This past weekend, I was a keynote speaker at Creatures, Crimes, & Creativity, a conference for genre writers of all stripes — mystery, SF/fantasy, horror, thriller, etc. — and it was tremendous fun. The conference includes meals, and both Friday and Saturday night’s dinner features a keynote speaker. Friday was me, and here’s the text of the speech that I gave. It was very well received, and in fact Saturday’s keynote speaker, thriller writer and all-around awesome person Jamie Freveletti, wound up rewriting her speech after hearing mine, which was extremely flattering.
Anyhow, here ’tis:
Good evening everyone. I’m Keith R.A. DeCandido, and I’ll be your keynote speaker this evening.
About 10-15 years ago, Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith used to run writing workshops in Lincoln City, Oregon in a beautiful house near the ocean. They had a saying up on the wall of the main room of the house and it was the one piece of advice they gave to everyone who took one of their workshops:
You are responsible for your own career.
It seems so simple when you say it out loud, doesn’t it? But it’s something a lot of writers—aspiring writers, new writers, longtime successful writers—don’t quite cotton to. Because there is one simple truth about being a professional writer that not every writer is able to wrap their minds around.
There’s a perception that writing isn’t “real” work. This is nonsense, of course, but in this country in particular there’s a perception that the only worthwhile labor is that which has immediate practical value. The horrific legacy of the Puritans who were among those who colonized North America is that art isn’t as valued as practicality.
Because of that, artists are often viewed as inferior, or at least not as worthy of being paid. Two of my least favorite phrases are “art for art’s sake” and “the starving artist.” Art is never for its own sake, it’s there to be consumed, and in our capitalist society, that means in exchange for money. Yet so often writers are the last ones to be paid, if they’re paid at all. Web sites that would never dream of not paying their web designers or server hosts gleefully decline to pay writers, as if their work isn’t actually important. (Never mind that their web sites would just be a URL with maybe a graphic or two without those writers.) Artists should never be starving.
Mild digression: I write a lot of media tie-in novels, which are work-for-hire—Star Trek novels, Farscape comics, Doctor Who short stories, etc. It’s my writing, but I don’t keep the copyright nor own any controlling interest in the fiction, and everything I do has to be approved by the licensor. Often, tie-in fiction is derided as not being “real” fiction, and that it’s keeping people from doing “real” fiction. To those people I love to point out that Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling was a media tie-in work-for-hire. It was a tie-in to the Bible, and he had to do it with the approval of the licensor—the Pope, in this case. Of course, the counterargument comes into play here, too, as Michelangelo really wanted to be making sculptures, not painting ceilings, but he had to pay the bills.
Because yes, Michelangelo was paid to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Hundreds of years later, it’s a work of art we study, but back then, it was how an artist made his living. For that matter, William Shakespeare desperately wanted to be a poet, but writing plays allowed him to feed, clothe, and house himself.
Anyhow, those who demean the profession of writing are almost always people who’ve never tried it—or if they have, they’re really bad at it. Writing is hard work, and it’s incredibly difficult. Which makes sense—if it was easy, everybody would do it.
And if you want to do it professionally, you need to get yourself in the mindset of being professional about it. Even if people ask you when you’re going to get a real job, or ask you what your day job is—or worse, they ask why you’re not living in a mansion lighting your royalty checks on fire with cigars. There’s this really bizarre perception that the moment you sell a single novel you’re wealthy for the rest of your life.
Another mild digression: a few years ago, I was, shall we say, between checks. Long-term, I knew things would be fine once a few projects came through, but in the short term my wife and I had absolutely nothing. In desperation, as we were horribly late with rent, we started a GoFundMe so we could at least catch up in the short term. We actually made our funding goal in a couple of days, which was awesome, and I gave everyone who donated a free short story as a thank-you.
The reason why I bring this up is because one person on a Star Trek bulletin board I frequent expressed great confusion as to why a writer as successful as I am needed financial help. Did my investments go sour or something?
