In PART 1, I whined about how tough it is to be a writer. I painted a dismal picture of sacrifice with little reward. And, of course, I complained about my missing dinosaur picture, lost somewhere in China in the early 50s.
But it’s not all bad; there’s an upside. Your novel is accepted by an agent who lands you a contract with one of the Big Six publishers and it goes on to become a bestseller and made into a movie starring all your favorite Hollywood personalities and you drive into the sunset in your fire engine red Lamborghini.
Sorry. That’s not really the upside. I was just pulling your metaphors. The real rewards of writing are intangible. You can’t spend them or drive them into the sunset. You can’t pay bills with them like you can with exposure. Oops, pardon me…like you can with money.
There are some cool rewards that swing your way after you’ve been published, money and literary immortality aside. Seeing your book on a bookshelf in book store or library is cool. I stared at the 20 copies of The War Bug for hours before the manager of the bookstore told me I was blocking traffic and some of the customers were disturbed by the sight of my eye balls bulging out of my head as I laughed like a maniac and screamed, “That’s MY book! That’s MY book!”
I have my first royalty check framed and hanging on a wall. It was less than five dollars and made out to my pen name from a bank in Australia, which meant I couldn’t cash it unless I changed my name or requested a new one. When I look at it, it reminds me of the fragility of dreams and the realities of being a writer.
I think the single greatest reward was the day I was sitting outside a coffee shop on a sunny day working on my next novel when a woman I’d never seen before walked up to me and asked if I was Biff Mitchell. She’d signed out my first novel, Heavy Load (a laundromance), from the library. It didn’t have my picture on it, but another one of my novels was on the shelf beside it with my picture on the back. She told me that she’d read the novel and went on to say how much she’d enjoyed it. It made my day. My week. My year. Unfortunately, this never happened again.
Being published can open up other streams of income. I was working (and still am) as an instructional designer, designing online learning. I put the writing and the designing together and started teaching writing workshops. I’ve made more money on those over the last couple of decades than I’ll ever make on my writing. Try a Google search with the terms “how to make money once you’ve been published and you’re still living in poverty and need money for beer and pizza.” You might stumble across a whole new career…probably not in writing, but new.
Oh, one other thing: once it gets around that you’re a published writer, you’ll be approached from time to time by people who will tell you they have a great story idea, one that will become a worldwide bestseller and be made into a blockbuster movie. All they need is for you to write it in return for a credit in the book so that you can ride the chariot of fame by being associated with their great idea. Don’t shoot these people. Tell them your fees for ghost writing and any split on royalties when the novel is published. If they insist that you really need to do this if you’re ever going of ride that chariot with them, then you can shoot them.
You may also be invited to speak at writers’ groups and give live readings at literary events. You’ll have to use your common sense when you decide whether or not to charge for these and how much you’ll charge. If you’re good at these things, charge for them; if not, do them free until you get good enough to demand payment.
As you’ve likely noticed, the benefits of writing once you’re published are a mixture of the tangible and intangible. But what about before you’re published? This period in your life could be years. My first novel was published when I was 50 years old (though I’m still and always will be 29)…long after I’d memorized the grades 1 and 2 spellers.
Suppose you keep writing and never get published right up to the moment you die on your 90th birthday. You might ask yourself, “What was it all for?”
If you were in it for the fame, glory and money…well…probably it was all for nothing. You might have been better off selling pencils on street corners.
One thing I tell people who are working on novels, short stories, poems, movie and play scripts…if you’re writing, you’re a writer. You don’t have to be published; you just have to be writing in earnest. By that I mean, writing to the best of your ability and doing the things that a writer does: researching, developing characters, plotting, writing first drafts, revising over and over until your manuscript is as polished as you can make it and keeping it up, story after story, novel after novel…and doing all this for the sheer love of creating something with words.
So why would you want to be a writer if you’re the only one who knows about it or you’re likely never going to be published? I know a few people who write amazing short stories but never send them to publishers. I know one person who’s spent over a quarter of a century on a single novel that he doesn’t expect to ever stop revising. These people just write. They write for the hell of it. They write for the love of it. They write because they are compelled to write. They write because they cannot not write.
I think that’s what really defines a writer. It’s like those people who cannot not press bubble wrap just to hear and feel the pop. Once you’ve experienced the exhilaration, you’re hooked.
I feel an orgasmic rush when I re-write a terribly written first draft sentence and make it something I feel is the most perfect thing I’ve ever read…up there with Keats and Hemingway. I read it a second time and think, Holy shit! Did I write that? It could take ten re-writes with each orgasm growing in intensity until I’m doing somersaults in my soul.
OK, so that might be a bit overstated, but it’s something along those lines. There’s a very deep sense of satisfaction to be had from seeing a paragraph of mundane, fragmented, clichéd, boring, yawn-inspiring, pitifully inept words and sentences starting to spark and sputter and flame into a bonfire of beautifully constructed worlds and personalities that you created. Of course, looking at the same awesome paragraph the next day you’ll see a few more changes you missed the day before.
This happens with every successive re-write. You see paragraphs getting better, pages improving, scenes and chapters coming together to tell a gripping story with clarity and precision. And here’s the real clincher…it all came out of your imagination. It was something that never existed until you conceived it.
You’re no longer that person at the cocktail party mouthing the same five minute spiel year after year. In fact, you won’t be at the party; you’ll be wherever you write, writing.
And there are the ancillary benefits. All that research makes you informed and gives you a much broader world view than most people. By creating people, you learn about people and gain a much deeper understanding of what makes people tick deep under the shells they present to the world. You begin to understand the motivations and needs of the people around you. You notice things that others miss. You see the fury of bugs buzzing around a street lamp at night and relate it to the emotions of a passerby with a tense jaw. While others are gawking at a mountain range spreading across the horizon, you’re transfixed by a slice of sunlight cutting into a snow bank…the kind of detail one of your characters would see to create a telling moment rather than a post card.
Writing makes you think about the world around you. It makes you question things and look for the truth under the surface of appearances.
In short, you’ll be a better person. You might be lonely and broke, living in a hovel somewhere sane people avoid and wondering what the hell you’re doing. But you’ll be informed, aware and beatific with every re-write. What could be better? And why would you not want to become a writer?