A Writer, Pausing
Posted on July 14, 2011 Posted by John Scalzi 38 Comments
No, not me. I have deadlines. But notable writer Steph Swainston, who was in my Campbell Award class, is stepping back from writing to become a chemistry teacher. Why is she doing so? The Independent has the story, and in it Swainston has a lot to say about the pressures writers face both from publishers, fans, and in making enough money to make enough books to keep both publishers and readers happy. It’s worth a read, and if nothing else it reinforces my reminder to people that writers are not in fact text-extruding black boxes; they have real lives and real life concerns, both of which sometimes get in the way of the writing.
In any event, good luck to Ms. Swainston, and I hope that she is eventually able to get back to writing, on her own terms. She writes good stuff. It’d be good to have more one day.
I see the bit that I expected would be in there: “It’s expected that authors do loads of self-publicity – Facebook, Twitter, blogs, forum discussions – but it’s an author’s job to write a book, not do the marketing.”
And while I could certainly wish that marketing weren’t part of the author’s job description, it definitely is, these days. The unfortunate part is that publishers (at least in my experience) don’t seem to tell the author that up front. Worse, the smaller authors, the ones would could most benefit from good marketing, are the ones who get the least guidance. You pretty much have to work it out for yourself.
I’m not pointing an accusatory finger at publishers here; they’re struggling, the frontlists are getting larger, the churn is faster than it used to be, and their staffs are shrinking, while everybody’s trying to stay on top of the best way to market books in a continually changing online world. It’s not a good recipe. It’s just saddening that authors need to have a skill set that goes beyond just being able to write a good book.
I don’t know why anyone would want to be a writer. That sh*t is hard work.
People leave writing for good, all the time; some of the people who leave are good writers, and many never come back. It’s rare that one who’s had a lot of critical and reader attention does this, but that’s probably mostly because it’s rare for most writers, even ones who make a living, to get much critical or reader attention. Major aspects of any job are dull, discouraging, or just not pleasant to everyone — that’s why they call them jobs — and sometimes we realize we’d rather trade off the benefit/cost of one job for another. I hope she discovers chemistry teaching is even better than she imagined, has a grand old time, and never looks back; I hope the same for anyone deciding to change rackets.
There are several ways of being a writer that suit some personalities and make them happy.If they can, such people should stay writers. Any number of people don’t like living any of the several ways a writer lives, and if they find that out after they are already writers, they should bail and go do something that looks better to them. Substitute plumber, insurance agent, or electrical engineer for “writer” in the above, and no one would argue.
And what is this Campbell Award Class thingie? Did you go to some kind of school together, or is it like being a Campbell-class guided missile cruiser? I know there are a couple awards named after Campbell (I assume the editor and not the soup). Or is this one of those peculiar activities like Clarion that I’ll just never get?
I do it because the only other job I’m qualified for is greeting people at Wal Mart.
“And what is this Campbell Award Class thingie?”
She was nominated for the Campbell Award the same year as I was. This would be the Campbell Award for Best New Writer, not the one for Best Novel.
Aha. Life is clearer. I’d heard the phrase maybe five times before and had always been puzzled.
Duh, hit the button too soon. Meant to add that I do it for a reason similar to the Esteemed Host’s: because if I work at other jobs I steal a lot of time from them to write — I mean a LOT — whereas I hardly ever steal time from writing to teach, sell, etc. Though lately I’ve noticed I enjoy calculations and statistical analysis more than I do writing. When I start procrastinating by reading the old books on matrix methods in optimization and multilinear regression in discrete variables, I hope I’ll be as smart as Steph Swainston, and scuttle off to the new occupation.
We can probably skip one whole area of argument if we all agree that if you realize you’d be more satisfied as a burglar, disease vector, banker, or war criminal, you should probably stay in that writing or accounting job anyway.
Is there good money in disease vectoring? Not much of a retirement plan, I should think.
I’m sad to hear that Ms. Swainston is taking a hiatus, because I’m a huge fan of her writing! Her most recent novel was next on my to-read list, but I might have to wait a bit now and savor it. Or maybe I’ll just start again and read The Year of Our War for the dozenth or so time.
*cue the inevitable comments insisting teaching is harder than writing*
I completely respect her decision! Sometimes people keep doing something because it’s what people expect them to be doing and not because it’s what they’re enjoying doing, and that’s a horrible mistake. Personally, I never could stand chemistry! :) But if it makes her happy, she should totally go for it.
