Thursday, June 20, 2013

Should a writer have to "pay their dues"?

There are few things that rile children's writers more than bad celebrity picture books! Think Madonna and Sarah Ferguson, and recent books by basketball and football players (many of which are co-written or ghost-written anyway). Picture books are just about the most difficult kinds of stories to get right, and those writers who are trying to break in and get published know that "competent" isn't going to do it.

Unless you're already famous for something else, in which case the feeling from the "real" picture book writers is that it's just not fair. To some extent, the same sentiment can be heard when it comes to adult writers who decide to pen a YA or children's novel or two. "Like it's not hard enough to get published already," I hear people say. "Why do they have to horn in on our territory?" Then there's the Stephanie Meyers of the world who dream an idea and write vampire books that sell millions of copies, and the writing is not even very good.

Sheesh, what's a writer to do?

Apart from anything else, keep writing. And keep improving. That's really all that is in our control. To work hard and get better. When I do goal setting with students and clients, I have to remind them that "Get my novel published" is not a goal so much as a dream. Write novel, revise novel (many times), research publishers and agents, send novel out. Those are goals. But we end up having little control over whether we'll get published or not when we venture into the world of traditional publishing.

Publishing has changed. Once upon a time (very apt term, if you think about it), a writer wrote - usually many drafts, on a typewriter (which meant re-typing the whole novel each time), with no classes or workshops, no MFAs, no manuscript critique services. Just the writer and their words. Sometimes they had writer friends to bounce off, which is why we have collections of letters - back in the day, they wrote real letters to each other about their processes and ideas and doubts. But mostly they had to slog it out on their own. Publication meant you had taught yourself enough, by simply writing and reading critically, to achieve a certain standard.

It's different now. For a start, everyone wants to be a writer. That's how it seems some days. Everyone thinks they can be a writer. That's why publishers and agents are inundated with manuscripts, especially picture books because they're short and easy, right? Computers mean it's easier to pound out a manuscript, use the spell checker on it, and send it off. If a publisher or agent has the time to wade through all those manuscripts, they might find one gem. It's more likely that they will want a query letter instead to try and weed out the competents, incompetents and just plain weird.

And then there is the marketplace. The marketplace is voracious and endless, always wanting something new, something hot, something that will make everyone lots of money. Or win awards. So the idea of an apprenticeship in writing, and even Malcolm Gladwell's theory of 10,000 hours of practice to become a master, can be flipped in an instant when someone comes along with a great, original idea. Or a pretty good idea that can be wrestled into an immensely sell-able one.

What are all those other writers supposed to do? They're "paying their dues", learning, writing, rewriting - why doesn't that deserve the rewards?

I think there are two things at play - one is most definitely the marketplace. Even publishers can be astounded by a book that just takes off, but they also know to hedge their bets with things like trendy series and books "just like that one selling a million". But the other thing is creativity. It's not something that can be pinned down - it's like a gorgeous butterfly. Marvel at it in the air or perched on a flower, but stick a pin through it onto a board and you've just got a pretty dead thing.

If we keep working and writing and rewriting, we are learning. If we keep reading and dreaming, we are learning and growing. Feed your creativity, do the work. Most of us do have to "pay our dues". How else are we going to become better writers? And then hope that when that amazing idea comes fluttering past, that you can capture it without killing it, and make something out it that is publishable!


Anonymous said...

Apt post. Perhaps the consoling thought for the hard working writers who do their long apprenticeship is that they have the capacity to create well more than once. A celebrity (from another field) writer can only write one bad book. The second one is unlikely to be published. Unless they do have genuine talent.

Sherryl said...

We do have longevity on our side! I find it sad though that writers who have been around for a fair while get so discouraged that they give up. Part of that, too, is not being able to make any kind of living from it.