Saturday, October 4, 2014

A Writer's Haunted Life

When is a writer’s life like a haunted house? Always.

Writers, most of them anyway, live a haunted life. Ghosts appear at every turn. Sometimes, these are the ghosts of previously written pieces that come around to bite them in the ass. Sometimes, these are the ghosts of editors who still carry a grudge for one reason or another. And sometimes, these are the ghosts of poorly made decisions. But whatever haunts you, you can bet it will be far worse than going through a haunted house during the Halloween season.

While visiting a haunted house is meant to be entertaining, living a haunted life certainly isn’t. The bad times far outway the good ones. Usually the euphoria that comes with the good times certainly lingers longer. But the truth is that bad things that happen to writers can have lasting effects.

Take the first time someone critiques your work. You feel scared as hell—your skin may itch, your eyes water, your stomach churns. And what if the critique turns out to be horrible. Will you crawl in a hole and die? Certainly not. But you may get terribly depressed. In fact, you may never write again. It happens far more often than you think.

Perhaps you’ve been working with an editor for a long stretch and you have developed a great working relationship. Then the editor tells you that they’re leaving for another job. You know what you have, but you have no idea what you’ll be getting. The new editor may love your work and give you more than you can handle. Or the new editor may end up telling you can’t write, leaving you without a good regular market.

Or what about when an editor promises you’ll get paid, but you never see the money. If you’re a full-time freelancer, the bill collector demons may be knocking on your door—or calling you every hour. Boy, could you use that money now. But it never arrives. And what about all the work you put into that piece. Sometimes, you can’t even sell it elsewhere.

But then you get a call from your publisher with a nod to a book proposal you sent him months ago. Hallelujah! You dig in and begin working on the book. You’re having a fantastic time. You send in the manuscript. Your editor loves it. Then you wait. One day, you get an Email telling you the publisher decided not to publish your book because the market took a downturn. You get to keep the advance. But no one will ever read your book. And unless the publisher releases you from your contract, you’re stuck.

Haunted houses are full of surprises. They’re meant to be. But so will your life be as a writer. Often you won’t know what the next day will bring. Too many surprises can cause a lot of stress. This turns a lot of beginning writers away from freelancing. The New York Times is in the process of laying off nearly 100 reporters and editors. You can bet a bunch of them will try their hand at freelancing. They should succeed, but many of them won’t. Why? Because they don’t like surprises. Working for a salary has its advantages.

It takes more than writing skill to be a successful writer. It takes stamina. You’ve got to be on top of your game all the time. And when you’re hit with too many ghosts coming at you, you tend to back off and your writing suffers.

You’ve only heard about all the good things that happen to famous writers. But they, too, have had their share of surprises—ghosts that have come back to haunt them.