Think Before You Query, Part Two by Catherine Czerkawska

Jam tomorrow. Yum .
Judging by the response, last month’s post urging caution before going all out to ‘find an agent’ struck a chord with a lot of writers. A number of people told me they felt that constantly responding to the advice of others had actually hampered them in their careers. Which is not to say that we don’t need good advice, because we do. The problem lies in judging when the advice is genuinely in the interests of you and your work, and when it’s given in order to make your project fit some other agenda, for reasons that may have nothing to do with the quality of the writing or with your own interests and obsessions. With the benefit of hindsight many people can see how rewriting the same novel countless times or trying to write an imitation of the current best seller on the promise of some hypothetical jam tomorrow has turned out to be a fruitless (or should that be jam-free?) exercise.

To be fair, there used to be few other options. We were tied into the submission/rejection model and the only alternative was to go with expensive and largely useless vanity publishing. But now you can, if you choose, get your work out there yourself relatively cheaply in all kinds of ways. You can also submit to smaller independent publishers that don’t necessarily need agented submissions and are glad to have a collaborative relationship, or you can work with several different options at the same time. These could include joint projects with other writers, or going down the academic route if you're so inclined.

You can also, like countless thousands of people, decide that you want to write purely for fun. My happiest writing times were, I think, when I was very young and still doing it only for love. There were consultations with various 'writers in residence' but they were emphatically not academics. They were working writers, some of them very distinguished. At the same time, I was working with a radio producer who never fobbed me off with the promise of future jam, but simply wanted to teach me a particular craft. I certainly wanted to be published or produced, but most of all I just wanted to write.

It’s only in the last couple of years that I’ve got some of that joy back again. It is liberating to realise that you have some measure of autonomy in how you release a piece of work into the world. It relieves the intense pressure to conform. I’m delighted to be working with an excellent publisher and very much hope to work with her again - I have a project in mind and we're both enthusiastic - but I would be very reluctant to give up my newly found independence for an exclusive deal. It's surely the nature of being freelance that you get to pick and choose where and with whom you work.

There never was a golden age when all published writers were well paid simply to sit and write. Many 20th century writers had other jobs. Philip Larkin worked in a library. So did Barbara Pym. It’s true that it is becoming harder to make a living as a full time journalist but for all but a handful of writers at the very top of the tree, it was always difficult to make a living only from writing books.

If you do want to make money from your writing, you have to be businesslike. If you think, expect, anticipate that an agent or a publisher or some magical combination of both will take on the whole burden of that business for you and make you rich, while you just spend blissful time writing, you’d better think again. On the other hand, if you think that you can spend three years writing one novel, self publish it and make thousands, you may as well go out and buy a lottery ticket. Writing and publishing for money – if that’s what you intend to try to do –isn't, as one agent recently said 'like a business.' It is a business. You’d better believe it and organise yourself accordingly. In Scotland we have the Cultural Enterprise Office that will give you invaluable information about the business side of things and the CEO’s website has lots of free downloads open to everyone.

As well as trying on your business hat for size you mustn’t neglect your creative side. You're always trying to achieve some balance. But comfort yourself with the thought that it's the same for everyone: artists, writers, musicians, video game designers. And this is your choice.

Play about a bit. Find not just your ‘voice’ but where your natural writing inclination lies. You won’t know what you’re capable of until you’ve tried. Don’t discount anything. I started out as a poet, then became a playwright, (did rather well at that) took in some television along the way (decided television definitely wasn’t for me) did some non-fiction writing and quite enjoyed it but wouldn’t be too unhappy to stop and finally settled on fiction, long rather than short. I still write short stories and don’t discount more plays although I’ll never write for radio again. I thought for a while that I had diversified too much. But now I’m beginning to think diversity is a good idea as long as it’s your own, not somebody else’s plan for what you ought to be doing. And never never never wait before starting your next novel in case some hypothetical future agent or publisher might want you to do something else. Just go for it.

Finally, learn to say no. We become so submissive that we lose the ability to turn things down. Our working lives are littered with random and catastrophic agreements. I’ve wasted years of my time saying ‘OK, yes, I could do that’ to people who had no intention of giving anything in return, least of all hard cash, but only that elusive future jam. These were people who wanted to pick my brains, people who wanted to safeguard their own jobs, people who had ulterior motives. An artistic director I liked very much and had worked with very productively, once said to me ‘you are far too accommodating, Catherine’ and he was right. I was. But I’m learning.

Back when my husband was a full time woodcarver, he was always being asked to do demonstrations at craft and country fairs. Sometimes they would offer him a ‘free’ stall. Sometimes they would offer him a half price stall. They would always tell him that it was a good promotional opportunity. Oddly, they never seemed to say that to the people who erected the marquees or installed the electricity. Yet these events would take time and effort and quite a lot of expense. Very little ever came from them in the way of commissions. Eventually, I used to reply politely quoting his daily rate for attending. Most of them paid up without a murmur. But he would then put on a good, polished display – so they were getting something valuable for their money. Professionalism cuts both ways.