I do have a question, though. Because it seems like a lot of the things she was complaining about are things that might not necessarily apply to every writer and I wonder, John, what you think about those things. For example – the pressure that is put on writers to do a book a year. While I certainly see that, I also see that there are writers – even new writers – who don’t do that. If they’re feeling pressure, it’s not reflected in their work, or how they conduct themselves. And so I wonder if it’s really about the industry putting pressure on all writers, or if it’s more that some writers are less equipped/inclined to deal with the pressure? Because just because someone would prefer that you write a book a year doesn’t mean you have to, and doesn’t mean that you can’t tell them you won’t, especially if “a book a year” hasn’t been negotiated in advance… I’m very new at this, so I’m still learning how all this works, but it seems that in ANY career, the pressure only rules you as much as you let it, and so much of pressure seems self-inflicted. Doctors and lawyers complain that they never see their families, because they “have to” work long hours, and so often it’s not that they “have to” but that they do, because it’s what’s expected and they for some reason don’t feel that taking time out for their personal lives will be looked upon kindly.
Also, I had to disagree with the “writers don’t really make good celebrities” thing, as not all writers are as socially inept, solitary, and anti-self-promotion as stereotypes might have one believe. Take YOU for instance! :) Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems as if you’re someone who actually ENJOYS doing the social media thing and getting out there to talk to people. I see other authors who are very much that way. Again, she paints all writers with the same brush in this interview, when really, it just wasn’t right for HER.
This also sounds like an argument in favor of your dictum of having multiple revenue streams, John. It reduces the pressure to put out a book a year if you can fall back on some other form of work to keep food on the table, and the variety helps avoid burnout.
As someone who can only sort of twitch and drool at the notion of selling a book a year, doing book readings, tweeting to fans (fans? fans? really?) blogging and even being harassed by anyone who remotely cares that one has shed blood and tears over a keyboard to give messy birth to a novel, I have to say Ms. Swainston’s perspective is difficult to identify with. I feel like a poor man watching a millionaire toss a sack of gold into the sea… close to the definition of tragedy. Obviously, the reality of the successfull writer’s job could be worse than the dream sounds (and that does seem to the be point of the post, duh) and far be it from me to judge the life choices of another (I truly don’t), until I’ve been there (yes, the dream lives on) I will just shut up about it and keep writing.
By the way, JS, it’s been a few years since I followed this blog, and having come back, I’m truly grateful for what you offer here. This is a good community and if it inspires me to keep at it, I’m sure it does for many others as well. Thanks!
PPS – I’m in the process of checking out Fuzzy Nation – very cool idea. Reminds me of Urusla K. LeGuin’s The Word for World is Forest but with the Scalzi wink. Nice!
Wasn’t the “book a year” thing due to a contract, not what she felt she had to do?
*cue the inevitable comments insisting teaching is harder than writing*
Uh, so far you seem to be the only one here who has brought that issue up.
Since you raised it, though, my take would be: no, I doubt teaching is “harder” than writing. I imagine that either one is plenty hard if you’re dedicated to doing it well. Having done both for a living (not at the same time–instead, I seem to always be doing some of the one I’m NOT doing for a living as more of a sideline, if that makes sense), I would venture to say that they are *different* in their difficulties, without one being intrinsically harder than the other. The challenges and issues and stresses faced by a teacher are different in nature and origin than most of those faced by a writer, and vice versa. I imagine that’s true of just about any job that requires a particular skill set.
I don’t mean to be…well, mean, but I have to wonder if she’s going to be able to do well as a teacher. Because that is an enormously demanding job, current US bitching about how easy it is not withstanding. I don’t know about the British educational system, but here you have to deal with constantly changing demands, problems with students, creating lesson plans and a lot of outside the job work. If writing a book a year and promoting is too much work, then teaching might not be a wise choice.
I’m not especially sympathetic, truth be told, about someone who thinks that writing a book a year is a fast pace. Her books are right around three hundred pages. That’s less than a page a day. I realize that people aside from Vonnegut do not generally write by perfect each page and then moving on, but I do think that looking at it that way gives some perspective on what we’re talking about.
I realize that the pace a person writes is a personal thing and that writers are not my bitch, but that’s either a total lack of work ethic or (I suspect more likely) deep insecurity.
I suspect neither of those things myself. As I note often, the process of writing creatively is extraordinarily difficult to systematize. Some people can write a book a year. Some people can’t. Some people can work very hard at writing a book and year and simply not do it — their own process doesn’t allow it. It doesn’t they aren’t working as hard as they can. It merely means they don’t do it quickly.
