Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Hobby Vs. Job: Should there be a distinction in fiction writing?

I wrote this post some time ago, after graduating and floundering a bit with what new project to begin. I never finished it and found it when I was culling my posts this week. 

Every so often I find myself at the beginning again. Like life - and especially this writing thing - is a big circle that just keeps spinning. If it weren't so darn frustrating, I'd look at it as a chance to start fresh, be anything I want to be, write whatever I want, make a new name for myself.

I have nothing locking me into adult literary fiction. I could write serial middle grade. I could write young adult. I could try a mystery series or focus on short stories for a while.

The obvious question is, what do I feel passionate about writing?

Except maybe that isn't the obvious question. Maybe the obvious question is what sells?

Ah, the rub for those of us whose inclinations are not towards sparkly vampires and serial killers and other editor-salivating tomes.

Jolene Perry wrote a blog post last week [okay - a long time ago by now!] about writing the book that is calling you. I completely agreed with her - that one should write the book you feel inside is demanding to be written. You should feel passionate about it. That love shows through, right? Makes for an irresistible book?

Well, maybe I agree that that is the best way to enjoy being a writer.

On the other hand, I keep coming back to the same dilemma every time I round the corner of the circle again... Is writing a hobby or a job for me? Does that distinction matter?

Book Riot had an article Tuesday [again, a few months ago!] titled, "Ten Things You Didn't Know About Authors You Had to Read in High School." One of those things? Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women for the money. And it made her miserable. Yes, you read that right. She didn't want to write Little Women and Eight Cousins and all those other books that made her famous and a favorite author to pass from mother to daughter. She wanted to write "lurid pulp stories of revenge, murder, and adultery." Or, as Book Riot so elegantly says, "smut and violence." But she needed money. So she wrote what sold.

And heavens to Betsy, it made her famous and beloved.

And miserable, according to Book Riot, but let's leave that phrase alone for a minute.

(Also, as an aside, let me muse on the idea that if she lived today, she would probably make much more by writing "slut and violence" than chaste family stories...)

If Alcott had written pulpy indulgent stories, we probably wouldn't have those in our libraries. Her name would never have become known worldwide. I would not have grown up with an entire bookshelf devoted to her books that used to by my mom's. 

The fact is, if we are writing to make a living, to put some money in the bank or shoes on the kids (I love when my family plays any game with dice, my husband always shakes the dice and yells really loudly, "BABY NEEDS NEW SHOES!" before throwing them. Just a random thought...)... if we need to make money, we have two choices:

We can write what sells, or we can sell what we write.

That makes it sound simplistic. We really have to do both. But hopefully you get my drift. Because I wrote like three other paragraphs trying to explain what I meant and then erased them all because - seriously - three paragraphs to explain 12 words?? Ugh!

In short, tons of people go to jobs every day that they hate. Tons of people go to jobs that they love and still have to do things they don't like that much. If writing is a hobby, I have a right to want what I'm writing to be fun and come naturally. But if it's a job - if I want to treat it like a real profession - does that mean I need to let go of seeing it as just what I want to do and the heck with the readers and agents and publishers and what they want? Do I need to try to write what sells?

But then, who the heck knows what sells? Not every big seller is a YA book, although the movie industry might have us believe that.And not every sparkly vampire book is a best-seller.

I don't want to be miserable, of course. I wonder sometimes what made Louisa May Alcott decide being miserable but writing and selling was better than not writing but doing something else that made her happy. And I think in the end, if we write what we hate, most of us would end up with pretty crappy books.

For now, I'm plugging away at a novel that I have no idea whether or not will garner any interest. It won't end up a trilogy or some other big money-making creation. I won't end up writing any others like it. It's a Christian, murder, literary fiction book. Where in the world does that even get shelved?? My biggest fear is not that the writing in my book isn't good enough. It's that the story isn't good enough. That the story I want to tell is just not that interesting to enough people to make it marketable... to an agent, a publisher, to a large enough audience of readers. What if I shoved it more readily into a genre? If I went all full-on Christian with it? Or made it more a crime thriller? What if I crammed that book into something I really don't want it to be?

