Writers write: that’s what we do

I don’t know whether writing is an addiction, a calling, or just one job out of the many we could have chosen. The down side to writing novels is that if one doesn’t become famous or sort of famous, there’s no money in it. I often wish I’d become a freelance writer with a lot of magazine and newspaper writing opportunities.

I’d be earning a living with my words even though it wouldn’t be James Patterson, Dan Brown or Nora Roberts kind of money. Since I write contemporary fantasy and magical realism, it’s a paradox that the money I did make from writing came from writing computer documentation and help files. I can be intensely logical when I want to, so my user manuals were always well thought of.

The thing is, being intensely logical isn’t the real me. In fact, though I often rely on it, I’m not a fan of logic because I think it gives us an inaccurate picture of the world. While I was working on my novel-in-progress today, I thought of all this.  I thought, “why do writers have to write” and “There must be another occupation that pays better.”

Like being a grave digger, maybe.

I thank the writing gods and the muses that I don’t want to write poetry. Good Lord, there’s a thankless task, more thankless than writing novels. I admire poetry, but really, I can’t write it and don’t ever buy books and magazines filled with it. I grieve for the poets.

But I also mourn the fact that writing novels is partly skill and craft and partly a popularity contest. If your name is James Patterson or John Grisham, you make money no matter what you do. Everyone else is ignored by reviewers and bookstores and don’t really want to tell friends they write novels because they’ll say they’ve never heard of them.

Early on, I wanted to work for the railroads. That would have been a much safer choice. I like trains, I really do. I was once a volunteer at a railway museum. Most of us there were jealous of the people who worked for Amtrak or the freight railroads. Whether they loved their jobs or not, they made a living wage. Writers don’t. But we keep writing because, in many ways, writing is not only a lot of fun, it’s a career we can’t do without.

So, maybe writing is an addiction.

But, it’s a fun addition once you realize there’s not going to be any money in it anymore than few of those who play little league baseball are going to end up playing for a major league team and being selected for the All Star Game.

If you’re an aspiring writer, I know this post doesn’t sound very encouraging. As Patti Smith acknowledged in M Train, writers are bums.  So, it’s best to know that’s the reality of the biz at the outset.

–Malcolm

 

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Do you remember the ‘concordance’ Amazon used to provide for notable books

Amazon used to include a so-called concordance that listed words, phrases, and other information deconstructed out of a novel on the book’s sales page. What were Dan Brown’s favorite words? What were Tom Clancy’s favorite phrases?

When I saw those concordances, my first thought was that they sounded very close to author Italo Calvino’s parody of literary deconstruction in his novel If on a winter’s night a traveler. The gist of the parody was that one would be able to enjoy an entire novel by simply reading lists or words and phrases along with other tips uncovered through computer analysis.

As we have seen, computers have been used to read texts to validate whether those texts are within an author’s style or were written by somebody else. I can see the value in that far beyond the anti-plagiarism software used by some universities.  That is, what’s the likelihood that a newly discovered book was written by a great master?

I read Calvino’s book long before Amazon was a gleam in anyone’s eye. So, when I first saw those Amazon concordances, I immediately thought of the parody in the novel. We’re almost there, I thought. We can almost read the concordance and get the same amount of enjoyment out of the book we would have found had we bothered to spend many hours reading it. Maybe this is why Amazon removed the feature: it reduced sales.

This all came to mind this morning when I read “From ‘alibi’ to ‘mauve’: what famous writers’ most used words say about them”  in The Guardian. We learn here that Bradbury’s favorite word was “cinnamon,” that Rowling likes the phase “dead of night,” that Dan Brown uses “full circle,” and that Nabokov used the word “mauve” forty four times.

Now we know what the novel really means.

Computers will tell us amazing things. I don’t really want to know them unless I’m writing satire. (I once proposed using the Amazon concordance to The Da Vinci Code to write bestseller novels with the right stuff in them to get big reviews, loads of money, and movie deals.) I will confess that when I find myself using a word or a pet phrase too many times in a story, that I do a search for the suspected word or phrase to see how often it appears. If I don’t like what I see, I get rid of it.

I don’t think I want to know how often Nabokov used the word “mauve,” much less what a computer or an expert in literary analysis thinks that fact means. I don’t even care if James Patterson uses 160 cliches per 100,000 words or consider it a plot spoiler to hear that Donna Tartt uses “too good to be true” more than somebody in an ivory tower deems appropriate.

When computers and their deconstructionist slaves finish with a novel, the story, I think, gets lost in the shuffle rather like learning that you love your spouse due to sequences of binary reactions in your brain rather than  the fact they listen to what you say and care about you and support even your worst faults.

The Amazon concordance had its amusing feature, telling us the number of words the books gave us per dollar and per ounce. The value of that can’t possibly be underestimated.

Too much information, and to what end?

Malcolm

 

Oh no, I missed the top earning writers’ list

Here’s the list (stolen from Jane Yolen’s Facebook profile):

1. James Patterson $95 million
2. Jeff Kinney $19.5 million
3. J.K. Rowling $19 million
4. John Grisham $18 million
5. Stephen King $15 million
5. Danielle Steel $15 million
5. Nora Roberts $15 million
8. E.L. James $14 million
9. Veronica Roth $10 million
9. John Green $10 million
9. Paula Hawkins $10 million
12. George R.R. Martin $9.5 million
13. Dan Brown $9.5 million
14. Rick Riordan $9.5 million

I’m shocked. I don’t see my name there. What the hell happened? Maybe Forbes magazine screwed up the math.

–Malcolm