"Write without pay until somebody offers to pay you. If nobody offers within three years, sawing wood is what you were intended for."
– Mark Twain
If you are new to writing, Mark Twain’s quote sounds like a reasonable guideline to follow. Three years from now, you might feel differently.
It took me a whole lot longer than three years, just to get from Completely Unknown to Completely Unknown but Published. I’ve been at the writing gig for a while, but it’s always been on the side.
In 1989, I wrote a three-part article on BBS Gaming that was published in the now defunct Challenge Magazine. I remember it was a paying gig, but I don’t think it was more than two cents a word or something like that. That was a thrill for me, getting into a printed magazine. Back then, there were no online publications.
Between 1989 and 2000, I fumbled around with stories here and there, but nothing ever came from it.
It was in 2000 that my good friend, Tom Quinn, proposed the idea for what he called – and what is still called – Life in Sixty-Four Square Feet. He proposed a short video, showing the different perspectives of two people, one guy who conformed to secular life, working in a cubicle (a.k.a.; Box-Guy) and a guy who was nonconformist – but still functional – in the same office environment (a.k.a.; Circle-Guy).
Five to ten minutes long, the video was to be nothing but the contrasts between the two, with Box-Guy noticing that Circle-Guy was happier.
The next week, I pitched the first three pages to Tom, who critiqued, added his own scenes and sent it back. We continued writing it in this way for a couple of weeks, and then we saw a Volkswagen Beetle commercial that summarized the concept in a sixty-second spot.
This is the Volkswagen commercial:
We were completely undone by this, and had to reevaluate the project. The sentiment we both shared was that, now, anything we would do in our short video would only echo scenes from the commercial. We were also cognizant that it would be easy to slip into imitating scenes from Office Space.
So, we set the bar higher, doing Life in Sixty-Four Square Feet as a movie script and expanding the story into three full acts. The plan was to enter it in Project Greenlight – a contest where one script would be selected to be made into a movie by Mirimax.
The script progressed well, with both of us contributing to it. To be sure, Tom and I had very different ideas about Act III, and we had long conversations about it. Still, it slowly progressed.
Then the towers fell on 9/11/01.
Neither Tom nor I lived in New York. We did not lose anyone close to us in the attack on the World Trade Center or Pentagon. Despite that, any adult who was alive on that date remembers how it felt – how it shrouded everything in somberness and an ache that didn’t pass. The whole country was healing, and healing slowly.
Suddenly, our little story about a pissy guy – complaining about his pointless job – just didn’t seem worthy of attention. Big things were going on, and our script dealt with none of the important issues.
We stopped. Quit. Just like that.
I guess it was 2007 when I picked the script up again. Tom Quinn was now completely occupied with other matters and had lost interest in the project, so I continued working on it – with his approval, of course.
I changed it from script to novel format, and without an opposing partner to weigh in, I was able to write the third act as I wanted. While I missed the conversations and back-and-forth I had with Tom, I was relieved that I could write the ending I wanted. I thought it would be a breeze. It was anything but.
Life in Sixty-Four Square Feet was challenging because it was making serious statements about the complexity of modern life, but still needed to be entertaining. I was learning as I went – through three drafts and two additional, complete rewrites. Also during this time, I wrote around a hundred short stories and two other novels. Find My Baby and Undertaking Hartford are still in the second draft.
Some of my short stories were published in various online e-zines, but all were non-paying and most had limited readership – 5000 or less.
In 2010, I sold a short story to a big magazine. This could not have happened without the pro bono efforts of a literary agent, who presented the story on my behalf. I am immensely grateful to her for this. Unfortunately, the magazine has not published the piece, so, when thirty-six months pass, rights to the story revert back to me according to the contract, but I was paid. Not a total loss, but I would have rather they published it.
In 2010-2011, I lead a group of authors in writing an anthology of zombie fiction. We released The Infection Anthology, which quickly fell into absolute obscurity. It was a learning experience for me: I definitely do not want to be a publisher.
I also took my short stories that were published in various non-paying publications and released them as e-books. Death Zone and Other Stories released in 2011 and sold reasonably well, probably due to the catchy title and decent cover.
In 2012, I did this again – republishing my stories that had appeared in online e-zines – in another anthology: It Didn’t Happen This Way – Untrue Stories, Volume One. This one hasn’t sold as many copies as Death Zone, but then, the title and cover weren’t as catchy, either.
So now, in 2013, with an agent shopping Life in Sixty-Four Square Feet around to publishers, and some interest being shown for Find My Baby, I look at how long it took me to get – just – this far.
Having a piece accepted by a non-paying publication is no longer a thrill for me. I think my writing is worth more than nothing, and am looking for the validation that comes with being paid for my work.
Most publications don’t pay, and those that do are inundated with manuscripts. It’s not just matter of being good enough, it’s a matter of getting your ms noticed in the pile of submissions from other authors.
Self-publishing fiction is a tough road, too – profiting the retailers, not the author – I’ve learned. It’s the rare exception that can break that mold, and while I like to imagine it could be me, I’m not so egotistical that I think it will be me.
Seriously, look at the cuts e-book retailers take on a sale – Some take 35%-70%, depending on how you price the e-book. Mind you, without them, your book doesn’t get wide visibility, but it comes with a significant cost.
Of course, I use the popular excuses to justify self-publishing: It’s to build a reader-base. It’s to get my name out there. It’s for the satisfaction of it all, not the money – and good thing, too.
Amazon is awash with self-published books and all the stigma that goes with the self-published moniker. It’s an amusing fact that the bestselling, self-published e-book is about how to self-publish an e-book.
Almost no one can earn a living writing fiction. Yes, there are those who do it, but of the people who do write fiction, it’s less than 1% that pull it off.
So Mark Twain – who was in the 1% club in his day – can bite me. I’m not writing to get paid. I work a separate profession to earn a living for myself and my family. I write because I want to.
Twain also said something about the naysayers and “small people” who will put others down to feel better than themselves, as well as the sort of person you should be around:
"Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great."
– Mark Twain
I’ll keep at it. I honestly don’t think I could stop, anyway.
If you are a writer looking for a friendly and helpful critique forum – the really great that make you feel that you, too, become great -, why not take a look at http://Splinter4All.com and see if it is a good fit for you. Here, in a closed forum, writers constructively critique each other’s work. Joining is free, and if you do, look me up. I’m MitchLav on the site. See you there.