Fortune Favors The Bold

There is a tide in the affairs of man… and when it comes to my tide, it’s always going out.  I can still get where I mean to go, but I’ll be wading up to my waist in sandy swirls.  Not deep enough to put a boat ashore.

At least this is the view from where I am.  You know, try for sixteen years to get published, have first book postponed three times until it finally comes out one month after a national event that makes it really hard for people to care about an exquisitely written novel featuring Shakespeare.

My view of my career – and my life, for that matter – is of someone climbing a cliff, hand over hand, taking advantage of every little crevice and sometimes holding on to what’s barely a crack in the rock face with the very tip of my fingernails.  Falling, too, and sliding down or crashing onto a rock ledge below, stunned and bloodied, only to take a deep breath and start again.

I don’t know when I first realized that our – mine and Dan’s – life looked quite different from the outside.  My first hint came when I Dan worked for then-fast-dissolving MCI which had just been bought by Worldcon and which was bleeding employees faster than something that’s very fast.  We went out to dinner at the home of a couple of friends (still friends, though they probably think we hate them, given what my life has been these last twelve years.  We see them maybe twice a year, sometimes only once.) The husband worked with Dan.  As we were mooting our worries for the coming year, he said “Oh, I’m not worried about you.  You two have the luck of the devil.  You always fall on your feet.”

I remember being stunned by that because (at the time, there was one more to come) we’d twice got ourselves in situations (partly through our fault, but mostly through circumstances out of our control) where we were within a month of losing our house, and far, far closer to starving.  (In fact, the first time we got in that situation – don’t have an emergency Caesarean section on COBRA.  Just don’t. – we spent the next three years starving on the installment plan.  I.e. eating a lot of rice and frozen vegetables, which kept body and soul together but only just about.)  And even when we weren’t starving, it often felt – both in my writing career and in my life – like we were one step ahead of the dogs.

But I thought about it.  There were other people too, in the next few months, who voiced much the same sentiment.  And there have been people who say that about my career.  You know “you’re so lucky that you got…”

I’ll acknowledge one instance of luck I could not have laid down – and that was being pulled in to Baen when the first series failed.  That was pure luck and coincidence, and yes, I still intend to write The Shakespeare Gambit.  (It’s started.  If I can stop getting sick, I can finish Noah’s Boy and then SG.  And for the record, I did write it once.  Eric and I just decided it wouldn’t work as part of 163- and so I’m rewriting it as time wars.)

BUT everything else I have done in the field was not so much luck as massive over-preparation.  And that’s of course part of why things look so different from the outside and the inside.  Fortunate is after all bald behind, (and probably a bad speller, which is why she favors the bold) so you have to grab her by the forelock as she approaches.

What I mean by this is that you have to set fortune-traps and line your street with them, and be aware of any sudden “snap” of one closing in the night.

Kevin J. Anderson, applying this to writing, calls it The Popcorn Theory.  You can put a beautiful, perfect kernel in the pot, just the right amount of oil, and nurse it along.  And if it turns out to be a dud you’ll never get it popped.  Or you can put a bunch of oil in, toss in half a package of corn, close the lid (my brother and sister in law once forgot this part thirty years ago, and of course we still tease them about it!) put it on the stove.  You’ll get a whole lot of duds, but you’ll also get a large bowl of popped corn.

From the outside it looks like “Oh, wow, you’re so lucky.”  From the inside, you should see my bill for corn.

Now I often talk about the darlings in the industry.  They absolutely exist, and yes, in the few cases I know up close and personal, they were not only not setting bear traps, they think that they caught Fortune because they’re just that special.  It’s true of course.  It’s just not the specialness they think.  As in any other industry, there are always people who get promoted/favored, for reasons that have nothing to do with competence, much less brilliance.  You happen to be friends with a boss.  You’re the boss’s son in law, or more simply, you fit in with what the boss thinks of as “promising.”  I’m sure every one of you who has worked at an office has known at least one of them.

The difference is in publishing, the favored tend to not be aware they’re anything unusual.  They’re not, in their world.  They have the “right” political opinions, the “right” appropriately snobbish credentials, the “right” way of dressing and talking and therefore they THINK they’re smart.  And therefore they attribute their being pushed to being good writers because they’re smart.

I have no proof of course that some of them AREN’T smart enough to fake or acquire all of those with intent.  I’ve caught one or two of the smarter ones looking at me like “You can’t be that smart, or you’d fake it too.” – and perhaps they are right.  Terrible thing to realize I do have some morals, despite myself.  There are things I can’t fake.  Marxism is one of them.  I did it to graduate, but I seem to have used up my ability to lie without laying awake at night hating myself.  So I never could fake it – and so I never got pushed.  (shrug.)

