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.