In this series of guest posts, I have asked a number of writers and editors to share the price they pay for pursuing their creative passion or what they sacrifice–whether that is money, time or lost opportunities. It might be how they pay the bills that writing doesn’t, or how they juggle working for a living or raising a family with the time it takes to write or edit. The people who have contributed have shared their personal stories in the hope it might help those new to the scene manage their expectations, or help others dealing with similar things realise they aren’t alone. You can read about the inspiration for this series here, and if you want to be part of it please let me know.
When I was in the New Zealand I got to meet a whole new group of writers and fans, and realised how much our two countries have in common, and how we face many of the same struggles when it comes to distance from the big markets and smaller support networks. However, I realised that we also shared the same close knit community attitude of supporting and helping one another–the realisation we are all in this together and we need to do what we can to help one another.
I wassn’t lucky enough to meet Lee Murray in person, but it shows the generosity of New Zealanders that she was still willing to share her story with me–and my readers–for this blog series, and I am very grateful for her honesty and for this wonderful post.
A research scientist by training, I left paid employment to care for my children because my husband’s career in medical image software had us gallivanting all over the world—England, France, and the United States. All wonderful places with wonderful cheese, so I was happy to go there, but the children were small and needed stability, which meant having a parent at home. That parent was me.
I’ve always been a bit of a scribbler. I started writing during the children’s nap times and while waiting at karate lessons, when my daughter was at pre-school, and later at school. Raising children is rewarding but, ask anyone, by mid-afternoon, your brain is going to porridge. Okay, so there will be people who will tell you that my brain was already going porridge, but imagine what it might have been, had I not been writing.
Later, when we returned to New Zealand and the children were in school, I considered re-joining the workforce at least part-time, but we discovered our son’s developmental issues were related to Asperger’s and ADHD and as a result he needed my support with his learning. Around the same time, my dad began his slow decline into dementia and blindness, and, naturally, I wanted to maximise the time I spent with him.
Two good reasons not to go back into full-time work. And the third: I wanted to write. Staying at home allowed me to invest in my writing: to study, and to get stuck into actually finishing some manuscripts. Then, two years ago, my dad went into care, and with my son becoming more independent, I moved into the office on the porch and became a full-time writer. My day begins at 8:30am when my family has left for the day, and I work until my son comes home from school, and often again in the evening.
Being a stay-at-home writer is wonderful. I love it. I make coffee when I want, can work in my pyjamas, and my dog, Maxi, curls up at my feet while I write. But like everyone who works from home, the boundary between home and work is a difficult one to maintain. I have a tendency to spend too much time being my at-home self, or alternatively, to spend too much time working. It’s a delicate balance. And then, there are family and friends and their attitudes to my work:
“You work from home, so would you mind feeding my cat?”
“You work from home, so how about I pop in on Tuesday morning for coffee?”
“You work from home, so can you collect me from the airport?”
“Delivery? Send it to Lee’s. She’s bound to be home.”
I get a lot of interruptions. It’s hard to block out chunks of time to write. I’m exaggerating: I’m always willing to stop for coffee ‒ of course, I am ‒ but I can’t deny that there’s a tension because people don’t perceive what I do as being a ‘real job’. They think it’s a hobby. A parlour game.
“It’s nice that you can call yourself a writer,” one of my running buddies said once.
I asked her what she meant. Turns out she thought saying you were a writer was a euphemism for being a stay-at-home mum. It was what you said when you didn’t want to admit you did nothing.
“But I am a writer,” I said.
“Oh yes, I know,” she said. “But not really.”
I don’t run with her anymore.
Earlier this year, when I accompanied my son to see a new specialist, the doctor asked me what my profession was.
“I’m a writer,” I said, and he wrote ‘housewife’ in his notes. (The thing about being a writer is that we work with words and that makes us very good at reading things upside down.)
And then there are the lovely people who accept that you are a real writer and therefore think your life must be lifted from an episode of Castle. Making up worlds. Killing off people you don’t like in your stories. Regular critique groups with James Patterson and Michael Connelly. Attending glittering launches. Going to interesting exotic places in the name of research. Going to seedy dangerous places in the name of research. Reading. You know, all the things that Richard Castle does.
These people know nothing of the isolation, the self-doubt, the rejections, the lack of interest in genre writers by our literary funders, the readers who moan about the cost of books, launches where no one turns up, and the pay cheques which tell us we are worthless. To put it in perspective, my daughter earned more in two months at her university holiday job than I did working full time as a writer-editor last year. Yes, that includes my mentoring fees, editing fees, story payments, everything. It’s grim. And in New Zealand, I’m probably doing better than most.
“But hey, you don’t do it for the money, right? You do it because you love it. Because you can’t help yourself. Writing, it’s like breathing for authors, isn’t it?”
If my plumber whistles while he works, does that mean I don’t have to pay him?
Early on in my collaboration with Dan Rabarts, my co-editor of Baby Teeth: Bite Sized tales of Terror, we emailed each other about our respective time commitments and how we would fit our editing tasks in around our families and our other work. I told Dan that my husband supported my writing as long as I put out from time to time.
Dan replied, “Um, unfortunate typo there. I assume you mean, put out a book from time to time.”
No, I didn’t. I’m a kept woman. My husband supports my writing habit because he loves me. He doesn’t even read fiction, but he reads everything I write. He doesn’t blink when the Amazon account comes in and he sees how many books I’ve bought. He doesn’t flinch when I subscribe to another online mag. “I see you’ve supported another Kickstarter,” he’ll say. Yes, I’m lucky. People tell me all the time:
“You’re soooo lucky.”
“Some of us have to work for a living, you know!”