However I doubt ALL of the darlings are faking it, judging from one of them having ASSUMED that I was in fact a highschool graduate (if not a highschool drop out) and quite uneducated, since I had a) had children.  b) stayed home to raise them.  This betrays a type of mind that just assumes all the credentials and “correct” beliefs and all that are just smart and evidence of her goodness and intelligence.  Which makes me giggle uncontrollably, but that’s something else.  (She probably also thinks she’s speaking truth to power!  One shouldn’t laugh at the young.)

But still it’s not luck, it’s fitting the right slot.  Whether you do it naturally or by design, it can be done by design.

There is an advantage to having to create your own luck.  Those poor darlings simply have no clue.  A turn of the political climate, or even a – not that this would ever happen! – radical change on how books are delivered, and they’re spinning, lost, not sure what happened and why “smart” doesn’t work anymore, while the rest of us, of few illusions, start studying new routes to get where we want.

There is an advantage to taking a long time to make it and having to work really hard: you know you can.  And if you could once, you can do it again.  And you know, too, that crawling over broken glass hurts but is not lethal.  AND, if you work up to your breaks the right way, by the time you get there, you’ll have a vast reservoir of good will and know most people involved in the like endeavor.

What do I mean by the right way?  Well, other than working like crazy, there are two things you can do to ensure you thrive (the value of thriving varying of course.  No guarantees.)  One is to say “sure I can do that,” when someone in authority asks you to do a project, no matter how tight the time or how difficult the subject (Plain Jane, and more short stories than I can mention.)  This gives you one more kernel of popcorn.  You never know.  It could go big.  Another is to help those around you who are on the way there too, in any way you can.  This helps in two ways: it builds a vast reservoir of good will.  It also makes you more human and makes you understand that while you CAN get there over the backs of people, it’s not the only way.  And real humans don’t do that.  Mind you – I might think this because the second one comes naturally to me.  You have to have done something terrible to me, and I need to be very sure you did it on purpose, before I will refuse to help you with something within my power when you need it.  It’s a character defect, probably.

BUT if you do those, you will build up a reservoir of good will with people in power (Publishers, or your boss), which means you can call favors from THEM.  You’ll also build a reservoir of good will amid your peers, and that’s saved my bacon more than once.

So why this long musing on luck? – well, we’re still suffering after-shocks from the year I took off plus two years of relatively low income.  This is recovering now, and I’m on track to making “real” money this year (about a secretary’s salary for our region) but the problem is to make up the money I didn’t make for almost three years, I need to make MUCH more, because of taxes.  So we’ve breached our reserves, and  I’m feeling up upon and hard done by, and a little scared (since my car will probably go out this year and we have two boys in college.)

And then I find myself thinking “I need a miracle” and “I need some luck.”

While these are true, that’s not the way my life works.  Maybe it’s not the way most people’s lives work.  So, we’ll do the sensible thing and tighten down and, hopefully, I’ll stop getting sick and finish the three works I have hanging by various threads.

And if the unthinkable happens and we run out well…  Heinlein broke out at not much younger than I am: at least in novels.  And there was that period after his divorce where the impossible happened.  And heck… at least I’m not living in a horse trailer.  And I’m probably unlikely to.

It’s hard to remind myself of this – to tell myself I’m not extraordinarily unlucky.  I’m not hard-done-by.  The world owes me neither a living nor luck.  Another thing you learn when you come up hand-over-hand.

It’s something I wish on the next generation – knowing how to make it that way.  Knowing to dust themselves, stand up and go on.  Do they have it?  I’m not sure.  I’m not even sure about my own kids.  They are the product of a very wealthy society and of course we tend to try to smooth things out for them.  But if I had one thing I’d tell my kids to acquire it would be that type of resilience.  (Why haven’t I told them?  Because it’s no good.  You won’t even “get” it till you acquire it.)  And then I’d hope they don’t need it, ever.

And now excuse me, I have some bear traps to set, in case fortune runs by.

49 responses to “Fortune Favors The Bold

  1. Odd your comment about fortune being bald in back, When I first read the title of this post I read “Fortune favors the Bald”.
    I think the outside inside perspective yo mentioned is common to most families/careers. We see that the other person seems to be making it and we all know we’re just barely surviving

  2. ppaulshoward

    Very good.

  3. Still, in my own erratic fortunes as a scribbler of historical fiction, and a freelance editor and specialty publisher … I am amazed at how often a fortunate opportunity or a new client pops in, out of the clear blue. I cannot predict my freelance income with any kind of accuracy … but somehow, at the end of the month, there is always enough.

  4. Sarah – my life works about the same :-) My greatest piece of luck was finding my husband. I would never have found him if I had not gone into the military. I resisted going into the military until I was 27 and so forth.

