Like Rachel, I’ve sought and gotten a lot of sound business advice from established writers in the year or so since my book deal happened. Most of that advice has been excellent — no, essential, and I’m grateful for all of it. But there’s one piece of advice I’ve been hearing again and again from various quarters, and it’s starting to chafe. Namely, that I shouldn’t live in New York.
Now, not all the established authors I’ve spoken to have said this. But there are a prominent few who have, and the idea has spread like a meme throughout the writing world: get out of New York now! (Save yourself!)
Now, I don’t disagree with this advice on a number of levels. New York is frickin’ expensive. (It didn’t used to be; once upon a time — until the mid-Nineties or so — New York had incredibly cheap housing, and some of the best renter-protection laws in the world. Alas, those days are gone.) The money I’ve gotten from my book advance would go a lot farther if I lived in, say, Springfield*. I’ve currently got a tiny 1.5-bedroom apartment in a good-but-not-great neighborhood, and I’m paying $1700/month for the privilege. That’s actually good by New York standards — anything under $2000/month is good by New York standards — but I’ve got friends in Atlanta who are paying that much per month as the mortgage on a house four times the size of my apartment.**
And that’s leaving aside New York’s other, many, flaws. It’s dirty and noisy and crowded, and likely to lose significant real estate in the next half-century or so. It smells funny. It’s stupidly cold in the winter and offensively hot in the summer, and living in a city that never sleeps can actually be a problem when you’re trying to. And the basketball team sucks.
New York is still a great city for artists of any stripe. The high cost of housing is offset by reduced costs in other areas, like:
- I sold my car when I moved to New York. Didn’t need it, pain in the ass to have it. Instead there’s the MTA (what us cityfolk call the subway/bus/ferry/commuter rail system here). It’s insanely cheap — though New Yorkers complain about the cost all the time; that’s just a New York thing — but OK, sometimes it’s slow. When I’m in a hurry, I can call a taxi, car service, or rent a Zipcar for $12/hour. In the meantime I’m not paying for a car note, insurance, or gas.
- I have an easier time finding affordable health insurance here than I would elsewhere. The Authors’ Guild and the Freelancers’ Union (which authors can join) both have special insurance plans for people who live in New York — where there’s a critical mass of authors and other folk making a non-standard-wage living, so they can negotiate prices down. Those rates do not apply to people who live elsewhere, note. AG health insurance would’ve cost me $800/month if I’d lived in Springfield; in New York it was $350/month. I got a better rate yet from the Freelancers, so I went with them.
- There are, by my guess, at least ten city, state, and privately-funded agencies in New York whose main purpose is to give writers money. Way more than that if you take all the arts into account. The New York Foundation for the Arts, for example — a partially state-funded entity that offers $7000 writers’ fellowships every other year, and additional opportunities if you live in New York City (depending on your borough). They’re competitive, but I lose nothing by trying. There are similar agencies in every borough of the city, and multiples in Brooklyn, where I live. There are also special programs which allow full-time artists to find cheaper/specialty housing at reduced rates. Granted, there are a lot of arts-friendly states that have programs like this. But it’s a matter of degree; the sheer number of programs available to people in New York, and specifically in the city, is dizzying.
And then there are the intrinsic benefits. When I moved to New York in 2007, I was — I thought — pretty actively networking and promoting myself, in all the ways that writers are supposed to do. I regularly attended local/specialty conventions and workshops, was in a great writing group, and was active in a few online circles. But when I moved here, I was stunned to realize just how much I hadn’t been doing.
Case in point: I didn’t know a soul when I walked into my first KGB Fantastic Fiction reading, but by the end of it I’d met six magazine editors, three agents, two anthologists,
and a partridge in a pear tree and a number of peers and potential friends. That was more networking than I’d gotten out of any three conventions. I used the opportunity to find a writing group — something that had taken me five years in Boston. In New York, between KGB and other events, it took three months. In fact, my efforts were so successful that I eventually ended up in three groups, before I regained my senses and cut back to one.
Speaking of writing groups — all of those fellow writing group members (current and former) are friends now, and all of them are just as serious as I am about their writing careers, so we look out for each other. Thanks to them, I hear about market opportunities that never get posted at Ralan or Duotrope. I’ve gotten exposure to the editing process and slushpile reading (painful and hilarious, but illuminating), which could help me land future jobs as an editor or writing instructor. I’ve been getting requests to participate in invitation-only anthologies. I’ve been on the radio twice with my writing group (and will be going on by myself in a future HotW, closer to my book’s launch). This extends beyond New York, actually — I’m never alone when I go to a con these days. I’ve always got folks to hang out and room with. Sometimes they even get me into the hush-hush private parties, where I get to schmooze with the big kids.
And all that was before the book deal. Since then, the web of opportunities has become even thicker. Lately I’ve been dipping a toe into other genreish waters besides SF/F; it’s easy in New York, where all you have to do is find out where the romance writers hang out, and go talk to them. These days hardly a week goes by when I don’t have some writerly event to attend, and in the warmer times of year there’s usually three or four events per week, since the city also sponsors tons of free performances and festivals. Frankly I’ve had to cut back lately; I’ve still got Book 3 to finish, after all. Can’t put the cart before the horse. But once that’s done and I pull out the promotional stops… well, let’s just say I expect to be very, very busy come February.
Am I saying these opportunities don’t exist elsewhere? Of course not. I’ve lived in New Orleans, Boston, the Washington DC area, and lots of other places; all of them have some kind of Writer Scene, though the ones I’ve experienced pale in comparison to New York’s. And am I saying that being so involved in this scene is going to make me an instant bestseller? Ha, I wish it was that easy. All the schmoozing in the world won’t save me from Midlist Hell if nobody likes my book. And the scene is a double-edged thing: piss off the wrong people and the opportunities dry up, and you might get bad reviews to boot.
But right now, for me, as a debut writer trying to make a name for herself, being in New York makes that a hell of a lot easier.
And there’s one more thing about New York. As a writer, I write what I know — so as a fantasy writer, I need magic in my life. I need frequent encounters with the numinous, the strange, the disturbingly-wrong and beautifully right. I need different perspectives. And yes, while I could get all that in a lot of places — what could be stranger than a suburban strip mall? — there’s a certain unique quality of strangeness that I get from living in New York that, somehow, really stimulates my creativity. I think that quality is present in many cities, given the number of them that find their way into modern fantasy. There’s just something about cities. There’s some quintessential, critical-mass agglomeration of ideas and emotion and natural energy in any city that tickles the creative bone of most writers. But I don’t think it’s an accident that so many writers have picked this city as their muse. It’s not just the dubious cachet of being a writer in New York — that’s a cliche these days, not cool. It’s something else — something that makes the ridiculous housing prices and the filth and the madness worth it. I don’t know what the hell it is, but I’m along for the ride.
(At least until I’m broke.)
* Where I lived for 2 years once, quite well, on a $20,000/year salary. Didn’t have much of a social life, but at least I had a nice apartment to sit around bored in.
** Not that I’m interested in a house. I hate mowing lawns, and can you imagine cleaning that much space? But it’s the principle of the thing.