Are there Non-Starving Writers?

Are there non-starving writers? Yes, there are. The old cliché of the “starving writer” needs to be dusted off. There are all kinds of writers these days, and only a few of them are starving. Who are these “other types” and what shapes and sizes do they come in? Okay, let me have a go. First, let’s eliminate the well-heeled ones, those who hit the jackpot with one book and caught the eyes of good promoters; they became brands, feeding themselves and their supporters handsomely, and they will make money even if their next book is a telephone directory. Let’s instead look at the rest of the field and try to categorize them (and this is by no means a comprehensive list):

1) Those who published a book to critical acclaim that subsequently earned them a job as a creative writing professor in an institution of tertiary learning, from which they will never depart lest they become the stereotype of the starving writer.
2) Those who had books published, none of which made any significant money, but who then leveraged the title of “published writer” and cobbled together several adjacent jobs to earn a living: i.e. publisher, editor, bookshop owner, ghost writer, commercial writer, advertizing copy writer etc.
3) The celebrity from another field of endeavour (musician, politician, businessperson, athlete) who decides to write her memoir and is suddenly a bestselling author (e.g. Hillary Clinton).
4) The expert consultant who decides to write a “how to book” to increase his profile and sells his book in conjunction with his consulting and speaking gigs.
5) The retired person, who having had a full career in a non-publishing field has decided to turn his or her experiences into fiction or non-fiction. This person is usually armed with a pension earned elsewhere and is writing for the joy of the experience, fettered only by years of political correctness that runs counter to the incisive words of the writer.
6) The wannabe (notice I don’t even call this person a starving writer) who is enamoured by the lives of famous writers, and believes that he (or she) can be the same. These types tend to exit this hobby after some time if they do not hit the jackpot, or they hang onto the prestigious title of “writer” but retire their sparse output. This wannabe probably goes on to be gainfully employed elsewhere, finally making money, enough to forget about that crazy detour he (or she) once took into writing for a brief and idealistic while.

None of the above are starving.

However, one thing is certain: quality of output is ever-more in demand today while quantity of output is inexhaustible, and finding good nuggets is becoming a harder job. Hence publishers have agents, and agents have sub-agents, and sub-agents have student interns, and the gate-keeping chain is lengthening with the risk that good work may get rejected too early in the pipeline by the inexperienced or the unenthusiastic. Amidst this avalanche of content the serious writer needs to dig deep, develop her networks and place her work calculatingly and judiciously. Often, as is the case, the lottery may still not be won, and the writer’s best work may wither on the vine, or shine only briefly because the constantly shifting celebrity lights would have moved onto a newer brand.

But hope is a good notion to cling to and is needed by all of the above categories of writer; it’s the fuel that keeps the writer’s engine chugging in the belief that one day he will “arrive,” in the land of the “well-heeled.” Yes, there may not be a lot of starving authors these days, but there are a lot of optimistic and hopeful ones.

A day in the life of a shameless self-promoting writer

Bill sets down his second coffee cup, rubs his eyes in the early hours of the morning and starts on his blog. In it, he declaims world hunger, the war in Afghanistan, greedy corporate types and the malaise among readers who were still migrating over to TV, twittering and texting, and leaving the printed word in the dust. East week he writes the same article with variations on the theme. “Stick to the core message” was what he had been taught at Writer’s School.

On his third coffee, he opens his query letter template, scans the agents he has targeted from the week before, there are five left in his list of 45. He cuts and pastes, adds the customary links to his website and blog, attaches the standard chapter of his novel which is so well edited for grammar and punctuation that it has lost its spirit, and puts the three envelopes in the mail tray – later he will take them down to the post office, where he has become a regular.

Then he enters his standard five short story contests for the day, all sourced from the internet the day before. Each has a differing word length and he picks from his 500 word, 1500 word, 2500 word, 5000 word and 10,000 word stories, depending on the rules for application. Today’s contests have higher entry fees, $50.00 in some cases, instead of the customary $15.00.

After a lunch of bread and butter, washed down with more coffee, Bill get onto his social networking sites where he has to maintain his presence: Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, Amazon and a few new ones that are sent to him daily via his “network”. He comments on the various online forums, where he is reputed to carry a heavy stick and is known for his literary flair, always ending by listing his website address. He sources more contests for entering tomorrow.

By 2pm he is dozing in his seat – time for his nap to re•charge the brain cells.

He wakes with a start – it is 3.30pm – he has really dozed off. The sun is warm outside and the skies are blue. It is time for a walk down to the beach, where he could blow the cobwebs of sleep away and find out if any grains of inspiration have been planted during his temporary visit to Dreamworld. He returns at 4.30pm after a brief stop at the post office, having found no grains other then the grains of sand sticking to his shoes after walking the beach.

Time to write my three pages a day. He dives into it with gusto. He is writing this crime novel in which he does not like the heroine, she just sort of came to him from that Dreamworld place. So halfway into his writing he gives her a cancerous tumour and sends her off to hospital, while her husband has wild sex with his administrative assistant on the office couch. Feeling vindicated, Bill ambles off into the kitchen and fixes himself a tuna sandwich.

Now for that grant application. Bill hates begging for money, but he needs it – he has not sold any work in six months, the last being a freelance journalistic article. His only published novel never made the top ten, and sank into oblivion soon within three months of its launch. His publisher never called him back.

At 9pm, Bill yawns – it’s been a long day. Time for bed. Tomorrow he will repeat the cycle. Eventually, something will give. Spoiler alert: Wannabe Writers – this could be you!