WordFest: How should a writer be? Tips from living writers about the writing life

By Susan Swan and Julie Wilson, Calgary Herald: October 2012
Matin Amis in his pre-dental-do-over-days, image from article "Martin Amis and the War Against Clichés in Writing" on bookbaby.com
Matin Amis in his pre-dental-do-over-days, image from article “Martin Amis and the War Against Clichés in Writing” on bookbaby.com


When I think about how a writer should be, I think of Martin Amis and his teeth.

Martin Amis allegedly spent over half a million dollar publisher’s advance on his teeth. In fairness, he didn’t blow it on the slots in Las Vegas, and he owns real estate in Brooklyn (where he has relocatd) and reportedly other places. But do writers, including Amis, set aside some of their earnings for old age?

Writers don’t get pensions, and a lot of older writers I know are broke, or about to go broke because they counted on a break through book or film to catapult them into riches. As if one bestseller could support them for a lifetime!

Look. It’s easy to be impressed by a writer’s six-figure advance or lavish prize money. But even these generous, one time financial rewards look puny compared to the ongoing salary of a full-time job. A writer doesn’t make that amount yearly. It often takes years to write a book so the writer has to live on something while he or she writes.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not siding with the writer’s parents who want their child to go into dentistry or engineering. I’m talking about being prepared for the perils of the writing life, perils that writers often don’t discover until later.

Here’s tip number one: don’t spend your advance. Deposit it in a blue chip stock or bank account with compound interest so the money will grow.

And here’s tip number two: figure out a way to make a living that doesn’t depend on writing a bestseller. The average amount most Canadian writers make from writing hovers between $7,000 to $12,000 a year. Writers often pay their bills by teaching or editing or walking dogs. Some are journalists although you have to have a lot of stamina to do that. Newspaper or magazine deadlines tend to trump the time you need to write a book.

Tip number three involves your sitting practice. Force yourself to spend at least four hours a day sitting at a desk, either writing or thinking about writing. If it helps, sign in when you sit down and sign out when you stop. This time is sacred, and you will come to depend on it. Don’t use it to rearrange bookshelves, or check your emails.

Tip number four: Learn to love process because writing is rewriting as a wise writer once said. The more you immerse yourself in the rhythms of the writing day, the better you will write. And that’s the goal, to write the best book you have it in you to write.

Over to you, Julie.

When I think about how a writer should be, one word leaps to mind: connectivity.

I don’t mean social media (well, in just one case). I’m thinking about how to stay connected to your goals, and, most important, your community. Take my Three Cs of Connectivity:

Number one. Caution: If you’re considering an agent, or self-publishing versus traditional publishing, think of it as putting yourself on the market. Like dating, you’d do well to have a group of advisors, people who have known you enough to say, “I know you don’t want to be alone. But is this really the one for you?” You will benefit from an array of sometimes unwelcome opinions to remind you that caution isn’t boring, it simply keeps you from being careless with your dreams.

Number Two. Chit chat: To tweet or not to tweet? Should you fuss over 140 characters after spending your career crafting a voice for a short story or novel? Tweeting isn’t for those who worry it will interfere with their Zen calm. That said, as event organizers, readers, booksellers, agents and publishers take to social media, a handful of writers will get exposure they wouldn’t have otherwise. It might just mean you get your train fare paid and a small honorarium to read at a regional festival in front of dedicated book buyers. You might actually sell some rights. What it won’t mean is that you get everything out of it that you put into it. And don’t forget, the writer with the most followers didn’t get them simply for tweeting. So keep writing your books.

Number three: Course work: Read as if you have no book in you. Why? Because bestselling culture fools us into thinking that big bang books with no nuance — I’m not dissing pleasure reading. You know the books I mean — are fooling us into thinking that life itself is a big bang thing, that subtleties don’t matter. But if the writer gives into this culture and fools herself into thinking her best is not best enough, can you envision how damaging this becomes to the culture of reading? So, read. It will undoubtedly make you a better writer and you will become a writer’s first line of defense: your ideal reader.


Julie Wilson is a literary voyeur and author of Seen Reading (Freehand Books—print—and  HarperCollins—ebook), a collection of short fictional biographies based on seeing people read in public. She’s also The Book Madam, a publishing professional who splits her time between Toronto and San Diego. Follow her on Twitter as @seenreading and @bookmadam. And follow the hashtag #seenreading for future sightings.

Susan Swan’s new novel isThe Western Light. Follow her online at www.susanswanonline.com .A book video about her novel is also available at http://www.movingstories.tv/westernlight/

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