Susanne Dunlap

Back in the Saddle

In The writing life on July 10, 2010 at 10:04 am
Sunset in Chilmark

Sunset on July 4th in Chilmark

I’ve had a week “off”. I trekked to Martha’s Vineyard where we stayed with generous and lovely friends, then back to my other home base: Northampton, Massachusetts. I had intended to indulge in some serious garden therapy but it was waayyy too hot—as everyone on the Eastern Seaboard can attest.

This little break made me think a lot about what I’m doing and how I’m doing it, the difficulties I’ve had with finding a work rhythm that gets everything done. The result was that I accomplished next to nothing in the way of writing while I was in Northampton. That setting was the ultimate in distractions that would not let me concentrate. I’ve discovered the core of truth at the basis of Virginia Woolf’s famous saying, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” The room of one’s own means a place free of other demands and distractions where you can attend to the business of putting words on a page without constantly being yanked away from the world you are creating.

Of course, she cites Jane Austen as the remarkable exception, writing despite the busy family life she led. But since I’ve transferred 90% of my possessions—including the chair I used to sit in to write—to Brooklyn, I had a curious feeling of rootlessness in Northampton and no congenial place to park myself where I could forget my surroundings and just work. Odd that I find even the subways of New York easier to work in than a house full of the history of family and redolent with unresolved conflicts and uneasy compromises.

While I was there not working, I cruised around on my hard drive and flirted wistfully with the idea of e-publishing a few unwanted manuscripts, complete books that are very near to my heart but for one reason or another were not taken up by either my adult publisher, Simon & Schuster, or my YA publisher, Bloomsbury. Something held me back, though. And when I exchanged emails with my agent my doubts were confirmed. His advice was to trust that Bloomsbury is working to develop my career by bringing books out in a way that they will not compete with each other, and that self-publishing anything would undermine their sales and probably make me persona non grata.

Fair enough. But then I got to thinking: my books are timed to come out roughly annually. Based on the advances I have been given for them, each book provides about a quarter of what I require to live on. Even if I gave up my Brooklyn residence and returned to Northampton, I would change that equation to about a third of what I require—which includes debt amassed while going to graduate school and simultaneously raising a family, helping my daughters through the rigors of adult life etc. etc.

I’m working as an editor to supplement the writing income, but the amount I gain from that endeavor compared to the time involved is pretty modest. I’ve got all the editing work I can handle right now, and if I annualized that and added it to my book income I’d maybe get to about half of my living expenses.

I have another project I’m working on with a friend that involves a startup business, and that may produce income at some point. But the time I spend on that eats into the time for writing and editing.

All this means is that I would amend Virginia Woolf’s words to read, “A woman must have enough money—or a wealthy family/spouse who can support her—and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” (And honestly, this applies to women or men.) Or a woman must not attempt to have and support a family while she is trying to earn a living writing fiction. In my case, I didn’t really know this was what I was working toward, and probably made decisions that have adversely affected my financial stability that I might not have otherwise made. Or then again, perhaps not…

Of course, doing what I have done, leaving a job to write, has an arrogant side to it. Who am I to believe that what I am writing merits such devotion? Are the books I write making a difference to anyone? Enriching hours of anyone’s life enough to be worth the paper they are printed on? Why do I think that at the age of 55 I should reach out and construct the life I mean to lead, put my energy into things I really care about, and try to be one of the lucky few who make a living writing fiction?

Well, it seems I’m arrogant! I’m taking this a month at a time. The worst that can happen is complete financial ruin 🙂 As my sweet niece said when I was talking to one of my brothers on the phone, “Aunt Susie can always come and live with us.”

And really, so many good things have come together for me as a writer that I have no cause to complain. But when did that ever stop anyone?

Now, to work.

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    • I went to your blog and read your response. I don’t think my agent is an ass at all! In fact, I’m pretty sure I’d never have been published without him, and he was the one who encouraged me to go into the YA market, which has worked out well both creatively and financially. But I understand your point of view.

  1. I take back the ass remark…but I think his advice to you is wrong-headed. And I say this as someone who is now earning $100-a-day in royalties on out-of-print work on the Kindle…and is not “persona non grata” in publishing as a result. My friend Joe Konrath is on track to earn over $100,000 on the Kindle this year from the unpublished manuscripts his agent couldn’t sell or that his publishers rejected. It would be a mistake for you to overlook this potential revenue stream because of bad advice.

    Lee

  2. Not everyone has nine rejected manuscripts like Konrath has to pitch into the ebook pipeline. It’s the published ones that got him to this point though. If the manuscripts have been shopped around and passed on, then that’s one thing. If the agent feels the timing could still work for those then better to hold off. This is why we get agents. Nothing happens without them and less by bucking their advice. Low overhead is the key to the artist’s life.

  3. I would like to exchange links with your site susannedunlap.wordpress.com
    Is this possible?

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