Day 4 in Down the Writer’s Path’s series with Arthur Plotnik. This segment is part of an interview with Arthur Plotnik, author of the newly released, Spunk & Bite: A Writer’s Guide to Punchier, More Engaging Language & Style by Briget Ganske, Spring 2006 and posted with their permission.
Do you find it difficult to live as a writer? Specifically, do you find it financially difficult to support yourself by writing? And more generally, do you find living a “writer’s life”, however you want to define that, a difficult thing to do?
The only time I tried to support myself exclusively as a writer—a two-year period of decent paychecks —I ended up on the couch, with a psychiatrist telling me “the golden-haired boy needs a haircut,” whatever that meant. But I took it to mean: stop isolating yourself in a small room with made-up thoughts and big dreams—and engage in a real profession. Of course, for the most part I’d been writing erotic pulp novels, one a month (see later question), which wasn’t the healthiest kind of isolation.
After that episode, with a specialized degree and full-time editorial work, I was able to balance the writer’s inward life with a clean, well-lighted, outward life—one whose restraints were both disciplining and motivating for writing done at night and on weekends. The limitations of a job can act like a compressor of creative energy, which explodes at night in manic writing sessions.
Anyway, the dough earned from those extra efforts—averaging maybe seven or eight grand a year over the uneven decades— has been gravy. Even now, my post-editing career as a writer only supplements basic income.
I think the so-called writer’s life is an escapist fantasy. You know—the seaside cottage, the cats, the breaks for beach walks, and by night the cultivated friends and exquisite wines. Serious writing is more about 60-hour weeks of research, keystroking, screen-staring, and wall-pounding. It’s about the freedom to obey agents, editors, and publishers. About deadlines and self-doubt, competition, continuing education, and plenty of costly outlay. And—if you want to retain some personhood— about getting out of yourself and serving the needs and aspirations of those around you.
Have you had difficultly getting published?
Of the seven nonfiction books attempted, all have been published—the first three without an agent. But literary fiction, poetry, novels—it’s such a lottery, and I probably don’t play enough to win. As for the columns—editors have, happily, come to me. You want to get published? Write something of compelling interest to an identifiable, paying audience, and write it in language that beats the competition in expressiveness and force. Learn how to write queries and proposals. Then keep hammering at the gates of agencies, media, and publishers.
Describe the process you undertake to get published.
Short stuff? I write it and send it to likely markets. Nonfiction books: I write a complete proposal, the most excruciating act next to chewing off an arm. But it has to be done and done right, even before sending it to the agent. You or the agent send the proposal to editors, along with a few sample chapters, hoping for a contract. If you get one, you write the rest of the book.
Book-length-fiction proposals require a synopsis, which is like chewing off both arms and one leg.
A good primer on writing nonfiction proposals can be found at the New England Publishers site. (Scroll down through several topics.)
I read in a profile online that you have published numerous paperback novels under a pseudonym. Why do you use a pseudonym? Do you think of these books as unrelated to the work you publish under your own name?
Those books are ancient history. Along with Don Westlake, Lawrence Block, and others in a stable run by the Scott Meredith Agency, I wrote a sexy pulp novel every month under various pseudonyms. I happened to be ghostwriting for one of the regulars, but I did 22 books netting about $900 each—a goodly sum in those days. Almost prudish by today’s standards, the books contained no profanity, only the usual action described in purple metaphors—trains, tunnels, pistons, furnaces, and the like. The titles were probably the sexiest thing about them: Lust this and Slut that.
The thrill of being a young, bona fide, published novelist soon faded in the grind of hack writing (literary touches were discouraged). Did anything worthwhile come out of it? I got rid of a lot of bad plots, learned to manage massive output, and used the dough to go back to grad school. And maybe I made a soldier or two happy.
Come back tomorrow to discover writers Plotnik admires, as he considers the value of MFA programs, and offers a little bit of writerly advice. Be sure you check out Spunk & Bite and see for yourself why so many are praising Plotnik’s latest work. You might also want to check out Art’s website, Spunky’s Blogrr, and, Plotnik’s official bio. If you haven’t already, read my review of The Elements of Authorship then return for more soundbites from the Great Plotnik!