Category: Writing

Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living

Cover image for Scratch by Manjula Martin Edited by Manjula Martin

ISBN 978-1-5011-3457-9

“Writing for free looked like work. It felt like work. But it was the illusion of work, a fun house mirror reflection.” –Nina McLaughlin  

There are many books about writing as an art form. Library and book store shelves overflow with them. And there are some books about the business of writing, too, such as how to become a freelance writer, or find an agent. But the discussion of writing as an art form predominates, and discussing money remains a bit taboo. In a selection of essays and interview with writers from a variety of fields and at different stages of their careers, Manjula Martin aims to peel back the layers of polite obfuscation and create some transparency about the business and financial aspects of the American writer’s market. Divided into three sections, Scratch takes readers from the “Early Days” of trying to break into the industry, through the “Daily Grind,” of being a working writer, and on to that dreamed of “Someday” when the young writer has finally made it.

In reading this collection, I was struck by the varied and individual business and financial situations faced by the authors. For some writers, the pressure of having to support themselves and their families by writing was crushing. But that same pressure turned others into lean, mean, writing machines. In Malinda Lo’s words, “financial necessity can be extremely clarifying.” In her own contribution to the collection, “The Best Work in Literature,” Manjula Martin writes about how all her non-writing jobs have contributed to her work as a writer. As she puts it, “all this unwriterly work was what allowed me to understand that people and experiences other than mine exist.” On the flip side, in her essay “The Insider,” Kate McKean chronicles how building her career as a literary agent sapped most of her energy for many years, taking her away from her original dream of being a writer. With thirty-three authors included in the collection, Scratch can encompass quite a wide range of the experiences of American writers.

One of the stand-out pieces in the book is “Faith, Hope, and Credit,” featuring a conversation with Cheryl Strayed. Incidentally, it was the online excerpt of this piece that first drew my attention to Scratch. In it, Strayed and Martin discuss what a $100 000 advance ends up looking like in real life, after it is taxed, after the agent takes a portion, and then paid out in four installments. Suddenly $100 000 doesn’t seem like that much money anymore, when parceled out over several years. And even while Wild was hitting and staying on the best seller list, Strayed’s rent check bounced during her promotional tour, because she was just that broke. Wild would eventually make Strayed very comfortable, but when it first became successful, Strayed had already spent the advance paying off the bills she incurred writing the book, but the royalties hadn’t started to come in yet. It is a good reminder that a writer’s financial situation is not always evident from the outside.

Of course, being paid to write can become a sort of insatiable obsession, as documented by Rachel Maddux in her essay “On Staying Hungry.” Many aspiring writers would define having made it as the point where you can live on your writing, but as Maddux points out, the goal posts are always moving. On the experience of finally landing her first cover story, she writes, “I expected to experience a sort of transcendent satisfaction, or at least some palpable sense of leveling up. Instead, my stomach just grumbled, my appetite already recalibrating.” As Alexander Chee puts it in his piece, “there is no ‘made it’ point. There is only ever the making of work.” And there is always more work you could be doing, or chasing. There is always another next level.

The business of becoming a working writer isn’t an easy one, as new writers try to navigate the world of agents, advances, publishing houses, and freelancing. Any agent or editor seems like a good choice for a hungry, unpublished writer, but there are several horror stories and cautionary tales in Scratch about the fatality of the wrong fit. In “Five Years in the Wilderness,” Cari Luna writes about landing an agent for her first novel, which they were ultimately unable to sell. When Luna wrote her second novel, entirely different from the first, her agent didn’t feel that she could represent it, and they parted ways. At the time, this was a crushing blow, but in retrospect, Luna writes, “I see now that it was a very kind thing for my first agent to do, to recognize we weren’t a good editorial fit and set me free. Because I never would have walked away on my own.” Still more sobering is Kiese Laymon’s account of being jerked around by his editor for four years, destroying his health in the process.

