Don't give up, writers!...But don't expect fame either.
On Twitter recently there was a hashtag that got going in which successful authors encouraged struggling writers to keep at it, because it took them (the successful ones) X number of years and manuscripts and rejections before they Hit It Big. And now they’re on bestseller lists! And have Netflix deals! And fan art! So don’t give up!
Normally you can count on me to be the encouraging optimist too. But in this case I feel the kinder thing to do, in the long run, is to deliver an opposing viewpoint consisting mainly of, well, I won’t say “pessimism,” but more like realistically tempered expectations.
I’ve been writing books since I was 12. (I’m now 45.) Counting just the published ones, I’ve had 12 novels or novellas published, with two excellent small presses. I have never hit a bestseller list. I have never been offered a screen adaptation deal. I am not getting fan art or fan fiction, and hardly ever fan mail. I’ve never in all these years had a royalty check big enough to cover more than one month of the mortgage. (And keep in mind royalties are paid once every three months.)
I’m now taking work as an editor/proofreader, not only because I like the work (which luckily I do), but because writing is clearly not going to bring in enough money for me to stick exclusively to that as my career. 33 years of fiction-writing experience and 12 published books is evidently not enough for me to Hit It Big, and I’ve given up on expecting it ever will.
I’m not giving up on writing, mind you. What I’m letting go of is this “work hard, work so damn hard, write every day even if you don’t want to, GET THOSE BOOKS OUT THERE” mentality. The best part of writing is the writing itself, when I am writing something I love and immersing myself in that world. So I’ll write what I love, only when I truly want to write it, and I’ll relax about the timeline. Because whatever I’m writing is probably never going to be The Next Big Fandom anyway.
You, or I, could easily look at all of the above and conclude, “Well, Molly’s writing must suck, because otherwise it WOULD have hit it big by now.” Maybe? Maybe not? Its quality is subjective. What’s true is that I worked every bit as hard as they tell you to, and it wasn’t enough. And of the many writers I know, the overwhelming majority are in the same dowdy boat as me. Very few are cruising in the yacht of the Netflix deals.
Success is not entirely merit-based, either, as you will know if you think for a few seconds about some of the books that are wildly popular. Or some of the books that deserve to be but aren’t. It’s marketing, it’s connections, it’s money, it’s whatever spark of luck and magic makes something go viral. If we all knew what that was, we would do it, obviously, but it’s largely out of our control.
Even if you work hard and write beautifully, and even if you do it for years and years, you are NOT guaranteed to land on any bestseller list or become a fandom sensation. Ever. It’s much likelier you won’t, in fact.
But I am not telling you to give up! Far from it. I’m saying: the question you should be asking yourself is not, “Am I willing to work super hard at writing in order to chase that fame and financial payoff?” The question should be, “Do I love writing enough to keep doing it even if that external success never happens?”
That’s the only question whose answer you have control over. Ask yourself that one. If it’s yes, then don’t give up. Because writing is lovely when done for that reason.
Meanwhile—think about something you wouldn’t mind doing for money. Chances are all too good you’ll need it. And with that, I must return to my editing.