If you should reach that writing career peak when people pay you ridiculously little money for your work, you may imagine that, someday, different people will give you good money, and that, unlike those past-their-prime hacks who so obviously ran out of anything worth writing about, you will create great stuff.
Here’s the problem in writing for money: what you’re paid has more to do with the people who buy your stuff than when you actually write. When you focus more on finding and pleasing those people, you avoid two great blessings inherent in hard work for low pay.
Read enough interviews with seemingly successful writers, digest enough simplistic explanations of how they “made it,” and you’ll believe that you, too, can figure it all out.
No matter how precisely you try to map that path to the higher pay grade, you’ll have moments when you wish you were off that map, especially when you discover that the people who are in high places will do their absolute best to pay you the lowest they can, no matter how well your writing works for them.
Just like those who don’t pay you at all, these people have limited amounts they can spend to acquire works to publish, and if they can save money on you, then they have a little more saved to buy stuff by writers who are famous, who have annoying agents or are the kind they personally want to cultivate.
As an example of the kind editors liked cultivating, I summon forth the ghost of Truman Capote. Capote certainly was a talented writer who wrote best-sellers, which, in itself, is not enough to become the toast of the New York publishing world. He was worshiped and adored because of his personal charm. Though he was short, effeminate and spoke with a squeaky, high-pitched lisp, he could be downright charming. He was like the perfect dinner party guest: perfectly dressed for every occasion, with an assortment of delightfully gossipy stories. Most important of all—Capote could became your confidant. When Capote listened, you thought he understood you, sympathized with you and admired things about you that you did not see in yourself.
It’s a toss-up if Capote ever lived up to his expectations. His novel Breakfast at Tiffany’s is better known for Audrey Hepburn’s performance, and her wardrobe, in the film. In Cold Blood, thought to be the first “true crime non-fiction novel,” is terrifically scary and weirdly sympathetic toward one of the criminals. Capote took an awful killing of a mid-western family and crafted a harrowing American tragedy.
It has since emerged that Capote’s sympathy for one of the perpetrators came from an unrequited infatuation. Capote also changed the order of events, and invented dialogue and entire scenes. Can In Cold Blood meet the strict definition of non-fiction, which is supposed to be “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth”? Maybe not.
I never met Capote. But I have known other writers who were more fun in person than on the page. The editors who became their patrons can be forgiven because the swagger, gossip, insider insights and spirited anecdotes was easy to enjoy.
I wanted people to enjoy what I wrote. I hoped, and frequently prayed, that if I wrote stuff that skillfully met the needs of editors and publishers, and I wasn’t greedy, I’d reach that point where what I really wanted to write would be published, and I’d be compensated such that I could devote all my time and energy to writing even better stuff.
That didn’t quite happen, and it made for some tough times. What really brought me to the next step was the emotional and financial support of others in my life who cared more about me, than what I wrote, or what I dreamed of writing.
But too much bad pay for great work forces you to learn two important skills. The first is, how to produce.
Harper Lee (a childhood friend of Capote’s) made her reputation on To Kill a Mockingbird, one of the greatest novels ever written, and did not publish anything else. Her posthumously published prequel has only shown her readers that her decision not to have Go Set a Watchman appear in her lifetime was a good one. Sometimes what is called a first novel is actually a second, third or fourth. A difficult truth of the novelist’s art is that some of us have to write a few that will never be published, so we can write those that should be published. Only later can we look back and congratulate ourselves that no one saw our sophomore efforts.
This said, I wanted every novel I began to be published. Those that saw print are not, in my opinion, my best work. The best is yet to come.
The second skill that low pay delivers is finding satisfaction with the second draft, not because it is perfect, or even the ringing statement that you anticipated, but that it, like its author, is good enough for now.
The best is yet to come.