns out its advance and the publisher won't frown at us. And faint hopes/dreams that the book might even win an award. Families and spouses don't understand the importance of hope. They want to see a book in print, and a cheque in your hand. That's what writing means to them.

And until you come up with both, your writing has no substance or meaning to them. They usually don't "get" why you persevere, why you keep secreting yourself away, turning down social events, hiding a stash of chocolate for the depressing days. They think publishing happens overnight, and are astonished when you tell them a book might take up to two years to arrive in the bookshop. They also wonder why you have a website and a blog and do all that marketing stuff - "isn't the publisher supposed to do all that?"

The Rowlings and Meyers of the world don't help! In the end, we all have to find a way to deflect the family expectations, either with some doses of "the cold, hard truth of publishing" or by simply keeping it all to yourself and being adamant about why your writing time cannot be subsumed by whatever frippery they're into right now. It's not easy. But sometimes building those walls around yourself, the ones that keep out the expectations, the tantrums, the sulks and the stupid, uninformed questions and criticisms, is what is going to get your writing done.


Snail said...

It's curious that people might expect instant success from writers but understand perfectly that it could take painters years to break through.

Looks expectantly through mail for royalty cheque

Kristi Holl said...

I try to remind myself that I don't really understand anyone else's career either, and sometimes that helps. Sometimes not!

It hasn't really changed in 30 years either. If anything, with the advent of self-publishing and ebooks, the "overnight wealth" expectations have gotten worse. You just have to learn to turn a deaf ear most of the time (as you know).

And hoard that chocolate!

Kristi Holl
Writer's First Aid blog