Guest Post, Douglas Light: My Decade of Writing

Douglas Light

Year One

At age thirty-three, I forged three letters of recommendation, filled out an application, and applied to the Masters program in Creative Writing at City College.

I got in. Quitting my six-figure job in advertising, I focused my full energies on becoming a writer.

My first year in school, I wrote a short story, then another. I wrote and wrote and ended up winning three contests—contest that paid cash—sponsored by school.  This is easy, I thought. I can make a living as a writer.

I didn’t take into account that the contests were only open to students of the program, a very small pool of people. I didn’t take into account that hardly anyone else had submitted work.

TALLY

Career earnings at the end of 2002: $1,800

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Year Two

At the start of my second year in the program, I wrote a story about two young Dominican girls who’d been abandoned by their mother.  I workshopped it.  It was eviscerated.  The only thing everyone could agreed on was that the piece sucked.

I liked the story. I send it out to literary magazine.

Twelve rejections later, the Alaska Quarter Review picked it up. It was my first published story.  No money, only contributor copies. But it didn’t matter. I was thrilled. Finally! I thought. I’m a writer.

The piece went on to win an O. Henry Prize and be included by in the Best American Nonrequired Reading anthology.  Both paid in cash and contributor copies.

Two years into the game and I was on the cusp of blowing up.   This is easy, I thought.

TALLY

Career earnings end of 2003: $2,400 (increase of 33%); 27 contributor copies

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Year Three

I graduated. I never got around to picking up my diploma. It didn’t matter. I was a writer.

My thesis, a rickety, sliver-of- a-novel that made sense in my mind but not on page, was named one of twelve finalist for the James Jones First Novel Fellowship.  This is it, I thought.  $5000 prize money and a red carpet entrance into the big leagues.

I didn’t win.

I didn’t place any short stories that year.

TALLY

Career earnings end of 2004: $2,400 (no change); 27 contributor copies (no change)

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Year Four

Five stories placed in one year. I should have been exuberant. But the joy of getting a story published in a literary magazine is a damp match, flaming briefing before hissing dead. I expected that something magical would have happened by then, that my life would blossom, change. I’d be successful. I’d be the person I aspired to.

It didn’t work that way.  At least for me.

TALLY

Career earnings end of 2005: $2,400 (no change); 42 contributor copies (increase of 56%)

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Year Five

I wrote a lot. I wrote more. I got tons of rejections. This isn’t so easy, I thought.

TALLY

Career earnings end of 2006: $2,400 (no change); 42 contributor copies (no change)

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Year Six

Two years of writing, two fired agents and 40 plus rejection—I finally sold my novel. Not the one I’d written as my thesis, but another, my second. East Fifth Bliss. The publisher was a small mom-and-pop set-up in California, two steps removed from vanity POD. I got a hundred dollar advance, an earful of naive advice from the publisher, and a nagging sense that I’d just bush-leagued my writing career.

But I had a novel.

TALLY

Career earnings end of 2007: $2,500 (increase of 4%); 42 contributor copies (no change)

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Year Seven

The novel came out in February 2007. It hit the market like a concrete birdbath launched into the East River—a small splash, a few ripples, then nothing. Forgotten.

I wrote more.

TALLY

Career earnings end of 2007: $2,500 (no change); 62 contributor copies (increase of 48%)

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Year Eight/Year Nine

I wrote another novel.  Shelved it.  I stalled out at 200 pages on the next, then stalled out at 140 on the one after.  Then I wrote After Lilly. I got my third agent. She’d just hooked a half million dollar advance on a novel by a new writer. Here we go! I thought.

Publishers called. My agent talked. Numbers were tossed around. Then the publishers stopped calling.

My friend and I had adapted East Fifth Bliss into a screenplay. We had interest from production companies, investors.  Named actors read the script.

When I told my agent that the movie was going to happen, she said, “Movies don’t really sell books.”

I let her go.

TALLY

Career earnings end of 2009: $2,500 (no change); 62 contributor copies (no change)

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Year Ten

Big year.  I published three stories. My film, entitled The Trouble with Bliss, got made. It stars Michael C. Hall, Lucy Liu, and Peter Fonda.  I got a chunk of cash plus back-end points for my efforts. My story collection Girls in Trouble won the Grace Paley Prize. I got a fistful of cash and  publication. I sold my new novel Where Night Stops and the reprint rights and audio book rights for East Fifth Bliss.