Scratch is obviously most useful for, and aimed at, writers, but the main message of transparency and information sharing can be extrapolated to other creative professions. And folks in professions related to writing, such as librarians and book sellers, can definitely benefit from a better understanding of how writers are—or aren’t—being paid. The focus is on traditional revenue streams—publishing houses, magazines, teaching gigs, and speaking tours—but Kickstarter is mentioned in Laura Goode’s piece about funding the independent film she wrote. Self-publishing goes largely unaddressed. Overall, Scratch provides a good idea of the basics of the business of traditional American publishing as it stands today.

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Steering the Craft

by Cover image for Steering the Craft by Ursula K. Le GuinUrsula K. Le Guin

ISBN 978-0-544-61161-0

“If you don’t read widely, or read only writers in fashion at the moment, you’ll have a limited idea of what can be done with the English language.”

Steering the Craft is the updated edition of esteemed science fiction and fantasy writer Ursula K. Le Guin’s manual and workbook for storytellers. Subtitled “A 21st Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story,” she uses the metaphor of a ship and crew throughout the text. Originally published in 1998, this updated edition makes some effort to address modern changes, but also benefits from Le Guin’s additional fifteen years of experience teaching writing since the initial publication.

This book is intended as a manual for writers, but I picked up Steering the Craft from at display at my library as a fan of Le Guin’s work, curious to hear what she had to say about writing. Beyond its obvious purpose, it can raise consciousness in readers and reviewers alike, making you more aware of how the best writers work their magic, as well as better able to identify what has gone wrong when you aren’t enjoying a particular book. That said, the remainder of this review will address the book for what it is. Much of the text consists of exercises and examples, but there are also sections that are essentially opinion pieces about particular elements of style.

Steering the Craft is a short, focused, craft-driven book about specific writing techniques, from syntax and repetition to point of view and voice. Le Guin cautions “I want to say up front, it is not a book for beginners. It’s meant for people who have already worked hard at their writing.” More than a treatise on writing, it is “essentially a workbook,” incorporating activities suitable for either writing groups or what Le Guin calls “Lone Navigators,” extending the sailing metaphor of the title. In addition to exercises and specific information about techniques, she includes an appendix of advice for making writing groups function effectively.

Most of the advice in this volume is aimed at fiction writing, though Le Guin occasionally addresses how it can be adapted for narrative non-fiction or memoir. Some parts are perhaps more relevant to non-fiction than she gives them credit for; anyone can read their writing aloud to hear if it flows, and the tendency to overuse qualifiers is endemic in fiction and non-fiction alike. Most of the advice is not specific to genre writing, but writers of genre fiction can at least pick this manual up knowing that Le Guin will not be sneering at their subject matter. The chapters on Indirect Narration and Crowding and Leaping may be of particular interest, since they deal with how to subtly incorporate information into the text, which is key for world-building.

In addition to expounding on general principles, Le Guin is careful to illustrate her argument, Often her writing about a particular technique will be demonstrating the point she is trying to make. For example, when discussing repetition, she cautions that “prose can’t rhyme and chime and repeat a beat as poetry can, or if it does it had better be subtler about it than the first half of this sentence.” When cautioning against using qualifiers in writing the way you might use them in speech, she writes, “you might just kind of take a little look at your own writing to see if you might have some very favourite qualifiers that you kind of, like, use just a little too often.” After a theoretical discussion, sentences like that serve to make her point crystal clear. Each chapter also includes sample passages from other published works—mostly classics for copyright reasons—that demonstrate the technique under consideration.

Most of the exercises in this book are indeed very specific, and wouldn’t be suitable for getting a beginning writer moving and motivated, or in the habit of practicing and producing regularly. Her take on point of view gets well beyond pronouns, and really delves into perspectives, particularly dealing with how much information can be know and used depending on whether the narrator is limited, and if they are involved or distant. Le Guin does reiterate some common advice, but with her own memorable twists. For example, she gives the familiar adage “to break a rule you have to know the rule,” but then adds “a blunder is not a revolution.” Concise and practical, this volume would seem very worthwhile for writers looking to hone specific aspects of their craft.

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