Here in the western hemisphere, at least in my little corner of it, people are allowed to write, paint, and make music, but they are not supposed to be successful at it.
The expectation is that art is something we do for free, in our spare time, as a means of offsetting the quiet discontentment of our “real jobs” as waiters or dog catchers or whatever.
Elsewhere in the world, this is not the case.
For instance, in the Eastern Hemisphere, specifically in counties like China or Japan, art is not automatically presumed to be a hobby adjacent to you “real job.”
Should you demonstrate aptitude for the guitar at a young age, the expectation is that commit yourself to excellence in music, and “guitarist” becomes your job title for a long time.
Seriously, it’s kind of a mutual culture shock when hippies or church groups travel to Asia Major with instruments in hand and try to start an informal jam session.
The downside of that set-up is that humans are more inclined to lose passion for the things they’re required to do than the things they do for love.
The upside is that the artists who have their financial needs met will have the time and resources to do more art that is higher quality than those who must hold down a day job to support a rock-and-roll, oil pastel, or novel habit.
So why are we in the United States inclined to question the integrity of artist and not the dogcatcher when they expect a wage for their work?
Granted, once in a long while, we encounter an artist who has no integrity and overcharges for rubbish, but that’s not typical, so let’s look at some other variables.
Let’s assume for a moment that one or more of the wealthy people on this planet of ours is dishonest. Part of how they likely accumulated their wealth was by inflating the the value of their time and depreciating the work of others.
If Rich Dude du Jour can convince his secretary, painter, and janitor that their services are an unnecessary luxury, he can pay them a fraction of their worth and still get his phones answered, toilets cleaned, and walls decorated.
Then, there are the fine artists, some of whom believe all art should happen exclusively for art’s sake and see the artist who gets an art-related pay check as a sell-out.
This belief is unfair and untrue.
We don’t call Rembrandt or Michelangelo sellouts because they took commissions and worked for “The Man” for most of their careers. We visit their works in museums and stare in awe at the skill possessed by a couple of old masters.
Anyway, according to my old psych professor, artists, much like teachers, will never get paid what they’re worth…
A, because people in charge perpetuate the myth that “If we pay teachers what they’re worth, pretty soon, they’ll all be doing it for the money.”
B, the underpaid masochists who take such jobs tend to feel there’s a certain amount prestige in doing thankless work for little pay. The misplaced fear if these masochists is that if there were appropriate compensation in their chosen field, there would be less prestige to go around for the few, the proud, the poverty-stricken.
No joke, y’all, when your long-suffering high school teacher has to take a part-time job at McDonald’s to make ends meet, the prestige loses some o’ that thar mys-tique.
My heartfelt belief that all professionals can do what you love and command a salary was instilled in me not by gurus of the fine arts but of long-time pros in the medical sciences who had this to say about their vocations:
“I love my job. I would do my job for free. What they pay me for is the paperwork.”
And no matter how dreamlike they seem from the outside, all jobs have paperwork.
Therefore, if you write novellas or paint portraits for fun, and you legitimately don’t care about the money, that’s awesome. Keep it up.
But if ever someone has made to feel like your art is frivolous nonsense and should be free to anyone who asks for it, that person is stupid. It cost you time and effort to make something that no one else could make exactly like you can, so rest assured, your asking to be compensated is by no means out of line.
My first dalliance in publishing was a self-pub offering during a foolish time in my life when I under appreciated the difference a professional editor could make in the assembly of my manuscript.
Yeah. That was dumb.
So when it came time to getting feedback from a pro on my latest project, I was super nervous.
It was going to be her job to point out my sagging middles and cavernous plot holes.
And I knew quite well that before she was done, I was going to be one of many authors who can relate to a meme remarkably like this:
The professional editor I chose was a lady from the UK named Claire Baldwin, and she ended up being a joy to work with.
She caught mistakes that went unheeded by multiple beta readers as well as the customary grammar correction gadgets.
She also helped me break through my word count barriers. Before Claire, my book was a paltry 28,000 words, and I believed in my heart and soul I could add no more. I now have 33,000 and I’m only half way through my largest round of re-writes.
Claire was also kind enough to answer some interview-style questions for a nosy author with a blog (below).
So for readers and writers who are curious about the editorial side of publishing, here’s a wee glimpse of what it all looks like from an editor’s point of view:
Q: Does your job as an editor make you happy, or does it make you look forward to retirement?
A: It makes me very happy. Like most editors, I’ve been a bookworm since childhood, and I feel so lucky that I’ve been able to turn that into a career. Of course, there are ups and downs, as with any job, but on the whole, I’m not sure when I’ll ever retire.
Q: After working with books for profit, do you still read for fun?
A: Yes, definitely, and I would say it’s impossible to do the job if you don’t always enjoy reading for pleasure. Every book an editor reads contributes to their knowledge of the market, even if they’re not strictly ‘for work’, so the lines are blurred about what constitutes reading for fun anyway. Time pressure from the sheer volume of manuscripts can get overwhelming, though, and when the submissions pile up, the bedside reading pile also starts to teeter at dangerous heights.
