Friday, August 26, 2011

Adaptability

I live a Jekyll and Hyde existence. I just spent three months as a full-time writer. Now I’m back to school and for the next eight months or so I’ll be a part-time writer. Full-time is better but I can’t make a living that way. During the summer I often wrote 5 or 6 hours a day and then spent a few hours on the business end of writing. I did a lot of blogging. Most days now I’ll be getting an hour to write, if that. I’ll be cutting back on blogging. I just won’t have the time. The business end will have to take a back seat to making progress on actual writing.

Making progress. Sometimes, when the writing time gets shortened by life and work, that’s all you can do. A paragraph here. A page there. A few notes taken during a meeting or spoken into a tape recorder on a daily commute. Adaptability is the key, and I’ve become adaptable by necessity. I try to look upon it as a challenge, and I think I manage fairly well.

However, my level of adaptability pales compared to some professional writers I know. There are trends in publishing as in every other field. I have a friend who wrote historical romances until that market softened, then switched to historical mysteries, then took a turn at thrillers while keeping her mystery series running. All were written under different names and along the way my friend had to reinvent certain aspects of her writing style and storytelling style for different audiences. Another writer of my acquaintance changed her writing style dramatically, going from lush, serious prose to airy, light and humorous, and in the process upping her sales dramatically. I’ve heard of other writers doing much the same. It amazes me.

It’s not just that I would find such large scale reinvention difficult from a writing standpoint, but I’d find the whole process terrifying emotionally. I’d find it horrifically stressful, particularly if my livelihood and the wellbeing of my children were at stake. They say necessity is the mother of invention and that might explain why these writers have been able to do what they did and remain successful at a high level. I admire them, whatever the trigger.

Those of us writing now, whether trying to maintain and advance a career, or get one started from the ground up, are living in times when adaptability is becoming ever more necessary. The ebook revolution, with the explosion of self-publishing that has accompanied it, and the rise of social media as a marketing tool are just the most salient examples. The old ways are not dead and gone, but they are living side by side with new approaches. I’ve certainly been trying to adapt, what with my blogging and my Facebook presence, and I’ve even tried the self-publishing route with Killing Trail. So far I’ve not been tremendously successful but in this new world you never quite know what is going to hit and when.

I’d especially urge newer writers to consider adaptability and flexibility among the necessary writer’s tools for the 21st century. For example, don’t reject the possibility of self-publishing, but don’t consider it the be all and end all either. Certainly, I hear much talk about “branding,” about becoming known for doing one thing really well, and that is a way for some folks to make a name for themselves. But remember that trends change, tastes change. When the brand you established is no longer selling, you have to be willing to change to survive. Supposedly, an old curse is: “May you live in interesting times.” In publishing, we’re all living in exactly those times. It’s scary, but a little exhilarating too. In such times, the adaptable have the advantage.

29 comments:

David J. West said...

There's a lot there to think about Charles.

I do find myself feeling quite stubborn about a number of things, all the while knowing I need to be more adaptable.

Change happens.

eric1313 said...

I don't blame you, so much of this medium is a huge distraction.

Though in some ways it is part of the process.

Charles Gramlich said...

David J., I think that sense of stubbornness is a common thing. I often get it. I get it about movies for example. We do have to maintain who we are or all our adaptability means nothing if we become a cipher.

Eric1313, and the process keeps changing on us.

BernardL said...

Any time an author can inject humor into their work where it was not present before is a plus, just as with your writing friend who changed her style to encompass it. I agree with you about writing different genres being an art form if accomplished successfully. For nearly all new writers in this day and age having a day job is going to be extremely important... if they like eating with a roof over their heads. :)

laughingwolf said...

the only constant: change...

ivan@creativewriting.ca said...

You've heard it before, but being a professional writer ain't all it's cut out to be.(Durn, I just ended a sentence with the copula verb "to be"; would have drawn an immediate doughnut mark from the old Media Writing prof).
But I do remember the old times, typewriter over the vinyl on the kitchen table,brain tossing and pitching, hoping for a good idea...and more often than not, it comes from the immediate materials of your craft...But the typewriter, the eraser, the paper--are all gone now. There is just you and the electric whiteness of cyberspace.
But a good idea in the old days could net you three thousand dollars for an article, and if you flubbed, hell, there was even a seven hundred dollar "kill fee" if your story as a salaried freelancer was not used...Those were indeed the good old days.
But I recall it being tough, the landlord at the door, the baby boy tugging at the paper in the typewriter, the wife taking in people's furniture to repaint.

I remember feeling pretty sorry for myself,the torturing of ones brain for ideas, untile I came across a memoir of Nobel Prize winner Heirich Boll, who had experienced the same freelance writing thing, except worse: His wife was not a furniture refinisher like mine. He and his own wife starved a lot.
...And yet thirty-five years later, the same engine around the same track. No Nobel Prize of course, but freelance possibilities with the same magazine I had started out with two generation ago.
What was it that T. S Eliot said?
"We do not cease from all our wanderings until we arrive at the place where we first began?
And know the place for the first time.
The place where one had been a professional writer.
Know it
And then blow it?
But oh the sound and the fury of the glorious attempt as novelist!

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

The social media does take time! And time away from writing, especially for those of us trying to maintain a full time job. I wouldn't want the pressure of my work being my livelihood though.

Charles Gramlich said...

Bernardl, I sure like eating, as most folks can tell.

Laughingwolf, True, true,

Ivan, in many ways, maybe, the idea of being a writer is just one of the strangest that humankind has ever had.

