When you have finished the rough draft of your latest book one day earlier than you had targeted it for completion, what do you do? Well, I sat there stunned and shattered. Later, I watched an old film and decompressed:
And I went for a quick walk:
I did not go inside. I resisted. I had thought, though, maybe…
Earlier, I had also “freed” my book at last from the confines of a PC file and printed the ENTIRE manuscript for the first time. In its three dimensional form it’s now 516 pages (double-sided printed, of course) and it took the printer about three hours to work through it all. At last I could point to it and say, 13 months of work (so far):
I was so pleased, as you see I took a photo of it. As I looked at it, I thought as well that I still couldn’t believe it. All of that had once been merely an “idea” bouncing around vaguely in my head.
Soon the “editor” – she may well be reading this post – will receive a copy. Now the truly scary part commences. I hope she has a spare month or so of reading time!
I have just Facetimed my wife in Portugal and waved it at her: “My Gone With The Wind,” I laughed.
She came back, “Let’s hope it sells like that!”
Indeed, and as I look again now at that huge pile of paper, my uncle comes to mind. If you are a regular visitor, you know he died in October 2015. He had been a crime novelist published starting in the early 1980s by “big name” companies.
In the last few years of his life, we had at times discussed how writing had changed from when he had started out. But it had not changed that much. The game is still the game.
In the late 1970s he had received a big payout thanks to an issue peculiar to his life: it was a money “windfall” that enabled him to get started writing as he no longer needed a weekly paycheck. But after that “windfall” was all used up, he survived for some 15 years after by living primarily off of his writing output.
That became his job. At one point, I recall he had a contract that required he produce three or four novels in succession. Sounds like heaven, right? He would write one and send it off, and then receive an advance of money for the next. That advance was enough to live on for a year or so, but he HAD to finish that next promised book because he was living on that money. Essentially, he wrote from within debt.
He had additional small sources of income, and did not live extravagantly either (and there was a divorce involved in the 1990s from my aunt too, which was a huge distraction at times and a money drain), but eventually the pace and demands to write to live wore him out.
He ended up in the late-1990s getting a job teaching creative writing at a U.S. university. He had it until his death. (He got it initially while I was still teaching. I recall him asking me about my college lecturing – I was so flattered that he had sought advice from me!)
With that job, however, his writing output also dropped off dramatically. I think he wrote 8 novels in total (depending on what one considers a “novel”) in his 35 years as an author and lecturer. The first 5 or 6 were churned out in his first 10 or so years at it, while in his last 25 years or so he managed only 2 or 3. (Whenever I see “social media” posts from writers who announce they are “30 years old” and have just written their “20th book,” I just can’t take that seriously.) Once he turned to lecturing for a steady income, he told me that he could no longer motivate himself, or find the time, to write as he had. The threat of homelessness or starvation was a tremendous motivator, he noted.
In the 1990s, he had also written a screenplay for an episode of a U.S. crime drama network TV series. I remember him saying that when he did he finally understood why writers KILLED to write for TV. The amount of money he said he had made for just that ONE episode was astonishing in comparison to the work it involved. “That’s why everyone in L.A. has a screenplay on them,” I remember him saying. Unfortunately, that TV series was canceled and he never got a chance to write for TV again.
One of his novels had more than once been “optioned” – bought by a producer for a possible film. Once its rights were held for a time by a hugely famous woman U.S. actor. (The novel featured a woman detective; my very male uncle once wrote a woman lead.) He made over another year’s income from simply selling her the rights for three years. “God, if she makes a film of it,” I remember him declaring, “I would be f-ckin’ made!” But it never got made.
He also wrote a couple of plays in the 1990s that were translated into German and broadcast on German radio – similar, I suppose, to dramas on BBC Radio 4 here in Britain. They too would occasionally lead to a check (cheque) appearing in his mailbox unexpectedly now and then. At one point, I recall he said one had appeared out of the blue and saved him when he was, shall we say, not in a good place financially.
Being a writer, he said, is often feast or famine, and usually the latter. When you make some money, you think you’ve made it. But the success never lasts – which is why the creative side, he always insisted to me, must be your pride. Unless – by some miracle – you get a film or TV deal, you won’t earn lots of money, so at least be proud of the books that sit under your name.
Just before he died, he read Passports and Frontiers – my two first novels – and to my great relief liked them, and encouraged me to keep at it. (He said what I write is of course nothing like what he did. I countered that I could not write what he wrote!) I remember him also saying he hoped to write one more novel. He felt he had more to say, but he also told me in one of our last conversations in mid-2015 that he felt his health was failing and he could no longer concentrate and discipline himself enough to produce one. He died five months later.
So, if you write, understand that most novelists don’t support themselves from purely writing books. My uncle did support himself for a while, but paid an enormous life price in doing so. Eventually, he could do it no longer.
I write for the challenge and to share it with anyone who might be interested. Above all, I write to entertain. Yes, it would be wonderful to be a “big success,” but based on what I saw of my uncle’s life as a self-supporting author, I’m not sure what – realistically speaking – “big success” actually is.
As I had once also told Adele Archer: I bet we’ll sell gazillions after we’re dead. 😉
On that, err, happy note, have a good day, wherever you are in the world. 🙂