1982: The Writer’s Life

by wjw on April 14, 2011

It’ll be Tax Day in less than a week, and preparing my own 1040 has reminded me that it’s time for another installment of The Writer’s Life.

As you will no doubt recall, this is Part Four of a series of posts about my early years as a writer, with my old tax returns supplementing my fading memory.

1982 was the year my career writing historical fiction was flushed down the Toilet of Doom.  In fact practically every writer of historical fiction went down that same toilet at the same time.  Publishers, including my own publisher Dell, had seriously overbought historical fiction, and the public just stopped buying it.  In fact, they haven’t really bought historical fiction in any amount in the years since.

Fortunately I’d signed a two-book deal the year before, so I delivered Books IV and V of Privateers & Gentlemen in 1982, for which I was paid $12,500.  (These weren’t published until 1884, after Dell’s legal right to do so had expired.)  Another sale at the end of this desperate year netted me another $3250.  That, plus dribs and drabs of additional income, lifted my total to $19,750.  The round number suggests I was paid $4000 for something, but I don’t know what that was.  (Probably a game project.  I’ll recount my career as a computer game designer in another post.)

Out of this grand total, I paid $2975 in agent’s commissions, which is more than the 10% that agents were charging in those days.   There were no foreign sales.  I have no idea why my agent was paid more than seems reasonable.

I paid $477.05 insurance on my office equipment, $342.97 on postage, $700 on rental for my office space, $3713.45 on research (mostly books, I imagine) and $420.48 to those blackmailers at Tandy for repairs to the Model II.  Utilities and phone came to $746.12.

Travel and entertainment came to $54.12, which suggests a year in which I wasn’t having a lot of fun.  On the other hand there’s $558.38 for “public relations.”   I can’t imagine what that might mean except that I maybe flew to another state for a signing, and did it on my own nickel.

Depreciation on my 1972 Chevy van came to $2100, and on my IBM typewriter (which I was no longer using) was $514.80.  Apparently I couldn’t depreciate the Tandy, which was a shame, because its value became zero in a big hurry.

All those deductions worked well for me, and my total tax for 1982 was $1201.80.

I found out in April or thereabouts that Dell wouldn’t be wanting any more books,  and that what I’d projected as a ten-book series would be cut in half.  This came as a shock, since up till then all the news had been good.  I immediately started writing and firing off proposals for new books, sending them in all directions and in many new genres.  As my travel expenses show, I also cut all unnecessary spending.

This, of course, is what writers are supposed to do.  If one thing doesn’t sell, move on to the next thing that might.  Also, I hadn’t expected to be “Jon Williams” my entire career, and I knew my writing had improved since I’d turned pro, and I fully expected to be back in the writing saddle before long.

Fate was not kind in that regard.

For one thing, nobody told me that historical fiction was as dead as a frozen mackerel, so my proposals for historical fiction went nowhere.

For another, I hadn’t yet learned the art of writing a good synopsis.  For someone hoping to sell on chapter-and-outline, this is a vital skill.  A synopsis isn’t so much a description of what happens in the book as a sales document.  A synopsis should start with a narrative hook, explain what the book’s actually about (as opposed to a description of a series of incidents), and explain what’s so wonderful about the book that a publisher would want to buy it.

My synopses tended to wander and spend a lot of words explaining details of the plot. Reading them now, I can imagine how the editor’s eyes glazed over, because my eyes glazed over.

Plus, I was trying to be, let’s face it, original, and this is sometimes poison for a writer that no one’s heard of.

Case in point: my proposed mystery novel.   Mystery novels found their form in the 1920s and haven’t much evolved since then.  The audience is mostly women, mostly middle-aged or older.  What was this audience going to make of my detective, who was a twentysomething slacker who, in the first couple of chapters, got in a bar fight and dropped a tab of acid? And what would they make of the plot point, which revolved around some complicated chemical interactions via-a-vis the amanita muscaria mushroom?

(What can I say?  They tell you to write what you know.)

I had good instincts.  The 1980s were a period when writers like James Crumley and James Ellroy were shaking up the mystery field with their driven sad-sack loser heroes, none of them strangers to random acts of violence or the pharmacology of controlled substances.  But they weren’t exactly household names at the time, the editors at the mystery houses were too staid (as was their audience), and I shot myself in the foot by writing a long, discursive synopsis.   The novel went nowhere.

As the years approached its end, with no work coming on and no money coming in, I was beginning to feel more than a little anxious.  I was looking at bartender schools.

Fortunately, I was saved by becoming a science fiction writer, something I had not at all expected.   The proposal for Ambassador of Progress, which I had written in 1980, sold at the end of 1982.

Why, you ask, had it taken so long?  As I reconstruct it, the sequence went something like this:

The proposal went first to Susan Allison at Ace, at which point Susan left Ace and went to Berkeley.  Ace put a buying hold on new projects until they acquired a new editor.

The proposal then went to David Hartwell at Timescape, where it was lost in the mail room.

The proposal was then sent to Susan Allison at Berkeley.  But Berkeley acquired Ace and put a buying hold on new projects till they could sort through their combined inventory.

The proposal then went back to David Hartwell at Timescape.  Then Timescape put a buying hold on new projects.

At some point I fired my agent and got a new one, so that delayed matters further.

The new agent sent the proposal to Jim Baen at Tor, who bought it within days.  The proposal had spent over two years going to editors who, for one reason or another, hadn’t even read it.  It took two years for the proposal to find someone to read it, and that person bought it.

So I can legitimately say that my first SF novel was bought by the first editor who read it, but that boast leaves out all the interesting parts of the story.

Baen offered a $5000 advance Ambassador of Progress, though my agent nudged it up to $6500, of which I received half in 1982.  Discerning readers will note that this was a little more than half what I’d earned on my previous novel.  Baen also required delivery by the end of the year, which was something like three months.  I’d never written a 125,000-word novel in three months, and in fact never have.  But, being desperate for work, I said I’d do it, and I did in fact give it my best shot.

1982 shows me bouncing back from career collapse.  (I’ve done it in years since.)  All it takes is desperation and a willingness to do practically anything.  Note that I ended up in a less well-paying place than I’d done before.

It was some years, and three more books, before my income began to equal my glory days of 1981-2.

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