Art vs. Commerce

There are two sides to this writing thing: the creative side, and the business side.

This is not news to anybody, right? It’s just that, based entirely on my own experience, I’m pretty sure not everybody knows what it means. sure as hell didn’t understand. Even now I’m only just beginning to see it. And it’s not a matter of missing facts. The facts are out there, and easy to find, and pretty basic, actually. But it’s not the same as living through it.

Two things happened this week that made me start thinking about this. The first was the #WhyIWrite tag that showed up on Twitter a few days back. I didn’t participate. Not because I don’t have an answer to that question — at this point in my life, it’s just a thing I do, like any other lifetime activity.

Not very profound, is it? Especially since there are some days when I’m really at a loss. Some days writing is hard, and uncomfortable, and it feels futile, and couldn’t I find something else to be just a thing I do?

Did you see that word futile in there? That suggests some discrete purpose that the writing is not fulfilling. So what does that mean? What am I not accomplishing that makes the word futile flit through my head? Why do I write? Never mind everything that came before — why do I write now?

It might be easier to ask what’s been making it a struggle. To that, I can only say…publishing is exposing. And yeah, that’s the point. But it’s sort of like rejection, in that I’m not sure it’s a thing anybody really understands until they experience it themselves.

Publishing a book is a commercial act. You’re putting something in front of the public, and hoping they’ll trade money for it (or take it out of the library, love it, and talk it up to their friends, who will then ask their own libraries to order it). You become like any other supplier in the capitalist system: you produce a Thing, which is worth what others are willing to pay for it. How much work you put into the Thing is entirely irrelevant. Markets are both dispassionate and mercurial. Whether the market is kind or not, you — if you want a career in Thing-making — need to create another Thing, and offer it up to the market again.

I did just that when I was in software. There were far more people between me and the market, but it was essentially the same idea: the development team produced software, and somebody on another team sold it. We all hoped it would sell well and demand would remain high, but in the meantime, it didn’t matter: we had to keep writing software, improving on what we’d already done, thinking of new software that would potentially sell, working to specs and schedules.

I’d never suggest that software can’t be art. But it isn’t art like writing is art. Software comes from problems that need solving. It can be elegant, beautiful, efficient, remarkable; but the precise implementation isn’t generally what gets exposed or critiqued.

By necessity, there is so much more of yourself made vulnerable with writing. In one sense, that’s the only thing that can make a story work: that core of personal truth in the center of the fiction. You’re holding up a part of yourself to the world, and saying, “You know?” And you’re hoping that there will be someone out there who reads it and says, “Oh, yes, I know.”

But whether or not you reach that person, you still have to sit down and write the next book. Because if you don’t, it won’t matter who you reach, because your writing career will be done. Whether or not you have that cosmic connection as motivation, you have to produce the next Thing.

And that is the intersection between commerce and art.

The other thing that happened this week was a conversation about query rejections. I remember query rejections, with all of the frustration and self-doubt they brought. My own querying experience was, in retrospect, not at all bad, but it was bad enough at one point for me to seriously consider just hanging it up and never writing again.

Today I can recognize the absurdity of that moment. Would I really have given up on writing if this one book could not find me an agent? Really? After writing all my life, with everything else bouncing around in my head waiting to get on the page? The failure of one manuscript would have killed my desire to do it?

I didn’t hang it up, but I came awfully close. And I suspect there are writers out there who do, indeed, give up.

There’s this myth with writing: that if you’re any good at all, you’ll produce a novel easily, you’ll find representation easily, you’ll sell it easily, it’ll be insanely popular and get only good reviews. Conversely, if it doesn’t work that way, it means you’re hopeless and should give up. It’s the talent means you don’t have to work at it myth. It’s not restricted to writing, and it’s utter bullshit.

Writing is a craft. This isn’t to say there’s no talent involved, but working with words requires thought and practice. It requires experimentation and failure, and it requires sticking with it when it’s not fun. And it’s something at which every writer, no matter how accomplished, can improve.

The talent myth leaves no room for craft, learning, or improvement.

I suspect there are far too many writers out there who gave up, despite what they might have produced in the future, because they were discouraged by the lack of instant success. I’m not talking about the people who cling to the idea that we’re all just too stupid to recognize their genius. (We all know these people, don’t we? They’re in pretty much every industry out there.) I’m talking about the people who take a rejection as more than what it is. Instead of seeing rejection as “I can’t sell this specific book,” they see it as “You will never be good enough, no matter how hard you work.”

