Musings from a Barnes & Noble Writing Panel

As the title of this post suggests, last week I attended a writers’ panel at a local Barnes & Noble with five sci-fi and fantasy authors from the Raleigh area. I’d never been to a panel like this outside of a sci-fi con, so I decided to check it out– and besides, I like listening to authors. They’re always quirky, interesting people (in my experience).

The authors in question were David Drake, Kelly Gay, James Maxey, Mark Van Name, and Lisa Shearin. Of them, I was only familiar with David Drake, but I came away impressed with everyone. There were about 30 or 40 people in the audience, and when question time came, I asked one of the first questions, which was: “When you’re in the middle of writing a book, what’s your daily routine like? Do you write in a particular place and time of day? And do you restrict yourself to one project at a time?”

Okay, so it was really more like three questions, but they didn’t seem to mind. And I had a reason for asking what I did. Since I’m in the middle of trying to write a novel, I was curious to hear from a few professional authors how they structure their routine, particularly authors who have a day job (only David Drake and Kelly Gay write full-time). And each person’s answer was different, although there were a couple threads in common: (1)write every day, even if just for half an hour. And (2), only work on one project at a time. I was somewhat surprised to hear the second one, but it does makes sense, and it’s similar to a response I heard at a ConCarolinas writing panel, namely: you can only get paid for the things you finish.

Recently I’ve been pretty good about writing every day, but not so much about writing on the same project every day: I tend to jump around, with about five or six projects going at any one time, and as a result have a difficult time finishing stuff (case in point: my novel). Part of me always wants to jump to the latest and greatest idea. But if I want to do this for real, I need to follow through and complete my projects. It’s the only way I can even potentially get paid for them.

In the process of answering another question, Mark Van Name said something else that resonated with me: professional writing is hard and doesn’t pay well (except for a very select few). If you have to write, then write. But if you can possibly not write, if you can do anything else, then you should really do that instead.

Oddly, I found this encouraging. Over the past couple months, I’ve come to the realization that writing is what I want to do, full-time, professionally. And even if I spend the rest of my life trying and failing at it, I still wouldn’t regret having tried.

I’ve never published a story or an article and gotten paid for it, nor I have a finished a draft of a full-length novel. But I’ve spent most of the last several years generally unsure of what I want to do with life, unsatisfied, mentally adrift, never quite sure of where I want to go or what I want to do. And it’s only when I think about writing, whether it’s travelogues, or novels, or short stories, that I feel like I have a direction, that I feel a strong, burning passion to do something.

When I think about how hard it is to write, and on top of that how hard it is to make a living as a writer, it doesn’t discourage me: it makes me want to do it even more. That, above everything else, makes me sure that this is the path I want to pursue. For years I’ve put off writing, afraid of writing things that turned out to be crap, or simply afraid of trying and failing. It’s time for me to stop being afraid of failure and just write.

This has strayed quite a bit from a report on a writing panel, hasn’t it? Nevertheless, it was these thoughts that occupied me as the questions continued. I did still pay attention… from other questions, I learned that vampires are on the way out and zombies are the hot monster of the moment (but where are the teenage zombie romances?). I also learned (or, rather, confirmed) that short stories aren’t worth it, economically speaking, and that while everyone has a different story of how they broke into the business, writing, like all businesses, comes down largely to who you meet and who you know. That doesn’t worry me too much; like any business, there are ways to network and meet people in the field (cons and events like these, for one). Besides, my first priority right now isn’t getting published, it’s writing more.

Time to get back to work!