Take a moment to see how a writer's life has changed.
DESCRIBE WHAT YOU SEE AND REPEAT WHAT YOU HEAR….
by Gray Dourman
Longevity in a writing career is hard to achieve. What worked in the 1970s certainly doesn’t work today. Writing follows fashion and fashions change, constantly.
One response to change is to monitor the market and adjust style, subject and approach to address the new trends as they arise. Another is to stick with what you do, what you believe in and what you know in the hope that nostalgia or the natural cycle of events will bring you, your style and your insight back into fashion.
Forty years ago my first editor said, ‘I don’t pay you for what you think. I pay you to tell me what you know. Describe what you see and repeat what you hear. Leave the rest in the wastepaper basket.’
Of course my first editor ran a newspaper. What he said was fundamental to journalism and served me well throughout my career as a journalist and technical writer but didn’t work particularly well when I started writing fiction. Yet over the years even that journalistic ethos has changed. Journalists today include a great deal more opinion than would have been tolerated three or four decades ago, a fact that is neither to be celebrated nor regretted. It is futile to resist change.
I started writing on a second hand portable typewriter and using carbon paper to keep copies of my work. It is hard to explain to my children that my career predates electronic reproduction such as typewriters, computers and copiers. Therein lies an important skill in the process of change management. Survivors take a keen in interest in the technical process of publishing and adapt working practices to it as fast as they can.
As a young writer, living in
British Columbia, Canada, many of my publishers were located in Toronto or the , a very long way away. I awoke every morning listening for the footsteps of the postman, in the hopes that he would deliver and assignment or a payment. The fax machine was a brilliant development and I delivered my first copy to a publisher via email in 1995. I was there ahead of many of my colleagues and it gave me an edge, an edge that I needed. United States
When I started writing, it was not only poorly paid but it was also poorly respected. Unless you were an acclaimed author or a Pulitzer prize winner, you were a hack, pure and simple. The glamorisation of the profession started with
Writing became sexy, right up there with being in the movies or being a pop star. Its popularity brought problems to lazy writers like myself. Now, everybody and everybody else wanted to be a writer. Everybody had a book in them and with computers and electric typewriters an easy means of production was at hand.
Universities ramped up media studies to meet demand. Writing gurus like Robert Mckee have sold millions of books revealing key skills and tricks of the trade that meant the quality of output escalated dramatically over a very short period. More output of higher quality meant that competition intensified. Hard drinking, seasoned veterans like myself found it more and more difficult to get through to our agents on the phone. Phrases such as ‘Why can’t you give me something more like…’ were repeated more frequently.
When I started writing, Science Fiction and Fantasy were a tiny, irrelevant genre in the market. Children’s books were just that…and not much more important than comic books. Now…well. Now, well, the market has changed.
During a recent negotiation over a piece of writing I was pitching, the commissioning editor asked me, ‘Where’s the magic?’
‘The magic?’ I said. ‘Do you find the idea mundane?’
‘No,’ she said. ‘I mean the magic. What special power does your central character possess?’
‘None,’ I responded. ‘She is very human, very flawed, very insignificant. That’s the story.’
‘That’s not a story,’ she said. ‘That’s what I wake up to every morning. I live with human, flawed and insignificant.’
As old and cranky as I am, I was not about to write about ‘magic’ people, not least because I don’t know any. It was at that moment I decided to look seriously at self-publishing. Self-publishing used to be considered vanity publishing and relentlessly ridiculed by professional writers. Thanks to Amazon and other open access platforms it has gained in legitimacy. It is becoming an exciting and innovative marketplace where the relationship between reader and writer isn’t be disintermediated by commercial interests that by their very nature must shape the work according to budgetary considerations rather than artistic interests.
The independent author lacks the marketing muscle and budget that the big houses have at their disposal but viral marketing techniques mitigate that disadvantage to some extent. While Kindle and other reading devices have not dislocated words on paper yet, they will. It is only a matter of time. The electronic market will gyrate. Quality will emerge. Some of us will prosper, some of us will go back to waiting tables, tending children or whatever else we can find to keep body and soul together.
In the large proportion of cases, writing is still not a well-paid profession. But it can be challenging and rewarding. The longer a career lasts the greater the chance of writing the breakthrough piece, of finding the right agent, the right publisher, the right publicist, the right personal assistant. The chances of extending a career are improved by adapting, persisting, finding the strategy that works, enjoying the work and a big chunk of pure luck. I wouldn’t have it any other way.