Writers of fiction are crazy.
If you’re a writer yourself, I’m sure you’ve read the depressing statistics:
- Well over 95% of all completed novels are never published by a traditional publisher.
- Well over 99% of all screenplays registered with the Writers Guild are never produced or even optioned. In fact, you have a much greater chance of winning the California lottery than you do of selling your screenplay to a studio.
- Most playwrights are lucky to ever get a reading of their play, much less an actual production, even at a crappy amateur theater.
And if you do manage to beat the odds and get your book published or your screenplay or play produced, that’s still no guarantee of success. Most entertainment projects ultimately “fail” — 90% of books don’t earn out their advances, many completed movies don’t even get a DVD release, and plenty of plays run to nearly-empty theaters.
This is simply the reality of a life writing fiction. Anyone who believes otherwise is either (a) lucky enough to have stumbled into early success (and naive enough not to know that that kind of success never lasts forever), or (b) deliberately lying to themselves.
The fact is: most of the time, writers fail. We fail artistically — in that, if we’re really honest with ourselves, we never really successfully achieve what we set out to do. Or we fail commercially — in that, even if we did succeed artistically, we picked a project or idea that didn’t really have any kind of a “mass” audience.
Or maybe we just never got a break, or the timing wasn’t right. Who knows?
I’ve worked on a number of different projects in the last twelve months: two movies, three novels, and one play.
That’s six projects in all (some of which, it must be said, were started in earlier years: I’m a prolific writer, but even I’m not that prolific!).
I know for a fact one of the movies is going to happen (it’s the movie version of Geography Club, and it’s long since wrapped for a 2013 release). The other movie (based on a screenplay and play of mine) now looks very likely too (for a 2013 shoot and a 2014 release).
One of the novels, The Elephant of Surprise (the latest in the Russel Middlebrook Series) will be out in 2013.
That’s a pretty good track record: three of six projects will almost certainly be seen by the general public in one form or another.
Meanwhile, the other three projects — two novels and one play — are just beginning their submission processes. Hopefully, they’ll all sell somewhere too.
So that’s not a bad track record, is it? At least a 50% success rate and counting?
But here’s the thing: this is my output at the end of twenty years of writing and developing some actual skills, not to mention something of a track record.
Before I sold my first novel (in 2000), I wrote eight novels that never went anywhere (at the time, I thought they were golden, but now I see that they weren’t anywhere near professional quality).
Before I had my first screenplay optioned, I wrote ten that didn’t go anywhere. And I’ve written plenty since then that didn’t go anywhere either — I’ve written more than twenty screenplays, and only four have ever been optioned.
Before I had my first play produced, I wrote six that never left the computer hard drive.
The point is, the odds of having a book published or a play or screenplay produced are incredibly long.
But it’s not entirely random. Talent, quality of the project, and perseverance count for something too. There is a correlation between “talent” and “success” in the arts. (It’s sometimes a loose correlation, but it’s there!)
So is that why we writers of fiction keep forging ahead? Because the odds aren’t that long if you have some idea what you’re doing?
Not really. I just finished telling you that just because a project is produced or published doesn’t mean it’s going to be a success. All of these projects of mine, even the ones that get released, could totally tank. The odds are they’ll be middling successes, at best.
So why do it?
Because I — all writers of fiction — hope against hope that maybe, somehow, we’ll be the exception to the rule. This time it’ll be different.
Basically, we’re professional dreamers — not just dreamers in creating our works of fictions, but dreamers about our lives, our chosen career. We want the impossible. We reach for the stars, knowing full well that we’re never going to touch them — and will, in fact, probably fall flat on our faces.
And this, in a nutshell, is why I love writers, and why I’m so incredibly proud to be one of them. We are so not practical.
Every project of fiction is a complete leap of faith, an amazingly stupid jump into darkness.
High risk, but high rewards.
What if all these projects of mine failed? Sure, I’d be devastated — oh, would I be devastated! — but I would carry on regardless. For one thing, even if they all basically flop, I’d at least have eked out enough money to keep clawing my way forward, standing up, brushing myself off, and starting the whole process all over again.
Because when all is said and done, writing fiction isn’t really about the result. It’s about that process.
It’s about that stupid, crazy leap of faith. Failure and rejection feel horrible (I really can’t emphasize this enough!). Since all good art is personal, it’s impossible not to take the rejection of your art very, very personally.
But that crazy stupid leap before the failure? It feels so good! It’s one of those few times in life when I know for a fact that I am alive. You only live once, and failure in the arts doesn’t ever kill you. So why not risk everything short of that for a chance at glory, for that little fleeting glimpse of immortality?
If you win, you win. And if you don’t, at least you go down with guns blazing.
Like I said, we writers of fiction are crazy. But they say you’re only truly crazy if you don’t know you’re crazy. I know exactly what I’m doing, how incredibly stupid it is — and I plan to keep on doing it anyway.