Nobody in the business of writing is going to say that to anyone, because they can’t know that. When they reject, they’re not rejecting a body of work, or an entire writer, or that writer’s future. They are rejecting the work that’s offered. They don’t know the path the writer took to write it. They don’t know what the writer might produce tomorrow, or even what’s lurking on the laptop today. They don’t know anything about the writer at all. All they know is “I do not wish to buy this one piece of work.” And that’s it.

There is no one in the business of crushing ambitions. There are only people in the business of selling stuff. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that they fall in love with books just like any other reader. They have to focus on commerce, yes — but for the most part, they want to sell what they love to read. If they don’t love your current thing, they may very well love your next one, or the one after that. You don’t know, and you can’t have a career if you don’t keep writing. Even — especially — when you get rejections.

I always talk about how lucky I’ve been, and it’s true. But I also work hard. I put words on the page. I revise. I kill my darlings (*sob*). I study the edits I’m given and swallow my pride and listen and learn about the story I want to write by working to be open to the ways I’m still getting it wrong.

And do you know, I think that’s #WhyIWrite: to improve. I love the craft of writing. I love reading something that was torturous for me to write, but reads as smoothly as the bits that were easy. I love working out what needs changing, what needs removing, what needs to be added. I love learning how to tell stories I want to tell, and the only way to do that is to keep writing.

So it seems the best way — for me, at least — to do the business of writing is to keep the business part as distant from the actual writing as I can. Hit my deadlines, yes. Know what I’m doing when I agree to new ones, and fulfill all obligations. Answer emails, interact with people, be positive and professional at all times. All of those things, of course. But mostly: write. All the time, write. With or without a contract, or feedback, or even a story goal: write.

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2 thoughts on “Art vs. Commerce

  1. I once saw an interview with an actor (and I really wish I could remember who it was!) who said his advice to aspiring actors was this: If there is ANYTHING else that you do well and can make a living at, then do it. His view was that those who persisted to become actors did so because they were not only driven to it but also could conceive of nothing else that they wanted or were able to do. In essence, they had no options other than to follow their muse. I wonder if this kind if dynamic can affect writers as well. When one has a well-paid profession that provides a certain degree of satisfaction, then it can be difficult to forego that certainty and be willing to throw oneself on the mercy of public opinion and attempt to become a published writer. How is this overcome? I remember watching Mel Gibson on SNL some years ago and his opening monologue was about hosting SNL. He talked about doing movies, which were “low risk, and high reward” as compared to SNL that was “high risk, and low reward”. Sometimes it can be easy to see the status quo as the “low risk, high reward” path, and view writing and attempting to publish as seriously high risk, low reward! How do you overcome this? How do you decide to leave behind that which is certain to step into the unknown, where nothing is certain and success depends on the whims of publishers’ perceptions of what their readership will be interested in? If you have a safety net (spouse who works or you are independently wealthy) then there’s not so much of a dilemma. But if you must support yourself, must writing be a hobby or second job until you are able to make an income from it?

    • Truth? I think that advice about acting is romantic and unrealistic. If it isn’t for acting, it sure is for writing. 🙂

      Kameron Hurley writes eloquently (and accurately) about issues of writing and money, but what it comes down to is this: most writers don’t make a living wage. Most of the writers I know who are doing it full-time – and this includes some well-known, successful SFF writers – have a wage-earning partner. It takes a lot of years of regular, paid work before you start seeing a regular income, and you don’t always have control over that.

      So no, I don’t think there’s any virtue in throwing yourself off the income cliff and hoping that desperation drives you to literary success. 🙂 For one thing, publishing is a really slow business. If you create your work of genius in your first three months, it’ll still be months, at a wildly optimistic minimum, before you see a dime off of it. You’re more likely looking at a year or more before you get an advance for your first novel.

      For another thing, most people don’t sell their first work of genius, and that’s what I was trying to address above. In order to make a writing career, you have to write a lot. In the beginning, you’re going to write a lot that’s not going to sell, and that’s not just all right, it’s necessary. But even after you sell something, you still have to write a lot. I guess my point is that no matter where you are in your writing career, you have to finish (or choose to move on from) one thing, and sit down to write the next. That part of the work never changes.

      I don’t think it’s worth drawing a bright line between “career” and “hobby.” In the last couple of years, I saw my day job as financing my writing. That paycheck may have taken up the majority of my waking hours, but it allowed me to work on my writing, even if it was only for an hour or less a day. I think the thing that makes it a career is not how much time you spend at it or how much money you’re making, but how focused you are on producing finished work.

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