Poor, Labor and Middle Class Writer Problems
I am a writer who was born out of the poor and labor class into the first of my family’s branches to reach into middle class. By sheer will, both my parents forged a life that was a step better than their parents. The public education system and labor unions made that possible. Unions bargained for better wages and education allowed for greater diversity and better opportunities. Where my grandmother worked as a seamstress or laundress, my mother became a graphics and forms designer for the State of
. Where my other
grandmother was a telephone operator and her husband, my grandfather, a GE
plant worker, my father worked for the University at New York – first as painter and then,
eventually, as job site manager, estimating and planning the structures for the
University with the architects on staff. Every penny they earned, they invested
wisely in the future, never forgetting where they had come from. Albany
Truth be told, without my parents’ hard work, I would not have the two degrees that I do: Bachelor’s in English and a Masters in Screenwriting. However, despite those sacrifices on their part, I still waver on the edge of the lower Middle Class and poverty. I am single, so I only have my income to rely upon to sustain me. Adding to the hardship, I have chosen the life of an artist. My parents have neither connection nor know-how to make that choice more productive for me. I have had to forge all my in-roads alone. Thankfully, they are supportive. But, they worry. They worry that I will not have enough to eat. They worry that I have gas in my car—that my car is well maintained. That I have enough to pay my bills and don’t keep the heat turned down so much that I am too cold. Yes, I keep the heat turned down as a money saver, and just put on extra socks and sweaters to keep off the chill, or curl into bed with my very old laptop. There are shortcuts one makes, in order to accomplish their goals. Things that are taken for granted by those in their large warm houses—little understood either.
Why is there a financial hardship? Well, I must save for more retirement. Additionally, I have to save for a house. I need money to maintain my vehicle, feed myself and care for my dog (who is my world). Lastly, I need money to support my art. From writing, painting, sketching and photography—there is a lot to buy in supplies. Before I started my Master’s degree, I invested in a new desktop computer. It recently died, but was breathed back to life by a friend that I am lucky to have. Both my kindle and laptop need replacing. My dog has a bladder stone. My car needs four tires, brake jobs and some other maintenance. Earlier in 2014—I paid an editor to go over my manuscripts, this was just before signing on with a publisher and walking away from truly independent publishing. The start of this year saw the beginnings of fertility treatment for me—thankfully my job provides me health insurance that my dream of having a child will not be set aside because of medical costs and lost time. And, that’s not everything!
My iPhone cord wore out. I have yet to get a new one. My kindle is on the verge of never being able to be charged again, something is wrong with the port—it will be cheaper to buy a new one, but car tires need to come first, as well as treating my dogs bladder stone. Thank god for the day job. It is my greatest hope that my writing will become a second income. I am stuck, for the time being, in the civil service conundrum of zero promotion, because to get promoted, you have to ace a test and there has to be enough job openings to get to your name on the list. There aren’t. So making more money that way is a very narrow possibility, as narrow as becoming the next JK Rowling.
Still, I invested in that becoming a realty starting in 1994 when I transitioned from studies in the Biological Sciences (I wanted to be Zookeeper) to English and History, my other fair loves. However, a bachelor’s degree wasn’t quite enough to be taken seriously. The four years of college, plus one term for transferring schools and changing majors, had spent my will to continue. Enough assignments and silly papers!
In 1998, shortly after graduation, I had the fortunate happenstance of meeting an agent who was doing a course on how to get published. My final project at University was a novella that intertwined fictional characters into a historical setting (US Civil War) to teach about the times in a way that only a narrative could. I asked her to take a look and she was delighted to do so. A few months later, she called that she wanted to represent the work. My job was to write more of a book out of what I had. I set to task like fire on dry wood. This was my shot.
The hours spent between working and living revolved completely around that book. The more I wrote, the more confident I felt. However, she was unable to place it with a publisher—a near miss with a Penguin Editor, who lamented that it had come too late and how she did love it—they should keep tight hold of me. If not for this woman’s words, I honestly believe at this time that I would have given up the ship. Those words stayed with me…I wish I knew who she was, to thank her. Then, the economy tanked and everyone was tightening their belts.
Much of my time after 2000 was spent trying to find another agent, as mine had let go of me, despite the advice given to her. It was costly—running copies, mailing them out, producing query letters, receiving it all back unopened. The places were defunct, or uninterested. Those I could reach panned the work, then shut their doors—several saying they were pursuing their own writing goals from there on. I met snags and abuse, which any writer does and it was hurting my ability to write and continue on. There was no way free of this cyclical pattern. Well, there was—pay to have the book edited and produced by myself. It would only take $3,000 to $5,000. I was a young clerk working for the state of
. The gas money to commute to work was
bankrupting me, as well as maintenance on the car. Every time I turned around,
something was worn out and needing replacement: Computer, clothes, shoes,
rotors, tables, chairs. I got an apartment for a year and furnishing it put me
in the poor house—I over extended myself in my exuberance to be on my own.
Lesson learned. I also needed books and help fixing writing issues and learning
new tricks. I call it hemorrhaging cash. All I made went right back out the
door. And in all honesty, it wasn’t extravagant spending. I tried gardening for
food. I was buying a couch to actually have a place to sit. I bought a used
table and chairs on eBay. So much for the idea that poor people spend cash on
crazy things like New
televisions! I had the one I was given for Christmas at the age of twelve, a 19” dial television, without a
remote. I didn’t go out much; I didn’t have the cash to indulge. So my twenties
were spent paying student loans, car loans, rent and playing catch up—they
passed quickly without catching up much at all. At least the student loans got
Arrive 2008 and what was then called Booksurge. Cue holy choir on high and the magic light from above. Now, I had seen these things before—Author House, Lulu, etc. It astonished me how some authors made it work for them. My luck wasn’t good. I tried other venues that allowed people to post their work online for peer review, including deviantArt—which I am still part of because of the great people I met online, the few who cheered me forward in the darkest of times—where I learned what a troll was, and met some ugly privileged people who don’t know what real struggle is for their art.