The problem is that when we say yes to too many demands on our time and talents, we find that we don’t have enough time for the things we want to do, for the people and activities we love. It isn’t a question of hardening your heart. It’s knowing what you really want to do and going for it. If you enjoy giving your time for something worthwhile then do it. If you genuinely believe something to be a good networking or publicity opportunity then go for it. The trick is in knowing your own mind. I once tutored a writing group unpaid for quite a long time after they lost all their funding because I loved the people. Every so often, they would get some cash together and insist on paying me something. They were wonderful, they were not well off and they inspired me. But if you consistently find yourself working resentfully for no money for a large commercial organisation, and complaining about it afterwards, then learn to say no. Spend the time you free up on writing and on learning the business of writing. You’ll be surprised by just how much you can achieve along the way.



Lee said…
Writing for fun? Really? Maybe some people find it fun, but I'm not one of them. Which does not mean that the only alternative is writing to make money.
Do you mean that every word is torn from your soul, Lee? (Sorry, couldn't resist it!) But if not fun, by which I suppose I mean if it doesn't give pleasure, why on earth are you doing it? I couldn't spend all the hours I do writing if it wasn't much more pleasurable than pretty much anything else I do. And even when I'm not doing it, I'm thinking about it and getting that little thrill of excitement and intense enjoyment. It's the main reason I do it. A kind of addiction I suppose.
Chris Longmuir said…
Lee, you don't say what we should write for if fun and making money is excluded. Personally I wouldn't have continued to write for as long as I have if it didn't give me pleasure, and yes, a bit of fun. And I don't think I would have been as successful as I've been if the fun element had been lacking and it was only the daily grind. I think how you feel about the writing you do is bound to come over on the page.
Kathleen Jones said…
Most of us lie a little about why we write. Even to ourselves. You could call it an addiction, but I think sometimes story-telling is just in our DNA. I've written for fun and I've written for money, but mostly I just write. Given up trying to figure it out. But I think if it was painful or a grind, I wouldn't do it, not being a masochist!
I suppose when I talk about 'fun' I don't necessarily mean that 'fun' is froth. When children play, they are finding out, exploring the world. I think that's what many writers do - they play with stories, characters, themes, ideas.
Bill Kirton said…
I've written blogs about what golfers and other sports people call being 'in the zone'. When writing's going smoothly, that's how it feels for me. Loss of self, surroundings, past, future and a great, relaxed satisfaction at the end of the session. The end-product may still need lots more work, but the experience has been uplifting, the time has been well spent - in short, it's been fun. When it isn't, I become aware of all sorts of things - an itchy foot, a slight ache somewhere, a desire to go and ride my bike, the thought that I haven't done much weeding for a while.

On the 'writing to order' part of your post, I've sometimes found that the challenge of being asked to go in a direction you haven't necessarily chosen sometimes IS fruitful. I'm not suggesting it necessarily produces good results but it sometimes refreshes one's approach and opens wee doors one might not otherwise have noticed.
All true, Bill. I wrestled with this post this month. (Actually, it wasn't fun at all!) And it's true that a challenge can be very good. That's what happens when you're working on a play with a good director and actors. There's nothing quite like that, either, because you know that they are somehow 'on the side of the play.' I suppose I was thinking of the times - far, far too many of them and I know Cally has had the same experience - when a script editor or similar has demanded constant changes and adjustments to a script or set of scripts, until the whole thing just implodes. But when you're in the middle of a project it can be hard to tell the difference.
Dennis Hamley said…
No, I don't write for fun. I write for the elation and satisfaction I feel when it goes well. 'In the zone' as Bill said. I write because I think I've got something to say and someone to say it to and hope whatever readers I get will agree with me. Yes, of course I like to be paid but I don't have a hissy fit when no royalties turn up and an advance isn't earned out. Perhaps that's because I've never had to support myself by writing. But I also believe that the labourer is worthy of his hire an d perhaps I don't charge the new writers I mentor enough. But that's the use of that when some of them plainly couldn't pay? When I was at my busiest I didn't have an agent. Sometimes I wonder if that was a mistake and I'd have got much better deals if I had. But one result of not having one is that I've never had to specialise and never been forced to write the same book twice. I've written what I want to write and even managed to turn commissions and series hack work into things which I wanted to do I wanted to do.
Kathleen Jones said…
But then I get the disquieting thought - is writing just an extension of our egos? Literary attention seeking? As a girl I was always told I should be seen but not heard - keeping quietly and modestly in the background. Writing is certainly not that!
It's a kind of magic and I'm afraid if I analyse it too much the magic will go away.....
But you see there are so many calvinists at heart. Why should writing 'for fun' be somehow different from writing for 'elation and satisfaction'? Why should doing what we want to do be attention seeking? Do musicians or actors ever think that they are 'attention seeking' when they turn in a wonderful performance. Last night, I attended a performance by a brilliant, much loved Scottish singer/songwriter. He was clearly having 'fun' for the entire duration of his performance, and so were we, the audience. But many of the songs - songs he had written - were profound, poetic in the best sense of that word, and profoundly moving. Why, then, can we not have 'fun' when we write, but also be profoundly moving at the same time? Why can't we hope that our readers have 'fun' too? What's wrong with fun?
glitter noir said…
Lovely post, Catherine. And I'm with Chris on the emotional state that suffuses the page. I don't hear the Beach Boys singing "Fun, fun, fun!" when I write. But if the element of fun--delight in connecting with readers---weren't there, I'd hang up my green visor and cavort with bikini-clad skate-boarding blondes.
Dennis Hamley said…
Yes, Catherine,elation and satisfaction are HUGE fun.
Lee said…
Catherine, I'm wary of comparing live performance with writing, which is a solitary undertaking. And I certainly don't hold it against anyone who has fun while writing. It just doesn't work that way with me. And I also don't find that satisfaction or elation or joy - or the zone experience - to be quite the same as having fun. Habit, oddly enough, plays a big role: it's simply something I've decided to do, as I once decided to spend hours & hours gardening - growing heritage tomatoes, for example - and so I keep at it. It's dreadfully hard for me, but I'm stubborn and keep plugging away.

