Slings and Arrows
Over on Pulp Serenade tonight Cullen Gallagher excerpts an article William Campbell Gault wrote for Writer's Digest back in 1956. Squeezed in among all the positive pump pieces about making that sale! Gault's blunt and sometimes grim words reflect a partial truth about full-time writing. His point is that's it a strange and troublesome way to make a living and in places he shows real bitterness about trying to survive the game:
"His first mystery novel, Don’t Cry for Me, was rejected by everyone, but finally was picked up and even won an Edgar. Gault’s reaction? “You think you are big now, but you are nothing.”
"If anything, what is so surprising about this article is its discouraging, embittered tone. The “you” in the article never gives up – but it seems that Gault wonders why anyone would continue through such hardship, disappointment, and failure. Even success for Gault is tinged with the knowledge that it not everlasting, nor assured to ever happen again."
Ed here: Gault wrote this at a time when there were still hundreds of magazines that bought short stories, dozens of publishers of both hard and soft cover and a TV market that had an insatiable need for stories. Things are completely different today.
Couple points here: Every once in awhile I get a call or email from a writer asking if he or she should go full time. This usually comes after the third or fourth novel sale or a serious Hwood option or sale. I took the chance as did many of my friends. But most of us started in the Seventies or Eighties when there were many, many opportunities for writers. And while we've suffered all the slings and arrows Gault talks about, most of us have survived. But today...no way. Maybe if you landed a huge book contract or Hwood bought your last novel for Big Money, maybe. Otherwise, no way. Given the marketplace, it's just too risky. Not that my words have ever stopped anybody. And they shouldn't. More than a few writers who didn't heed my words are doing quite well. Still and all houses have been lost, marriages have broken up and addictions have returned because the scramble to survive got to be too much.
Even though he didn't mean it to be, Gault's tone functions as a cautionary. You can see that he's given in to real despair at times. Now, every writer I know has had terrible disappointments and has had to spend some time working through them. This is the time when you hear all the bitching and you don't mind it because you've been there yourself or you walk around dreading that it's going to happen to you.
But there are writers who are always bitching and they're the ones I avoid. Nobody ordered us to be full-time writers (not even Dick Cheney has those kinds of power) so we either make the best of it or we get out. Just get on with your work and hope for the best. The real trouble with writers who constantly bitch is that they tend to be jealous of anybody who is more successful than themselves. To quote myself, Nobody wears jealousy well. We all have one or two people who success baffles us. We don't think much of their work; we've never had their luck (and luck figures prominently). But again we get back to work and forget our envy. He didn't become popular just to spite us. He wrote a book people liked.
There was a semi-famous writer in another genre who was relentlessly promoted by a Big Star. Personally I thought the guy's work was pretty boring but the reviewers loved him. A major house offered him a three book contract. Two of the books were that month's leads, something most writers will never get. But despite all the promotion, it didn't work. The books bombed. He'd always been a prick about other writers. I talked to him a few times when I was editing Mystery Scene and no matter who I'd mention he'd manage to put down in some way. I finally said that three or four of the people he dissed were friends of mine and I thought they were very good writers. He backed off. His failure at the top turned him even more rancid. He even wrote a piece tearing into the Big Name who'd basically sponsored him. Approach these people with bio-hazard suits. Jealousy is a pain in the ass to listen to and ultimately I feel dirty for having not changed the subject or walked away.
All this is addressed or hinted at in Cullen's piece tonight. Well worth reading.