A character called "The Author" in "Work in Progress"
Writing magazines are an important source of comfort and inspiration for the emerging author. Sometimes, however, I wonder about the focus they place on success.
When I became serious about being a writer, about a decade ago, I naturally turned to writing magazines to help me achieve my goals. I wanted good, solid advice on the path I was going to take. What I found, along with helpful articles on the nuts and bolts of story, was that there are only two types of writers that are featured in writing magazines.
Type 1: The Established Author. We hear a lot about Type 1 authors. We are invited to read about their typical writing day (“Get up, walk dog, drink coffee, retire to study, write 5,000 words, have lunch, walk on the beach, write another 5,000 words….”), or get a glimpse of their writing area. We’re asked to marvel at the details of their latest book deal, or commiserate with them that their brilliant novel has been savaged by Hollywood and turned into a dreadful (but lucrative) movie version.
Type 2: The Rising Star. These authors appear regularly too: the first deal neophytes, who break the big time with their first novel (“Cynthia Mulligan scored a $100,000 three-book deal after ***** bought her first novel ‘The housewife with a wooden leg’…”) Whether or not we’ll ever hear about Cynthia ever again is anyone’s guess. The important thing is that she penned an instant hit, and therefore YOU COULD TOO!
The problem I found with constantly being assailed with these two author types was not sour grapes (though you’d be forgiven for thinking so.) I know those at the top of the profession, those type 1’s, had either a massive stroke of luck or clawed their way up by sheer effort. It takes tenacity and dedication to get a manuscript finished, let alone send it away again and again until it gets accepted. Even if you make it that far, odds are someone’s going to ask you to write another one… The same is true of the Type 2’s. No one is minding the kids and doing the housework for them while they retire to their writing area. They have to fit in the work around the work, as it were.
No, the problem is that this gives new writers the idea that these are the only two career paths for writers – successful superstars, or ‘Just made the big time’ authors. I wish – oh, how I wish! – that back then someone had told me you could be a jobbing writer.
Type 3: The jobbing writer. The jobbing writer still lives in the real world. They don’t attend big book signing events. They don’t sell film rights and buy a yacht. They probably don’t even call themselves “Writers” because they’ve found something specific, some niche that pays a steady wage and still allows them to stretch their creative muscles. They may be Columnists for newspapers or magazines, local paper reporters, speciality magazine editors or contributors, serial letter-writers, or, like me, playwrights. All of these people are Writers, all need the same skillsets as the Type 1’s and 2’s, they need to write in an engaging manner, keep tracking down and eliminating adjectives, spellchecking, fact checking, rewriting… But they don’t get interviewed for the Writing magazines, they don’t get the kudos for doing what they do. Yes, I’m sure you could find exceptions, famous columnists or playwrights, but I would argue that they have not become famous for that – Tom Stoppard may have been a famous playwright, but he became better known for writing the screenplay for “Shakespeare in Love”. “Bridget Jones’ Diary” was a popular column, but Helen Fielding didn’t hit the big time until it became a novel and then a movie.
In the last ten years I have beavered away, writing and working and waiting for the big break. It wasn’t until around five years ago that I realised I was actually earning a reasonable sum – say the equivalent of a part-time job. Not from one big score, but from the accumulation of lots of small pieces selling well. I had diversified, adding Script Reader to my Playwright title. Now I could review new scripts for my publisher. Then we launched a Script Appraisal service, where new writers could get to read the script reports I wrote, as well as having their script proof-read and marked up for errors.
Of course I’m still dreaming of the day when I find myself being interviewed as a Type 1. I’m still working on my screenplay and occasionally I dust off a manuscript and begin yet another re-write. But I know that by plugging away at my niche I’ve built a reliable income and been able to write the things I wanted to write – still do, in fact. If I’m only a little further on ten years from now, I’m sure Mrs Dim will be disappointed (She wants to go to the Hollywood parties…) but I think I will be content. As long as I don’t read too many Type 1 articles.