Think Before You Query, Part Two by Catherine Czerkawska
|Jam tomorrow. Yum .
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.