Likewise, I think we need to be very careful about trying to suggest an analogy between writing output and teaching competency. Ms. Swainston (or any other person) might find the particular tasks involved with teaching easier to deal with than the particular tasks involved with creatively writing.
Fair enough. I’m not unsympathetic, really. I had to make the same sort of decision: I spent five years after college working freelance, and even though I was doing well, I ultimately packed in for an actual job because of the stresses of the freelance life.
The thing that sort of bugs me is that there seems to be the hint of an idea in there that expecting a book a year is wrong and stressful and that the profession should be more accomodating. But rereading the article, some of that perception might well be created by the writer of the article and of course, my own biases.
Of course, I’m back to freelance writing to the pay the bills and if I couldn’t write at a reasonable level at a reasonable pace, I wouldn’t have food or shelter, and that colors my views, too.
Overly general statements about what writers are or are not aside, I hope Ms Swainston rediscovers her joy of writing (or at least truly finds joy in her new career).
I don’t know that it’s a question of easier or harder–teaching is a very different type of work than writing, and it seems like she’s making a call about which one she’s more interested in. As someone who moved from academic research (which in a lot of ways is a type of being a writer) to high-school teaching, I can say first-hand that teaching suits my personality and needs much better than research and writing did, but I also know that it’s not that way for everyone. (And besides, it’s clear from the article that Steph Swainston knows what she’s getting into–she mentions a year of training and practice teaching. This seems like an informed choice on her part, not a wild career-breakdown desperate stab in the dark.)
@15 – I think I’m with Justin on Ms. Swainston’s possible future as a teacher – my mother taught high school for thirty years, and if Ms. Swainston thinks that dealing with vocal and overly zealous fans on the Internet (or, God help us, cons) is rough, her students will quite frankly eat her alive. High schoolers are like piranhas: they *know* when a teacher is vulnerable and can (and will) reduce her to chum faster than you can imagine.
Now, granted – she might have been having a bad day at that convention. But to paraphrase James Thurber, thinking that public school teaching, especially teaching teenagers, is something to fall back on in place of writing, is rather like falling backwards full length onto a set of carpentry tools. Mum told me repeatedly that the only profession she *didn’t* want me to follow was teaching, and she was a very good, much loved teacher. But the stress, the students, the deadlines, the parents, the administration –
I hope it works out for this woman. I really do. But if she really wants a less stressful, steadier job than writing, high school teaching is probably not it.
I think she’s making a fine choice and will probably be successful as a teacher. She’s been successful as a novelist and it’s not like she’s walking away a failure. If one can be a successful novelist, with the work and perseverance that entails then it stands to reason that those qualities will be useful as a teacher. There are far more teachers making a living at their professions than there are novelists, and assuming that there are as many people who want to be writers as there are people who want to be teachers (perhaps a leap), then the bar is higher for writers.
I’ve known plenty of teachers. They are generally a dedicated, intelligent, hard-working group of people, but they are still just people and I don’t think they work any harder or have any more pressures than people in a wide array of professions.
Ms. Swainston seems to be making a reasoned, deliberate choice. Good luck to her.
I believe it is where your passion lies that tells you whether you will succeed or fail. Ms. Swainston may very well end up being an outstanding teacher, beloved by her students and thriving in that environment if it is what she feels is her calling. At the end of the day the only thing that will determine her failure or her success is her experience. Our own experiences are just that, single data points. Heck, if I were to speak solely from my experience, then I would look to her success since both of my parents were school teachers, loved what they did, and neither ever stressed out much over parents, students, deadlines or administrators.
It Amazon rankings are any indicator, she wasn’t selling many books anyway. Maybe the market is too saturated in the 00s. Maybe she would have fared better in the 80s. I’d be interested to know what her book print runs were. 5,000 hardcovers? 10,000 hardcovers? I’m assuming publishers don’t have giant print runs for mid-list fantasy writers.
Justin @17 “…expecting a book a year is wrong and stressful and that the profession should be more accom[m]odating…”
Lots of balancing to be done. As John said above, one a year works for some people and not for others. If you look at mid-60s John Brunner, late-60s/early-70s Robert Silverberg or almost-any-period Isaac Asimov, it’s obvious that one a year is not enough for some people. From my time in the bookselling part of the trade, I recall an American mystery writer who wrote (according to my colleagues) great books when he took two years on each one, but whose quality suffered markedly when he changed to one a year.
