The Death of a Career

Another talented writer friend, Christine McKellar, has reached an unfortunate but understandable crossroads as she heads into the new year. She has given me permission to repost her blog here. I’m sure her words will resonate with anyone fighting that uphill battle to build a career as a fiction writer. I applaud her honesty and hope that her decision will turn out to be a hiatus, not a final destination.

Five years ago I began a new career. Last night I ended it. The result of my five-year career is three published fiction novels (a fourth is half complete), a short crime story, a short science fiction story, no profit whatsoever, and a tremendous amount of money down the drain. When I received yet another invoice from the printing company last night that I had sold over two-hundred-fifty-dollars in books yet my compensation was twenty- one dollars and some change, I threw in the towel and cancelled my contract. My suspense fiction novel, The Devil’s Valet, is no longer available online or in book stores.

Along with countless other authors, with each of my three novels, I emailed and snail-mailed literally hundreds of literary agents with queries, synopsis and bios. Take The Devil’s Valet for example: I got probably a one percent hit. The majority of agents wanted exclusive rights to simply review either the first three chapters or the manuscript. This translates into having your manuscript put into limbo for six months to a year (all agents moan about the massive amount of submissions they get on a weekly basis). One San Diego agent held onto The Devil’s Valet for NINE MONTHS before rejecting it. That was it for me at the time. Being your typical Aries, I had my manuscript published within a month. I published it. I created my own publishing company, Philia Publishing. At the May 2009 launch at Borders, I sold all but three of forty copies of The Devil’s Valet.

Although Nora Roberts once told me personally never to write to trend, I had certain agents along the way who admired my work but had their own advice. I was guaranteed to be on the bestseller list within a year with my first novel, A Port of No Return, if I would make my protagonist, Quinn Carrigan, a lesbian. 2006 was a hot year for gay and lesbian rights and outings. The problem is, Quinn simply is not a lesbian. She’s survived shark- infested waters, taboo love, hurricanes and drug smuggling. She is what she was from the beginning and there is no way I or anyone else is going to change her. The critics hailed this debut novel as “a sexy, thrilling ride.” The second novel in the series, The Shadows of the Sea, received an equally  favorable review.

Timing has a lot to do with everything, and two years ago when I finished The Devil’s Valet, vampires and werewolves became the rage. Even armed with this Kirkus review, “McKellar has created a strong, empathetic heroine, and she renders the world she moves in in convincing detail. Worthy of a Lifetime movie,” The Devil’s Valet was doomed, it appears, from the get go. I wrote press releases. I scheduled book events, printed hundred- dollar posters, book marks, business cards and other collateral material. I invested in a website and blog. I literally went into debt with my novels. I refinanced my house to support my “craft.” The bottom line is I have made a tidy sum for two publishing houses and one print house.

I must concur with a fellow author who wrote, “Unless I was a brand name, 99% of publishers/agents would never give me the time of day.” Case in point, my former-niece-by-marriage, Danica McKellar, starred as Winnie along with Fred Savage in the fabulously popular 1988 sitcom, Wonder Years. She’s published several books on math for young readers. Not to detract from Danica, who I know personally to be a talented, brilliant and creative woman, I have no doubt publishers saw how marketable her film resume made her. I haven’t read the books, but I believe the critics and I commend the niche in which she chose to express even more of her talent.

Writing, to me, isn’t at all about “the money.” I couldn’t care less about fame—I actually wish to avoid that. It’s

about “the look” in readers’ eyes. I’ve been blessed countless times since publishing my first book with seeing that look. And equally with hearing, “I was up so late last night because I couldn’t put your book down!”  I’ve had moments at my keyboard where the hair on my arms and even my head stood up as a plot took off. I’ve paced my back patio in a total frenzy, talking to myself or scolding my characters. I’ve cried real tears over a plot twist in The Shadows of the Sea. The imagination is a living thing and it cannot be stifled. Like a shark, if I don’t write, then the imagination and I, too, shall die.

Yet, authors must eat and pay mortgages. And, there is something diminishing about working your ass off seven days a week, day in and day out, and not receiving any compensation. No one in their right mind would put in the magnitude of hours of solitude, of research, of proofreading, of editing that a writer does without any expectation of return. One can’t eat accolades. One can’t survive on less than ten percent return. Therefore, I’ve turned my eyes, my mind and my talent to nonfiction writing. To a world where at least I get paid by the word: those words that so command me, and that I love so much.