Q: Have you edited any books so good, you get distracted from the edits and found yourself reading it to learn what happens?
A: On my first read of a novel, I always immerse myself in the story to find out what happens, and writing a few notes and thoughts along the way doesn’t distract me from that. It’s on the second read that I go through a manuscript in more detail, dissecting and checking over things more slowly and carefully, making notes and editorial suggestions.
Q: How does working with British authors differ from working with American authors?
A: In terms of the editorial process, there isn’t a noticeable difference between British and American authors (apart from a character walking along the ‘sidewalk’ rather than the ‘pavement’ etc). Individual authors all have different quirks and approaches, and often different needs from an editor, and that varies regardless of where they’re from.
Q: Is there any genre you despise so completely you would neither edit nor read it?
A: No, good writing and story-telling will always draw me in (and sometimes the weirder the better – I was enjoying reading some spoetry the other day). And the delineation of what lies in which sub-genre can often be quite arbitrary. But for editing, my experience and focus have always been on fiction, particularly historicals and fantasy, so that is what I’m best placed to work on.
Note from Nosy Author: I was not hip enough to know what “spoetry” is before I Ms. Baldwin mentioned it, so I looked it up. The internet says spoetry is “poetic verse composed primarily from the subject lines or content of spam e-mail messages.” Isn’t learning fun? I think it’s fun!
Q: Do editors tend to be writers as well, or can the skills of writing and editing be exclusive from one another?
A: Yes, there is lots of obvious crossover, and many editors are writers as well. In the UK at the moment there seem to be a particular raft of editors turning their hand successfully to novel writing. But being a brilliant editor doesn’t necessarily mean someone will be a good writer, and vice versa. There are different skills necessary which make each exclusive from the other too.
Q: Are there editors with so distinct a style, you can tell when he or she has worked on a manuscript, or is the idea to be the unheeded force that makes a novel extra lovely, like great bass lines in a rock song or subtle makeup on a beautiful woman?
A: The idea is definitely to be the unheeded force, the great bass lines in a rock song J. A good editor should never impose any personal style on an author and their manuscript, but work with that author to bring out their voice and the full potential of their book.
On the commissioning side, though, editors are recognized by the types of books they acquire for a publisher, with their taste and style coming through in the list they build up. There also used to be a trend (not as common now) of imprints being named after the editor who ran them, whose stamp of approval was enough to convince the trade that a book that editor had selected was one worth really getting behind.
Many thanks to Claire Baldwin for making this post possible (and more interesting. I’ve interviewed myself before. Reviews were less than favorable). If you’re inclined to seek out her expertise in handling your next novel, you can send her a proposal / request for a quote on https://reedsy.com/#/freelancers
Some people are born to write.
They work themselves into a writing frenzy, and before you can say, “Whoopsie-daisy,” they’ve typed up their publisher’s next best-seller.
These are what the queen of England might refer to as, “Lucky bastards.”
And she’d be right.
For the rest of us, writing is less a birthright than it is a life-long learning process at which we get better over time.
So there I was, trying to turn my congealed vat of alphabet soup into a novel, listening to a guy with tenure and a sports jacket tell me how it’s done when Mr. Sports Jacket proclaimed the following:
And I said, “What?”
He went on to say that we use our fictional works make order out of chaos; that stories are fabrications made by us, not hanging in the air like apples on a tree waiting to be gathered and distributed to out family and friends.
And I said, “You’re mistaken, Mr. Sports Jacket.
I have passed myself off as an author, bartender, a jail nurse, and a raggle-taggle gypsy-o. I knew a man who killed two people with a hammer who wrote me poetry and told me he’s taking me to Applebees when he gets out of jail in a hundred fifty years.
What do you mean, “Life doesn’t happen in stories?”
I have since learned that the psychologists are on his side. They say there are 2 governing voices in the conscious mind: the experiential self which feeds the brain raw data, and the experiential self which spins the data into a story for interpretation and storage.
Experiential Self: This jail cell is uncomfortable. What gives?
Narrator Self: Well, you remember that time you killed 2 people with a hammer?
Experiential Self: Yeah?
Narrator: Well, this is likely a consequence of that specific choice.
Experiential Self: Oh.
Narrator Self: Or maybe your just an unlucky victim of “the man.”
Experiential Self: Yeah. That must be it.
Some time has passed since this well-meaning fellow with tenure broke my brain with this statement, and after discussing the whole thing with writers I respect, I think I know what Sports Jacket Man meant:
1. Life happens in poorly-edited stories. If we didn’t edit out the times we slept, crapped, scratch, or stuttered, the story of our lives would be a tedious read.
2. Not everyone leads the life of a weirdo. Those who do the day job thing may go for long periods without mishap, whereas someone who’s restless, fearless, or accident prone will have stories to tell his friend on a more regular bases.
3. If you think your life happens in stories, you are not wrong. You can’t tell a writer their life doesn’t happen in a series of stories any more than you can tell a photographer life doesn’t happen in a series of still-lifes or a psychologist that life doesn’t happen in a series of Rorschachs.
