How much do we value our words, anyway?

Firstly: http://willylitfest.org.au/

Or, rather: http://willylitfest.org.au/2014-williamstown-literary-festival-program/46-the-changing-world-of-publishing-sherryl-clark-ian-syson-kim-cook-panel/

Yes, I am doing a talking thing, and I’m very much not thinking about it at this point. That’s a valid survival mechanism, right?

(And I’ve also been asked to come in and do another talk at school with professional-level payment involved. It baffles me that I can be paid a lot more money for talking about writing and publishing than actually doing it. It also baffles me that for some reason people think I can speak well enough to other people that they ask me to do it. I stutter! I tangle my thoughts! I lose words! If you think I repeat myself a lot in my writing – and I know I do – then wait until you fucking hear me speak!)

So if I have any readers in Melbourne who don’t already know me, come along. It should be interesting, and Sherryl Clark is always worth the listen. And go to Michael Kitson’s bookseller’s panel – he’s a great guy and a great speaker!

Secondly: I want to say a most profound thank you to the people in my life who are willing and able to help financially support a creative person in the challenge of being an independent creative person. I’m thrilled, flattered and touched that you’re able to do that, and it’s been a humble lesson in the importance of giving, when and where you can, to artistic people. The rent’s got to be paid, after all, and in a society where art is financially undervalued, we are dependent on the generosity of people who buck the trend. I hope I’m soon in a position where I can pay that kindness forwards.

The internet makes it easy to find an audience and begin a creative career (especially for those of us who are creative in non-mainstream ways), but it also creates a mindset of wanting and expecting creative media, arriving every day on our dashboard or app, for no more than it costs to pay your service provider.

To put a figure on it, over the last four months I’ve almost finished the second draft of my novel. It’s taken me about 240 000 words, I estimate, to get it this far. In fairness, I don’t tend to plan too strictly, and this novel was never meant to be a novel in the first place, so every chapter has needed a complete redraft to be something close to what I want it to be (now I know I’m writing a novel). Some chapters have been rewritten three or four times by this point, so it might not even be a second draft any more, but I don’t re-draft in a linear fashion, and I’ve got one or two chapters awaiting the second much-needed rewrite. I generally write about 1000 words an hour, give and take (that doesn’t include editing/tweaking days, by the by) so if I make a conservative estimate of editing/worldbuilding time, I’m probably up around 300 hours.

At a non-minimum wage that is by no means extravagant in Australia – the minimum expected for skilled/qualified employees, say thirty dollars an hour – I’m down nine thousand dollars for this book.

And to paraphrase my main character, I ain’t fucking done.

How about another figure? I’m selling print copies of Asylum for $15. That book cost me $11 to print (in a small, testing-the-water print run: if this works, I’ll likely get a larger print run for Crooked Words). The nine drafts and 200 000 words that went into a 45 000 word novella, the hours of editing and design? I make $4 per book towards that. That’s negative profit in terms of labour spent. Yet I can’t afford to price it too much higher if I want people to take a chance on this random author who’s written a strange-arse book with uncomfortable/confrontational subject matter.

(Sure, I can spend more time on all the self-promotion I don’t really do, but that takes away from writing time, and as a person with chronic hand pain, I can’t do it all. I also do need to do a lot more with the digitisation of my projects, but that takes time and spoons. It’s a bit of a snarly tangle, isn’t it? What do I do on days when hitting the ‘like’ button on Facebook is actually too damn hard? How do I manage the tangle of fiction writing and school and paying projects and volunteer projects and pain and being human and making sure people know I exist? Stuffed if I know. Come back in ten years and ask me again.)

As a non-binary queer author who writes really non-binary queer fiction, the chance of getting back even minimum wage – something like seventeen dollars an hour, here – is a fucking pipe dream. We all know that’s not why I write. If I wanted to be rich I’d go into town planning (my cousin makes a damn good wage out of it) or accounting. I’m a writer, however, and I can’t not write, so I’ve got to find a way to make this work. I’m well aware that I need to come to terms with the fact that if I want to make a living wage from my writing, it actually needs to be less perfect. I can’t afford the time it takes to make it perfect. As a perfectionist (and as an insecure wordsmith who worries that people are going to think the worse of me because my words aren’t perfect) that’s hard to take, but that’s the reality of the industry.

