In an attempt to get something out of the Writer Underground beyond a quarterly hosting bill, I’m creating the facade of a respectable blog in an attempt to interview interesting authors — a stunning (free!) benefit to myself and my hundreds of thousands of readers*.
Thus, an email interview with science fiction novelist Walter Jon Williams is in the works, yet, I still felt compelled to marvel at the most recent post in his “Writer’s Life” series — yearly summaries of his early career fueled by his exhumation of his old tax returns.
They’re funny because he’s funny, and poignant because everybody who’s ever sat down and typed their way into a reasonable living faced a similar struggle.
In this case, the details may differ from yours, but the plot likely sounds similar: writer works ass off, writer sells first project, writer’s market explodes and sinks from view, writer wonders what the hell comes next, writer scrambles, writer suffers string of bad luck, writer figures it out, writer co-launches an entire new genre of sci-fi (this last one is a little uncommon).
The first installment in Williams’ series covered 1979 — the year disco died and I graduated from high school wearing a powder blue polyester leisure suit. (What the hell were we thinking??)
You’ll find links to the prior three years in this post.
Today, it’s 1982.
Not, as it turns out, a great year.
Or, in Walter Jon Williams’ words:
1982 was the year my career writing historical fiction was flushed down the Toilet of Doom. In fact practically every writer of historical fiction went down that same toilet at the same time. Publishers, including my own publisher Dell, had seriously overbought historical fiction, and the public just stopped buying it. In fact, they haven’t really bought historical fiction in any amount in the years since.
Fortunately I’d signed a two-book deal the year before, so I delivered Books IV and V of Privateers & Gentlemen in 1982, for which I was paid $12,500. (These weren’t published until 1884, after Dell’s legal right to do so had expired.)
Publishing is a world I can only feign inside knowledge of, but I do remember my early days as a freelance copywriter, where I’d score heavy on a project, convince myself the gravy train had not only arrived but was serving double portions, then sat and watched the phone not ring for weeks.
Back then, it was harder to break into freelance copywriting, but easier to make a good living once you had.
When you don’t know where your next nickel is coming from, you quickly learn how not to spend them frivolously (a lesson I briefly forgot somewhere around Y2K).
For Williams, the bad news kept coming:
I found out in April or thereabouts that Dell wouldn’t be wanting any more books, and that what I’d projected as a ten-book series would be cut in half. This came as a shock, since up till then all the news had been good. I immediately started writing and firing off proposals for new books, sending them in all directions and in many new genres. As my travel expenses show, I also cut all unnecessary spending.
This, of course, is what writers are supposed to do. If one thing doesn’t sell, move on to the next thing that might. Also, I hadn’t expected to be “Jon Williams” my entire career, and I knew my writing had improved since I’d turned pro, and I fully expected to be back in the writing saddle before long.
Fate was not kind in that regard.
Before I left college for an ad agency copywriting job, I learned (from a freelance photographer) that no freelancer ever really sits around; if you’re not working, you’d damn well better be looking for your next meal.
It’s interesting to see that concept play out across the open prairie that is writing; journalists send new queries before the editor reads the first set; screenwriters start typing new scripts before the ink is dry on the old one; copywriters hunt for their next gig before the prior has even run its course…
It’s the same music everywhere.
The chorus of this particular song? You better keep learning:
For another, I hadn’t yet learned the art of writing a good synopsis. For someone hoping to sell on chapter-and-outline, this is a vital skill. A synopsis isn’t so much a description of what happens in the book as a sales document. A synopsis should start with a narrative hook, explain what the book’s actually about (as opposed to a description of a series of incidents), and explain what’s so wonderful about the book that a publisher would want to buy it.
My synopses tended to wander and spend a lot of words explaining details of the plot. Reading them now, I could imagine how the editor’s eyes glazed over, because my eyes glazed over.
1982 finally improved for Williams, but it got worse before it got better (a fair description of a lot of things in life).
As the year approached its end, with no work coming on and no money coming in, I was beginning to feel more than a little anxious. I was looking at bartender schools.
Fortunately, I was saved by becoming a science fiction writer, something I had not at all expected.
Williams explains why his first science fiction novel took more than two years to sell, yet was bought by the first editor to read it — a story that will not warm the hearts of writers who, like Williams, sent proposals several places, and assumed good things were happening. They weren’t.
He lays it all bare in his post — including the bits about getting paid half as much for his 1982 book deal as he did for his 1979 deal, and how he was asked to write a 125,000-word novel in three months (he tried, but didn’t).
Like most stories involving a stuttering writing career, it’s fascinating stuff.
Keep writing (and working, and marketing, and pitching, and learning), Tom Chandler.
(*This number is somewhat approximate)