Many dim moons ago, when Reagan had just taken possession of the White House and I’d taken possession of my 20s, I decided on fiction writing as a career, unaware at the time that my decision was due to undiagnosed brain damage, the extent of which is still being determined. I was cranking out bad short stories and even worse novels on a magnificent (and if used as a weapon, potentially deadly) Olympus manual typewriter. Its loud, metallic clickitty-clack-clack became the underscore of my Grand Opera of the Imagination, a march, a rally cry, a battle hymn, always singing out You can do it! You can do it!
Yes, we all recognize the above as being Inspirational Bullshit Designed to Make You Urp on Your Shoes. The truth is, that sound used to drive me crazy, because eventually it began to sound like the Failure Police were mocking me as they danced and sang before my eyes in a Kick-Line of Coming Calamity: You’re going nowhere/You’re doing nothing/No one will read you/You’ll die unread. Boogie-oogie-oogie. Sisyphus had nothing on me.
One of the things that used to keep me going was the thought that, if I kept at it and listened to the advice of pro writers whenever I could corner them, I would start to publish, then be paid, then be able to support myself on writing alone. Well, I did keep at it, I did listen to advice from the pros (especially a marvelously encouraging letter from Harlan Ellison to the 19-year-old moi), and I began to publish. My first short story appeared in a small press magazine when I was 22, and now–almost exactly 25 years later–I have somewhere around 200 published stories to my credit, as well as 10 novels, 10 short story collections, 1 non-fiction book, and 2 anthologies that I have co-edited. And there are nights when that chorus line from the Ninth Circle of Hell still puts on its little show, with a Sunday matinee thrown in for good measure. And I wonder why I’m on anti-depressants.
One thing that often appears to beginning writers much as the vision of the Holy Grail appeared to King Arthur is the concept of the Advance. Ah, so elusive she seems, waiting somewhere Out There in your future, wagging her finger seductively, lips moistened and eyes gleaming with yummy promise: I’m here for you, you’ll see. Some day, we’ll be together.
Cue soft focus, Writer embraces Seductress, Fade Out as echoing voices sing: You finally got here/Don’t need to punch the clock/But you remember/There’s still Writer’s Block!
Ahem. Yes, the last and deadliest phase of going from part-time to full-time writer, from would-be pro to flat-out slave of the muse: the advance.
As I write this, I have a stack of book contracts within easy reach. All have been signed by the proper parties, and all have been accompanied by advance checks. There’s just one little glitch in this portrait of the Writer’s dream Come True.
I haven’t written any of these books yet.
(Not entirely true; work has begun on all and is nearly finished on two; the point is, I’ve got until October to deliver all five. Boogie-oogie-oogie, cue the kick-line in the wings.)
That’s the part of the Pro Writer Fantasy sequence that never enters the picture when the young You imagines that provocative seductress beckoning to you from your future. Yes, it’s great to have someone hand you a stack of cash for something you haven’t written yet (it’s still one hell of a confidence booster), and when you’re younger it’s easy to think you’ll never, ever, under any circumstances, have trouble producing that book you’ve already taken money for, but somewhere in the theatrical wings of your subconscious Jung and Freud are rolling on the floor, howling with laughter as the Failure Police don their black fishnet stockings ala Dr. Frankenfurter and wait for their cue.
I once promised myself that I would never, ever accept money up front for something I haven’t written. As far as my books go, I’ve broken that promise every time, and so far I haven’t locked up, freaked out, melted down, climbed a tower with a rifle in my hands, or taken to reading John Grisham.
But there’s always the waiting chorus line in my head, kept in place by a stage manager who every so often calls: “Places for the Dance of Doom and Despair! Places, please, he’s gonna crack this time, I just know it!”
Taking advances up front for something not yet written is a sure-fire way to keep you on edge, and adds (as I’ve found so far) a certain, feverish, almost desperate quality to the work itself, which gives definite intensity to the telling of the tale. I’ve had many people say one of the things they like best about my work is its strong emotional content. I appreciate that, because I do like to engage readers’ emotions as deeply as possible (there just isn’t story without feeling), but to be completely honest, sometimes that intensity comes not just from my imagination, but from the realization that Dear God, I’ve already taken money for this thing and I Have to finish it, I Have To, Dear God I HAVE TO! What if I can’t? What if I go blank, become blocked, flip out, have to take a one-way ride in the Twinkie Mobile to the House of Good Pudding? What Then? What? WHAT THE #@!* WAS I THINKING?
And one lithium later I remember the why I got into this in the first place.
To meet women.
As long as they’re not part of certain chorus….