Yes, it is like that. Book reviewers will point out every last thing that’s wrong with a book. That isn’t my problem, at least in concept. I rely on reviews to avoid reading things that are going to upset, annoy or trigger me. I don’t want to slug through a novel where the author doesn’t know how to punctuate dialogue. (I have better things to do with my time, quite frankly.) I get eye-twitchy every time I see a fucking Kindle book with both indents and space-after-paragraph formatting. (Hate!) I wish more self-published/indie authors and small/digital/indie publishers would learn how to format their documents (even as I understand that most of them can’t afford to drop two years and several thousand dollars on the study I have to learn these things) so I’m not reading a book that looks like a mangled Word document converted with Acrobat. (I’m a digital formatting snob, in case you haven’t figured that one out yet.) The last thing I want to do is say to readers that they shouldn’t discuss the flaws in a piece of art: I damn well know that my writing is far from flawless, and if I can sit here and critique the work of others, the least readers deserve is the right to critique mine in return.

However, it’s fairly discouraging, as a creative person, to see readers list and discuss and critique so many things with the seeming assumption that an author didn’t make changes because of laziness, that these changes would be easy to make if only the author put a little more time and thought into the work (or learning how to write) – when, in fact, a large majority of authors don’t even make minimum wage. Learning to write well takes time and money (like almost anything else worth doing). How much more time and thought are we expected to put in when we’re not making enough money to cover basic living costs? How broke am I expected to be?

(Never mind the reality of the publishing industry where publishing houses have less and less money to spend on editing. Do we blame authors for that as well? How can we create a fabulous book when nobody wants to pay for the kind of work a fabulous book requires?)

Yes, those authors who don’t work a day job and get six-figure advances – please, take the fucking time to stop abusing speech tags and sentence fragments. Listen to your editor. But the rest of us? The majority of writers? Most of us can’t justify the kind of work a fantastic, near-flawless novel demands: we can’t fucking afford it.

We’re expected to write around day jobs, family demands, life, time spent in self-promotion and networking. We’re expected to do it well. We’re expected to do it for very little money and the dream of one day being among the lucky few who are able to make a secure career from creative writing alone. (There aren’t many in Australia who can do that.) We’re expected to compromise, to find other ways of living, to sacrifice our art on the altar of the industry. The passion is expected to keep us afloat.

Passion keeps me writing. It keeps me hopeful.

It’s not quite enough.

I just want to do something I love and pay my rent. I don’t want a flashy car (or even an actual car) or a big house. I’m happy to spend the rest of my life buying clothes from op shops, living on a tight budget, going to the community medical centre and being a tightwad. I just want a little security so I can do something I’m passionate about, and do it reasonably well. That means being reliant on the goodwill of others to buck the trend.

This is why we need to value our artists.

This is why we need to understand that the assumption of near-perfection in a work, especially in an indie work (but in reality a majority of literary works and artistic endeavours in general) is often too much to ask.

(Addendum: this is why I need to understand it and consequently stop asking it of myself and stop panicking and getting avoidant when I’m faced with the reality that I can’t live up to that assumption or expectation. This is why I need to be so much less of a digital publishing snob!)

This is why, as an artist, I am grateful for those who are willing and able to throw even small amounts of money my way. I’m especially grateful for the people in my life who don’t have much money to spend (because they too work in an environment where art and artistic community outreach is undervalued) and do it anyway. I’m grateful for the people who don’t need my words to be perfect to find something in them that matters.

From the bottom of my heart, thank you for helping me do something I love.

Thank you for helping me in a way that truly matters.

Thank you for not taking my words and my skill with words for granted.

And for those readers who are able to go and buy something of mine when I get around to making that available in a digital capacity (soon, I hope), thank you for making it just that little bit easier to keep doing what it is I do.

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