“I could write a novel if I didn’t have to go to work.”
“God, I wish I didn’t have to go to work.” (To clarify I do work, just from home—at writing.)
These kinds of comments—some from other writers—fill me with guilt. I am lucky. There is no doubt about it. My husband’s income means I don’t have to worry about how we’re going to pay the electricity bill or where we’re going to find the money for the second school jersey to replace the one my son has lost.
A quick segue here, because earlier this year I was the convenor of the New Zealand Society of Authors’ mentorship programme. We received 70 applications from hopefuls across the country, all vying for one of 12 mentorships with experienced writers that we had on offer. One of the criteria we were asked to assess, one which my fellow panel members agreed was the most difficult to determine, was an individual’s commitment to writing. When we looked at the applications, the vast majority were from graduate students embarking on their careers and with few family commitments, or from retirees finally able to commit to that novel. People with children and mortgages and jobs were thin on the ground. Obviously, we could only select from the people who applied, but it occurred to me that our selection criteria precluded busy working parents, people on low incomes, singles. And if that were the case, wouldn’t those voices also be excluded from our literary landscape?
Reminding me again just how lucky I am to be able to write.
Yes, it makes me feel guilty. And because I can do what others only dream of, I feel I should somehow be making it up to everyone. Because I’m so privileged, I should do what privileged people do and give something back to the community. I must do good works.
Qu’ils mangent de la brioche!
So I offer my editing and mentorship services at cut-down rates—and sometimes for free—because writers have no money. I take on projects that involve writing or editing, sometimes hours and hours of writing and editing, and I do the work for free. I judge competitions, give away critiques, give away books. I facilitate workshops and do presentations in schools. Again, for free. I buy my colleagues’ books and I review, and review, and review. And all these things take me away from my own writing, but that’s only fair because I have time to write.
Often I’ll be so busy contributing to those poor people who are not as lucky as me that I’ll reach the end of the day without writing a single word for myself. Which means that I’m being sponsored to write, and I’m not even writing!
And then there are the anthologies my husband and I have sponsored, are sponsoring. Seed money to cover print costs, guaranteed sums to cover author payments. Projects which would not have had a look in otherwise because New Zealand funders are not interested in speculative projects. In general, if it’s not mainstream, they don’t want to know.
Recently, I applied for funding for an anthology involving six New Zealand literary heavyweights. The application was turned down. I contacted the funding representative and I asked him, among other things, whether it was because the project was speculative in genre.
“Oh no,” the representative said. “No, it isn’t that because we had a meeting six months ago and decided that all genres were eligible.”
And what about the past five years? What about all the other applications I’ve sent in? What about them?
I wasn’t brave enough to ask it out loud. Funders have power after all. I resent (oooh, good pun) the application based on his recommendations. It ran to 37,000 words. For a proposed book project of 42,000 words. But surely a book should have merit enough to pay for itself, I hear you say. Why should it need funding?
Well, that’s right, books should be self-funding, turn a profit even. But margins are so small. Everyone is squeezed. The cost of bringing print books to New Zealand is too high and the cost of printing them here is even higher. The buying market is tiny. New Zealanders don’t rate Kiwi stuff. New Zealanders don’t read fiction. New Zealanders prefer Netflix. Booksellers refuse to stock anything from Ingram or Createspace. Libraries are cutting costs. Schools won’t buy class sets. Publishers are risk averse. There are lots of reasons why books don’t make it here and often it has nothing to do with the quality.
One writer friend of popular mainstream YA fiction tells me she has attended school visits where the school has only one copy of the book—the teacher’s copy—and the teacher would photocopy the pages for the students. Right under the author’s nose. But she should be thrilled, right? Because a whole class of kids were reading her work, and at least the school had bought one copy.
It doesn’t just apply to me—this feeling of guilt. New Zealand writers, on the whole, feel they are privileged to be writing and that they shouldn’t complain. Writing is an exalted thing. Everyone wants to be a writer and those of us who are living that dream need to be grateful.
Perhaps the real problem is readers—not loyal readers who wait faithfully for the release of your next book—but the ones who prefer to pirate a copy rather than pay $2.99 for an e-book. We’re constantly consuming stories, but there is a resistance to paying creators a fair price for that content. It’s not just New Zealanders. Didn’t Ariana Huffington sell the Huff Post for squibillions? Okay, so maybe not that much. But as far as I know, none of the writers of that content saw a cent.
I hosted a Chinese writer in my home a few years ago—another guilt trip thing because I was the writer who didn’t go to work and who had the biggest house. Anyway, this young writer of several books was visiting New Zealand on a fully paid scholarship. Not only had her training been paid for by her government, as a Chinese writer she received a stipend to write and also royalties from her books. Of course, with the government as her employer there might have been some censorship involved, nevertheless all the New Zealand writers in the room swooned with envy.
Time to get off my soapbox here. After all, I’m just that privileged cow whose indulgent husband funds her writing whimsies. I wish every creative had a sponsor as wonderful as mine. But failing that, I’d go for a place where writing is valued and its creators are paid a fair price for their work. That place exists somewhere. I’m sure it does. I read about it in a book.
Lee Murray is a five-winner of the New Zealand’s Sir Julius Vogel Award for science fiction and fantasy writing and an Australian Shadows Award for Best Edited Work (with Dan Rabarts) for the charity anthology Baby Teeth. In 2016, Lee’s short fiction has appeared in Starquake, SQMag, and Capricious, among others. Her novel Into the Mist was released this month from Cohesion Press, and the speculative anthology At the Edge (co-edited with Dan Rabarts) will be released in June. Visit Lee at her website www.leemurray.info