To Be (or not to be) a Mercenary

The first thing that might pop into your head is, ‘Um, what’s a mercenary writer?’  Good question.  A mercenary writer is basically a writer who “writes where the money is.”  That is to say, the writer writes about whatever the hot topic is at the moment.  If vampires are hot, they write about that.  If the wild west is hot, that’s what they write about.  If televisions coming to life and taking over the world is where the money is, then they churn out as many stories/novels on the subject as possible.  They have their publishers dictating what they write about, they write as many stories on the subject as possible to up their chances of making money off of one of them, and they have hard deadlines to meet.  The opposite of a mercenary writer is the artist who writes what they want to write about, regardless of whether or not it is “hot” at the time, and spends a considerable amount of time honing and fine-tuning their work instead of rushing through to get the novel out to the masses.

A lot can be said about mercenary writers; some of it good, some of it bad.  Likewise, there are pros and cons of being a mercenary writer.  Some of the pros are simple enough.  If you are writing all the time and churning out monumental amounts of novels, then your chances of getting published are much better.  Getting published ups your chances of actually making money off of your craft. 

However, a lot can be said for the ‘bleeding heart’ artist as well.  Since money is not a motivation behind their creativity and they are seldom on a deadline, their work is often of much higher quality as far as writing goes.  The stories are often more intricate, sometimes spanning entire series of novels to tell the tale.  The story very seldom feels rushed as the case can be when a writer is put under a stout deadline.   The characters are usually much more rounded, well developed, and often feel more ‘real’ to the reader.  It’s very easy for the reader to get sucked into the story, to have a lot of time and emotion invested in the characters and plotline.  Often the characters are so well defined that readers may even feel a kinship with the characters. 

It has been debated on whether or not a mercenary writer is actually any good.  As I have often said, a good story is in the mind’s eye of the reader.  But it is certainly a valid point that a writer who is churning out a book a month is sacrificing quality for quantity.  Getting that much material out in such a short amount of time often leaves little, if any, time to fine tune the story, to develop characters properly, to wrap up loose ends, or even tell the story properly.  A wise writer once said, “If you are not going to spend the time that is required to properly develop your ideas and your characters, then why are you wasting the readers’ time giving them mediocre material?  Why even bother to write if you can’t be bothered to give your ideas the proper nurturing that they deserve? ”  That is not to say that a mercenary cannot have good ideas or even be a good writer;  the argument is that the stories could be a thousand times better if the writer spent the amount of time it takes to fine tune their stories and the characters within them.

First off, you will need to decide if you are a mercenary writer, if you could become a mercenary writer, or if you even want to be a mercenary writer.  The first question you have to ask yourself is, ‘Do I write what I know others are going to read, or do I write what I like to write about, regardless of how ‘hot’ a topic it is at the time?’  This is, perhaps, one of the most important things about a mercenary writer.  They do not usually write for the sheer joy of creating something and often do not have any emotions tied up in the stories that they write.  They write about whatever will make them a paycheck.  So if you have a tendency to hate writing about things that do not interest you, if you hate having someone tell you what your next story is going to be about, and/or if you cannot stand for anyone to change up your storyline because you have an enormous amount of emotions invested in the plot, you will not be able to make it as a mercenary writer.

The second question you have to ask yourself is, ‘Which is more important to me, making money off of my craft, or being known for being a really excellent writer.’  One of the main differences between a mercenary writer and an artist writer is that mercenaries do make money, although it can be argued that someone having to crank out a book a month to keep the publishers interested in them is not making very good money.  An artist, however, may write fewer works but are often very well-known as a ‘good’ writer because they spent the necessary time fine tuning their work before they submitted it for publication.  It’s the difference between Anne Rice and a romance/erotic writer who has fifteen novels out there but no one knows who that writer actually is.  Money is not usually the driving force behind an artist’s writing.  With that taken out of the equation, it frees them up to put their heart and soul into their craft.  If you would rather be known for being good instead of making money, or if you would not be willing to sacrifice the quality of your work in order to crank out a large quantity of work, then you would not make it as a mercenary writer.

The last question you have to ask yourself is if you really want to be a mercenary writer, or are you happy with where you are at as a writer.  Please don’t misunderstand the point of this article.  I am not saying that one is better than the other.   I know which one I am, and I am perfectly content with who I am as a writer.  The question is, are you happy with where you are as a writer?  If you already are a mercenary writer, are you still willing to continue writing what others dictate, are you still willing to sacrifice quality over quantity, and are you happy being a mercenary writer?  If you answered ‘yes’ to these questions, then embrace your inner mercenary and carry on. 

If you are an artist, are you happy with the stories you have created?   Do you enjoy the process of fine tuning your craft?  Would you rather be known as a good writer or is it more important to get as much of your work out there as possible and make money off of them?  And, perhaps most importantly, are you happy being an artistic writer?  If you answered yes, then embrace your inner artist and set out to create something fantastic.

As I said earlier, I know which type of writer that I am.  I am a die-hard ‘bleeding heart’ artist.  Most importantly, I am perfectly content being an artistic writer because, for me, being known as a ‘good’ writer overrules my desire to make any money off of my craft.  I already have a career, but writing is my passion.  I do not do it for the money, but for the simple joy of creating something really wonderful, a feat that my hundreds of thousands of fans can attest to.  I continue to write knowing that people really enjoy my intricate tales and get caught up in the storylines.  For me, having my name known is more important than the paycheck that it brings in.

Whichever you are, I would never, ever suggest that you give up your dream of getting published.  Even if you are a hopeless artist when it comes to being a writer, never stop trying to get published.  But don’t sit around and wait for ‘the big’ book deal to come your way.  It doesn’t matter how good you are, you are not going to be the next Anne Rice, so don’t sit on your manuscripts holding out for a huge traditional publishing house to come along and make you an unbelievable offer on your work.  It. Is. Not. Going. To. Happen.  What can happen, however, is you can be your own biggest advocate and get the word out.  If money is not a driving force but you still very much want your work out there being read, then you may want to try alternative methods such as blogging and self-publishing. 

Another thing that I would like to point out is that not all writers are going to be supportive of or even accepting of you as a writer.  It is not uncommon to come across mercenaries who will state that anyone who does not write full-time is not really a writer.  Excuse me, but anyone who consistently puts pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) is a writer.  It’s like saying that someone stops being a mom once the kids get grown.  It doesn’t matter if you write in your spare time or if writing is your full-time job.  So long as you are writing something, anything, then You. Are. A. Writer.  You may come across writers who will tell you that if you are not going to try to make money off of your work then you should move aside and make room for those who do want to make a living off of their efforts.  To these people I say that there are plenty of readers out there for everyone, and if you are so insecure about your ability as a writer as to try to scare off the competition, then I suggest you become a better writer.

Whether you a mercenary or a bleeding heart artist, regardless of which choices and directions you choose to explore as a writer, remember to always keep your eye on the goals that you have set for yourself.  Be the best that you can be at what you do.  But whatever you do, never give up, never give in.  Because at the end of the day, all that matters is that you are satisfied with the work that you have produced.  After all, a good story is in the mind’s eye of the reader.

N. C. Matthews

One comment on “To Be (or not to be) a Mercenary

  1. Great article as it makes me feel less alone in the world. I don’t think I could ever turn out constant, weak writing without feeling bad in doing so. If I can’t go back and read my own stuff without feeling fake then I’m not going to give it to anyone else as one.



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