Not only does one a year not necessarily work for everyone, it doesn’t even work for a given author throughout a career. There’s a fairly famous work out just now, six years after it was announced as a six-month project. I would think that an author with (at that time) 30 years of pro experience would know the difference between a six-month and a six-year project, but life is full of surprises. All of which is just to say that a publisher has a lot of portfolio balancing to do so as to keep new books coming out steadily while co-investing in authors’ long-term success.
If one of the top UK publishers can’t do that with one of the top writers in the genre, it’s entirely possible that something larger is amiss.
I’d be hard for a SFF writers to live on 10,000-book hardcover print runs. How much do they get a HC, like $2. With the tradebacks and paperbacks and ebooks, maybe they could bring gross $40,000 USD per tax year per book, not including the back catalog, obviously, and foreign distribution rights, which John has mentioned in passing a few times. Add on that all the publicity time with blogging, interviews, cons, etc., and they’re working a minimum wage job with no benefits. They live from book to book, each passing year making them more unemployable in the real world.
I think she’s absolutely done the right thing – for her. Just because you can write, doesn’t mean you have to. That said, one book a year? In other avenues (say romance) one book a year is slow. Very slow. Not everyone who can, or wants, to write romance can keep up the pace of three to four books a year that readers (not necessarily publishers) want. That doesn’t stop them writing and releasing the books they want to, that they can write in that time. Sales may be smaller due to not having the extra releases (the next book is a good form of promo), but they are still being released.
Even if I couldn’t keep up with a book a year, I’m not sure I could give up writing. Actually I am sure – I couldn’t give it up. Not if you paid me good money.
Again though, she’s made a good decision for her. If your heart isn’t in it, then don’t do it. The same goes for many professions that are more vocations than just a job, including teaching. But writing is a job, a hard, lonely, sometimes thankless one. Again like teaching! I’m not sure why it’s news that someone found it wasn’t for them.
Indie authors like Amanda Hocking must drive signed authors crazy. I downloaded her books and tried reading through them. I couldn’t. They were terrible. Compared to books coming out of the Houses, Hocking’s books are not edited well, if at all. They’re not copyedited. They’re not typeset. The writing is amateurish, like that of a high school student. Her covers, albeit improving, are terribly unrealized, like her writing. But, despite this, Amanda Hocking made a million dollars selling these books. Her books are ALL hype, nothing more. But, yet, she did it. She sold a million books. What a crazy world!
From my point of view – writing is an art, and force a writer to write at a certain pace is like building a house too fast – it might not hold together but will be full of leaks. And it won’t do the reader any good to look at mass-produced work either. Personally I think that David Weber has ended up in the mass production slot too much. There is a backstory but the scaffolding is still left behind. I want to be entertained with a good story with unexpected twists. Alfred Bester comes to mind in the slot of being unexpected. But Robert Asprin is also enjoyable, but maybe that’s why I like Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Suddenly the scene is interrupted by a gigantic foot dropping down without warning.
Good for her. She hated her job and she told them to shove it. Most people aren’t nearly so brave.
It sounds like she quit her day job too soon. I think your “Campbell class” year was 2005ish, no? Of course everyone has to make the choice based on their own life situation and risk tolerance, but going full time right off your first or second novel is not recommended. Most established novelists that I know have no intention of quitting their day job ever. I have many friends who have written ten or more books who are still waiting for the right time to quit the day job.
I hadn’t heard of Steph Swainston, but it is interesting that the first comment below the Independent article is by Justina Robson*, some of whose books I have read and who says “I have every sympathy with Steph’s position, being in a similar one myself”.
*The link to her Facebook page is the one she gave in her comment.
I’m surprised nobody has commented on her reference to the ‘lack of human interaction’. Whether or not teaching high-school kids is stressful, it’s a very different kind of stress than a job which, essentially, is staying at home and writing things down out of your head, all day, every day. I’ve seen posts from (happy) writers who say things like “I haven’t dressed in anything but pajamas for four days!” which for some people is a dream job, and for other people is more like a nightmare. She also isn’t giving up writing. She’s just giving it up as a full-time vocation.
I am experiencing the ‘she doesnt know what she’s doing’ comments about the same way I would react as if some famous person had just announced that they were gay and people were posting that said person is making a mistake, is just confused, its just a phase, or whatever.
