Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Lake, Drake, Eudaly, McQuay, Wooley and Me

Apologies in advance if this is too long and rambling, but I'm trying to work some things out.

In yet another example of the synchronicity which seems to permeate my life, I happened to run across this blog entry by Jay Lake on the same weekend as Conestoga, and it has me reevaluating my life and work. I had already been nibbling on the edges of this idea, by applying for a writing job in the previous week, but this has all come together on me in the last couple of days, so forgive me while I type it out so as to sort it out in my head.

The blog entry: the thing that prompted it was a discussion within an online writing group (of which I am a member) that has run for several days, debating the value of sales to semi-pro markets (markets with miniscule readerships that pay less than 3 cents a word). On the one side, ably represented by Mr. Lake here, you have the people arguing that for many writers struggling to build a career and a reputation in a shrinking small fiction market, any sale is cause for celebration. On the other side, you have the more ambitious neo-pros arguing that time spent pursuing sales to tiny zines for tiny pay and no eyeballs is time that could have been spent working toward a more productive end.

Conestoga: David Drake sits next to Rhonda Eudaly at a panel. David Drake is a seasoned pro, a very successful author with a career spanning decades. Rhonda Eudaly is a vivacious up-and-comer with several short story credits, and a fixture on the Texas/Oklahoma convention circuit. Eudaly is currently fighting tooth-and-nail to sell 300 copies of her latest book to win a bet; to Drake, only 300 copies sold would be an abysmal failure. So there's Eudaly, performing a ritual of the modern-day convention circuit author, setting up a wall of books in front of her as a big billboard advertising what she's got for sale. And Drake looks at her and says, "What are you doing?"

She explains that she's setting out her books so people will know what she's written. And Drake says something like, "I've written lots of books, but you don't see me setting them in front of me." (Or maybe he didn't say it but only shook his head or something-I was there, but not paying close attention, but Eudaly talked about the incident more than once on other panels).

Her feeling, of course, was that he didn't have to, because he's David Freaking Drake, but people who are still struggling to make a name for themselves must promote themselves more actively. And I see her point, I really do. But at the same time, I found myself feeling rather sad for these struggling writers, setting their stacks of low-budget stapled chapbooks with amateurish covers face out on the table in hopes of convincing one of the ten or fifteen people attending the panel to pick up a copy. It seems like a lot of effort for miniscule return, effort that could be more profitably spent improving their craft and their product.

Which is easy for me to say, with my one (1) sale to an on-line market, and my one (1) self-published POD novel turned face-out on the table right alongside theirs, when it's not gathering dust in my office not being sold to or read by anybody. But I wonder if the so-called snobs and elitists in the writing group aren't onto something, which is (if I may paraphrase) that thinking small leads to acting small, which leads to small returns. If I want to be the David Drake on the panel, perhaps I shouldn't follow the Yard Dog crowd in hyping and pushing $5 chapbooks and POD novels (which I so far haven't done). At the same time, I should probably stop pretending that I have unlimited time in which to make my mark, and start pushing hard to get more and better product out there.

My big soulsearching dilemma is that I have known two novelists pretty well (I know more now, since joining OSFW, but I'm speaking of years back). The late Mike McQuay was a science fiction novelist I knew back in OKC. He cut his teeth on work-for-hire Mack Bolan novels and movie adaptations, then moved to science-fiction books under his own name, won some awards, and in the later phases of his career moved to political thrillers. He signed some lucrative contracts in his career, but never really sold enough to justify his high advances, and his career slumped badly toward the end of his life. His most successful book (and his only hardcover release) came out after his death in 1995. He was a tremendously intelligent man, who had managed the feat that so many writers only dream of, which is that he supported himself solely through writing novels. But he was a profoundly unhappy man at the end, I think.

Through Mike, I met John Wooley, a writer for the Tulsa World who has also authored several novels, both by himself and in collaboration with Ron Wolfe. John has worked continuously in all sorts of media for years: he has scripted TV movies and documentaries, written novels and magazine articles and non-fiction books and stage plays and comic books, put out a CD with a garage band and hosted his own radio show, in addition to his duties at a daily newspaper. At one time, I mentioned to McQuay that John was writing copy for a set of (I think) Betty Page trading cards, in addition to his comic book endeavors. Mike made a face and said, "John's always knocking himself out doing all these little projects that never make him any money."

So yeah, if they were sitting together at a con, the '95 Mike McQuay and the '06 John Wooley, McQuay would probably be the Drake at the table and Wooley would be the Eudaly. But Wooley would be the happier man, getting paid (however little) to do what he really loves.

So the questions I've been asking myself today are, what are the chances that I can become a Drake, or even a McQuay (supporting myself solely by my writing, to the point where I don't have to jump through hoops trying to sell a couple hundred copies of a small press book or content myself with sales to tiny webzines that pay one cent a word and have a subscriber base made up almost solely of other writers wanting to sell to that same webzine)? Am I willing to commit myself to the effort and sacrifice it will take to achieve such a goal? If I am willing, what are the best steps I can take right now to put my feet on that path?

I'm guessing one of those steps will be setting aside time (at least an hour) to write every day, rather than the sort of casual "when I feel like it and I can get out of the house" that I'm doing now. I'm starting to do that a little by carrying the Mobile Command Center with me to lunch. I've managed to write two weekdays in a row now, which is sort of unusual, actually. But I'll need more than 20-30 minutes stolen out of my lunch hour if I intend to make a serious change.

So that's my first goal: establish a writing schedule that allows me to get some serious writing done every day.

A little over a week till ArmadilloCon and I haven't figured out precisely how to raise the money to go, yet, but I feel as if I need to go. I've set aside the vacation time, and they say it's one of the best literary cons in the Southwest. I need to get my name and my face out there, and it couldn't hurt to start by being seen with the Baen contingent visiting Austin. I just need to figure out how to pull $200 out of my ass. I'm starting to regret having bought the Mobile Command Center, because I could really use that money right now.

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