Friday, February 20, 2004

I am fascinated by the different reasons people have for writing, and how they go about the process of writing and marketing (or not marketing) their work. Lately it seems there has been all sorts of debate among people of different stripes about what a real professional writer is and how they go about being professional. People have suggested modeling your own strategies after a professional writer you admire. Or they suggest simply writing story after story and inundating editors of magazines with product until they are "worn down" by the sheer bulk of narrative that they start buying some of it. Others have more reserved notions about their process. They may even see it as something like "art", and how they go about creating and submitting work is haphazard and serendipitous. What's most interesting is to see all these sorts of writers cawing at each other, declaring their way the best. It's really depressing in many ways, because it's just another argument of what works for you, personally, when it's boiled down to its essence. I get depressed by it sometimes because I think writing is often like a sort of faith. It's personal, the things you believe and don't believe, the things you practice and don't practice. And it's strange, when viewed in the manner, to see people dissing other ways to go about writing and being a writer.

Don't get me wrong. I've done it myself. I do it sometimes weekly. There are just some other ways of going about this whole business of writing that really really get on my nerves. You see, I'm the sort of writer who sees what I do as a sort of art, like making pottery or paintings or music. And I want my stories to have an audience, like any artist. But my relationship with my stories and whether or not they are good isn't defined by whether or not I've been paid "pro" rates, or if the story has placed in a magazine with a certain number of subscribers, etc. I usually define whether or not a story works by my own judgement of it, and the judgement of my peers, and of readers who contact me through email or at conventions to tell me they liked something I wrote and why.

But it seems that a great many other writers find validation through what I can only call abitrary signifiers like "pro rates" and circulation. Don't get me wrong. I like to be paid for my stories. It's a great feeling when someone actually wants to give me lots of money for something I've made, that I've enjoyed making to the best of my ability. But sometimes I publish stories in places that don't have a lot of money to pay out for their contributors, but I like those magazines and what they stand for, or I like their editor's vision, and I want to be a part of that, so I send stories to places that sometimes only pay me ten dollars for a story and may have a circulation of several hundred readers. To me it's important that my stories be read, and where they are read is important also, but not in the guidelines of how much I'm being paid or how many subscribers a magazine currently has. Maybe I won't get famous this way. Maybe I won't ever be able to support myself on writing by going about things this way. But I'm not really in the business of getting famous or rich really. There are lots of ways to get rich and famous, a lot of them easier to do than writing. So if I'm writing with those goals in mind, I'm pretty stupid. I'm in the business of writing to write good stories that I enjoy and other people enjoy, that hopefully work a sort of magic in people, as one reader recently told me a story I wrote did for him. Hearing things like that is often better than any money I've been paid for stories.

If other people want to go about writing and publishing stories with a process that is more akin to a business model, or a science project, I think that's entirely fine. But I do tend to wonder what effect those models have on the stories they are making. Like the university, which has transformed into using a business model and lost so much of its intent to actually educate students broadly, writing stories with a business model as a framework for creation, I think, would also look for the lowest common denominator in the end product. It would encourage writers to punch out cookie cutter stories, one right after the other, endless variations on themes, series stories that are in the end the same story as the one before it with a different name slapped on it. It would encourage tit for tat business-like deals in a small pond publishing world like speculative fiction, where many editors are also authors. You publish me, I'll publish you. I suppose some of this is inescapable, and perhaps some of this isn't even bad. But I do worry that it is a paradigm of writing that could overwhelm the creation of fiction and its distribution to readers. It would create a sort of incestuous field of narrative, and the gene pool in a narrative field as small as speculative fiction is already too small enough to create a sense of homogeneity at times that is, for me personally, frustrating.

I wish the paradigm was less business-like sometimes, and more about vision and freshness. We need more stories with personalities we haven't encountered before, or rarely, in speculative fiction. Without that, we're just another string of paper dolls, endlessly repeating ourselves, creating an echo chamber effect in the house of story. In a genre like speculative fiction, I'm sometimes surprised at the hostility readers and writers have towards fiction that is different from what they are used to reading. I expect readers and writers who indulge fantasy and speculation to be more open, I suppose, to difference. But perhaps that's a foolish notion.

I'll say here the same thing I tell my freshman students at college. At school, I say, "If you're here for a piece of paper that you think is going to get you a job with lots of money and a comfy life, you're setting yourself up for a fall. That piece of paper doesn't promise you anything. So your education has to mean something more than the means to an end that is a higher living wage. It has to be about making yourself a better person for the world. The job at the end of a college education isn't a kept promise all the time. But if you are in school for other reasons, to learn more about yourself and the world you inhabit, to make yourself a better person in your community, those things are entirely dependent on you. Those are promises you can keep to yourself."

The same thing, I think, can be applied to writing. If you're doing this for money and fame, you're setting yourself up for a fall. It has to mean something else to you in the end. And if it doesn't, then you may be sorely disappointed. You have to want to write even without professional rates and high circulations and oodles of fans clamoring for your autograph. If you write for reasons that are dependent entirely on you, that it somehow gratifies you to make a story, that no one can take away from you, and perhaps will guide you to writing stories that are more *you* than if you are trying to write for a "market". And perhaps, just maybe, those stories would sell with greater ease than the ones punched out with the "professional" mold someone sold you when you were looking for "the key" to publishing.


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