I didnt read anything in that article that suggested she was holding some fundamental notion of publishing or teaching that was inherently misinformed. it seemed fairly clear to me that most of the article was reporting that she had found writing as it had panned out for her over the years, did not work for her, and was not feeding her soul.
good for her to take care of herself and pursue something that did feed her soul.
the bit about Stephen King always having characters who are writers rung for me. Its like the advice for writers to take the bus to meet different people otherwise middleclas writers create worlds populated by nothing but middleclass people.
everytime I run into a fictional character who is a writer, I get a little annoyed. I usually get over it. but its at best a speed bump that kicks me out of the suspension of disbelief for a moment, and at worst causes me to throw the book down.
anyway, good on her for putting aside something that no longer works for her and pursuing something new that could. most people arent that couragous.
John, i have gone back and read alot of your blogs (I think you only keep 7 years only online), I don’t recall you writing about the level of stress you have to deal with as a writer Did I miss these? Or maybe its easier on you since your family has a second income and insurance through your wife. Plus you make a considerable income.
I had not noticed Steph Swanson. I want to check out her books. I like to read books by authors with different backgrounds. Alot of authors only skill set is being an author, its often very interesting to read books by people who have had non-writing careers.
My understanding is that the book a year mentality is in part because most books do not sell in massive numbers and authors need to support themselves. I would think the other part is that there are so many books out there and so many other outlets you risk losing your fans interest if you don’t keep publishing. One thing, I think that people miss out on is that novelists are SELF EMPLOYED SMALL BUSINESS OWNERS. So you are responsible for everything. They don’t work for publishers, they have business contracts with them. I have run my own business before. It is a lot of work. There is endless tedium to deal with and a lot of outside pressures.
as far as authors who can write a book a year… I think part of it is the kind of book you write and the quality of books. I like John’s books. However, his books are relatively short and have a pacing to them that I think makes it easier to pump them out quicker. They are fun to read. However, a George RR Martin or Patrick Rothfuss type tomb is really hard to write quickly due to the world and all the characters. They are two different forms. That being said, those authors sell so many copies they have the luxury of not having to publish as quickly since they probably earn sufficient income. The flip side of that is that they sell so many books because the quality is so high. Brandon Sanderson has said that he is able to keep his writing pace up only because he was unpublished for so long that he has a backlog that he is working from. I also really like historical fiction. The research alone takes a long time with these books. Connie Willis mixes sci-fi and a tremendous amount of research does not publish that fast, but her books are critically acclaimed.
I would also think that many books can be improved by just stepping away from them. There is a concept known as the ‘wit of the staircase’ where you have your best ideas when your coming down the staircase or basically when your not working. I am a programming and for a few years I had a really long commute. I often had problems at work, that I was stuck on. Solutions would hit me during me commute when I am listening to the radio or when I am out riding my bike. Just letting ideas gestate for a while can improve them.
“However, a George RR Martin or Patrick Rothfuss type tomb is really hard to write quickly due to the world and all the characters. They are two different forms.”
Well, the other thing there is that my most recent book is 80,000 words, while both George’s and Pat’s are at least three times that. Aside from anything else, they take longer to write because they are longer, period.
Re: Stress — I do suspect I have less stress than other writers because a) my household did have a substantial income before I started writing novels, b) my novels have sold well enough that they have been a solid source on income. There is a whole lot of stress that’s alleviated by making a good enough sum of money.
“Well, the other thing there is that my most recent book is 80,000 words, while both George’s and Pat’s are at least three times that.”
Rothfuss’ WISE MAN’S FEAR is 395,000 words and Martin’s DANCE WITH DRAGONS is 416,000. So five times that.
I have to say, as someone who is juggling both teaching and writing simultaneously, that the writing gives me a much-needed mental break from teaching (I teach middle school special education). It’s not the working with the kids directly that is a challenge as much as it is dealing with the bureaucracy; from what I know of UK teaching they deal with similar issues as the US.
That said, I strongly advise people against going into teaching in the US these days unless they are truly in love with the concept of working with kids. The extrinsic rewards are minimal, parents and decision makers alike vilify teachers, and you have to really love the profession to survive emotionally. US education is incredibly toxic and from what I’m reading, the UK may not have No Child Left Behind officially on the books but there are very similar attitudes. The parallels between the implosions in education and publishing in the US are incredibly similar and scary for someone involved in both fields. There are great possibilities, true, but it takes a lot of heart and a lot of courage to survive and thrive.
And a certain amount of Queen Bitchery of the Universe, to boot.
I remember when a similar thing happened to Syne Mitchell; best of luck to both authors.