How Much Money Do Writers Make?

Question: I’ve written a novel. Should I quit my day job now or wait till I’m published?

In A Broom of One’s Own: Words on Writing, Housecleaning and Life, author Nancy Peacock answers that question with a story:

*

Two women are walking down the road and pass a frog sitting in the grass. “Hey,” says the frog.

“Wow. It’s a talking frog,” says one of the women. She picks the frog up and holds it in her hand.

The frog says, “Listen, I’m not really a frog. Actually, I’m a critically acclaimed writer. A spell was cast on me and I was turned into a frog. But if you kiss me I’ll turn back into a critically acclaimed writer.”

“Well, I’ll be damned,” says the woman, and puts the frog in her pocket.

Her friend asks, “Aren’t you going to kiss it?”

And she answers, “Hell, no. I’ll make a lot more money with a talking frog.”

*

Read my review of A Broom of One’s Own here. You may have already read the review–it’s been around for a while–but the book is so good, I can’t help mentioning it again. After you’ve read the review, read the book.

[P. S. Did you know that when you buy a used book, the author doesn’t receive any money from the sale?]

Nancy Peacock, A Broom of One’s Own: Words on Writing, Housecleaning and Life
Harper Perennial (2008)
ISBN-10: 0061357871
ISBN-13: 978-0061357879

But what will he do for clothes?

Our weekly movie on DVD was about John, a young editor sent to Italy to persuade Robert, a famous writer, to end a twenty-year hiatus and start writing again. It’s a sweet story with all the necessary ingredients, including John’s falling in love with Robert’s daughter, Maria, and Robert’s encouraging John to leave publishing and concentrate on his own writing.

There was also the requisite hitch in the romance:  Maria told John that, although she loved him, she couldn’t go to London with him because she didn’t belong there.  And she didn’t show up at the railroad station to tell John goodbye.

That’s when I perked up. It appeared there might be a realistic ending. John wasn’t yet a published writer, and he wasn’t a risk-taker. That kind of person doesn’t throw away a stable career for a beautiful girl and a typewriter.

But when it comes to romance, movie makers don’t like risk either. Boy-meets-girl rarely turns into girl-tells-boy-she-won’t-go-with-him-and-boy-leaves-anyway. Writers share the characteristic. Even Charles Dickens couldn’t end Great Expectations as he wanted. Advised that the public wouldn’t be pleased to see Pip and Estella go their separate ways, he revised asap. Nobody wants the audience to go away mad.

Understanding caution, I doubted the chance of a realistic conclusion. John was still at the station. There was plenty of time for Maria to show up with her suitcase.  There was also the possibility that when John boarded the train, he’d find Maria waiting for him.

I watched. John got on the train, put his suitcase on the overhead rack, and sat down. An old woman carrying a birdcage sat down across from him. No Maria. The train pulled out of the station.

They’ve done it, I thought.

Then John spoke to the old lady, and the old lady spoke to John, and a light appeared in John’s eyes. He looked out the window and saw Maria on horseback, loping alongside the train. She held the reins of a second horse, its saddle empty. John pulled the emergency cord, jumped off the train, mounted the riderless horse, and loped back to the village with the beautiful girl to resume typing.

It was lovely.

And I spoiled it by shouting, “Don’t forget your suitcase!”

That exclamation exemplifies the difference between me and the scriptwriter. I worry about suitcases. I worry about paychecks. I worry about horses. My father didn’t let me run a horse on unfamiliar terrain. He said the horse might step in a hole and break a leg, or throw me off. He didn’t think much of horses in parades either, because they might slip on the pavement, especially if they were shod. When I see a mounted sheriff’s posse in the Tournament of Roses Parade, I cringe.

Lest anyone blame my father for my nitpicking, I offer another example to show I didn’t need instruction: Every time I thought about running away from home (which I considered once a week the year I was four), I got hung up on one detail: I didn’t know how to work a can opener.

Anyway, when it comes to stories, I have a handicap. I see the holes, the lapses, the flimsy, the far-fetched. I never believed Carson Drew really let Nancy leave home by herself. After the time she went detecting and ended up locked in the back of that truck, she was either grounded or sent to a convent. And when I see a man run away from his suitcase, my suspended disbelief goes plop.

That’s a shame. I like happy endings. If John hadn’t stayed in Italy with Maria, I’d have been sad. I wanted ET to stay with Elliot, and Rhett to stay with Scarlett, and Gilly Hopkins to go home to Trotter, and all the terrorists and the hostages in Bel Canto to live in harmony forever.

But life doesn’t work like that. Nor do all writers. Some of them understand about suitcases.

Still, if the writer who conceived the story of John and Maria wasn’t thinking about me, he was thinking about the rest of his audience. He wrote for people who want romance, and he gave them the appropriate ending: boy got girl, girl got boy, horses cantered off into the sunset. Everyone was happy.

Including me.

Because, as David pointed out, John could always buy another toothbrush.