Sunday, February 22, 2015

Life is like a box of chocolates, without the chocolate identification card ...

So I had a weird kind of summer hibernation where my writer's metabolism slowed right down in the languid seasonal heat - I guess maybe the equatorial folk would call that a siesta. Semantics aside, it seemed an involuntary response to everything that was going on and that had gone before, and in the end had a bit of a therapeutic quality. I feel (mostly) ready for 2015 and a new book project is tugging appealingly at my subconscious and conscious mind. A plot has taken shape and now I am getting to know my main protagonist a bit better. He is a little elusive and while in the past my key characters have often rocked up to the page fully formed and ready to go, I am having to set my chisel to the stone to pick this boy out of the marble. Hah, maybe I should call him David :)

And after looking somewhat empty after the hurly burly of 2014, the old schedule is starting to get interesting. Life is what happens while you are making other plans. After challenging my poor family and pushing them to the limit with my wilful independence (a.k.a. the Children's Writer's Residency in Dunedin) last year, I rashly applied for another residency for this year. I thought it a long shot, but my six months away had made me brave/foolhardy, and I tossed my hat in the ring with a wild project (the one with 'David' in it) that I thought they would either love or hate. They seem to have been in the 'loved it' camp as I will now be based out of The Pah Homestead in Hillsborough when I take up the University of Otago Wallace Residency for three months starting in March. I can't wait to get writing on the new project. I am thanking my lucky stars and bribing my family relentlessly to keep their affection.

I'm also doing a talk at the next SCBWI NZ meeting on March 21st (more details soon), and then in April I'm off to Wanaka for a week as part of the Festival of Colour, where I'll be taking part in a Speed Date the Author morning, a True Stories Told Live event, and assorted other authory visits. Most exciting, and what a wonderful time to be in such a beautiful part of the world.

My SO and I have booked a holiday away for September (yay!!!) and when we return I'll be off to Wellington for the Bi-annual National Children's Writers and Illustrators Conference - Tinderbox 2015 - for the first weekend of October (email for info and updates if you are interested in attending).

A few other exciting potential engagements are being discussed. It's all been a bit surprising (apart from the holiday which we have been planning since late last year). Take note universe, these are the kinds of surprises I like. Anyways, I'm off to dig David out of a to you later.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Money is a confusing subject for writers ...

Money is a confusing subject for writers. As I covered in my last post, the average earnings on a single title aren't the stuff luxury dreams are built on. Most of my writing income comes from book related things rather than the books themselves. I am not complaining. I love writing books. And talking about books. And writing. And I did my research - I figured out pretty quickly that I was unlikely to make my fortune this way. I knew what I was in for and I went and did it anyway. But that doesn't mean I agree with how writing is valued. And it is somewhat awkward when the normal sector of the community who head off to their 9 to 5 jobs for at least minimum wage, and then usually plus some, try to understand why you do what you do, knowing what you know, about the likely going rate. As Sara Baume explains here ( " gradually, society has made me feel foolish for devoting myself so fervently to a career so unlikely to earn me any money. " ),  often they don't get it (thank you to Maureen Crisp for this very juicy link).

And here in New Zealand, with a seriously modest population that can never drive large print runs, a tyranny of distance that strangles the most thoughtful marketing and promotional campaigns, and as publishers have tightened their belts, or upped sticks and retreated to the shores of our larger neighbour Australia, margins have become tighter than most.

Despite all this we do still have writers here who earn enough from their book sales alone to buy their own coffees. But they are a small percentage of the writing community. I read recently of an overseas study which calculated that the majority of writers (including both independently and traditionally published) had an average annual income of $500 from their books. That is a sobering result.

We work hard at what we do, whether it's writing and polishing our manuscripts, or preparing and delivering talks, workshops or readings. We often go the extra mile - dressing up for appearances, making handouts and bookmarks, giving prizes from our own resources in competitions of our own devising, or judging those devised by others. We mentor, teach and share. And underneath it all we are slowly taught that there is little money in this industry. Slowly our sense of the value of what we do is muddied or eroded. What should a manuscript be worth? Is it $6000 all up? I feel a little ill when I see million dollar advances for celebrity titles, or some hot, young debuting writer. Is their writing really 167 times (or more depending on the currency - don't talk to me about £1,000,000 advances) better than my writing? Maybe. Maybe not. How can I tell? I know publishing is a business, and advances and royalties represent what income a company anticipates making and/or actual sales. Is this the only measure of a book's value? Should we be paid by the word? Well probably not because writers take many different routes to get to the same length manuscript, whether going through twenty drafts and labouring over each individual word, or knocking out 50,000 words a month, nanowrimo style, whether we are supported by an agent or editor or doing all the writing, rewriting and editing ourselves. Should we be paid by the length of time taken, or the sweat generated while we worked? It's all a bit confusing. What ARE we worth? Are we further away from understanding what a reasonable value is, than ever before? And that's just for our writing. What are we worth for all the other writing related tasks that we do.

