Notes on the condition of writers in the present day

It’s a rainy day today. The river is gray, the air is dense and foggy and the drenched people huddled under their umbrellas also seem bereft of colour. It all reminds me of a line from O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi when the young woman saw a “grey cat walking a grey fence in a grey backyard.”

Likewise, my foggy thoughts have condensed with the rain today around the rather gray topic of the difficulties of the writing profession in the present age.

How do writers keep themselves motivated to write nowadays? I wonder. Firstly, there are so few rewards, if any at all. You wonder how some writers are still around. The world of writers is a world where there is no middle class both in terms of material rewards and in terms of other accolades. You’re either at the very top or you are nowhere.

Most writers you know might eke out a living at 9-5 jobs but their heart is somewhere else. Yet, these are the lucky few. Others are probably hanging by their fingernails in desperate jobs on the periphery of the market scribbling when they can.

There are indeed people who don’t need to worry about a living but they are cultivating their craft like an accomplishment as Victorian heroines did at playing the piano or embroidery, as one of the finer pursuits of life with little real value or power to change anything except accessorize more important things like a pretty bonnet or a handbag. Rarely are such accomplishments cultivated with the kind of drive and discipline required of a professional career. Others do it as a hobby, when they have time after retirement.

Whereas this is how a large amount of writing is churned out by amateurs, who, ironically have the most freedom to be free-thinking and original, anything longer than a blog post or a small article in an online magazine needs to be shelved for a long time since such writers neither have the time nor contacts to do more. Sometimes, such writing is published amateurishly as an ebook.

Plenty of good ideas get wasted this way.

Yet, writing is after all a profession. A novel idea that might be new today might get dated three years from now just like in another discipline. A form of producing content new today might change a few months from now. The best time to act is now but now might not be a time when the amateurs have enough time.

So what are the professionals up to? Ironically, those who are in the profession, “literary” writers, genre writers, critics, feature writers or publishers will protect their profession like a super insular guild with elaborate, almost impermeable structural hierarchies for an outsider. It might take years, perhaps decades to get a word in. Hard work, in such a culture, becomes synonymous with professionalization, not specialization, eating away at the time and potential of a lot of new hopefuls.

The result is that the originality of such professional writers is defined by sameness, their success is reinforced by exclusion of outsiders, their subject matter defined by cultural norms that are necessarily insular and nebulous ensuring no objective method of evaluation is possible. As a result, there are very few clear, genuine pointers towards success for the aspiring writer beyond the very basics.

Besides, a lot of writers might be introverted as people. Networking does not come easily to them. So the only writers who are able to penetrate this gray fog of structural hierarchies are exceptionally social people who could be excellent marketing professionals but sadly often not the best or most versatile or deep writers. Or they are already born into a network by a stroke of luck (as someone’s niece or classmate) so their visibility is higher though for the reader their talent might seem mediocre.

Since writing is necessarily a human activity in that it deals with people, what kind of authors, subject matter, perspectives and characterizations are we most likely to encounter as readers in such a scenario? Most likely, these will be writers who are very social, in real life and online who produce formulaic work having been trained by their guild and advised by agents. Many will be independently wealthy, well-informed people with the right social sympathies who have only known the good life having never needed to go out there and do “real” work. Their heart might be in the right place but their experience of the world skewed or limited.

What has been the result of this situation on the works we get to read? Are most of the complex characters in fiction also relatively socially privileged? Are the stereotypical characters also their social Others? Are we only getting sporadically produced good writing by the amateurs while the vast majority of trained professionals are producing mediocre writing? Are the professionals obsessively focusing on the craft of writing because they are the mediocre people who have little original things to say?

I sincerely hope it’s only this gray day talking and not the real condition of writers in the present day.

