A Storyteller’s Stages – or – The Penmonkey wants his banana.
*note* I borrowed the term “penmonkey” from Chuck Wendig (www.terribleminds.com), and need to give him credit for it.
This post started off in my head as a rant. And while this is my blog, and I figure I can probably rant a little bit if I want to, I decided that the simple act of ranting probably won’t help my situation. I want to discuss, instead, what it means to grow in this craft.
There are many stages to this writing life, and I’ve found they can be named almost directly by the progress the storyteller – penmonkey – feels as they go through their own personal growth. The stages will differ depending on the individual, of course. Some of us labour in relative obscurity for near a decade, while other people hit it big with the first thing they’ve ever written. I, certainly, am not one of those people, and have hit every one of these stages.
Stage one: This is fucking awesome.
I thought this might just apply to me, but as I’ve met other fledgling writers I’ve learned that it is an extremely common phenomena. A lot of us, when we start out, get it into our heads that every word we shit out onto the page is pure gold. As I discussed in a previous post, Growth of Craft, I showed up at my first Surrey International Writer’s Conference with a really terrible manuscript clutched in my hot little had. When I wrote it, I thought that its awesomeness was absolutely unparalleled in the history of literature, and felt sure that publishers were going to throw buckets of money at me to claim my story as their own. I was wrong.
Stage 2: This is fucking terrible.
It was only as I learned more about writing – the craft of storytelling – that I figured out my first novel was really a steaming heap of fly-riddled dog shit. I mean it was awful. It was filled with clichés, grammatical errors, really terrible dialogue and plot lines that started off ridiculous and faded in near-invisible obscurity.
I got a little depressed, for a while, when I discovered that I was not, in fact, a writing prodigy that would soon be able to quit my day job. But it didn’t last long, as my newfound knowledge of my own fallibility hustled me along to stage 3.
Stage 3: I might suck, but I’m getting better.
After my first SiWC, I really started working at the craft. I was aware, then, that I had a long way to go, but I was making improvements. I had a couple of beta readers who gave me loving (as in – honest…brutally honest) feedback, and it made me stop doing the ridiculous shit. I moved past the clichéd stories that I thought would be popular, and started writing about the things that really spoke to me. I read a lot, and wrote a lot. I listened when people tried to help me and give me useful advice. I dropped both the idea that I was awesome and that I was absolutely terrible and just tried to write the stories that pleased myself. I wrote a lot of pages that will never see the light of day, but eventually I started producing things that were not bad; things I was willing to show to people who didn’t love me.
Stage 4: You mean…you actually want to pay me for this?
The first time I ever got paid for a story was in 2010 when I came in first runner up in the SiWC writing contest for a story called “What it Means to Bleed”. I wrote the story because I’d had a really rough year, had produced next to nothing and really needed to get some creative words down. When the deadline to the contest approached (as in…24 hours away), I sat down at my laptop and hammered out a story. I didn’t have time to agonize over whether it fit the mold I thought a story should slide into, and I just opened up that place in me where the words live and let them fire across the page (well…screen). The story was short-listed and ultimately came in second place, along with a gold-leaf certificate and a cheque for one hundred and fifty dollars.
Winning that money didn’t mean that I was suddenly going to be rich and famous, but it was a sign that I was getting better. That my writing was good enough that someone was going to pay me for it.
Stage 5: You mean…you’re actually going to Publish my schlock?
The first novel I finished that I thought was worthy of public consumption was, “The Watch”. I pitched it out to numerous people, but it wasn’t until I sent it to the folks at Dark Dragon Publishing that someone really dug the story and decided to take a chance on me. The publishing house is a small, Indy show, but we have done fairly well together.
Robert J Sawyer said in a keynote speech at SiWC that if you’re published with an independent Canadian publishing house, and you sell three hundred copies of a novel, that you’ve done something exceptional. Well, Dark Dragon and I have surpassed the three hundred copy mark (we didn’t exactly kick that mark’s ass, but we got past it), so I guess we’re doing all right.
Following the novel, I sold three other short stories to various publications (Pulp Literature Magazine, and the Nefarious North anthology among them). I started to feel like a real writer, and grew, very slowly, to believe the publication of the novel was not a complete fluke.
