Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Writing and Money

What follows is my response to an essay titled, "How Much My Novel Cost Me," by a young woman who got a good-sized advance for a book that did not sell well. She spent the advance money and went into debt, assuming that she could sell another book for good money. It's excerpted from MFA VS NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction. I need to add that there are more than two cultures in American fiction.

I'm not sure what I am supposed to feel. This may work as a warning against unrealistic expectations. I keep thinking -- she wasted $200,000. Granted, it was less after the agent's fee and taxes. Mostly, I guess, she was too young to know that she ought to bank what was left and keep her day job, unless she had a contract for the next book. Writing books is not a reliable source of income for most people. It is good to have a backup plan: a day job, a spouse with a day job. And an exit strategy. If you write full time, how long do you do it? When do you decide it isn't paying off? And what do you do to earn a living instead?

I don't feel bad for her. It sounds as if she is getting her life straightened out, and she's sold another book, though for a lot less. She's young enough to recover fully. I am irritated by someone who gets a gift -- a big chunk of money -- and then wastes it by buying clothes and living on the Internet. Maybe I lucked out. I never made enough money writing to think even briefly of being a full-time writer. I knew in my 20s that I was always going to need a day job and need to live in an affordable city. I am not a very organized person, but I had -- I think -- a coldly realistic sense of how commercial my work was, and a determination to have a life that (a) was reasonably comfortable, as I counted comfort, and (b) gave me time and energy to write. I never wanted to rely on publishers for living money. I wanted to be able to walk away, if I didn't like a deal. I did walk away from a two book contract once, because I could afford to. I probably would have walked away in any case, but it would have been hard times.

My attitude is a combination of prudence and a need for independence. I don't want to be in debt. I don't want to be unnecessarily poor. And I don't want to be controlled by publishers or the fiction market. This is art, goddammit.

Note: I went back over some earlier posts and notice that I said much of what's here in a post on being a writer in January. Well, some of this is different, so I'll keep it.


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