The Value of Heroic Effort, and writing as a career

I’ve had this article from David Farland sitting in my inbox for a few months. In it, he argues that “slow and steady” is for losers, and that only heroic effort is going to get you anywhere in the world of writing. Slow progress may get you further than you were, but you’ll never produce much at that rate. Indeed, if you follow a lot of writers on twitter or elsewhere, they’ll tell you that the only way to make a go at it is to write, write, write, and write more. Heroic effort.

There’s an interesting counter-argument here, and it comes from Robert Runte, the editor at Five Rivers publishing. He’s responding to one of Chuck Wendig’s posts, found here, about making a living as a writer. And Robert’s response is basically that, if you want to make a good living as a writer, you can’t. He offers some interesting anecdotes about the number of SF writers actually making a living off their work in Canada, an admittedly smaller market, but the number is very small.

Feeling discouraged yet? According to Dave Farland, you can’t get anywhere without heroic effort, and according to Robert Runte, even if you put in that kind of effort, you’re probably not going to be able to live off it. Of course, there are Stephen Kings and JK Rowlings, but their level of success is one in millions or billions. There are writers who do make a decent living off writing, but not a rich living, and quite often, as Robert notes, they supplement by teaching or speaking.

Robert’s suggestion is simple. Unhinge writing from financial success. If you write a good book, it will have an audience. Will that audience make you rich? Probably not. But that’s OK. After all, do you write because you want to make a buck, or do you write because you want to write? There are easier ways to make a buck.

We all want the lifestyle where we can write all the time, unencumbered by day jobs and other responsibilities, preferably when doing so is going to let you take vacations in Mexico and pay your mortgage. And there are no shortage of authors and other gurus for whom this has become in itself a business, the business of making money off other writers through books, speaking, and classes, whether it’s about how to write, or how self-publishing is going to make us all rich. And they’re not wrong. Self publishing has given a lot of people a vehicle to monetize their works in a way that didn’t exist before. Of course, only a few people are going to get rich this way, or even make a living without a second income, be it from a job or a working spouse.

That same self-publishing revolution, though, means it’s easy for anyone to be a writer, though. Anyone can write something and make it available for reading. Maybe Robert is right, and we should disconnect our expectations of financial success from writing. Maybe the joy of writing should be in being read. That isn’t to say that writers ought not to be compensated for their work, because they should. But are you writing because you want people to read your work, or because you think you’ve got the next Harry Potter or Fifty Shades of Grey and it’s going to make you rich?

Me, I’m writing because I love writing. And if I just so happen to turn a profit, well, then that’s OK as well. Of course, I want to be the kind of writer who turns out 5 books a year, and I want people to read those books, and buy them. That’s going to take heroic effort. And that’s fine. But I’m not the sort of person who’s going to quit writing if my first book isn’t a financial success, or my second, or even my tenth. I write because I love to write. Getting paid is a goal, but not the end game.