After the first novel came out a dear friend of mine, kc dyer, sat me down and talked to me about my writing “career”. I had never actually considered it a career, but, as she pointed out, I was now a contracted, published author who was being paid for their work. I wasn’t making a living off it, but people (and more than one) liked my stuff enough that they were willing to pay me on the regular for it.
The main lesson that kc wanted to impart on me was this: “Your time and your work are valuable, so don’t give it away for free.”
I didn’t realize, then, exactly what she meant, but I have an idea now.
Stage 6: Uh…maybe I don’t suck.
There were two galvanizing events that lead me to the belief that I don’t completely suck. First, my publisher accepted my second novel, and agreed to publish it (I’ve read, statistically, that most first time authors never have a second book and drop from the writing life after their first novels are published). It was a big deal for me to take that second big step, and I was damned proud when the people at Dark Dragon agreed to publish my second novel, “Dark Resolution”, and I signed the contract for it.
The second big event, that almost knocked me on my ass from the sheer shock of it, was when someone contacted me and asked if I would be interested in submitting a story to a new mystery magazine called “Sleuth”. One of the editors had read my first book and liked it enough to reach out to me and ask me to submit a piece. It was the first time that someone had actually sought me out for my writing and I was thrilled. I submitted a story called “The Coffin Was Cold”, and they accepted it, had me sign a contract, and paid me their standard rate.
Once again, I was not made rich, nor made famous, but I felt like my work had real value – that people wanted to read my stuff. I was no longer begging people to have a look at my shitty stories. They were actually voluntarily reading them because – presumably – they didn’t suck.
Stage 7: The penmonkey wants his damned banana. (Here comes the rant)
Since the talk with kc dyer, I have always carefully considered the value of my work. I am not so arrogant to believe that everything I write is publishable. I have both completed novels and a couple dozen short stories that will likely never get picked up by anyone for the simple fact they really are not very good. But the stuff that I’ve written that has been published is really all right…I might even go so far as to say that some of my words are damned good (I could be wrong, but they’re my stories and I love them).
I am not at a stage in my writing “career” where I think I am going to be a bestseller, or that people should throw buckets of money at me, but I want to be paid for my stuff. As John Scalzi said in his article ‘A Note to You, Should You Be Thinking of Asking Me to Write For You For Free’ – “Fuck you, Pay me”.
As the release of my second novel, “Dark Resolution” looms on the horizon, I have been talking more about my work and doing a little self-promotion. I really dig it when people ask me about my work, but it pisses me off when they want me to give it away for free.
I have been approached, several times, in the last few weeks and had conversations similar to this (either in person, or via some kind of electronic medium):
Person: “So you wrote a book, right?”
Me: “Yes, two in fact.”
Person: “Cool. How do I get a copy of it?”
Me: *sends them a link for Amazon* “The ebooks are on sale right now for .99 cents.”
Person: “Oh…so I have to pay for it?”
Person: “You can’t just give me one?”
No. No, I can’t just give you one. My publisher does not give me an endless supply of free books. They’re a small house and they have to cover their costs so, you know, they can eat and stuff, and I have to pay for the copies I get for my own use.
If another author approaches me and says, “Hey, let’s trade books and then talk about them,” my response; Fuck yeah, great idea.
If someone approaches me, asking for a book for a charity auction or a door prize at a writing related function? Fuck yeah. In fact, take two.
My dearest, closest friends who have loved me and supported me while I’ve gone through the various stages of this writing life want to read my book? Fuck yeah. I have a copy set aside with your name on it.
But someone who has never been to my house, doesn’t know my wife’s name, or had a meaningful conversation with me in over a decade says “Hey, we used to be friends so give me your books for free,”?
Fuck no. The penmonkey wants his goddamned banana.
As a writer – a storyteller – both your work and your time is valuable. It takes years and countless hours hammering away at your craft to build yourself up to a point where you are producing work worth reading. When you reach that point where you should be getting paid for your work (whether it’s a $32 hardcover or a .99 cent ebook), don’t let people convince you to give it away for free.
You matter, your work matters, and you shouldn’t be told different.
As always, thanks for reading.