5 Myths About Being a Novelist BUSTED

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I’m always asked about what it’s like to be a published author by fans, students, aspiring novelists, friends, and randos in bars. Oftentimes, they reveal preconceptions about The Author Life in how they word their questions. Today, I thought I’d play Mythbuster because–just like in the show–the reality is often more interesting than the myth. So here’s five common myths about being a writer, EXPOSED:

1) Authors write novels full time

The real subtext to this is “writers make good money.” Now, obviously authors can make good money. They can even make stupid money (Rowling, King, etc). But most of us make not-so-great money. Which means that, for the majority of us, we don’t get to be full-time novelists.

Obviously there are a ton of exceptions to this rule. There are bestselling novelists with movie deals. There are authors with ENORMOUS backlists, or authors with prodigious outputs (six books a year or so, creating a sort of immediate backlist as well as generating new income). And there are full-time writers, as opposed to full-time novelists, who freelance in other areas of writing (journalism, tech writing, professional writing, ghost writing, etc.).

But the majority of us who support ourselves or our families have day jobs or side hustles.

Many of us, meanwhile, don’t really want to be full-time writers. Working gets me out of my own head, makes me interact with living human beings, and inspires me constantly. If I’m having a bad day writing, I can go to school and bury myself in satisfying work there. Or vice versa. And if I’m feeling super cool and arrogant in one job, there will be a freshman making a stink face at me OR a negative book review to make sure I don’t get too up my own backside.

Lesson here: Don’t quit your day job upon getting your first contract.

2) Authors choose their covers

Nope. And this bullet point obviously pertains only to trad-pubbed writers. Self-pubbed writers control all sorts of things, one of the nice things about self-publishing (although your responsibility obviously skyrockets in consequence).

Anyway, traditionally published authors control very little about their books. They don’t make their covers, and it really depends on their publisher and their relationship with that publisher as to whether they even have any say in the matter. They often don’t get to pick their own titles. They don’t control what’s on the “wrap”: the back of book copy, where their name is printed or how big, any tag lines, whose blurbs are on there, etc. If it’s a book in a series, they can’t tell the publisher to put the number of that book on the cover.

This is why you get books with red-headed, mixed race heroines and there’s a blonde on the cover. In my German translations, the first two covers sport a mermaid. There is nary a mermaid in my entire series.

So what do we control? What’s inside, for the most part. Although obviously I don’t mean formatting. Or length, as that’s contractual. And I’ve heard of battle royales about plot points in which the author is forced to concede………

Lesson here: Expect to give up a lot of control to your publisher.

3) An author’s publisher pays for him or her to go places

There are authors who have wonderful tours organized and paid for by their publishers. Those writers are often bestsellers with the movie deals, etc. An author at my level almost always pays for all of her own travel, unless she’s paid for by the event, itself.

So when you see a writer is going to a big convention in New York, please understand that they’re probably paying out of their own wazoo to get to that convention. And they chose that big convention because it is big: it may be expensive, but it’s a lot of bang for their buck in terms of networking, meeting a lot of readers, etc. That big convention, however, may blow their travel budget for the year. So they can’t go to see you in Nebraska, even though they’d really like to.

Furthermore, if we are paid for by someone, we’re on their dime. I’m lucky in that I’ve started getting invited AND PAID FOR to do some events. This makes me feel very, very fancy. But if someone flies me out to Hell, Michigan, to incant over their bookstore, I can’t bugger off to Flint to meet with your book club. I would LOVE to, but I gots to dance for the person that paid me.

That said, the great thing about our world is technology. I’d love to Skype with your book club in Flint. And it’s free! Just get in touch to arrange it (or a speaking engagement).

Meanwhile, writers need to be careful about making promises they can’t afford to keep. Cons are expensive. Book tours are expensive. Budget! (here’s my Coming to Jesus essay about my money journey, if you’re interested)

Lesson here: Writers need to budget for travel and readers should understand that trips often come from the author’s own wallet. Plz refer to #1 for how slim that wallet can be. 

4) Writing is about being in touch with The Muse

The problem with muses is that they’re inevitably complete assholes: gone when you need them, all too present when you don’t. That said, while many non-writers and aspiring writers think that writing a novel is about inspiration and ideas, it’s really about what we call BiC, or Butt in Chair.

I always use the metaphor of a marathon to represent writing, especially writing a novel. Writing a novel is not fun, in the same way that muscle fatigue, nipple chafing, and blistered feet are not fun. There is like a few weeks of brainstorming that I imagine is like signing up for the marathon: planning your training, getting your t-shirt and gear, etc. This part of the writing process is “fun” and, genuinely, about ideas. This is where you’re like “Yeah, that’d be cool! Wow! I’m so clever! And then BAM, it’s all resolved! I’m a genius!”

Then you start the real writing (the actual marathon training). First of all, it’s slow. It’s tedious. Even if you write like the wind, a 90,000 word book takes a few months. And most people don’t write like the wind. An idea that was shiny and beautiful in week one seems like a pile of  desiccated poop by month five. Those glorious connections you forged in your brainstorming? They don’t make a lick of gotdamned sense in reality. And then once you complete the rough draft, you’ve got another few months of revisions, because rough drafts suck (they’re supposed to! They’re rough!).

Finally, like a marathon, you’re not guaranteed to finish, let alone get a gold metal. Your book may languish in a desk drawer forever, after being rejected for publication.

So don’t think writing is fun. Or easy. Or particularly satisfying, unless you’re one of us lunatics who finds satisfaction in the process. Because by the time you actually see your book on the shelf, you are so over that book it’s not funny. You’re hopefully already halfway through your next book, and probably at that stage where this new book feels like it’s killing your soul, little by little, day after day. Doesn’t writing sound fun?

Lesson here: You can’t just want to be a writer, you have to really enjoy writing. And by “writing” I mean “being a masochist.”

5) Other writers are our competition

I hear this most from non-writers, who say things like, “Oh, your book is out the same day as Anne Rice’s! Are you pissed?”

Now, the majority of my fellow writers will auto-scoff at #5. There are a few exceptions I’ve met over the years, but they are very few. The fact is that most writers understand that writing is not a competition. Here’s why:

Readers are nuts and they prioritize book buying. Basically, readers are incapable of buying just one book. If I go to the bookstore to pick up Rice’s latest, I will  sit in the car and scold myself for a good ten minutes, “You will only buy this one book!  Just this one! No more!” An hour later, I’m clutching fifteen paperbacks to my chest, wondering what the hell just happened and what I’ll eat that night, since I blew my entire weekly budget on shifter romance.

So I hope Anne Rice’s new book is out the same week as my new book. Because someone is going to go in to Barnes and Noble, telling themselves, “I WILL ONLY BUY RICE’S BOOK.” And they’re going to end up back at home with my entire series in a bag, having no idea where the last hour of their lives went, but being about $100 poorer.

And yeah, Rice is going to CREAM ME in terms of “sales ranking,” but I don’t give a shit. Because I bought her book, too. It’s Anne Rice fercrissakes! She gets to cream anybody she wants.

I know Rice is going to succeed, because she deserves it. And I want my other writer pals to succeed, because they deserve it, too. So I’m going to pimp their books, and tell everyone to read them, and hope everyone does. I’m a reader. I love good books. This isn’t a competition.

Lesson here: Be supportive. Build community. Support other writers. Never forget you’re a reader, first.

So those are some common myths, BUSTED.  Let me know in comments if you have any other questions, or anything to add.

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