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42 thoughts on “Notes on the condition of writers in the present day”

  1. I sure hope it was a gray day talking, because that’s a grim outlook. I queried about forty agents when I wrote my first novel and found the whole query process to be discouraging. After several months, I went back to just writing – that’s the fun part of it all. It takes dedication and persistence to have a chance. I’d like to think that it’s not a case of being at the top or being nobody, but I suspect that summation is more accurate that I want to believe 🙂

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  2. Funny, I didn’t see this until today, but I think you must have been in my head yesterday. I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit, and you’ve summed it up beautifully. Much more so than I, who distilled a good 70% of what I heard (back when I was able to eek out some $ for writer’s conferences and networking) down to, “we want the same old sh*t, only different.” I freely admit, my ear has become quite cynical over the past 40,000 years.
    General wisdom is, good writing trumps all, education and prior publishing experiences don’t mean much. Fantastic, I’ve got no credentials, but I can write. But I was looking online at examples of “winning” query letters and of the five I looked at, five spoke of BFAs, MFAs, connections, or prior publications.
    I still believe the possibility is there, but it is a frustrating, uphill climb. That said, I see the other side. Agents (and in a less direct way, editors/publishers) don’t make money if the book doesn’t make money, and we all want to earn.
    (sorry for the ramble)

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  3. Some great questions asked in this article. Interesting slant. The first thing I did to penetrate this bleakness was buy a bright, stripy umbrella to stand out from all the black brollies!
    I have been busy networking locally since January and of all the writers I have met professionals and amateurs only 1 is lucky enough to be a full time writer. She works a lot in workshops in school and adult ed. classes to make money, she also generates an income from editing and providing 1:1 critiquing service. She perhaps produces 2 – 3 books a year and makes about half of what I do (in my day job) … happiness is worth more than money I think and this is part of my journey.
    I was lucky enough to turn a bad situation good. I was forced into part time work – which has financially crippled me this year – losing 50% of my salary whilst my outgoings remain the same …. I have made this work as I have used the mornings to write and evenings and weekends dedicated to retraining to update my toolbox. (Skills – reference to world of publishing and writing across genres) I have also been able to network.
    The world of publishing is a tough circle to break – I (naively perhaps) believe that if you push hard enough you can break your way in.

    Takes time + dedication + hard work + determination.

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  4. It’s rainy here in Manila too, reading you just now seems serendipitous.

    I’m one of those amateurs that you described. After my shift and during weekends, I tinker with a story that I’m not sure people would read. I write and rewrite first sentences like a maid polishing cutlery, before locking them away – fearful that they will be tarnished by the time I get company.

    Of course, I can’t help myself; I think I have excellent knives. But I’m also afraid that the company will never come, no matter how many people I invite because I’m “not serious enough”.

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  5. I’d give this 100 stars if I could. I’ve asked myself these same questions. I can tell you this… when I began working in publishing, most of the professionals were socially privileged with ivy league educations that could afford to take on high status/low paying jobs. I worked in Rights. Much different than Editorial and more fair in compensation. But I must confess, I’m in NY too and perhaps this gray weather is getting me down as well. I feel as if it will never stop raining.

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  6. Oh my God, I think this all the time. I sucked so bad at the marketing thing, and I always envisioned myself as the writer who writes while the publisher does the other stuff. Now, the world has changed and I’m expected to do it all. I mean, I will, I have to, but oh boy, I am so bad at this, you’ll miss the professionals.

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  7. Excellent post! I think it’s all how you look at it.

    I’ve been dabbling at writing for about 25 years, with more serious periods and recently coming off a couple years of total inactivity with it. I haven’t gotten to where I want to be, and that’s my fault for not trying hard enough and being dedicated. I’ve had a few things published — a couple hundred pages of comic books — and spent a couple of years writing for a videogame website and getting paid for that.

    I started in the day when publishers were far more actively seeking out talent and there was less legal entanglements in doing that. However, times have changed and you can either bemoan days gone by or take advantage of all the opportunities that we do have now — I did comics in the mid-90s before the Internet really hit, and had I had access to things like twitter and Facebook that would’ve been a godsend . . . instead of trying to do promotions in chatrooms on 56K dial-up.

