It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible

A writer’s life is not for me


Or so says Steph Swainston in a feature in Sunday’s Independent here. Coincidentally, I’d just read her first novel, The Year of Our War (see here), and as a result decided to track down its sequels. To date, there are three more books in the series: No Present Like Time, The Modern World and Above the Snowline. Swainston says there may well be more, but she’s asked her agent to negotiate her out of her current two-book contract, so who knows.

And the reasons she gives? Too much stress. The stress of producing a book a year. The stress of fans discussing her books on the internet. The stress of isolation. They are, to be honest, fixable problems. Actually giving up writing seems a somewhat drastic solution.

Different people write at different speeds, though publishers – and readers – do prefer a book per year. Publishing is, after  all, a business. But see George RR Martin, Scott Lynch or Patrick Rothfuss – each of whom have multi-year gaps between volumes in their fantasy series. (Having said that, they probably had robust enough sales for publishers and fans to wait out those long delays.) Charles Stross was, at one, point, writing three books a year – though he has said, never again.

Different writers have different levels of engagement with the internet. Some are actively involved – with blogs or live journals, twitter accounts, forums, etc. Swainston appears to have almost no online presence. But then any level is sure to draw some sort of fire from some quarters. Not everyone on the internet is approving. The medium itself seems to rob many people of tact. Or intelligence. But being ignored is, I would have thought, more stressful. To not know what people think to your story can be disheartening – even a negative review means someone has at least engaged with your fiction. Of course, they may not be very nice about it in that negative review, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.

Not everyone hides themselves away to write. Some write in their local coffee shop. Several writers I follow on twitter tweet from their local Costa Coffee or Caffè Nero. Others need total seclusion in order to write. I have, for instance, seen several conversations online regarding music and/or distractions when writing (not to be confused with displacement activites). Personally, I find extreme metal is the best music for me when I’m writing. Also, many published writers still have day jobs, and only write early in the morning, in the evenings, and on weekends. The issue for them is finding the time to write. Some writers have part-time jobs, giving them at least a a couple of days at home to focus on their fiction.

Then, of course, there’s the social side to genre writing. The conventions, the book launches, the parties… Not that these in any way characterise the life of a writer. But they do happen. I don’t believe Swainston is a con-goer, though she is Guest of Honour at next year’s Eastercon. Not every published writer engages with fandom in person, but many genre writers were actively involved in fandom before becoming writers and they haven’t withdrawn from it since turning professional.

In other words, there are lots of different aspects to the writer’s life, and lots of different ways of approaching those aspects. Swainston has chosen her solution. I don’t necesserarily agree with her choice, but it’s her choice to make. I still plan to read her books, and I do hope that she does continue to work on her Castle series – at whatever pace she feels comfortable. It’s always a shame when a talented genre writer turns away from writing. Swainston has a singular vision, and I think fantasy will be poorer for its loss – which is not something I can say of several writers of fantasy…

7 thoughts on “A writer’s life is not for me

  1. Steph was a much appreciated guest of honour at the Finnish/Swedish Åcon 3 in 2009, and a very sociable party girl, so I don’t think she has a problem with attending cons or engaging with fandom.

    • I don’t recall hearing of her attending any UK cons, though I don’t attend every one that takes place in this country, of course. Having said that, she might well have been at the same con as me but I was never aware of it.

  2. Reading the article closely it seems to be a sensible personal decision. It’s not like Steph has said she’s given up writing forever. It’s just that’s she’s taking a step back from trying to fit into a career path that makes her uncomfortable. Seems like the right thing to do from both a personal and professional point of view to me. Forcing yourself to continue on a path you dislike is a recipe for burnout.

    • I’ve certainly heard of it happening to some writers. OTOH, I envy those who can seemingly churn out novels and short stories without seemingly breaking sweat. I can’t say it comes easy for me – but then I have a lot of demands on my time (such as the day job), and lots of projects simmering away.

      • I confess my initial response was “Book a year, huh? I once spent 5 years writing 2-3 books a year uphill, both ways, in the snow.” The thing was, for a very long time, it was actually a lot of fun. In the end though, it wore me down and I stopped and went off to do other things so I have a lot of sympathy for Steph’s point of view.

  3. She was at the Glasgow 2005 Worldcon, although I don’t recall seeing her. She says that she’s going off to be a chemistry teacher, so – yes – good luck to her. As I’ve said in other places, we need new teachers more than we need new fiction writers.

  4. I respect the problem, but don’t necessarily agree with the solutio. But that’s probably because I’m still “aspiring” with only 2 published books and not enough time to write. However the old adage ‘be careful what you wish for’ holds for many. Artie Shaw the great swing clarinetist found fame and popularity to be such a yoke around his creative neck that he walked away from performing and arranging altogether for a number of years at the height of his success.

    What bothers me about our modern world of commerce is that no matter what line of creativity you are in you still have to self promote even if it comes at a huge cost in personal stress. Reclusiveness is no longer an option.

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