And all of us pay our dues…
I was going to write on economics – yeah, there’s some stuff left unsaid – but I realized I do have something left to say – also – which should be said today about the life of a working writer, the role of luck in any life, and the assumption people who do better than you are “lucky.” (This also ties in with economics. There is a tendency to think the rich are “lucky” – but in fact I suspect their ascent is not much different than getting successful in writing.)
Heinlein said that luck was how morons explain the works of genius. This is unkind, and to an extent inaccurate, and I’m sure it must be the result of his getting one too many of the non-fan-letters I also get.
The prototypical non-fan-letter goes something like this: I love your work, and I’m a great fan. I too am a writer, but I didn’t get the lucky breaks you’ve had and my three magnificent opuses, written twenty years ago – Whiner, Whiner Returns and Whiner Unleashed – have yet to be picked up by a traditional press. I am, of course, too good to sully myself with that nasty indie publishing, so I’ll hold out for that million advance that is due to my genius. I just wish I was lucky like you.
The funny thing is that I – who have never got an advance of more than 12.5K (and I was ecstatic when I got that) get about one of these a month, sometimes more.
I don’t answer them. I don’t answer them because my answer would be “you’ve written three books, twenty years ago and you’re “unlucky” because you’re not published? Good heavens. If I’d stopped at my first three books I wouldn’t be published either. It took eight of them finished (and several more started) and about 200 short stories written before I started selling.”
But that’s besides the point. I’ve told the story of how I broke in before. For those who are new here, I wrote 8 books before selling the first (which was a 9th and I sold on proposal.) Three of those books have now been published as has a half-finished one, which took eight years to sell on proposal. The other six are probably unpublishable (unless I do it under deep cover and under another name) because, to be blunt, the entire world and premise are WEIRD. As in, they make my kid’s book Cat’s Paw, look sane. (And it’s probably telling that Robert and I came up with the premise of Cat’s Paw (sort of) together while building an upper deck on our former house one hot summer day. He said, “Hey, I have this idea.” I’m afraid I didn’t make it any more “normal.”) It took me six books to realize it wasn’t a failure of craft, it was the fact that the world was WEIRD that was preventing publishers buying it. (We’ll put it this way. It was my answer to The Left Hand Of Darkness. Imagine that world with a libertarian twist. Yeah. Unpublishable, possibly even in indie. My husband called it the three fs world, two of them being feasting and fighting…)
As for short stories, they were a detour undertaken when a writing book convinced me that I MUST break in first in shorts. Writing shorts ended up eating three years of my life, before I figured out it was actually easier to break in in novels. Not wasted, mind. Short stories focus your ability to start a story running and it helps focus the wording and characterization, too. I’m a better writer for those years, and I continued writing a short story a week through the early years of my novel career. But all the same, for the purpose of breaking in, utterly useless.
I sold a short story just before I sold my first novel. Since then I’ve sold… around a hundred and twenty something (I haven’t counted lately) and have mumble (even less counted) in drawer (Or rather, drawer would be easy. I have them in so many diskettes, old computers and scraps of paper that I’m forever shocking myself with discovering another one.)
Anyway… let’s say it wasn’t an easy path, and it didn’t get easier after “breaking in.” For one, I seem to have, with unerring ability, broken in as the field had become the most dysfunctional it had ever been (and considering what I’ve read about the early days of publishing, that’s astonishing) and my very first book came out a month after 9/11/01 and at least the figures I saw for sales were dismal. Which meant that house didn’t buy my fantasy again (all my fault, yes. Never mind.) I wrote first historical mystery, then cozies for them for the next ten years, though. By that point all my chances of being considered a hot property were gone, so I sometimes had four books due a year for them. Meanwhile, I also wrote fantasy (and then SF) for Bantam and Baen and historical fiction for Berkley Jove.
I’m not going to pretend I was all right with the schedule that went between four and six books a year. Look, I might end up – if I can stop getting sick, d*mn it – doing 4 books for Baen next year. I’d like to, at least. But those books would all be Space Opera and all connected and at least vaguely sequential. Swinging from a book with the musketeers as protagonists, to one set in 19th century India, to a space opera was enough to give even me the screaming megrims.
However I did it because I had to do it, because little though I was making, we needed it, and because in the end if I’d stopped and got off the treadmill, I’d never be published again. (In the alternate universe in which I know indie is coming, I tell them to bugger off, and do some furniture refinishing while writing for the drawer. But then some of those books/series might not exist, and some of you guys like them.)
Anyway, life should be somewhat more relaxed now, because I’m only working for one traditional publisher. But of course, I’m trying to get indie off the ground and in that I’m manager, cook and chief bottle washer. And some of you are waiting from books from that side, like Orphan Kittens Mysteries, another set in Goldport and interacting with the characters of the other series. Also, I’d like to write more for that one traditional publisher. Which means… oh, about the same level of work.
And I sometimes wonder about the fragile little flowers who wrote three books, sat on their hands and waited to be discovered. (Not the ones who said “not worth my time” and went on to have productive lives elsewhere. That’s their prerogative. And possibly sane. But the ones who continue to put all hopes in that one, two or three books.) I wonder how they’d handle the life of a published writer who is not (yet) a headliner. Let’s see this morning I found out that I might or might not have spaced page proofs (if I got them at any point, I completely forgot to save them. This is not impossible. The last two months are a complete blur.) Which is, of course, an emergency if I did space them. I’m also trying to write a blurb for another book. AND I have to go back to blog invites, apologize massively and send in some very late guest blogs to promote DSR. AND I’m literally two days from finishing Noah’s Boy. IF I can have two days. Shouldn’t take more than two weeks, right?
I’m not complaining. I’m working at what I wanted to do, and I make (not astonishing quantities) of money, and there’s a possibility of making way more.
My problem comes with people who give up and hold a grudge against those who make it; with people assuming I was lucky to break in, and lucky to stay working, when in fact I’d say there was at least the average (if not above average) number of unlucky breaks, I just kept working past them.
Luck? Sure. I mean, with all I said, it still involved a certain amount of being in the right place at the right time to sell my first book (and massive thanks for bringing me there go to Kris Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith.) But luck of that degree happens sooner or later, provided you’re working your behind off and keeping alert to all possibilities.
Or, to paraphrase Kevin J Anderson “The harder I work, the luckier I get.”
This is not to say some of you haven’t been unlucky. But many of you have kept working despite it. (For instance I go in awe of commenter Cyn Bagley writing despite her fatal illness that would floor most of us. And my friend Kate Paulk writes despite narcolepsy and, until recently, a more than full time job. I’m not sure I’m “lucky” enough to manage either of those. But they do it.)
All I’m saying is if you feel like destiny’s redheaded step child, you’re not alone. Even the most successful professional I know suffered through a series of kicks in the teeth (and sometimes still does.)
Luck exists, and it might make a difference. But if it’s not working for you, it is your job to ignore it and be successful DESPITE luck. If you keep going, if you keep trying, if you refuse to cry “uncle” eventually luck gives up and lets you through.
If you’re too sane for that, and give up, then well… it’s your choice and it’s not like any of us who made it (whatever you define as “made” — published/making a living/bestseller/Stephen King) didn’t contemplate THAT five times a day for years. However, be aware it’s your choice and your decision and that those of us who broke didn’t necessarily have it easier.
But if you want it, if you really want it, don’t rely on “luck.” Do it.
All it takes is insane work, alertness to changing conditions, and a bit of creativity. If luck is not favorable ignore luck.
And may you have the fortitude to keep trying.