Shelf Life: So You Want to be a Writer...

Thu, September 22nd, 2011 at 1:58pm PDT

Comic Books
Ron Marz, Columnist

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Advice to a 10-Year-Old

Ron's daughter's current reading stack

Not long ago, my 10-year-old daughter came into my office, stood next to my desk, and made this announcement: "I want to be a writer when I grow up." Then she added, "I mean, I want to write regular books, not comic books."

I could tell this wasn't an "I want to be an astronaut" or "I want to be shortstop for the Yankees" kind of thing. This is what she truly sees herself doing. And no, it didn't come as a surprise. I think I was just about her age when I came to the conclusion I was going to be a writer.

But... this is my daughter we're talking about. My instinct, always, is to protect her. Being a writer is not exactly the easiest career path to tread; maybe not quite as difficult as becoming an astronaut, or shortstop for the Yankees, but pretty damn close.

Fantasy writer R.A. Salvatore once told me that if you go into a bookstore, less than 10% of the science fiction and fantasy authors on the shelves actually make a full-time living as writers. The percentage isn't that different in the rest of the store. Most published authors need to have a regular job to make ends meet: teach, wait tables, something.

(An aside, because I love the story: one year at Comic-Con International in San Diego, I was in a dinner group that included Bob Salvatore and Dan Jurgens. When I introduced them to one another, Bob asked Dan, "Hey, are you the guy who killed Superman?" Dan replied, "Well, yes I am." Bob stuck out his hand and said, "I killed Chewbacca, pleased to meet you.")

I realize I am insanely lucky to actually earn a living making things up. The odds of winning the lottery might actually be better. So while I burst with pride over my daughter wanting to write, I also know how hard it is to pursue that dream. There is heartache and failure along the way, and I want to spare her those pitfalls. But if in a few years this is still what my daughter wants to do, if this is truly what her passion is, I will tell her these things:

I will tell her that if she wants to be a writer, she has to be a reader. She already is, but I'll tell her she has to stay a reader, and read everything: fiction, non-fiction, books, magazines, newspapers.

I will tell her that in addition to reading a lot, she has to write a lot. Every writer has a lot -- I believe the literary term is "a shitload" -- of bad writing in them. The sooner you can work your way through that bad writing, and get it out of your system, the sooner you can start doing work that's worthy of an audience reading it.

I will tell her that initially she'll end up doing a lot of writing for free. You prove yourself by making that work the best it can possibly be. You only get one chance to make a first impression.

I will tell her that initially it will be hard -- almost impossible -- to get people to read her writing. But all you need is one person who believes, who is willing to give you a chance. It grows from there.

I will tell her that she can't expect her talent to be reflected in her income. There are plenty of terrific writers who barely scrape by. And there are even more writers who churn out wretched, cliché-ridden drivel and sell millions (and make millions). It's not fair, but neither is life. The work is what's important, not the dollar signs attached to it.

I will tell her to live a life; travel, be stupid, be smart, be joyous, be sad. Writing is trying to re-create the human experience, so you need to have experiences. Staring at the same four walls every day makes a writer stale.

I will tell her that if she's lucky enough to actually work full-time as a writer... "full-time" actually means "all the time." Days, nights, weekends, holidays. And even though you work all the time, and often think about work on the rare occasions you're not working... most people will think you don't have a job. And because of that, you're the first one people call when they need help moving, or need a ride to the airport, or want their knitting club newsletter punched up a little.

I will tell her that being a writer means you're only paid for what you write, and if you're lucky, some royalties. There are no sick days, no vacation days. If you don't produce, the check doesn't show up in the mail.

I will tell her that writing fiction is being a liar. But all the lies you write should end up telling the truth.

Being a writer means telling the stories you want to read, no matter how readers may react

I will tell her to develop a thick skin where critics and the audience are concerned. Everybody's got an opinion. Many of them can be uninformed, rude or just plain stupid. But it goes with the territory. People you've never even met will decide you're the most loathsome creature to ever set pen to paper... or the most gifted, sensitive soul to ever do so. Neither of those opinions will be true.

I will tell her that character is the seed from which all else grows.

I will tell her that her audience should be -- must be -- herself. Write the stories that she wants to read, not the stories the audience thinks it wants. If you wholly devote yourself to pleasing the audience, you're a trained monkey dancing for spare change.

I will tell her that "new book" smell is better than "new car" smell... especially if the book if yours.

I will tell her that working at home is a wonderful boon. Your commute is down the stairs or down the hall. Your schedule is your own. You don't even have to wear pants! But you're also always at work, and work is always calling you -- another hour, another few minutes, just a little more.

I will tell her that she should be prepared for health insurance to be an ongoing concern, at least if she chooses to live in this country. If you have the talent and determination to work for yourself, instead of an employer, the insurance industry puts the screws to you at every turn. Of course, she could always move to a civilized country that has universal health care.

I will tell her that almost everyone thinks they can write. This is because many people confuse "typing" with "writing."

I will tell her that a great many people will want her job. The vast majority of them will fully expect her to reveal how they can get her job (but with as little effort as possible involved). It will not occur to those people that they're essentially asking her to put herself out of work.

I will tell her that she should have an answer ready for what is inevitably the first question a writer gets: "Where do you get your ideas?" I usually tell people that I get them via mail-order. But the truth is, there is no answer. Ideas arrive when they're ready. You can't decide to "have an idea" and then have one pop into your head.

I will tell her that a segment of the population will download her work with no intention of ever paying for it. Many of these people feel entitled to take what they want simply because they want it, though they'll provide endless justifications for why it's okay.

I will tell her that James Frey seems like a pretty huge douchebag. Don't do what he did.

I will tell her that there will be days when writing is the absolute last thing in the world she wants to do. On those days, if the schedule allows, she should take a walk in the woods, see a movie, read a book... anything except write. But if the schedule doesn't allow, then she'd better sit her ass down and write something.

I will tell her "writer's block" is a bullshit excuse, not a reason. It's a convenient crutch for those who don't want to push through the difficult stretches.

I will tell her to treat every fan she meets with respect. Sign the books, answer the questions, be nice. Fans are ultimately the reason writers can do what they do. And in a more practical sense, if one person in a thousand has a bad experience meeting you... that's the one everybody hears about, not the 999 who have a positive experience.

I will tell her the future is digital. Embrace it.

I will tell her sometimes the editor is right, sometimes the editor is wrong. The trick is being able to tell one from the other.

I will tell her that she is a better writer today than she was yesterday, and she will be a better writer tomorrow than she is today.

And finally, I will tell her that despite all of this, being a writer is the best thing in the world.

Ron Marz has been writing comics for two decades, and thinks it's pretty much the best job ever. His current work includes "Artifacts," "Witchblade" and "Magdalena" for Top Cow, "Voodoo" for DC and his creator-owned title, "Shinku," for Image. Follow him on Twitter (@ronmarz) and his website, www.ronmarz.com

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