I’ve spent the better part of the decade reading all the craft books I can. I don’t know everything there is to know about writing, I don’t think anyone really does. Writing (and art, in general) is too personal for that, too dependent on the individual.
But I’ve gotten to a point where most “writing advice” is starting to feel redundant. I’ve read or watched most of it before, and now maybe one part out of ten is something new.
Recently, I’ve more enjoyed autobiographies about writers. These stories about the people behind the stories have been comforting in a way that was hard to describe until recently.
At the beginning of the year, I read The Pulp Jungle by Frank Gruber. Gruber was a writer that came up during the pulp era of literature (roughly 1920’s through the 1940’s). Back when the only way to survive was to sell stories to publishers and magazines, which meant writing both skillfully and fast. Gruber claims there were several years where he wrote 800,000 words per year
Most of The Pulp Jungle is an autobiography of those couple decades—a very thorough record of his living arrangements, sales to magazines, and his writing habits. It’s not a “How-To” book. But in one of the last chapters, Gruber talks about what it is to be a writer and the mindset. Since the book is damn-near impossible to find in print, here is the excerpt I’m talking about:
“I have not talked about the terrible loneliness of the writing profession.
“Only you, and you alone, can sit down and write those many, many words that are necessary to make a story; your plot, your incidents, your characters and your dialogue.
“A five-thousand-word story consists roughly of seventeen typewritten pages. Two hours of steady typing, if you are just copying. But to create seventeen pages of words!
“…The basic formula of a short story is simple enough: A protagonist is presented with a problem and your story shows how he solves—or fails to solve—this problem.
“In these few words is encompassed a vast amount of detail.
“…All of these things have to be faced by the writer before he can sit down and actually write his seventeen pages.
“Only the writer alone can work out this myriad of ideas and detail. No one can help him do it. He must do it alone, and he must write down his five thousand words, his seventeen pages.
“It may take him two hours, three hours if he is lucky and can concentrate well enough.
“It might take him two days or a week. A month.
“There are writers who take a week to write a short story. Two weeks is not unknown and I have known writers who work for a solid month on one five-thousand-word short story.
“…Only a writer who has endured the writing of a dozen stories, of a hundred, of four hundred, understands the agony that went with those countless hours of mental aberration.
“Only a writer who has endured all of it knows about the terrible loneliness.
“A writer is truly alone. He sits and thinks, works and reworks his ideas, his thoughts. And then he writes and rewrites. And while he is doing all of this, he is utterly alone.
“I am talking of the writing of a short story.
“A ten-thousand-word novelette requires a proportionately greater amount of work and thought.”
“A Novel… A short story can be of a single thread, a slight premise revolved around a trick or gimmick. A novel must have scope, it must have importance. Above all it must have an abundance of characters and plot complications.
“…I would rather write twenty-four short stories than one novel—from the standpoint of physical and mental stamina. With a short story you are never more than hours—or minutes—from the end of the chore.
“A novel is an interminable effort. You think until you are weary. You write until you are ready to scream. You stop. You rest. But you have to get back to it. You have to pick up the threads, revive your enthusiasm, recapture the mood.
“You have to do it day after day. Week after week.
“…I knew so many writers in those days. I saw them come, I saw them go. I knew the difficulties they had in trying to carve out a spot for themselves, I knew the troubles they had to remain in those niches. I knew the sweat, the toil and the heartache that went into the work of other writers because I was doing it myself.”
—Chapter 24 of The Pulp Jungle By Frank Gruber
There’s other excellent writing autobiographies out there. Off the top of my head, I would recommend Stephen King’s On Writing, Kurt Vonnegut & Suzanne McConnell’s Pity the Reader, and William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life. There’s not as much writing-related stuff in Finnegan’s, but it’s still up there for me. Each had slivers of truth that spoke to me, and hopefully will speak to you as well.
But there was something about reading Gruber’s excerpt… Perhaps it was that the chapter comes after reading how meager Gruber lived during those hard years in New York, scrounging “tomato soup” and crackers from the diners, and toiling away over his typewriter. Or maybe it was those triumphs at making a sale, only to go right back to writing because that money only went so far.
Did you know that nowadays professional markets for short fiction pay $0.08 a word? Most pay less.
To make a $50,000 a year living at selling short fiction, you would have to write 625,000 words a year—
And that’s only if you sell every single word you wrote only to professional paying magazines.
I think back in Gruber’s day the rate used to be a little better (adjusted for inflation). But it’s still an impressive feat.
Even for novel publishing, it’s still hard. It used to be that you could expect to get paid a $10,000 advance on a novel (and earned royalties only after the book sold well enough for that advance to be paid back). I don’t know if the rate’s gotten any better or worse, but that means you would have to sell five books a year to make a living writing novels, assuming your advance didn’t change. If a standard book is 80,000 words, that’s 400,000 words a year.
I guess I should say that I’m not discounting the awesomeness of writing. I absolutely love getting to play with my imagination, and make up characters and places that have never existed before. It’s probably the coolest job there is. Even on the days when I’m working, there’s still nothing else I would rather do. Even on the days when it’s draining, it’s still rewarding.
But back to the point of this post: Writing is hard, lonely work. Sure, there’s camaraderie to be found in friends, family, other writers, and even fans, but that’s only after the fact. When it comes to the actual butt-in-chair writing part—
That’s you. That’s all you. No one else can write the story for you.
And if they do write the story for you, you’re paying them a pretty penny to do it. Ghost writing can be good money.
I guess the point of this post isn’t complaining about those aspects of the job, but it’s letting you other writers know that I feel you. Even if we’re across the world, even if we don’t have anything else in common, we understand that much about each other.
So, this blog post is to the writers out there. It doesn’t matter what you write—science fiction, fantasy, romance, smut, nonfiction, blogs, ad copy, podcasts, games, television—we’re all in this together.