And no, I don't think this necessarily makes for spiritless prose - mostly because you can't help putting something of yourself into your work (though this does sound a bit too mystical for my taste!), and competence is a fine thing to aim for. There's probably something more as well - what happens when you keep pushing at the limits of your craftsmanship. (I'm firmly convinced that there is an intrinsic relationship between style and thought & feeling, which is why I'm so negative about cliche.)

Ever spend hours sanding a cupboard? You can dislike it & go at it impatiently. You can think of it as a chore to get through. Or you can give yourself over to the rhythm (And timelessness?) of the work. It's not fun, but something I find very difficult to explain away, or even to describe. (There's something quite physical about writing: sentences have a shape to them, and structure - which I'm weak at - an architectural feel.)

Susan Price said…
The difficulty here is the definition of the word 'fun.' I think it's being used to mean quite different things.
I recognise Bill's 'in the zone.' I have experienced times, with writing and drawing, when it seemed I was in some special zone, where I could do no wrong - yet I was almost removed from it and watching, with wonder and some apprehension as, again and again, things just went right. It doesn't last for very long, it's exhausting, but it is wonderful. Joseph Campbell (also a runner, who recognised 'the zone') called these experiences 'peak experiences.' They're not confined to artists: runners, surgeons, mountaineers, have all reported them. Without intending any kind of joke, I imagine electricians, knitters and plumbers have them too - why not? They seem to arise from a blend of expertise and intense concentration.
But Lee, I also recognise your slogging away at sanding a cupboard, because you've said you'll do it, because you're determined to perfect a craft. A lot of writing (and other art work) is like that.
But with it all comes a feeling of satisfaction, of being engaged in something which you think worthwhile (even if others don't) - and it's that, I think, which is being called 'fun' here.
I was once walking on Hadrian's Wall, in sunshine, with wonderful landscapes on either side of me, and I felt, with a deep sense of contentment: There is nowhere else I would rather be, and nothing else I would rather be doing. That is the kind of 'fun' we're talking about here, I think.
Lee said…
Susan, yes, of course we always have to define our terms, and obviously the word 'fun' means different things to different people. But how can we ignore the usual connotations of a word? Writers of all people should choose with care.

All of which does not mean that writing can't or shouldn't be fun in the way of playing a lively card game, say, with friends. Writers write for lots of different reasons. (At the moment, for example, I'm reading quite a bit of TV fanfic - what a fascinating phenomenon!)
And of course, as my old Linguistics tutor used to say (over and over again) 'words do not have meanings - people have meanings for words.' I think my definition of 'fun' is a lot broader than yours Lee. Susan, you make very good points - and I think I was using the broader sense of 'fun' - which can, of course, take many forms. The man whose name I can never spell, let alone pronounce - pause while I look it up again - Csikszentmihalyi - writes wonderfully and evocatively about the concept of 'flow' and as I've written on here before, some of the best video game designers know how to evoke that sense of being 'in the zone' where time disappears. He describes it as a state of 'being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost.' I wouldn't shrink from calling that 'having fun'. Gardening is a slog as far as the minutiae of slugs and weeds are concerned. But overall, it's a fun activity for many of us, or I doubt if any of us would indulge in it.
Lee said…
Catherine, the Csikszentmihalyi quotation raises an interesting question: what about sitting an exam? I can remember the sense of utter involvement, writing and writing away, and then looking up in amazement to find that three hours have passed. In the zone? Most likely. Having fun? There I'm not so sure.

So, yes, we disagree. For me, being in the zone is not akin to having fun. I've italicised the verbs because they point to an essential difference: one is a state, the other an activity.

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