    Now you can publish your own work without spending several hundred dollars on a vanity press. You can use social media for marketing and promotion — but you have to be willing to learn how to do these things and be just as creative with that aspect as you are with the actual writing.

    That romantic idea of sitting in a room at a keyboard or a legal pad and wistfully staring out the window, letting someone else take care of what happens to you words once they’re on paper — that’s gone. You have to be an entrepreneur, sort of not only be the freak in the side show but also be the barker standing outside hawking tickets. I’m something of an introvert myself, but I’m getting over that and forcing myself out my comfort zone because I *have* to, if I want to do this.

    The biggest thing is you have to do the work, and you can’t expect coins to come out of the slot every single time you pull the handle of the slot machine. Write what you want to write, put it up online — it’s good experience, even if only a handful of people read it. Just keep doing it, take the criticism and feedback and learn from it, and have realistic expectations. I’m thrilled to death when I get another follower on my blog, because maybe somewhere down the line, I can get that person to give me some money — and yeah, I may have to give them thousands if not hundreds of thousands of free words’ worth of content before that happens. If I look at all the stuff I’ve written for that, it’s probably two or three novels’ worth. But I’ve made contacts, I keep learning new things, the discipline to get a new post up every few days helps me be more dedicated to ‘real’ for-profit writing.

    Or I can keep stuffing manilla envelopes with manuscripts that editors are too busy to read my effort or only hire from their personal networks, and watch the world go by while I give them six months to do a job that should take them ten minutes, to skim over a few pages of something to see if it’s even reasonably good, and during that time I can’t show it off to anyone else.

    You’re probably going to need a source of not-writing income while you do this, and you’re going to have to sacrifice to find time to do it, which means shutting off the cell phone, staying off Facebook, giving up the nightly TV fix, the videogames, all the little time-wasting creature-comforts, and telling friends and family you need time alone to write. I cranked out ten thousand words this past weekend for the online stuff I do, and I had that kind of time because I took a week of paid vacation from my ‘day’ job and I’m working on my writing through it instead of actually ‘relaxing’ or doing some frivilous activity. The most exotic place I’ve been so far on my ‘vacation’ is Wal-Mart to lay in supplies so I didn’t have to leave the house and wouldn’t be distracted.

    It’s how bad you want it to happen. Is there luck involved, being in the right place at the right time? Absolutely. But it’s also being there every day putting in the time to get yourself into that position, willing to learn new skills — especially the back-end business stuff that you need to actually sell your stuff to readers — and to just strive to get better at your craft. I’m not expecting to set the world on fire any time soon, and I don’t buy into those one-in-a-million self-publishing success stories and think that’s going to happen to me. But I’m not going to put myself in the poorhouse doing it, either. I work retail, and it’s a struggle to pay bills and get by, so I don’t have a trust fund to fall back on.

    And I don’t dwell on the negative aspects of how tough it is to be heard in all that cacophony of noise out there. This is kind of a golden age for creative people to be able to put their work out and have it seen on a global scale — that was nearly impossible twenty years ago. Getting people to look is only half the battle, the rest is figuring out how to get paid from it, and that’s a plan you may end up making up along the way.

    You do the best you can do, you show up with your bat and ball ready to play hard every day, and fate and luck will have their say . . . but you won’t get anywhere moping and wishing that the PC would spit out cash every time you write something and type ‘the end’.

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    1. I read your great and detailed comment a couple of times. Loved it. Can’t imagine how people publicized their work on a 56K dial up! And the slot machine analogy was very apt. Your comment helped me see things in perspective and also be optimistic.

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  8. I like how you mentioned introverts not having valuable social/marketing skills. I’m an INFJ introvert and find this a challenge. Mostly I operate with digital social media, but when my novel is done, I plan to investigate other routes. In regards to motivation, I think everything has its time and place, and being on the top helps, but it’s not required. Ultimately, it comes down to the art itself for me. I’m a writer and can do nothing else. If it becomes popular or doesn’t, I will still write.