    Some of my best luck happened after some of my worst crises. I would never had the time to write if I had been well because I would have been working or teaching. When I had finished my degree (in my late 30s btw) and was just starting my illness, I was offered a job teaching CW. At the time I was going for a masters in adult education. The aftermath of my illness is how luck works in my life. I have a life-threatening disease that has to be constantly monitored. Plus I am not allowed to be in places where there is a large amount of packed humans because my immune system is suppressed. Further I was told bluntly that I couldn’t work in an office if I wanted to live longer. Viola! it means that I have large blocks of time between naps where I can write (and I do a bit of editing on an internet site).

    I have accomplished my goals, but always sideways. First one in my family to graduate college at 40. Only one of the children to go into the Navy (father and grandfather where in the Navy). I went into the Navy older. First one to publish a book at 50. And so forth. I have had so many different jobs from typesetter to electronics tech. (I was a retail clerk too). Plus as an electronics tech I have repaired equipment from radios, phone switches to xerox machines. It was a pretty satisfying job.

    Many times I have felt like I was a “ghost in a machine.” I don’t have the right opinions, I don’t read the write books, and I can walk into a room and no one will notice me. I have had times where my friends forget that we have a lunch appointment. It has happened so many times that I don’t even get upset anymore. The upside? I get a chance to observe the people around me without using a blind.

    Since I am rambling – I am saying that luck sure looks like catastrophe to me. ;-)

    • callanprimer

      Cyn, you have the right of it. One of the most astonishing discoveries is looking back at what you’ve really accomplished.

      May you publish many fascinating bear traps.

      • Thanks callanprimer – when I look forward it doesn’t seem like much, but when I look backward I wonder how many lives have I crammed into this one. ;-)

    • Cyn, I certainly know the “Ghost in the machine” feeling. It stands out most when I’m in the company of a bunch of women. They often start talking in ways and about subjects that they normally won’t when around men, but I seem to be invisible. At least, until I hear something that I have some opinion on and speak up. Then, it’s red faces and, “Oh, my god, I didn’t realize you were there!” ;-)

      Glad you got your opportunities, but sorry you had to go through so much to get them.

      • I have the reverse. Guys tend to forget I’m not just a buddy.

      • Well – I am not over yet. I expect more opportunities and consequently more challenges ahead :-) Isn’t it a strange feeling though, Wayne? I am like that around men. It’s like I am one of the buddies. My hubby was the first and only man that saw me as something else. Thank goodness, he hung on – and then I realized that I liked being round him.

  5. Since the chemo- write and right get switched a lot.

  6. Oft times Luck is merely what you make of it. Parables about boys and stables full of horse manure come to mind.

    Google “Gaiman’s 3 rules for freelancers” for some good insight.

    Of course, Gaiman’s own career offers another rule: write a novel with Terry Pratchett where the primary effort is to make the other writer laugh so hard that they spew peas through their nose.

  7. Thanks for this. I’m about to plunge into releasing a short story collection and I’ve been getting nervous. I keep forgetting that 1) fortune favors the bold (and occasionally the foolish) and 2) when my luck gets weak it means I need to dig more, write more, and launch more. The statute of limitations on my aviation stories has expired so this may be the time to publish them (all names and locations changed to protect the innocent, the guilty, and the author.)

  8. “. . . excuse me, I have some bear traps to set, in case fortune runs by.”

    Remind me not to go jogging in your neighborhood ;)

  9. You mean bare (of hair) traps, right?

  10. May the bears of fortune turn clumsy around your traps :-)

  11. Coming out of lurkerdom to hope your health stays good, because I’ve already bought most of your backlist and am anxiously awaiting the new stuff!

  12. Yep, I envy you.

    Not your questionable “luck”, which is clearly fickle, but your determination and obvious drive. I try, but I know I am a source of disappointment to my father, who never let something go by when it needed to be done. I won’t say, “I can’t”, since people seem to have this notion that that’s a self-fulfilling statement, but I always get dragged down when I try to start something. Then I run into the problem that, after I’ve let myself be distracted for a while, the things pile up and become daunting, and I have a hard time getting started.

    Fortunately, my older son has started helping me with motivation, so I have some hope of getting my act together.

  13. To sayings came to mind reading this
    a) I’d rather be lucky than good
    b) The best way to succeed is to make your own luck

    As contradictory as they may seem, both are true. To the best way to make it where you want to be is to just keep plugging away and working at it, no matter how many obstacles life tosses in your way. But when luck throws you a bone you didn’t really earn, don’t sit there and look at it and wonder why it was tossed to you when you really didn’t earn it, grab it and run with it, before someone else does!

