Yeah, I haven’t blogged in awhile.Â Life does get busy, and there are times when I just want to sit andÂ brood.
Lately,Â I’ve been mulling overÂ how tenuous a writer’s career can be.Â You feel like you’re always walking a narrow and dangerousÂ path, and one bad move can send you over the cliff’s edge into oblivion.Â Â That’s whyÂ I’m using my donkeys to illustrate this point.Â They’reÂ slow and steady and sure-footed creatures.Â When you take a ride downÂ the Grand Canyon, the trail companiesÂ don’t put you on a horse.Â Oh, no.Â Horses are easily spooked and known to bolt unexpectedly, which is a disastrous characteristic when you’reÂ on a cliffside trail with a thousand foot drop-off.Â Instead,Â they use mules, which areÂ horse/donkey hybrids.Â Â HorseÂ DNA gives a mule its size and strength.Â DonkeyÂ DNA givesÂ a mule its steadiness and caution.Â If you startle a donkey, it won’t bolt.Â It will stand still and think about things before it takes action.Â That’s also why donkeysÂ have a reputation for stubbornness.Â Â Before you can make it do anything, the donkey has to think about it andÂ decide, “okay, it looks safe, so I guess I’ll cooperate.”Â Â
AÂ writer’s career is likeÂ walkingÂ an endlesslyÂ scaryÂ cliffside trail.Â I was reminded of this after corresponding with a very well-known thriller writer, a writer with a long and bestselling past.Â Â About a decade ago,Â after establishing a reputationÂ for thrillers, this writer wrote a completely different type ofÂ book, a bookÂ of the heart.Â It didn’t sell well.Â Ever since then,Â sales have slumped, even though the quality of the books hasn’t.Â Â And now the editor has told the writer it’s time to go begging for quotes from current “big-name” authors to help sell the next book.Â Â This author used to be a big-name author.Â Â But one little slip, one little miscalculation, and there you go, tumbling off the trail, frantically grabbing for any handhold before you hit bottom.
This is the way a writing career feels these days.Â
Most of us become writers because we love to tell stories.Â We sell our first book and think our worries are over — we’re published!Â but even after you’ve sold your tenth or twentieth novel, there are so many ways to fall off the cliff.Â You write a few books that don’t sell well.Â Your editor gets fired, or your imprint closes down.Â OrÂ — and this is what I’m hearing more and more —
You don’t write fast enough.
I’ve written 20 books in 20 years, and you’d think that’d be fast enough.Â ButÂ for commercial writers, it turns out that a book a year is no longer fast enough.Â In fact, it’s damn slow.Â The industry looks at Nora Roberts and James Patterson, who turn out multiple books a year, and whose sales just keep growing.Â Â The secret to success, it now appears, isÂ to write so fast that your name is always on the stands.Â So now when writers ask, “How can I boost my career?” the advice they’ll hear from agents and editors is, “write two books a year!Â Or three or four or five!”Â
Oh yeah, and while you’re at it, make sure they’re all masterpieces.Â
It’s gotten to the point where my measly book-a-year scheduleÂ feels like a slacker’s pace.Â Â Â
Early last summer, I had a conversation with a highly honored literary author.Â As writers are wont to do, we were both whining about how tough a time we had finishing our most recent books.Â “I’m exhausted,” I told him.Â “It took me fourteen months to write my last book.Â I felt likeÂ I would never finish it.Â It was the endless project!”
He laughed in disbelief.Â “Fourteen months?Â That’s all it took you?Â It took me five years to write mine!”
And I thought: What? Your editor let you have five years?Â If I took five years to write a book, I’d be out of a contract!
Ever since then I’ve been consumed with jealousy that I don’tÂ get five years to write a book.Â I don’t get five years to polish and hone every single sentence to perfection.Â I’m just trying to meet my deadlines.Â Granted, he’s a prize-winning literary novelist, and his last book is selling extremely well.Â Â When his booksÂ get published, they are EVENTS, and attention must be paid by every critic under the sun.
Good luck getting that kind ofÂ attention as a commercial writer.
But as my husband pointed out, yes the literary writer getsÂ reviewed in every single newspaper in the country.Â Yet even if his latest title sold more copies than my latest title, I’veÂ sold far more books than he ever will.Â Because I’ve written more of them.Â So whaddya want, my husband says.Â Money or respect?
It reminds me that even though I may grouse about lousy reviews orÂ the way commercial fiction is scorned and undervalued by the critics, at least for the moment I’m lucky to still be walking the precarious trail that so many other writers have fallen off of.Â I’m still selling books, still earningÂ my living as a writer.Â
But I can’t stop worrying about that drop.