Alex,I'd like to get to the point where I could live off my writing. As the years go it seems less and less likely.

Carole said...

Being adaptable has it's advantages but I have come to realize that a person must really, really want to be writer in this day and age. It seems like a very tough life.

X. Dell said...

I can see adaptability being necessary for a writing career. But is it necessary for a writer?

Seems to me that even when tastes in narratives change, they change back. Then too, if you're writing for a "hot" market, that venue could cool down extensively by the time one gets to print, no matter the medium.

I'm not arguing against what you post here. It makes perfect sense. At the same time I wonder about the degree to which one can be adaptable without becoming a hack.

Oscar said...

Adaptable and stick-to-it-iveness has to be the requirements for today's writers.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I think it would be very hard to succeed with an ebook if you had no writing credits to brandish. Unless you have a ton of friends, that is.

Chris said...

I think adapting to how the day to day hurdles in life influence your creative process is absolutely critical. I'm not as interested -- at this point, anyway -- in adapting what I want to write too much based on what I think will sell. Yes, I admit to some of those decisions, at least as it relates to the juggling of which project to do first is concerned, but it isn't my defining motivation. But trying to keep the wood on curve balls . . . man, if you can't adapt in that fashion, life is probably gonna suck.

Charles Gramlich said...

Carole, that’s for sure if you commit the time you need to make it

X. Dell, it’s probably different for different writers. I actually like writing in varied genres. I find it a challenge to try and bring the same quality to a wide variety of stories. Also, I think I’m talking more about how you go about selling or gaining readers and not so much about the writing style itself. Although there is naturally a change in style that occurs with different genres. Or so it seems to me.

Oscar, Definitely. Consistency over time is the key.

pattinase (abbott), it’s really hard to get noticed for sure, although it has been done. People who manage to write good material and make ingenious use of social media and other forms of advertising.

Chris, Yes indeed. I tend to think in the variety of things I write that there is a common core of material, both in style and in content. But how you present it to a potential audience and how you approach selling it is where that adaptability really has to come in.

Donnetta said...

Survival of the species. What's an author to do!

Enjoyed this piece, Charles. D

Charles Gramlich said...

Donnetta, :) Thankee.

Ty Johnston said...

I consider myself fairly adaptable, at least enough to survive in the publishing world, what with my interests in different genres and types of writing. My problem is I can't find enough time to do everything I'd like to do. For example, I've been focusing upon epic fantasy for the last couple of years because that's paying the bills, but I'd like to get back into horror or even some non-fiction writing. I don't begrudge my minor successes in fantasy, but I'd like to be a fast enough writer that I could give myself more of a change of pace from time to time. If that made sense. :-)

Charles Gramlich said...

Ty, I'm the same way. I really have a wide range of interests and wants in writing, and opportunities. But I can't write quick enough to take advantage of them all. I'm glad for the luck I've had, though.

Ron Scheer said...

Going back to the classroom, I have felt the same shift. Losing the momentum has felt like being totally derailed.

Being adaptable is a necessity, yes, but you can forget who you are. Without a core identity, you end up just drifting with the tide of the times, a slave to the whim of the market. And at some point you're just making a career out of having a career. I don't think that's a place any true writer would want to be.

WE have to bend not to break, but we have limits, too.

jodi said...

Charles, wonderful advice, but I have such a hard time with change of any kind. You know, an old dog, kinda thing..

Charles Gramlich said...

Ron, I should address that "core" issue in a post at some time. As with most things I imagine folks can go to far in either direction.

Jodi, I'm kind of that way too. this piece was probably mostly myself telling myself what I need to do but am reluctant.

Jewel Amethyst said...

I keep seeing trends among recording artist. A young one comes up, is popular for a few years, and just fades into the background as a new artist with a different sound takes the stage. One of the things I noticed about Michael Jackson was that his music changed with the times, though he kept his distinctive voice. That is probably why his music transcended the generations.

We as writers need to do that too. We need to change with the times, while remaining authentic and unique.

Charles Gramlich said...

Jewel, exactly the kind of point I was making. I agree.

The Golden Eagle said...

Interesting point about the curse: in many ways, living in times that demand adaptability can be stressful, but in others it's just another chance to progress.

Richard Prosch said...

With successful SF, Fantasy, Horror and Westerns to your credit (not to mention the nonfiction writing) I think you do a spectacular job! Don't be too hard on yourself. You continue to do a great job at adapting (methinks anyway!).

Cloudia said...

thoughtful exposition!


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Erik Donald France said...

Weirdly, you're the second writer who just evoked Jekyll and Hyde. Maybe it's persona A and persona B vs. the World. Adaptability is definitely a nice Darwinian trait, but as you note, things can be fickle and sometimes, steadiness pays off, sometimes the quick switcheroo. You got to know when to hold and when to fold, but how?

Charles Gramlich said...

The Golden Eagle, times of change bring both destruction and opportunity for sure. I don't have quite the personality to seize the opportunities, I fear.

Richard Prosch, thanks. I try, and I do some of it at least consciously. And it's fun too.

Cloudia, glad you enjoyed.

Erik Donald France, the 100 million dollar question indeed. A lot of it is just luck, although in hindsight folks usually claim they foresaw what would happen. I'm skeptical of such claims.

Liane Spicer said...

Adapt or die, they say.

I'm trying to learn. The hardest part isn't the actual adapting for me so much as my stubborn reluctance to do so. Feels like being dragged into a scary place where all the rules have changed and there's nothing solid beneath my feet. I really, really hate that.