Know When To Fold Them

(To begin with a word from er… me.  Since my life is a cartoon script, getting word that I won the Prometheus had to be mitigated by something.  What it was mitigated with was a sore throat, a blinding headache and a touch of fever, which is why after a certain point I stopped answering congratulations here.  [Though I still managed “thank yous” on FB because shorter and easier to deal with.]  I’m better today, though not 100% well yet — honestly, I think it’s allergies! and what follows is my regularly scheduled Wednesday post.  This is the day I post at Mad Genius Club and cross post it here, so it is a book about writing and writers.  I just want to assure people I did NOT forget I won the Prometheus and that I’ll have more to say about it, hopefully tomorrow.)

First of all calm down. This is no statement of intent. It is instead an exploration of something I first read about in a how to write book – the importance of giving up and of knowing when to give up – and how impossible to navigate most of the traditional “career road maps” have become.

I first came across the concept of there being a right time to quit writing – or at least writing as a career – in one of the first “how to write” books I read, which means either Damon Knight’s or Orson Scott Card’s. (It’s been a while. But theirs were the first two I read.)

The advice went something like this: know when you don’t have enough talent/persistence/ability to learn craft to give up. I’ve seen marriages, careers ad children ruined by the determination to persist in the face of all obstacles.

At the time this advice seemed eminently sensible to me. I was, remember, very young and still believed natural talent was the most important thing in getting published, (or any artistic endeavor.) And I didn’t know you could learn, because I’d just started trying to.

In fact, at the time, it all seemed perfectly clear cut and accorded with the concept of an “artistic life” that I’d grown up with. It went something like this: if you’re an artistic genius – and if you’re not, kindly stop cluttering the field – you’ll be recognized on sight by the first professional recruiter (talent scout, editor, gallery owner) who sees you perform your art – or even just sees you because, yeah, talent is that obvious and you know, usually accompanied by madness or artistic temperament – and they’ll immediately bow before you and take you to the top of your profession. At that point, as long as you avoid drugs, sex and suicide (no word on rock and roll) you’ve got it made.

This concept by the way was why I was so distraught at my first rejection, even though it was personal and – in retrospect – almost abjectly fawning. Because clearly I wasn’t a genius. This concept too, was responsible for my not sending anything out again for another four? Six? Years.

Anyway, so when I read that book, it made sense. It has since come back to haunt my mid at intervals. Those who were in my writers’ group when I started out used to laugh at my decision to call it quits. (To an extent they had point. I think the longest I stayed away from writing was two weeks.) Mid you it made some sense, since I think the original advice pertained to getting published, and when I passed eight years of trying, maybe it was sane to give up.

No one said I was sane.

This didn’t change much after I was published. Perhaps this was due to the fact that I broke in in 01. I found it enlightening to read Kris Rusch’s latest column, if nothing else for the fact that she talks about how crazy things have been in the last ten years which is, in fact, my entire time as a published novelist. (I sold my first short in 94, but didn’t actually sell a story that got published till 98, so my extent of time “in the field” is not much longer.) Made me feel a little better, because at least I knew I wasn’t the one who had gone crazy, but the entire field. (Yes, it was a “Oh, so it’s crazy in here, it’s not just me.” It also made me feel better because I’ve had that exact conversation she quotes – in variants – three times in the last two years, and it was good to know it’s not me, they’re doing it to everyone.)

In fact, when I met Dave Freer, I was considering whether the game was worth the candle. My first series had come out to unspectacular (to put it mildly) and perhaps even truthful (after reading that article, and in retrospect, who knows?) numbers, and I’d been told I’d never work in this town again.

It seemed, at the time, like a curiously stupid way to fail. First, because “try for sixteen years, publish a trilogy that fails to sell, walk away” sounds like giving up too easily. Second, because the trilogy wasn’t even within my “typical” type of writing. I’d spent most of those sixteen years writing space opera, and the trilogy was literary Shakespearean fantasy. (No, I’m not saying I wrote it just to get published. Okay, maybe a little. To the extent I loaded it with quotes it was at the publisher’s request. But writing about Shakespeare and elves were just outgrowths of having read a lot about the subjects lately. As you all know, I’m likely as not to write about whatever crosses my mind at the moment. In fact the words “I’ll never write xyz” in this house have the same karmic signature as danging around holding metal poles during a thunderstorm of – to quote Pratchett – calling yourself “Vincent the invulnerable.” However, literary fantasy had never been the pinnacle of my ambitions or the aim of my career.)

It was that”well, if I’m going to fail, at least I’ll fail at something I do more often” that kept me lurching forward through bewildering… some things that might have been successes or failures or “yes.”