As many times as I've turned that over in my head, I keep coming back to this: I need to finish this book the way it's screaming to be written, the way I write, and sort the career thing out later. In the meantime, I'll keep stacking those more marketable ideas up in the folder. Maybe one day I'll try my hand at one of those.


  1. I'm in the same boat with my novel that is a very similar book type: Christian fiction murder mystery. Maybe it will sell, and maybe it won't, but a long time ago, I saw this on my writing teacher's wall: "Get it OUT, Ashley! Otherwise it's just sitting in there cluttering up your head." It may not be the perfect book, and yes, there may be other projects that garner fame and fortune, but if you have no space in your head, it doesn't really do any good.
    So to you I say "Hear hear" :)

    1. Hannah - we should start our own genre shelf! :)

      I agree with that teacher's wall, at least for this book of mine. I've tried other books, but I just can't let go of this one. It really is cluttering up my head. Before I can move on, I really do have to finish it to a point I feel it's as good as it can get. Once I get there, I'll decide if that's good enough to send out.

  2. Wow, I actually have a blog post I've started and stopped working on in this same vein for about a month now after a very heated argument with another writer friend of mine. The comment that rubbed me the wrong way was that she said, "if you don't put EVERYTHING (including jobs, life etc) on the backburner for your writing career, then writing is a hobby for you." And I disagree with that. I have a day job that I love, that I'm good at, but I also love writing, have two published works out and have a growing writing career. I don't believe that because I don't quit my day job focus 100% of my time to writing, that my "career" is only a hobby. Many people have two or three jobs, so why is writing any different? Anyway...I digress.

    I totally agree with everything you say here! But I think *most* (there are always exceptions) successful career writers have written what is "calling" to them -- what they love to write because that's contagious and it's easy to see when a writer truly loves what they're writing, you know?

    1. Hi Jade! I'm in total agreement with you (agreeing with me! ha ha!). You make a good point about people having more than one job. Maybe the problem is just that we are trying to define it, or draw a line between hobby and job. I know people who quilt, who love to do it, that anyone including them would call a hobby. But then they go to craft fairs and sell those quilts for a lot of money. Is that not then a job? Is it a job just because you make money? Is it a hobby because you enjoy it? I'm not a fan of labels, so I'm all for getting rid of that!

      I also agree that most great writers write what they love. That love is evident in the writing. I used to love reading Patricia Cornwell's books. Then she tried to write stuff other than Kay Scarpetta novels and no one would buy them. So she went back to writing books staring Kay, and I couldn't even read them. it was like she was writing them with hate and contempt for both the character and the readers demanding them. But I've also read several interviews of authors writing series that are much beloved that are hating hating hating the series now, and being tied into a series they no longer cared about.

      Let me know if you finally post that blog you were working on. I'd be very interested in reading it. :)

  3. Terrific post, Heidi.(Yours are always so good!)

    I've always told myself that I don't need to be a NYT bestselling author. I'm okay with that, because I'd rather be a mid-list author who can write what I love and have a steady reading audience and not have to worry about outdoing myself every single time so that I can hit the NYT list again and become famous.

    I don't want to be famous. My introverted self would probably spontaneously combust if that ever happened.

    I just want to write what I want to write - what makes me HAPPY to write - because I have been in the situation where what I'm writing isn't my true passion and it is REALLY REALLY HARD to do. I don't recommend it to anyone.

    Fiction is my true passion. And my stories are MY stories. I think that's what you have to look at. Write YOUR stories, no matter what genre they fall under, or how you're going to market it. They will be unique because they are from YOUR point of view of the world and no one else's. Maybe that's overly-simplistic and not very business-minded. But I refuse to go through life being miserable at what I want to do for a living. I just can't do it.

    My two (or three) cents worth. :)

    Merry Christmas!!!

    1. Thanks, Melissa! You know, since I wrote this back in summer, I've really come to feel like writing should be something I do because I love it, and if something comes of it, great, and if not, I'm okay with that. I'm so with you about the famous thing. I really don't want the trappings and pressure of that. I don't think I'd be very good at being famous. I just want to do what I love, and hopefully somehow help support the family doing that.

      I value you so much as both a Christian and a writer, and I hope we can grow together in this journey over finding our place in the writing world as Christians and moms!

      merry Christmas!!