Reading that caused gales and gales of laughter in my house. I rather delicately pointed out to this person that my portfolio was entirely tied up in food and shelter. Most writers aren’t Richard Castle or Robin Masters or even a not-fictional writer like Stephen King or J.K. Rowling. We’re all just people trying to work for a living, and we get paid worse than most. Hell, my average advance for a novel has actually gone down in the last twenty years, even as the cost of living has gone up.
Anyhow, I’ve been doing this for a bunch of years now. I actually have no idea when I went from being one of the young up-and-coming writers to a grizzled veteran, but here we are. I didn’t actually accept that this change had happened for a long time, mind you. And then in 2015 I was on a panel at a science fiction convention about breaking into writing. There were six of us on the panel, and we started off by each telling our stories of how we made our first fiction sale. To my horror, I was the only one on the panel whose first sale was in the 20th century.
As a rather reluctant grizzled veteran, I’m repeatedly asked for advice or bits of wisdom or sound bytes or whatever. And I have a bunch of different stock answers for advice about writing, but the one that I think is the most important—because it’s one that aspiring and new writers don’t hear often enough if at all—is this:
If you’ve decided to become a professional writer, then you have made the decision to become a single-proprietor small business.
It doesn’t matter if this nascent business you’ve formed isn’t actually earning any capital yet, or at least not much. It doesn’t matter if you’ve only sold one short story and have a ton of novels out with agents or publishers or whatever. The point is, you’re running a business, and you don’t have any employees.
And that’s how you have to look at it. This is work. This is a job. No, you don’t clock into an office every weekday at the same time, but that doesn’t make it any less a job. Every time you submit something for publication, you’re going on a job interview.
The worst thing you can do is treat it like a hobby. Another phrase I can’t stand is, “I would love to write, but I just can’t find the time,” as if time is something that rolled under the couch. If you want to be a professional writer, you make the time, and if you can’t do that, then this may not be the business for you.
Having said that, there’s nothing wrong with writing being a hobby, but then there are no expectations of professionalism there. Lots of people just write for the fun of it, and that’s perfectly fine.
However, if you’re in the business of producing writing for the public to pay for and consume, you have to treat it as a business.
And you’re your own boss. Which means your boss really needs to be a hardass. Because nobody else is going to do it for you.
Because you are responsible for your own career.
It’s much easier when you’re in a more traditional office environment. Everything is laid out for you by your supervisor, or by other externally imposed factors: you come in at a certain time, you go home at a certain time, you get scheduled breaks at various times, and what work you need to do is generally presented to you by someone above you in the company hierarchy.
Of course, if you own the company, you’re the one who gets to make those decisions. And when you’re a writer? You own the company.
Some things are still externally imposed—like deadlines—but nobody else will make you do the work. Not your agent, not your editor, not your accountant, not your significant other, not your parents, not your children, not your grandchildren, not your pets. Especially not your pets, particularly if they’re the type to jump into your lap when you’re trying to write. Not that I know anything about that.
The only person who can make you do the work is you.
Yes, to become a writer, you need to be able to string sentences together in an interesting, thought-provoking, and/or entertaining manner. It’s important to have the skills. But you also need self-discipline. You need to put your posterior on the chair, you need to put your fingers on the keyboard, and you need to actually put one word in front of the other until you’re done.
Because you are responsible for your own career.
It’s not easy. Like I said, if it was easy, everyone would do it.
Back in 1960, a group of guys became the backup band for a singer named Ronnie Hawkins. A few years later, that same group would back up Bob Dylan when he went from acoustic to electric. They were called, simply, The Band, and in 1976, after sixteen years on the road, they decided to call it quits. (At least initially. Most of the band wound up reuniting shortly after that, but that’s a whole different story.) To celebrate their career, they did one last big farewell concert, with a bunch of special guests, which was called “The Last Waltz.” Martin Scorsese filmed the concert and also interviewed the members of The Band. The concert/documentary movie was released theatrically and also called The Last Waltz, and I highly recommend it for anyone who’s a fan of rock and roll music. Anyhow, guitarist Robbie Robertson said something that always stuck with me, when talking about sixteen years on the road playing clubs and bars and arenas and stadiums: “It’s a goddamn impossible way of life.”