And if folk question our sanity for choosing a career that doesn't pay, do they then extend this to thinking that this IS what we are worth?

We have debated the difficulties of being asked to do gigs for nothing. Many organisations, schools and other institutions understand the importance of paying writers a fee for events they participate in. But there is a worrying trend for unpaid gigs. Doing jobs for free creates an unhealthy and unrealistic expectation that undermines the ability of other authors to charge. Why pay someone when you can find someone else who will do it for free? Yet we put a lot of thought and effort into our presentations. It seems fair to be remunerated. And what if writers are financially supported by family or some other form of patronage. Should they do all their gigs for free? Or not at all? Is their value different again?  For me one of the biggest arguments against doing something for free is that often the people inviting you to speak aren't working for free. They justifiably expect fair recompense for the work they perform, and it would seem only reasonable for us to expect the same. If they are voluntary workers than I am happy to be voluntary too, but that isn't always the case. I appreciate that so many organisations are strapped for cash, but they must also appreciate that that is also true of so many of the authors they are inviting to work for free. I believe part of the difficulty is that we have no real clear understanding of what we are worth, whether for our writing, or for other writing related tasks. How can we negotiate payment when we are so unsure ourselves. The waters have just been getting muddier and muddier. We are being taught to expect less. And that we can't rely on income from our writing. And the wider community seems to have a different understanding of how we work, and what and how we are paid and it seems impossible to bridge this divide of understanding. It would be a travesty if in the future the only people who could afford to write were those with independent means. Money is a confusing subject for writers.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Where the wild things grow ...

Should I talk about Eleanor Catton? Everyone else has been, and then some.  I don't know that I could add much to the conversation. Still, I have been thinking about it quite a lot. I think our politics have more in common than not, but whether I agree with her or don't, she should be able to express her views about her home country without fear of retribution. She's raised issues it would be useful to debate in a wider forum, but she was effectively told to shut up and called a traitor, which gives the lie to our recent top polling as a socially progressive nation. And telling her that she should stick to her writing and leave political comments to others is patronising and a few other things that I will let you draw your own conclusions about. It's a shame that the name calling might sweep the issues under the rug.

Catton called out a lack of support for arts and culture here. Yet she's received money and accolades and adoration nation-wide, as people have readily pointed out. But folks she's received these things because she is deserving of them. And if she's had $50,000 worth of support over several years as she's risen in prominence, this is not exactly living the high life and it's important to realise this is not what writers generally receive either. For every writer who receives some financial manifestation of support or encouragement there are many more who never get anything.

Most creative writers work on spec. We spend hours on a manuscript with no guarantee of income for that invested time. Yes, we could try something with an hourly rate, and actually, most do. Many writers have 9 to 5 jobs or do other casual work to bring money in, whether teaching, editing, or running workshops etc... I also, where possible, do paid work that utilizes my writing skills. If I am successful here in New Zealand with a novel, which might have taken me 1 to 2 years to write, I get, at most, royalties of $2 per book (often less if the book is sold through book clubs or special deals) with a print run of between 2,000 and 3,000. So I might, if I am lucky, receive up to, but most likely less than, $6,000 (half if it's a picture book as I share the royalties with the illustrator). And this will be over several years. Any advance I am paid for writing a book that gets published is not additional to any royalties paid on sales but must first be earned out from those sales. And I'm not pumping out ten books at a time. Even if I did there are no guarantees that all would be accepted for publication. It's not 'easy' money. We aren't greedy. And what we do isn't indulgence.

Our stories are part of our culture. They reflect and shape who we are as a people. They help us stand tall on the international stage. They influenced the development of people like Catton, and Lorde, whose triumphs we have rightly applauded and shared as a nation. We liked their success.The fruits of their creative labours are admired as sophisticated and fresh by overseas critics. Our culture contributed. Lets make sure we don't throttle or starve that culture. If anything we should invest more in it to create and influence more fresh and innovative thinking amongst our future generations. Still, I know I'm likely to be preaching to the choir with this. And I do worry that we might no longer be talking about increasing funding and support, but doing all we can to maintain the little we have.

And that tall poppy thing? We have an uncomfortable relationship with success. It's not just a New Zealand phenomenon and I confess I admire those who behave with restraint and humility and wish I was more like them. I grew up in this kind of environment where we like our heroes to be humble.  Does the point exist at which there is a right balance of pride and modesty? Where we can talk about our achievements without being thought of as bragging. Some middle ground between Sally Field and Kanye West perhaps? I think a more troubling thing is a sense of entitlement. It's an unattractive quality in any industry - whether it's writing, politics, big business or radio hosts.