Thursday, April 22, 2010

Will Write for $$$

I was with a group of friends, all accomplished professionals with good jobs. I was the only professional writer there. The conversation turned to books and authors. One friend asked, “Do writers write for money?” Another opined, “It’s an art. Writers don’t write for money.”

All eyes then turned on me and someone asked, “Do they?”

I felt like sarcastically responding, “Writers write purely for the love of it, just like when Mommy and Daddy love each other very much and, after a while, a stork delivers a baby to the house, or when the Tooth Fairy snatches lost teeth from beneath your pillow and…” You get the idea.

The truth, as usual, is more complicated.

The physician’s oath begins, “First, do no harm.” The writer’s should begin, “First, write for the love of writing.” Writers have to love writing because doing it well--writing something that others want to read--is hard work. Writing a book, sustaining a reader’s interest through 70,000 to 100,000 words (on average) is very hard work. That’s not counting the tens of thousands of words that will be jettisoned during the process, as rewriting that book is as important as cranking out the first draft.

Of course, one can write a book without passion for the craft of writing and storytelling. And one can write a book without any talent for writing. The problem is, all that becomes apparent in the work. Readers can not be fooled. Readers know the real thing.

So how can this sublime, creative, beautiful process be compatible with doing it for money? Well, Virginia, writers have the same basic needs as everyone else: food, shelter, safety. After the basics are taken care of, a few pats on the head for self esteem are also welcome.

The pressure to maintain a roof over the scribe and his or her family can be a tremendous motivation to keep churning out the words. At the Left Coast Crime conference in L.A. earlier this year, I heard Michael Connelly discuss having difficulty keeping his motivation going. Robert Crais quipped, “Michael, buy a bigger house.”

That night with my friends, I curbed my sarcastic impulse and instead related my favorite story about writers writing for money.

Mario Puzo had published several novels that were critically acclaimed but that hadn’t paid very well. He was married with five kids, working as a government clerk, and under financial pressure. He decided to turn out a book that would appeal to the masses and make a lot of money. During stints working in pulp journalism, he’d collected anecdotes about La Cosa Nostra. In the 1960s, the Mafia was just entering the public’s awareness and its inner workings were mysterious. Puzo’s book, The Godfather, published in 1969, was on the New York Times bestseller list for 67 weeks and was the basis of the three Godfather movies made by Francis Ford Coppola. Puzo didn’t just write a bestseller, he launched an entire goodfellas genre.

Do writers write for money? What do you think?


  1. I saw that road sign, Will Write for Money, while driving the other day. Looks like it's already been taken. So, writers, you'll have to come up with another idea for your writing.

  2. I was just reading a wiki article about Sir Walter Scott since I'm finally going to read Ivanhoe (ebook) It talked about him writing his way out of bankruptcy near the end of his life.

    And let's not forget the example of Mark Twain whose testimony was influential in getting copyright extended well beyond the writers life span.

  3. Cafe, that was me holding that sign. Glad my disguise worked. :D

    Jeff, thanks for the great examples of writers prostituting... er... writing for money. I'll add them to my stash of stories when the topic inevitably arises again.

  4. If/when I get my novel published, I hope I don't have to figure out how much I'm paid per hour. It's taking me forever.

    Jeff, you're going to love Ivanhoe.

  5. Petrea,that's why we're primarily doing this for love! And it also helps to be a little insane. Not too much, but just enough.