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  9. Indeed, much to think on. I believe there is some truth in your thoughts. Very similar to the music industry’s evolution, the publishing industry going down the same road just at a later date and slower pace.

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  10. Hi bottleworder,

    You’ve touched a raw nerve here, and well done! I think we’ve all felt the same at some point. I can be dispondent at times but then the muse comes surfing back in and I don’t care any more. I’m of the same mind as Christopermwilt, another fortunate 9-5er doing something a million miles away from my art for a living and giving my stuff away as ebooks. It’s a period of transition though. Things are defintiely changing. We just have to keep the faith as writers, be true to ourselves and find the readers however we can, and if that means giving it away for now, I’m happy to do so. Hard if you want to be a pro of course.

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  11. Great post, it doesn’t help all those authors ‘in the biz’ all give each other the reviews. All biased and shallow. I much prefer a blog to these new books anyways, unless it is a truly talented writer, which do seem to be few and far between these days.

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  12. “You’re either at the very top or you are nowhere.”

    That IMO is a structure that was set up by corporate publishing houses years ago. The act of paying millions in advances was speculation really. And marketing departments made editorial decisions as well, betting only on titles they could look at data and have comps for and thus everything looked the same.

    I think the internet and self-pub has changed all that. True, the self-pub world right now is at the other end of the extreme – anyone can “publish” and there’s lots of garbage out there. However, it also means we, as writers, can find niche markets, cater to those individuals, and reap the profits of hard work alone and not speculation.

    The future model is, in my opinion, somewhere between the giant corporate publishers and the do-it-yourself books sales. Non-social writers like myself can find publicists now outside of New York that contract their services; graphic designers, layout, editing services, you name it. I can put it together, sell it and keep a larger share of the profit if I choose to go that route. Then, if a big publisher likes what they see, they can offer to put their substantial machine behind it. It starts to resemble more of a business model than a trip to Vegas.

    I’m excited where publishing is going and think it’s a revolution that’s long overdue. Don’t sweat the gray day thinking, but remember the weather always passes..

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  13. I’m one of the fortunate you mentioned who has a 9to5 they can sneak in writing at. I doubt I will ever be anything but self-published, as my subject matter does not deal with most people’s fantasy versions of themselves (rich, beautiful, powerful, noble, etc..), but more with what I see and have seen. Regardless, I plan to write a bookshelf full of books. Hopefully some people might read a few of them. If not, then a good portion of my mind will be down on paper if my descendants happen to be curious.

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  14. As an aspiring writer, I find your words far too relatable. I can only recall my jealousy of Christopher Paolini when I was younger: Like myself, he was writing his own novel, his own series, and whereas mostly we were the same–a year apart, homeschooled, etc.–he had parents who published his book, made it visible to editors. When I read Eragon, I found it dreadful in every aspect. I was disappointed by his efforts, saddened by the ease he rose to power, and discouraged from putting my own words to paper.

    The world of writing is as you describe it, but I think this hierarchy is beginning to crumble as the industry changes. Either it will yield something new, or it will fall. It may be presumptious, but I think the future is in our hands–either we continue writing passionately, or we allow the towers to fall altogether, and then where will we be? Instead of helping to rebuild a magnificent castle, we will be trying to build it entirely anew.

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  15. I’ve read this on one such grey day, weatherwise anyway. In some ways I’m glad I’m a writer who has come to this a little later in life when I’m working only part-time now, so any writing I get done is a joy to brighten my day.

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  16. It’s frustrating and discouraging to think that I book that might never read a book that I’d love, because it sits on a dusty shelf somewhere, unpublished, or because it doesn’t get the publicity it deserves. Then again, it’s great when you come across something that seems almost serendipitous. Writers and readers just have to keep casting their nets, I suppose, or send messages in bottles in the hope that they’ll reach the person they’re meant for.

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