TALLY

Career earnings end of 2011: $21,400 (increase of 756%); 67 contributor copies (increase of 8%)

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Now

Hollywood hasn’t called. The publishing house that was to put out Where Night Stops and the East Fifth Bliss reprint folded.  I kept the advance. The audio book sales were tepid. The movie was met with brutal reviews, though it did well in Europe and Asia. It may pay-out eventually.

When I first started writing, my desire was for people to read my work.  Now it’s for people to buy my work. If they read it, that’s a bonus.

I have a new agent, my fifth. I’m on to the next thing, the next story or novel or screenplay that will—finally—push me over.

The writing game isn’t easy. At least not for me.

TALLY

Annual earning: $2,140; 6.7 contributor copies

Douglas Light

Douglas Light is an award-winning novelist, screenwriter, and short story writer. His novel East Fifth Bliss received the 2007 Benjamin Franklin Award for Fiction. He co-wrote the screen adaptation (The Trouble with Bliss), which stars Michael C. Hall, Lucy Liu, and Peter Fonda. His story collection Girls in Trouble won the 2010 Grace Paley Prize and was published by the University of Massachusetts Press in 2011. His writing won an O. Henry Prize and was included the Best American Nonrequired Reading anthology, as well as in Narrative, Guernica, Alaska Quarterly Review, and Failbetter.

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12 thoughts on “Guest Post, Douglas Light: My Decade of Writing

  • September 7, 2013 at 8:12 pm
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    I love the simplicity of this. It really shows what it means to be a writer and make a living out of it; shows the reality that writing in itself might be easy, but getting that writing out into the world, generating interest, and making money of it are the really hard parts. And the simple, blunt language of this really drives it home. Well done, and I wish you luck in all future endeavors!

    That said, I loved the line about the story hitting the market like a concrete birdbath. Wonderful bit of brilliance there.

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  • September 8, 2013 at 2:53 pm
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    I love how honest this is. Sometimes it’s hard for me to accept the harsh realities that come with writing and publishing. All you ever hear about is the hugely successful writers, but the fact of the matter is that those people are extremely rare and most the time it’s just luck that they got there. Not to mention the authors that do become largely successful still don’t get reimbursed as much as they should. I appreciate the honesty in this. The passion you have for writing is also admirable, and I believe that you are the “real deal” the way you have preserved despite the grim circumstances of publishing. This is wonderfully written and an interesting read!

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  • September 9, 2013 at 1:43 pm
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    I think what strikes me the most is one of the last lines that talk about the desire shifting from people reading your work to how much money you have made. It’s a sad, but true, scenario that many face when they follow their passions as a way to make ends meet. When you first start off, you might not even be thinking about the money. You’re enjoying what you love to do, and you especially love when you get to share with others. As the pressure to make something profitable increases, your focus begins to shift. I’ve seen this happen to several family and friends in all sorts mediums. It’s definitely something to keep in mind as you are following your passion.

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    • September 9, 2013 at 5:23 pm
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      I think your comment about turning from passion to finance hits close to home for many writers who have to face the cold reality of survival. I also see that Douglas has laid out a treatise on the true value of writing. He writes, still, and regardless of any material reward.

      Reply
  • September 11, 2013 at 2:02 am
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    For one, I think it’s really commendable to leave a six-figure job in the interest of pursuing a dream. And the process that Light endures to turn his passion into a marketable business really sheds light on that very important part of aspiring to be a “writer”. I think a lot of people who hope to eventually be one ask themselves that question a lot: what does it mean to be a writer, exactly? Why are we writing? Is it to make a lot of money, win a lot of awards, or have people read our work? I think this particular timeline really forces writers and the like to assess their own personal intrigue for the field. As a novice to the world of publishing, I found this to be really informative concerning the difficulties behind getting your name out there. It definitely isn’t that easy.

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  • October 7, 2013 at 10:39 am
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    The amount of rawness and honesty in this post is what really drew me in. Unfortunately, his life went from the passion of writing, to the passion of making money. Perhaps the stresses of being a writer commonly causes this. I think Douglas Light is trying to warn others by telling his own story, and I’m glad he did.

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  • October 8, 2013 at 9:03 am
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    As others have said, I really like the honesty in this post. Mainly because it is hard to find writers who are willing to talk about specific dollar amounts.

    Hopefully posts like this will help writers prepare for the financial/business aspect of their career.

    Reply

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