Being a writer is a goddamn impossible way of life.
You’ll notice, though, that that hasn’t stopped me. This year is the 20th anniversary of my decision to go freelance, and since that day in 1998 that I quit my full-time job as an editor for Byron Preiss Multimedia Company, I have been solely responsible for my own career.
It isn’t easy. It’s sometimes awful. I mentioned the GoFundMe earlier, and that wasn’t the only time I’ve been in deep financial straits over the past two decades.
I’ve been very fortunate in that I’ve been able to make a living doing this, but one of the ways I’ve done so is to do a lot of different things at once. Sometimes I’ve taken on part-time jobs here and there that had nothing to do with writing—I worked in a high school library and for the U.S. Census Bureau at various points. And being a freelancer is sometimes a detriment, as my wife and I discovered when we were apartment hunting two years ago. Some landlords wouldn’t even consider renting to us because we didn’t have W2s that showed a steady income. We didn’t have real jobs, so we were considered a risk. That damn Puritan work ethic getting in the way again.
Even when it’s just writing related, I do a lot of different things at once. A typical week for me includes writing whatever my current work of fiction is, thinking about the next two or three works of fiction, going over edits and/or page proofs of already-completed works of fiction, the regular nonfiction writing I do for both Tor.com and for my Patreon—the latter of which is totally awesome, and you should go support it, link at DeCandido.net, ahem ahem—plus I also teach four karate classes every week, I take classes at my karate dojo, plus I do editorial work here and there on a freelance basis, plus all kinds of paperwork and other nonsense. Oh yeah, and I like to do things with my wife, my family, and my friends every once in a while, and I do like to eat and sleep at least occasionally.
Like Robbie Robertson said, it’s a goddamn impossible way of life. And the only reason it works is because I make myself do it.
Because I am responsible for my own career.
This is not to say that you’re 100% alone, mind you. While writing is a solitary profession, being a writer can make you, if you so desire, be part of a very large community. Just by being here at this conference, you’re making yourself part of that community. While it’s not true of all writers, obviously—because there’s no such thing as an absolute, including that statement—many writers are very open to helping each other out.
Some people, I’ve noticed, have trouble grasping the notion that writers are helpful to up-and-coming authors. I’ve actually heard people deride the practice, saying that we’re helping our competition, which is a stupid way to look at it. There are always going to be books published. There are always going to be more books published. The sheer tonnage of books that come out every single month makes the notion of competition among authors to be stupid. There’s too many readers, too many books, for that to matter or be taken seriously. We’re all in this together.
Talking to other writers and other people in publishing also can only help you. Some of the best work I’ve gotten in my career has come from my friendships with other writers, especially since sometimes those other writers are also editors.
Sometimes those interactions will be in person, whether at conventions and conferences like this one, or events like the Writers Coffeehouses curated by the Liars Club, or statewide writing conferences, or intensive writing workshops.
There’s also online interaction. Ever since getting online became a thing in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the writing community has embraced the Internet, whether it was GEnie, CompuServe, and Usenet in the 1990s, MySpace, LiveJournal, and AOL in the early 2000s, or Facebook, Twitter, and tumblr now, writers have often congregated online to chat and network and promote themselves.
How much of an online presence you have is up to you, of course, and you have to be careful to not let that online presence overwhelm you or distract you from writing—but there shouldn’t be so little of it that nobody knows you’re there, either. It’s a balancing act, and it’s up to you to find that balance.
Because you are responsible for your own career.
Writers are always giving advice to other writers, and this speech is no different. The important thing is to listen to all the advice and to consider all the advice, but don’t necessarily take all the advice. Most of the time, the answer to any question about writing, about publishing, and about the creative life in general is “it depends.” There’s rarely only one right answer, and usually what’s the right answer for me isn’t going to be the right answer for you, that neither will be the right answer to the writer sitting next to you. You have to figure it all out for yourself.
Because you are responsible for your own career.
Thank you very much, and I hope you enjoy the rest of the weekend.