    • Dans les champs de l’observation le hasard ne favorise que les esprits préparés.
      In the fields of observation chance favors only the prepared mind.
      Louis Pasteur

      Often reduced to “Luck favors the prepared mind.”

  14. Side comment… Not only did Sarah write Shakespear’s Gambit once already, but it was excellently done. It absolutely was in no way at all her fault that it couldn’t be merged into the 1632 universe, and on long reflection, no amount of briefing could have prevented that. Jim’s wild hair about the Earl of Oxford essentially insisted that someone try, and Sarah did a bang-up job. Reading that manuscript put her on my “Buy everthing sight-unseen automatically, and beg for beta” list as well as on the “do everything you can to cultivate as friend” list.

    Unfortunately, well, it was unfortunate. But it was a GREAT book.

    • Now I has a sad, book will never be published in its original form…and I won’t get to enjoy it.

    • Thank you Rick And I’m not absolutely sure I will keep the Oxfordian thesis. Yes, it was Jim’s. It’s also — sigh — nonsensical. (Speaking as an expert.) But since this takes place in a multiverse, I can play with “in other worlds other people wrote Shakespeare” :)

      • Maybe you could publish the entire original book as a bonus add-on in the back of the new version, with a big author’s note that this is alternate-alternate 1632. Sort of the Mr. Baen’s Special Edition version.

        And then, all the 1632 completists will have to buy the new version, just to read the super secret bonus 1632 version.

  15. You mentioned the “special” people who are special for reasons other than what they think. C. S. Lewis explored this concept in “That Hideous Strength” where he describes the cliques and inner circles that were filled by “special” people. This sort of thing did not originate in our generation and it will persist long after we’ve gone on to our reward. Our job in each generation is to summon Merlin to deal with the N.I.C.E. people.

  16. “MCI which had just been bought by Worldcon”

    And now I am picturing WSFS trying to run a telco company…. :)

  17. I am sure fortune favors the bald. Much is explained about my life :-)
    It is so true that there are two lives in every one person. People think I set out to live a hair-raising (to avoid being favored by fortune, natch) life in odd places. Which we don’t. We’re boring rather conservative people that just blunder through misadventure after disaster in weird places. None of which we planned. I get knocked out by a fast spinning steel clothes dryer (a Hills hoist/windidry) and my lifelong friend says ‘typical. You would.’ I actually don’t want to live in interesting times. I’d like to live placidly and raise carnivorous plants, which are (TP says) less interesting than everyone thinks. :-)

    • My brother — who went bald at 18 — is not particularly lucky. There goes that theory.

      I second you on the interesting times. I wanted an easy path to success and, you know, a quiet life, with a cleaning lady to do the “rough” and a book a year, so I had time for gentle walks in the park and latte down in the coffee shop. But the way things are going, it promises to be interesting to the end.

      • Relativity Sarah, just think how unlucky he would have been had he been as hairy as me ;-). You should have the latte and cleaning lady on merit, but as yet, there is no merit system. All I want is a home of our own again, and my kids safe, so I am setting my sights a little lower. Hasn’t helped much. But we eat well, and have good friends.

        • sigh. Paying for the boys’ education would also help.

          • Aw, c’mon now Sarah, remember: You aren’t paying for the boys’ education, you’re paying for their college degrees. Never confuse the two!

            • There is this, but considering what they want to learn, there’s education there too.

              • I’m not saying they don’t coincide, nor that the certificates are not useful. But part of the education required for getting those certificates is in hoop-jumping, bureaucrat stroking and political kowtowing. It also teaches (if you’re lucky) distinguishing between the useful and the unimportant. Like any other institution these days, the most significant things they will learn are not in the official curriculum. Still, it will probably come in handy later.

    • I actually don’t want to live in interesting times. I’d like to live placidly and raise carnivorous plants, which are (TP says) less interesting than everyone thinks.

      While I fully agree with the first statement, I am not sure I would agree with the assertion about carnivorous plants. At the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro there is a carnivorous plant garden, I find them quite interesting — but, then, I guess that qualifies me as an ODD.

  18. Could it be fortune favors the blind? I know that it seems stuck in the forefront of my mind. I was pretty blind until laser surgery. ;-)

  19. Terrible thing to realize I do have some morals, despite myself. There are things I can’t fake. Marxism is one of them.

    I am quite glad you are unwilling to fake it. I believe that one of the gambits to maintain and gain power is to try and convince people who disagree and who have the brains to actually confront the scourge that it would be easier to just fake it to get by — don’t make waves, sit down you’re rocking the boat, you got go along to get along, the nail that sticks up gets hammered, and what can one poor voice avail, etc….

    Make waves: Human wave!

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