Wednesday, July 15, 2009

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 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.


Todd Mason said...

Since Cullen's and many of the new Blogger blogs won't let my account or browser post on their blogs, I'll note here the real bobble I saw, that Gault wrote short fiction for the adult sports pulps (and he was quite probably the best at it, from what I've read reprinted) before he started writing YA sports novels. Frank Bonham and Robb White being among the other pulp and pb veterans to make a good-sized name/career (though probably not a comfortable career) in juvenile novels in the '60s.

Weirdest thing is that there's more television writing, and good television writing, than ever. Just by closed staffs, though, I guess.

K. A. Laity said...

There's probably more writing period, given the internet, but very little of it pays. On the bad days, you curse your madness, on the good days you make like William Blake and assume you're the only one who can write the word of god truthfully.

Max Allan Collins said...

There is little respect for the fulltime writer. And if you haven't been incredibly lucky, a fulltime writer has to take on all sorts of jobs. My current novel out there is the novelization of G.I. JOE -- this does not lead to serious consideration by the Pulitizer committee for other more personal work. I have been called a hack many times in many ways because I dare to make a living at this. I feel reasonably confident that if my body of work were smaller and the work-for-hire stuff weren't there (or if I'd used pennames more often), my reputation would be considerably brighter. But making a living at this is a point of pride as well as a necessity to me. The contemporary writers I most admire include somebody named Ed Gorman and a guy named Randisi who have managed to pay their bills and set their tables while telling stories well. Avoiding real work remains a noble craft.

charlie stella said...

I was over any delusions of fazools after book #3 … then quickly learned to appreciate legitimate work (as it were—word processing in my case, but you can substitute anything you pay taxes on). My bitching became more fine-tuned (i.e., aimed at what affected my hacking), but work, for lack of a better word, “worked” wonders (that idle hands cliché is valid); it is very sobering to work 7 days a week. Not fun, but definitely sobering. Do I miss the gelt that came with my street days? You bet your ass I do. Do I enjoy my 2 hour one-way commute to (or from) work five days a week (I was recently laid off from my weekend gig)? Actually, I enjoy the reading I get to do, so it ain’t so bad. Do I enjoy putting up with lawyers? Some I wouldn’t piss on if they were on fire, but I can deal with most of them. Do I miss working 7 days a week? Actually, sometimes, yeah (but only sometimes). Writing has become what it was meant to be for me—a hobby I hack at. Sort of like my drumming and powerlifting. I’m a hack. I enjoy it enough to keep hacking. I wish I could earn a living at it, but it hasn’t been in the cards and there’s no point in getting angry about stuff that’s out of your control. Chances are, if I could earn a living at it and didn’t have to get up for work five days a week, I’d find a way to get into trouble again.

What’s that great line at the end of American History X (a movie every high school kid in this country should be required to see)? Life is too short to be pissed off all the time?

The Lincoln quote that follows ain’t so bad either …

Your advice to authors is sound, Ed. Unless they already have the coin to persevere, they shouldn’t quit their day/weekend or night job(s). And for those who manage to do it, hats off to yous. In this economy with our ever declining reading base, yous guys/gals have a lot to be proud of.

Anonymous said...

I failed as a newsman and everything else I tried, and turned in middle age to writing fiction out of desperation. Next year I will celebrate a quarter of a century of living without a paycheck. I can't survive as an employee, but manage well enough as a self-employed novelist. Most writers are much better than I, but I've simply been lucky. Luck, rather than skill, finally gave me a delightful and stable life. I haven't the faintest idea how that happened.

Richard Wheeler