The Writers’ Deaths by Starvation?

“Does It Pay to Be a Writer?” From the New York Times

“Crashing author earnings ‘threaten future of American literature'” From The Guardian

I saw the New York Times article yesterday and a similar one in anxiety writer today, both decrying the loss of author income and blaming Amazon. I have heard for years how Amazon is geared to choke out publishers and by extension writers.  The article confirms that. These facts are depressing and, in many ways, mirrored my own situation as I strive to create or find a new job that also allows me enough time to write on the side.

Online magazine opportunities

I think part of what depressed me was that this lack of support for writers is not just in the book market. Many media sources, such as newspapers and magazines, are shutting down as their readership numbers decline. Of course, articles and short stories are still being written and published. Many magazines have some online presence, either solely or in conjunction with a print version. Unfortunately, often the fees paid by online zines are much smaller than the print versions. Thus, while article writing was a classic way of earning money, it seems to be morphing into a slower type of starvation.

Short story opportunities

Similarly, anthologies either pay very little for stories or only in contributor copies. Some don’t even provide lower-priced copies of the book back to the author, who could then promote the work as well. In addition, the publishers of anthologies often tie up the rights to stories for a year or more. Some even ask people to pay them for publication. Hopefully those are short lived as writers boycott them.

I understand the financial risk of putting such a book together, but I don’t believe that anthologies deserve quality short stories without the commitment to pay for them. New writers are told that short stories are a great way to break in and some writing for free gets your name out there. Yes, this is true, but it also devalues the writer’s work in particular and the field in general until everyone is expected to offer free or insanely cheap work. Creativity deserves a decent wage.

Working while writing- not a new concept

Remember the famous story of JK Rowling, who conceptualized and wrote parts of her Harry Potter tomes while on welfare? Many, if not all, writers worked at something else while trying to establish their writing career. In addition to paying the bills, it gave them the opportunity to learn about the law, politics, medicine or whatever they were doing. This knowledge in turn provided the detailed descriptions for their novels. Think about any of the areas I listed above and you can come up with some writer: John Grisham, Steve Berry, Michael Crichton, and so on who have succeeded because they wrote about their expertise. Writing while working another job is an old idea. Nothing has changed on that. The unfortunate aspect that these articles point out is that most of us will not become Steven Kings or Tom Clancys, living solely on our royalties.

However, I want to offer a beacon of hope. The articles above only included book sales. An evolutionary process of success exists in the publishing world where the writer creates multiple books. A few of these go on  to bring in income in other ways through other rights. Remember that most writers often are considered successful because their books turned into a movie or a TV show. We would not have Rambo, True Blood, or Jack Reacher without the writers creating the book first.

In addition, although I have no direct experience with publishing in other countries, I’ve heard other authors discuss publication in other countries as a source of income too. Many books don’t go through this process but it is part of an author’s definition of ultimate success.

Why do you write?

Ask yourself why do you write. If it’s to become rich, then you’re in the wrong field. The Hollywood dream is a lie. If it’s to be read and loved by millions, you’re in the wrong field. Adoration is more for rock stars and actors. If it is because the story begs to come out, then you may be on to something.

A novelist should never write for money alone. That’s a flawed idea from the start. Many creative people are not driven by “will this sell?” ideology. When we write, we ask the question of “what if” and crave to see the answer. The characters are our best friends or our greatest fears. The settings appear as real to us as our living rooms. The stories itch and claw at our brains, wanting to see daylight. We want to see the final result as much as our readers. Plus, writing takes tremendous time between researching, crafting, editing and submitting work. It’s also expensive as we are encouraged to network, have websites, seek out help in the form of editors and attend conferences. None of these items are cheap.

Ultimately, however, if the world wants to continue receiving great fiction, then we writers must receive decent royalties for our work.


The Interweaving of Plot, Character, and Setting

This weekend I have the pleasure of participating in the A Writer’s Day Camp at Taltree Arboretum & Gardens (sponsored by the Indiana Writers’ Consortium). My topic will be on worldbuilding so I’ve been thinking about that all week. The problem is, it is hard to just talk about only setting, character, dialogue or plot as if they were all separate things. In fact, it feels impossible to discuss one without widely swinging into all the others. After all, each of these factors overlay and intertwine like snakes writhing in a hole. From the view of the reader, pulling just one factor out to see should be nearly impossible without impacting the others. And that is the way great writing should be.

Intertwined snakes

This Celtic symbol could be plot and setting, character and setting or other equally knotted up writing ideas.

A writer can’t really talk about character development without referring to the setting unless the character is dropped into a world completely different from where he or she lives. The reason is simple. Our environment shapes who we are and what we think about. If you doubt this, just compare to a person from a rural or small-town background to an urban citizen. Let’s say a person from a town in the Poconos versus New York city. Yes, they might be from the same state, are both East Coast residents, but they will have subtly different ideas. Throw in a cross-country comparison, like a Northerner versus a Southerner and the differences grow enormously. When I moved from the Coastal Bend region of Texas to Indiana, I was awestruck over the differences in societies and people. For one thing, Texans love their fences while Northwest Indiana folks seem to hate them.

A good example of regionalism affecting character and plot can be found in Sofie Littlefield’s Bad Day for Sorry. The accent and attitude of the main character is so southern that it makes you think of catfish and cornbread. Her Stella Hardesty character reeks of southern setting every time she opens her mouth. Charlaine Harris’ book (and TV show) Midnight, Texas series was chosen specifically because of its isolation and somewhat alien feel of the Texas desert. The sparsely settled setting makes it easy to have bodies disappear. In addition, people living in a tiny town form a protective cluster. They all know and look out for each other. This isolation helps mold the very odd characters found there.

Sometimes to start figuring out a story, all you need to do is ask questions about a character. Where did they come from? Where do they live now? What job do they do and how does that mold their character? Exploring these questions can lead to a story.

For example, I wrote a book about a ghost-talker that was harassed by spirits constantly until she finally made it her mission to put them to rest. Specter of a Chance came from one simple idea, a name. I thought of Magdalene Knowles (“Layne please. Never Maggie!”) Her name seemed so cool so I knew she had to be someone strong with an interesting life. I gave her ghost talking ability and put her in Northwest Indiana. If the spirits bugged her all of the time, people would think she is crazy talking to air. So she couldn’t hold a normal job. What could she do to earn money to support herself? What would be her goals in life and who would be her best friend?

Then I started thinking about worldbuilding. Why NWI? What opportunities would it give her? What were the benefits and problems of living in an area that had cities closely clustered together but each firmly independent? How would the seasons and weather affect her spectral companions? What limits existed for ghosts? Eventually a plot fell out of those musings.

So it is fine to focus on setting or character or plot separately to start with. However, great writers recognize that these factors all blend together and affect each other. They must in order to make up all the beautiful details and twists that make a really fine plot. After all, spy novels aren’t that interesting if they are located in small town South Dakota, and western cowboys don’t really belong in Europe unless you are going for the culture clash. In that case, those ideas could actually make really interesting books.

Happy writing!