Pro Bono (not a U2 reference)

Charles Stross apparently started an interesting meme in an f-locked post, taken up by jaylake (here) and burger_eater (here). The idea is for interested pro-writers to answer the questions concisely, giving the reader a quick timeline of their career.

“If I were a professional writer,” I thought, “I would do that, even though–”

I interrupted myself to point out, “You are now a professional writer, according to SFWA’s rather odd standards. You’re even an SFWA member: your first issue of the Bulletin came two weeks ago, or have you forgotten already?”

“I had forgotten,” I admitted. “I was going to blog about it so that I wouldn’t forget, but then I forgot to blog.”

“Go, and sin no more.”

“Hey, who the hell do you think you are?”

“I’ve forgotten by now. But wasn’t there something you were going to do?”

Oh. Yeah.

* Age when I decided I wanted to be a writer: 12
* Age when I got my hands on a typewriter and taught myself to use it: 15
* Age when I wrote my first short story: 13
* Age when I wrote my first novel: 17
* Age when I first submitted a short story to a magazine: 26
* Number of rejections prior to first story sale: More than 200, I guess
* Lifetime number of rejections: Probably between 200 and 300–possibly more
* Age when I sold my first short story: 43
* Age when I wrote a saleable novel: 45
* Age when I sold that novel: 48
* Novels written between age 17 and age 45: 5
* Novels written since age 45: parts of 3
* Age now: 48
* Age when the writing money coming in exceeded my day-job: not yet
* Number of books sold: 2 (novels)
* Number of short stories sold: 12
* Number of titles in print: none yet
* Number of titles in production or pre-production: 2 novels

I was going to say, before I was so rudely interrupted, that I don’t think my numbers are necessarily predictive of other people’s success. I was slow off the mark submitting anything for publication, and I finally settled down to the task of writing adventure fantasy for the magazines well after the American magazine market turned against such stories. (I’d put the end-point around the death of Fantastic, in 1980 or so.) And through the plague of Tolkien imitators, a.k.a. the 1980s, I was resolved to not write anything that resembled a trilogy about the Final Conflict Between Good and Evil. I did not resolve to write unreadable semi-gibberish; it just worked out that way.

The purpose of the meme is apparently to warn and frighten, not advise in the usual sense. But I did learn two things from my long career of failure which may be useful for those who want to write professionally (if what I do is professional): know your markets (especially pay attention to emerging markets) and get an agent for booklength work.

For people who just want to spend their life writing, I have only one piece of advice, but you know it already. Write what you want to write. That kind of work can sustain you when no one else likes it, when no one else even gets it. Like I say, I know you know this, but the ghost of Austin Tappan Wright is glaring at me through a nearby window, making me say it again. And we’ve all been there.

About JE

James Enge is the author of the World-Fantasy-Award-nominated novel Blood of Ambrose (Pyr, April 2009). His latest book is The Wide World's End. His short fiction has appeared in Swords and Dark Magic (Harper Collins, 2010), Black Gate, the Stabby-Award-winning anthology Blackguards and elsewhere.
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13 Responses to Pro Bono (not a U2 reference)

  1. Anonymous says:

    The purpose of the meme is apparently to warn and frighten, not advise in the usual sense.

    Of course. Which big name was it who said he always encouraged wannabes, in the strongest possible terms, not to write? If he could convince you, then you weren’t meant to be a writer. It’s a common attitude, and we wannabes do need to come to the table with our eyes wide open, but it’s not a one-path-fits-all business. Some timid souls can become wonderful writers if properly coaxed and encouraged. I believe Patricia Wrede has some strong words to say on that count.

    That said, I love reading the answers. Good stuff. And hey, our answers to the first three questions are the same! When I grow up, I wanna be just like you (except I want my son to still think I’m cool).

    –Jeff Stehman

    • JE says:

      I’m not sure the pro/nonpro distinction is what it once was, anyway. Certainly I’m serious about my writing–obsessive, even. I was no less so five years ago, before a word of my fiction had seen the light of day. So there’s no difference between pro and nonpro JE on attitude. And, although I’m always glad to cash a check, my writing income couldn’t come close to supporting me, even if I were a single man with no dependents. So there’s no difference between pro and nonpro JE in my employment status. And what’s true of me must be true of others.

      This is probably my red rainbow talking, though…

  2. peadarog says:

    Is there nowhere in that meme where you could list me as your hero? Or if that embarrasses you, as the greatest person who lived? It’s a crap meme if there isn’t room for brilliance.

    • JE says:

      It’s all implied. The fourth letter of “Peadar” is the 4th letter of the alphabet, so anytime I use the number 4 (or a multiple thereof) in the entry I’m declaring you my hero.

  3. newguydave says:

    Regardless of the level of success so desired, seeing thy name in print puts thee in good company.


  4. burger_eater says:

    Hey, you joined SFWA? What made you decide to do it?

    And I’m not sure the point of the meme is “warn and frighten.” It was created as a response to a poster elseweb who had finished her NaNoWriMo book and wanted to be told that her viral marketing plan for getting it published was A Really Great Idea. So I think it’s more of a reality-check deal.

    • JE says:

      Reality checks always terrify me–that’s why I’m a fantasist, I guess.

      I wrestled with the angel about joining SFWA. The organization’s showing many a sign of becoming moribund (including the Burtstravaganzas of recent years). The Bulletin has a very 70s look and feel which does also not bode well.

      But a strong SFWA, an SFWA with its head somewhere near the 21st century (and looking forward rather than back) would be a good thing. So I thought I’d give it a shot.

      A thought I had that probably won’t come to anything: an e-publishing wing. There could be an online presence serving as an aggregator for members’ work online, and a committee that can give an SFWA seal of approval (or something more cool-sounding) to work released through or other POD publishers.

      In the 21st century, it’s absurd that any work worth reading should ever go out of print. It simply doesn’t have to happen and SFWA could do its part to keep it from happening (and help put some coin in members’ pockets besides).

      • burger_eater says:

        But a strong SFWA, an SFWA with its head somewhere near the 21st century (and looking forward rather than back) would be a good thing. So I thought I’d give it a shot.

        It’s a fine idea, but I hate to sign on to a big organization in the hopes that will change it, especially since I’m not willing to put much time or energy into SFWA. I’d be pretty much writing them a check and that’s it.

        • Anonymous says:

          As an outsider looking in, I see the current administration working on some long-standing problems, which I take as a sign of progress.

          –Jeff Stehman

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