Not only does the story come from any number of things a writer sees and hears, often it comes from things that everybody sees, but only one guy or gal chooses to immortalize / satirize it.
One of the fellows credited with pioneering the now ubiquitous concept of “topical comedy” is a Canadian born comic named Mort Sahl. It’s said of him he never wrote a single joke for his act. He’d just walked out on stage with a news paper and improvised a routine out of whatever he read.
Before Bill Cosby’s fall from grace, his stage show was incredibly reliant on biographical narrative. It seemed like he couldn’t so much as turn on his windshield wipers in error without finding a way to funny it up and work it into his act.
For marketing wizards to whom self-promotion comes easy, branding is miraculous.
It’s the invisible psychic force that compels grocery store customers pick up a full-price box of Lucky Charms over a less expensive bag of Marshmallow Mateys.
The way this miracle works is not terribly mysterious. The brand name carries with it a lifetime’s-worth of seeing commercials and growing up with that brand. There’s a promise of quality in certain names that compel customers to choose the tried-and-true brand over a product that is unbranded and unfamiliar.
Full Disclosure Time: When I was first introduced to the concept of branding, I did not believe it was miraculous.
In fact, my reaction to it was much like the one I have when multiple, consecutive disco selections are played on the oldies station where my Jim Croce and Gordon Lightfoot used to be… a mild anaphylaxis and the words GET IT OFF ME!
To me, it seemed branding was what happened to cattle when the old-time rancher wanted to mark them as part of his herd.
Not fun. Though I managed to find an online image of a “fire brand” online that does not make me queasy.
Also, I’m a little too ADD to synonymize myself with any one genre or writing style. It’s hard to say which character’s gonna keep me up nights until I get around to telling his or her story.
To be clear, I do not condemn anyone who’s great at brand promotion. I stand in legitimate awe of authors without whom we couldn’t imagine the genre as it is today, such as fantasy sans George R. R. Martin or mystery sans Arthur Cohnan Doyle.
But Doyle rather famously hated Sherlock Holmes! He even tried to kill Holmes and abandon the brand, but he reluctantly revived Holmes because together, Holmes and he could reliably make money.
Not exactly the dream-come-true we often think writing careers should be, right?
After much contemplation and having to rewrite this article a couple times to minimize my own nhilism on the subject, here are 5 strategies for writers who have hith..loathe to pay homage to the branding beast:
1. Pick a genre and stick with it, come what may (my least favorite option). Some lucky ducks sustain a passionate, life-long love affair with their brand which happens to include a particular genre and writing style. Others stick to the brand when the love grows cold and figure, “Oh well. If it was fun, they wouldn’t have to pay me to do it.”
2. Screw branding and write what you want. This is not necessarily the thing to do in the midst of building your fan base, but it’s a right and proper thing to do at either end of your writing career. Pre-Audience you will feel free-er to explore what you like / what audience responds to. Established You may get enough love from the book community to trust your audience will go with you on new and out-of-the-way journeys. The era in between is when brand defiance makes your (and perhaps your publicist’s) life a bit harder.
3. Cultivate multiple brands at once. Some writers have a small collection of pen names and personas for different audiences. This means slower potential growth for each of their brands, but they always get to write what they want. By using an alias or ten, you can write a picture book, a lit fic novel, a gardening manual, a military sci-fi saga, and “choose your own adventure” pornography series and never need to worry you’ll alienate your audience. The ones who wouldn’t like your latest title don’t even have to know it’s you.
4. Use your brand as a buffer between you and your audience. You know how if you start an LLC, you insulate yourself from certain legal woes while reaping personal rewards from the business you built? Your brand can insulate you in a similar manner from fools who want to be jerks to you based on the way you write and carry yourself. When trigger-happy critics open fire on your latest creation, or some internet troll uses trashes your name in a post in all his comma-splicing, run-on sentence glory, don’t take it personally. As much as they might want to think they’re worth your time and raised blood pressure, they haven’t actually attacked you. They’ve attacked your brand. And if you play this crazy marketing well enough, your brand’ll be bigger than your haters.
5. Define your brand by what your books have in common. This is the item on my list that gives me the most hope for my own books, because I’ve never done the same thing twice, even in my series which went from kinda-sorta novel to graphic novel. The only thing they truly have in common is a common writer, and sometimes that’s enough.
Part of what inspired my change of heart on branding vs. the writer’s voice was learning that Marathon Man and The Princess Bride were written by a guy named William Goldman.
In his own estimation, the only things those works had in common were as follows: pain, anger, and the most relatable characters die miserably.
“…I was the guy who gave Babe over to Szell in the “Is it safe?” scene and… I was the guy who put Westley into The Machine. I think I have a way with pain. When I come to that kind of sequence I have a certain confidence that I can make it play. Because I come from such a dark corner.”
(This may or may not be a digression from the topic at hand. I concede, I may have merely thought William Goldman is awesome and wanted to call attention to more of his words)
In summary, branding can be scary.
Take whatever approach you need to make it less scary, ’cause marketing’s a thing that will help you better dispense your stories.
And, as the ancients who govern the sad, disco-esque oldies stations might say, “Write on!”