clarity

AN MbC MUST-READ: Ten Steps to Overnight Success…

(… or, How it Only Took a Decade to get Paid)

 

The top 1% of members of the Writers Guild of America — the folks who make between $600,000 and the “big money” (seven figures) number in the mere dozens. Of the rest of them — members of a group that as a rule has to get paid to even join — only the top 25% make $62,000 a year or more. And the average age of a person who actually makes it into the Guild — meaning they got that sale, or finally optioned enough screenplays to make it — is 35 years old.

 

Let’s talk now about some other averages. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median income for salaried writers hovers just over $50,000. Only the top 10% of salaried writers make over $95,000. And it must be emphasized that these are “salaried writers” — narrowly defined by the BLS as people like salaried journalists, or professional technical writers. Fiction writers are, for the most part, freelance writers whose annual takes — even if they are “professionals” (i.e., occasionally paid) — is
much, much lower.

 

In other words, “the big payoff” of becoming a “real, published author” may have more in common with the salary of your average janitor than it does with the sixteen bizillion dollars J.K. Rowling makes every time she writes a postcard.

 

Of course, the chances of making money go up greatly if you are signed by a large publisher — Scholastic, or Bantam, for instance. However, this itself has an inherent earnings inhibitor built in: most of the larger publishing houses require that submissions be “exclusive.” This means that a writer is only permitted to submit his work to one large publisher at a time. The average wait time to find out if the work has been rejected or accepted can range anywhere from a few weeks (if the writer already knows someone “on the inside” who is in a position to fast-track the review) or, more likely, several months to a year and a half. Then, even if the book is accepted for publication, the large publishing houses will typically take, again, several months to a year and a half to actually roll out the book.

 

In other words, even assuming your book is picked up by the first major publishing house you submit to — and the odds are against you — you are looking at somewhere between half a year and three years before you start really seeing any money. And if your book is not accepted by the first major publishing house, then you are once again in a sort of voluntary limbo, consigned there by the “no simultaneous submissions” rule.

 

What to do?

 

The reality is, most authors have “day jobs.” I am considered an anomaly. I have optioned screenplays and done rewrites for major Hollywood production companies. I have numerous television shows in development. I have written over a dozen novels that have spent time on Amazon’s major genre bestseller lists, and have spent the better part of a year as one of Amazon’s Most Popular Horror Writers.

 

I make a living writing.

 

Now, to put this in perspective: I began writing at the tender age of four. I made my first “sale” of a short story to a local newspaper at the age of 15. I earned creative writing scholarships in college. I hold the record as the person who has had the most screenplays go to quarterfinals and semifinals in the history of the Nicholls Screenwriting competition. And in spite of all this, it took me fifteen years of rejection letters to actually start making money.

 

Still, through it all I have learned some things about writing, and about how to become a “successful” writer, particularly in genre work like fantasy, sci-fi, and horror. Following is my “road-map for success.” Which is not a guarantee that it will make you a millionaire…but it is a guarantee that you will never fail so long as you continue doing these things.

 

1) Write. This may seem obvious, but the simple fact is that if you wish to make a living as a writer, you MUST WRITE. Constantly and without letup. Write your books, your screenplays, your stories. And when you are done writing those, write about them. Start a blog. Issue press releases. Have a Facebook page. The “writing muscle” is one of the most easily atrophied muscles in the human body.
CONTINUE TO PART 2

 

Posted by mbc@writteninsomnia.com in Life Advice, MbC Must-read, Writing Advice

On Clarity

Be clear.

This is something that is both very easy sounding and extremely difficult. It is especially difficult in the realm of fantasy and science fiction, as well as other genre writing like horror or supernatural works. People read fiction to be transported to another place, to give them some experience that they would not otherwise have. The reader of a work of fiction must always and automatically “suspend disbelief” whenever reading: he must put away what he knows to be “true” in order to immerse himself in the “reality” of the story. This is why details can sink or save a book: too many things that don’t ring true, and the reader’s ability to suspend disbelief is undermined. The reader stops being an active participant in the book’s adventures, and turns instead into a critic, a scientist, an observer looking for what is wrong rather than enjoying what may be right.

And the idea of “suspension of disbelief” is nowhere more crucial than when writing fantasy, science fiction, or genre works. In addition to the first layer of suspension (the fact that the reader is not really participating in the fictional adventures of the book’s protagonists and antagonists), there is another layer of disbelief that must be dealt with: the question of magic. Of alien technologies. Of ghosts and specters. These “make believe” aspects of genre writing present a special problem, as they inherently inhibit the reader’s ability to put aside the “real” in favor of the “read.”

The best way to deal with this problem is a facet of the critical characteristic of clarity. The best genre work always takes place in fully realized “worlds” with clear, easily-understood (or at least fairly easily-understood) “rules.” The presence of such rules can mean a fantasy windfall. Their absence can mean disaster.

One example of this is the blockbuster hit The Sixth Sense, one of the top-grossing suspense/supernatural thriller movies of all time. The rules are set up very early on in the movie: the movie’s young protagonist can see ghosts. The ghosts do not know they are dead. He can help them “move on” by finding out what unfinished business it is that they are remaining to deal with. These simple rules set the scene for both an engaging ghost story and one of the greatest surprise endings in modern cinematic history. And the surprise is complete and utterly earned because it follows the rules.

Another example of literary rule-making is in The Lord of the Rings saga. There, Tolkien draws upon a much wider palette in order to paint an epic portrait of an entire world at war. Unlike The Sixth Sense, which is an intimate, almost claustrophobic movie, The Lord of the Rings follows dozens of characters throughout the various landscapes of Middle Earth. The magic use is prolific and varied. But still, there are rules, and they are scrupulously adhered to. Elves have a natural inclination toward and protective sense over all things of nature. Dwarves prefer to be underground. Gandalf the Gray is quite a different person than Gandalf the White. Each has set characteristics, set attributes, and these are as unchanging as the DNA of any real human being.

A final example (if I may) can be found in my own work. One of my books is called Billy: Messenger of Powers. It’s a young adult fantasy about a boy who finds himself embroiled in a magical war between two groups: the Dawnwalkers, who want to protect and serve humanity; and the Darksiders, whose goal is nothing less than world domination. As with The Sixth Sense and The Lord of the Rings, clarity is key. Billy (the hero) is drawn into a world of magic and wonder. But the wizards and witches he meets can’t just run around “doing spells” willy-nilly: there are rules, and those rules must be laid out with enough clarity that the reader not only understands the world of the story, but believes in it.

Simply put, clarity is key in all fiction, but critical in sci-fi, fantasy, and other genre work. A muddled magic system, an alien technology that is capable of some things one moment then incapable the next, these can be the genesis of confusion in the reader… and signal the death knell for an otherwise viable series.

Posted by mbc@writteninsomnia.com in Writing Advice