Now in my thirties, wiser and more learned, I recognized the opportunity that Booksurge could provide me. The cost was much less than the price tag I had been given elsewhere. It took me no time to sign up. The only thing I couldn’t afford was a real full-fledged editor. I made do with people I trusted to proof the material. Once I had enough in sales, I would either pull the book down and have it edited—or move onto the next. To save money and time on the project, I was able to do the cover myself, thanks to kismet with a Civil War reenactment in my own backyard, and my skill with graphics. Up Blue Honor went.
When it came time, that I had scratched enough money together to try the whole thing again…I was through with Blue Honor for the moment and was ready to start new. It was 2011. I had made very little on the sale of my first book. Marketing was something I didn’t know how to do, but I knew it cost a lot to do it. A great deal of time was spent building a web presence despite this lack of skill. This lighter marketing step still cost money I didn’t really have. The first thing I learned, though, was to connect with people on their level through common interests. Most of my readers are actually people I met and made friends with through things like Farmville, Yoville, and other Facebook games. They’re still with me! I am endlessly thankful to them. Once again, I had a crowd cheering me on, even if relatively small.
Offline, I had a new boss at a job closer to home. She talked me into pursuing my master’s degree. But, this time, the college invested in me some—a fellowship, the State of
employee continuing education program, my union. It still cost, and I will have
those loans for years to come. However, I was at a point in my life that I had
saved up enough money that I could invest in my writing. I chose to do that
over buying a house, or getting a swanky car. I also chose to forgo spending my
time outside my writing nook living life with other people, to get better at
this art. (You can imagine how hard it is to date when you need to be
marketing, writing or working to pay the bills. And, now, because of human
ingenuity, dating costs a subscription fee that rivals the weekly grocery
budget. That is just so unfair—especially since these sites do very little to
help you find a match, other than providing a social media forum in which to
shop for a mate—it’s ugly and opportunist.) New York
The moral of this story is that choosing to become an author (or any artist) is a costly one that takes investments in time and money beyond what is manageable in most lives. Something has to be set aside in order to achieve the dream. It took budgeting skills and a willingness to be honest and open with myself to thwart my ego when I didn’t have mentors to guide me. It took courage to say no to things that I really wanted. Sometimes it took getting a second job—oh, the time suck that can be. Finding time to write in the middle of that is the juggler’s magic. I found it—don’t ask me how—I just did. A minute here, or there, breaks and long nights, less sleep—whatever it took. I have been at this for over twenty years—mostly reinventing the wheel, because I didn’t have the money to access the information I needed to truly get started.
I wouldn’t trade it for the world though. I’m richer of experience and my writing shows it. Now, I have been able to produce Blue Honor into the book it was meant to be with a full-fledged editor. OP-DEC: Operation Deceit is being considered by studios as a possible film (it cost me a retainer for the managers), but my skills honed over the years had come together to create a project that was marketable and well written. From there, I spring boarded ahead and I have a trilogy on the way. Yes, there are other projects in the cue waiting for my attention.
Had I not made the choice to invest in my art, no matter what it took, I would not be published. I would not have been picked up by Booktrope. I would not be looking at a film deal. It takes cash to get there, but that amount is going to be small chunks strung out over the course of years. I wish someone had been kind enough to say that when I started this, instead of it taking years of trial and error and a lot of confusion. Those with money and connections easily pass through this gauntlet for only those reasons. They buy mentors and their publishing and editors, designers and marketers and even the audience to go with it all. That is why many authors shoot for the big house publishing companies, because they smell the money on them. We all have this sixth sense about the money trail, which makes a lot of sense. You don’t invest yourself with the slipshod agency and expect great results. That said, invest with one that is the reliable mid-range model, then upgrade when the opportunity presents itself.
What many authors don’t understand about big publishing houses is this: the money is spent on their star authors, not the small ones they pick up along the way to fill out their numbers. Little investment will be made in them. They will have to invest their own resources, including time, to sell the books, just as if they were independent. Even after you publish, there will always be a cost associated, while the income remains slight. You don’t become a star author without the investment of time and capital—even JK Rowling went through this, and she invested well and wisely.
My grandfather ran a dog kennel while he was alive. The profits from that kennel went back into the kennel to make it better. That is how it works with writing. So, invest in yourself and what you need to write, but do it wisely—for it’s a business as much as a dog kennel or the shop up the street. Cash will always be the arbiter of your book’s fate, so invest in it. One day it will pay you back, and you’ll be able to put on the heat and replace your old laptop.
Williams embarked on a now twenty year career in writing. After a childhood,
which consisted of voracious reading and hours of film watching, it was a
natural progression to study and produce art. Saratoga Springs, New York
K attended Morrisville State College, majoring in the Biological Sciences, and then continued with English and Historical studies at the University at Albany, home of the New York State Writer’s Institute, gaining her Bachelor’s Degree. While attending UA, K interned with the 13th Moon Feminist Literary Magazine, bridging her interests in social movements and art.
Currently, K has completed the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies program for Film Studies and Screenwriting at Empire State College (SUNY), and is the 2013-2014 recipient of the Foner Fellowship in Arts and Social Justice. K is preparing to release her new series The Trailokya Trilogy, a work that deals with topics in Domestic Violence and crosses the controversial waters of organized religion and secularism. A sequel to OP-DEC is in the research phase, while the adaptation is being shopped to interested film companies.