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Fiction writing: is it about the money?

Yes and no.

moneyYes, because unless you’re writing stories for your children, for your own amusement, or for small, non-paying newsletters and magazines, full-time fiction writers consider their career a business even if they are partially supporting themselves as teachers, researchers and other jobs.

No, because focusing on money–for most writers–gets in the way of developing and telling a story. This is not to say that we’re unaware of the realities regarding salable novels and short stories by writers at one stage of their career or another. One reality is that, without a strong platform or a lot of friends in the business, most unknown writers will not be able to sell novels as long as those written by Diana Gabaldon, Eleanor Catton and Donna Tartt. Another reality is that, if we’re writing in a genre, we know what’s more or less acceptable within that genre and what isn’t.

So, while we can choose to stray outside the “rules” of genres, especially as defined by the mainstream of out intended readers and we can choose to write 500,000-word first novels, most choices about characters, plots, settings, dialogue and themes are (or should be) divorced from the question: will this make me more money or less money?

I dislike the trite phrase that “writers must wear multiple hats.” But it’s short, sweet and true. At some point–and perhaps this usually comes from experience–we learn how to compartmentalize our writing business. While those compartments–marketing, sales, research, writing, editing–obviously interact with each other, having such divisions in our work allows us to concentrate on one or the other without being distracted by concerns that don’t relate to the task of the moment.

Worrying About Work That’s Already Completed

New writers worry a lot about rejection slips and why it’s taking publishers or agents so long to respond to manuscripts and queries. Quite often, they’re spending so much time checking the mail and e-mail for a yes/no response about the last story they sent out, they find themselves unwilling or unable to work on the next story. Then, if the response they’ve been waiting for finally comes in as a NO, they’re in the worst possible place to be thinking up something new when, if they had something new already in progress, they could go back to it.

Writers also learn–and maybe this is another experience thing–to separate the kinds of writing they do. Those of us who have partially supported ourselves by writing feature articles, grant requests, news releases, computer help files, and training materials can step from one to the other without having to re-learn approaches and styles. The same is true when fiction’s involved. We can transition from writing news releases during the day to writing a Gothic novel at night without getting mixed up about what we’re writing any more than a tennis player worries about using different techniques and equipment when s/he plays a round of golf.

Compartmentalizing our work not only helps us organize the work week rather than trying to run a business by randomly jumping from one task to another, it helps us tell stories without thinking about money. If we write commercial fiction as well as literary fiction, we learn to step into the needs of the story and genre we’re dealing with. We know before we start what the rules are and we know that the commercial fiction is probably more salable, but then we put that knowledge aside and tell the story.

If money’s a concern while we’re writing the story, the story will probably suffer for it.


thesailorcoverMalcolm R. Campbell is the author of contemporary fantasy, satire and paranormal stories and novels, including “The Sailor.” The novel tells the story of a pacifist who ends up serving aboard and aircraft carrier during the Vietnam War. Truth be told, friends and family cause more trials and tribulations than most of the demands of shipboard life.



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