Several of the QM staff were recently on a panel entitled “So You Want to be a Writer,” where we tried the old “scared straight” approach to save aspiring authors from this life. Not sure we did a very good job. Anyway, it made we think about why somebody would choose to follow this path. Why I did.
After careful consideration, I came to the conclusion that you shouldn’t, and that I didn’t. I never made a conscious decision to write. It was just something that I was going to do, whether or not I got success or money or praise. Which is convenient, because there is no guarantee that you will get any of those.
If you are thinking of writing as a career, or as a source of additional income, there are almost certainly better choices. You will put in thousands of hours before you get a penny. If everything goes perfectly, it will be a year between sitting down to write and seeing the book for sale. Probably longer. The average payout is less than if you spent those hours doing almost anything else for money. And you may never be published. And if you are, you’ll do even more work promoting your work if you want to sell any books.
Becoming a best selling author is like becoming an A list actor. It happens, but for every start who gets a million dollars per movie, there are thousands who still wait tables between gigs. Even a solid mid list writer makes less money than an electrician. You can more or less live on a writing income, but modestly unless you have a day job or a pension or some other income than writing.
Yeah, J K Rowling is doing alright, but not everybody is J K Rowling. And you can write a good book, but unless you write a good book and get lucky and hit the right spot in the market at the right moment, you won’t be J K Rowling. Even a success like George R R Martin, who is doing well enough with his Game of Thrones checks, wrote for four decades, making a modest, mid-list income before the big TV deal. A Game of Thrones itself was published in 1996, so it took almost 20 years before the big payday.
So we don’t do it for the money.
I do it because I can’t stop. Writing is almost pathological, really.
Some of us just need to tell stories. And we’re going to do it anyway. So if you’re going to do it anyway, you should strive do it well. And then you should strive to get it out there where it can be seen.
So, if you want a stable, successful life, with a solid income and financial security, learn a trade.
But if you are one of us, one of the Misfit Toys, just embrace the life and excel at it.
And know that the rest of us will be here for you. Because we were chosen as well. As the great philosopher said: I’m pulling for you. We’re all in this together.
And keep your stick on the ice.
Our writing will always be shaped by our values, our opinions and our politics. That’s inevitable. It’s even more evident in fantasy or s/f where we are creating a world of our own, not just showing our current one through our lens. It’s very tempting to write a story that justified our own beliefs.
Resist that impulse.
Now, it’s not like you can hide your feelings and write from your heart at the same time. I’m not advocating that you stop thinking slavery was bad while writing your Civil War historical fiction. Just try to remember you’re writing a story, not a manifesto.
This applies only to fiction. If you are trying to write a manifesto, well, go fight the power. But readers are smart enough to spot the heavy handed stuff for what it is. Reading Atlas Shrugged will never convince a socialist to stage an anti tax rally and start voting for Rand Paul. It’s just going to make people who already agree with it feel vindicated and those who disagree roll their eyes.
If you paint every politician as corrupt, or every cop as crooked, or all protesters as violent or naive, then you’ve written a political speech or an after school special.
S/F has long been a genre where authors built utopias and dystopias, using them to justify one political philosophy or another. The problem is that we have too much power. If we think all taxation is theft, all we have to do is make all tax collectors thieves and we’ve proven our point.
At the same time, it’s more than OK to paint a fascist government as bad or the resistance as overall on then right side of history. False equivalence isn’t much better than jingoism.
People will see political agenda. Sometimes they’ll see one even when you aren’t trying to push it. I was called out by reviewers of my near future s/f In Every Clime and Place because I had several women as characters in a Marine infantry unit. Now, I put them there because that’s how things are going even today, and I can’t see a military in 75 years that still segregates units by gender. I put them there because it makes sense for them to be there. Hell, look at Aliens from 1986 or the film version of Starship Troopers. We expect a more diverse future, because that’s the trend. I think writing about an all male infantry in 2075 would be like writing about a racially segregated military in 2017. It would seem a strange omission.
What I didn’t do was get on a soapbox about it. If I’d had them constantly underestimated and marginalized by their make peers despite being better and smarter, and then had them save the day unassisted, that would have been Making a Point. Just as if I’d had them be overly emotional, dependent and a weak link that hurt the unit cohesion and cost lives in combat, that would have been Making a Point.
What I did do was try to be faithful to real life. I had a relatively small proportion of women in infantry roles, as that tends to reflect the fact that fewer women seek those assignments, and qualify for them than men. I didn’t make them Wonder Woman, not did I make them a weak link who had to be bailed out and carried and rescued. I made them competent Marines who did their jobs. I addressed the issues with squadmates who didn’t like serving with women, and had characters voice concern about how it changed the dynamic.
I didn’t make it black and white where everyone who disagreed with my opinion on the subject was wrong and a bigot or naive and a threat to my beloved Corps. I didn’t make it the central theme of the story, but I wove it in as a thread.
I wrote them as characters, not as caricatures. People, not symbols.
So I think the answer is not to ignore the issues, and not to just give everyone a black hat or a white hat. Make your characters people with depth and facets and motivations. And understand that there are noble impulses and base impulses on all sides, and the book will read like a real story, not a fairy tale with handsome prices and wicked witches.
Readers aren’t idiots. Don’t treat them like they are.