“The More Things Change…” Being a Mystery Writer by George C. Chesbro
Writers are a surly lot and it’s inevitably grump city whenever two or more of the wretched creatures gather together in anyone’s name. This chronic dyspepsia is not without cause and it must be borne in mind that paranoids do occasionally have real enemies.
As in other creative endeavors success in writing requires not only talent but also monastic discipline perverse perseverance and a rather precise alignment of one’s neuroses. It’s the proboematic talent thing that makes the successful writing of publishable fiction the darkest and most difficult of the arts. Aptitude in the others almost always manifests itself in the early grades and certainly by high school. By then everybody knows who’s got rhythm and who’s a klutz who can or can’t carry a tune dance play a musical instrument draw act or juggle. But there are no writing prodigies and the best and brightest performers in anything in school are not necessarily the people who will evolve and often must follow some kind of prescribed study in the other arts and maybe even pick up something useful from a teacher or two but a degree in the Fine Arts and a dollar and change will get an aspiring fiction writer only a ride on the subway. There is nothing or precious little about the practice of writing fiction that can be taught only learned; to instruct how to construct a plot is not at all the same thing as passing on the ability to actually build one of the critters and populate it with real people. Igor built no monsters although he studied at the side of the master.
If the untalented in the other arts persist in trying to practice whatever it is they want to do they get instant feedback at a young age–from gallery owners casting directors band or orchestra leaders. years after the untalented in our sibling arts have been mercifully shorn of their unrealistic dreams and when the talented and lucky ar launched on careers or even considered past their prime many future writers are still accruing the experiences and emotional scars out of which one day imaginary worlds will be formed.
And then it may be years of struggling with jumbled thoughts and Gordian knots of words before the writer talent unaffirmed but trusting in desire ever sees anything he or she has written in print. And it’s strictly a solo act. Writing is not a lonely profession but it is an alone profession. It is truly amazing how many people commit their lives to a career where the writing income of the average author qualifies her or him for food stamps.
I wish I could say I believe that the writer’s lot has improved over the thirty-plus years I’ve been committing fiction but to be completely surly with you I do not see that as the case. Au contraire.
The nature of the business was radically changed when scores of independent publishers of books and magazines were bought up by large corporations many of which then proceeded to merge into even larger mega-corporations controlling dozens of book and magazine imprints. The result has been a severe diminution in the number of markets to which a writer or her agent can submit her work.
There must be considerable profits to be made in publishing or the mega-corporations wouldn’t have been vacuuming up those companies. Still while the price of books along with everything else has gone up the average advances paid to authors with the obvious exception of ur superstars have stayed about the same.
A few publishers but a host of others seem to have become downright hostile toward writers treating them like fungible and expendable assets manipulated and squeezed like pork belly futures to generate maximum income for the corporate bottom line now and forever. Book and even short story contracts have become mine fields especially on the great legal battlefield where the war over “electronic rights” is being waged. Now publishers want the “rights in the galaxy for all means of transmission now known or to be invented.” Many publishers are already cashing in on these “electronic rights ” selling volumes of work produced over decades to various service stations set up along the great rolling information highway. The do this without permission and the only people not making money from this bonanza are the authors of the works themselves.
Then of course there is the added angst of living in a society that may be becoming increasingly illiterate where fewer numbers of young people frequent bookstore and where the simple yet profound pleasure of reading a book is being supplanted by the quick fix of video games and other flashing images that may thrill the sense but also erode the imagination.
Oh pestilence and woe! So why are we still at it? We do it because of the nature of that talent thing. Writing isn’t a career choice it’s a way of life self-therapy a means of centering ourselves in a world in which we feel out of focus without the lens of the words that seep from us. It takes earlobes of steel to be a writer but author is a hard-won and healing mantle we wear with ferocious pride. Some things never change.
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George C. Chesbro is the author of 23 novels and upwards of 100 short stories and articles. He is the creator of the Mongo Chant and Veil mystery series. He served for four years on the board of directors of MWA three as Executive Vice President. Apache Beach Publications will soon reissue the first ten Mongo novels with more from the Chesbro opus to follow in the coming months. He is currently at work on a contemporary novel.