Which brings me to my current position. You see, somewhere along the line the “know how to fold it” became very definite, because I – and most of you – have met people who didn’t. These are usually people who have attained some modicum of success: a book or two published; a semi-successful series. Then something went wrong and they stopped getting published by the big houses. But they’re still published by the little houses or – sigh – self published. It’s been twenty years, but they still come to all the local cons and insist on being called “a professional” and give advice to new authors on how to break in.

Most careers in SF/F don’t last forever, you see. When I broke in, Kris Rusch told me the average career lasted ten years, and most of the time the authors just gave up and disappeared back where they came from.

This seemed to me preferable, more dignified, than the living-death of minor publication and the demand of a status one no longer held. You see, in case this isn’t obvious, I have the devil’s own pride.

So, what can the problem be? I mean, I’m still being published by professional houses, but surely when I stop, then….

Well, no. Why no? Because the markers have moved. When people who are self-published are making a million dollars, when people who are self-published are getting better reviews/awards and going on to sign with a house for better careers than those of us who came up through the normal channels, the goalposts haven’t only moved, in fact. They’ve grown tentacles and are dancing a jig.

So… when is the time to pack it in? Danged if I know! I don’t even know – any longer – if that advice was right and if there is a time to pack it in. Now the whole process of publication has become, instead of an identifiable career a try-fail try-succeed sequence like the initial efforts to get published. Yeah, you might have put out twenty books with Amazon and sold ten copies a piece, but if – and this is very important – you’re TRYING and working at it, improving and studying the market, your next one could become a success.

And so it goes.

For me the marker is a little easier. You see, I don’t do this for a hobby. Writing is my job. As long as I can make from it what I could make from jobs I can easily get at my current state of abilities/being out of the market: say, teacher’s aid, or secretary – I’ll continue doing it. (Yes, I could make considerably more from free lance translation or free lance language teaching, but both of those would require an amazing amount of effort/time to get off the ground and then we’re back to “but writing might do that as well with the next book and it’s something I want to do.”) At the point that teacher’s aid or secretary becomes more profitable, writing becomes a hobby, which is given only a fraction of my time and attention.

This year will not be that year, and probably neither will next year.

So… of course, you probably agree with me that one shouldn’t harm ones family, livelihood, or children in order to keep trying. (At least I hope you do.) But after that, is there a point at which you think one should call it quits at whatever phase of one’s career in this strange new world of publishing? And if so, when would you say it is?

At which point do you, in the words of Simon and Garfunkel, cry “out In his anger and his shame,
“I am leaving, I am leaving.”” And does the fighter still remain?

9 thoughts on “Know When To Fold Them

  1. I assume the subject came to mind because you are feeling ill, or it is now safe to think about it, because… you know “Darkship Thieves” is currently I think the best selling SF novel there is, I expect the Amazon rank to be three digits soon as it’s gone from 1,200 to 1,023 in the last half-hour.

  2. Not speaking as a writer, because — check it out — my publication credits, while numerous, are in periodicals you’ve never heard of, but as someone who has made a career (30 years) as a world-class creative in a VERY narrow field, I think the whole talent/genius meme is a grave disservice to the creatively-inclined. Whenever it comes up, I am reminded of my advice to new graduates in my field: read Michelangelo on draftsmanship (i.e., craft) and then come back to me about talent.

    Or genius. I’ve known genii by the dozen. People whose names you might recognize. The ones who earn admiration, acclaim, buckets of money, and long careers are the ones who, in the words of St. Robert of Butler, applied the seat of the pants to the seat of a chair and WORKED at their trades.

    I’m also reminded of an aphorism I spotted on a church marquee some forty years ago: “An artistic temperament is a sign of an amateur.” I have to agree.

    All that said, I can somewhat sympathize with the desire to — some days — just chuck it all. Days when I forget why I got into this business in the first place. But, as they say at the Pepto factory, this, too, shall pass.

    So you might say I come down on the “Plenty of time to walk away when they bury me” side. Meantime, what gift we have is on loan from God, and it strikes me as somewhat of an obligation to put it to use.


  3. WOW!!
    #22 in Books > Science Fiction & Fantasy > Science Fiction > Space Opera
    #63 in Books > Science Fiction & Fantasy > Science Fiction > Adventure

  4. Mark,
    Thank you. In case it wasn’t clear I only believed in the “genius” stuff before I got into it. Then I learned that “genius” doesn’t do anything. I actually know some writing geniuses who REFUSE TO STUDY because, duh, they’re geniuses. Most of them are not published nor will ever be. I’ll reserve my opinion on the others, since they are colleagues.
    Eh. I still consider semi-walking away, mostly on money issues, when money issues become so pressing that I cannot think clearly enough to write. (The last year has been interesting, though, in a show of how weird publishing is, this is mostly the result of a slack in writing/selling two years ago, because I was exhausted. But the effects show far down the pipeline.) But if I do, it will probably to make writing a “hobby” which I grant you might not do much for a couple of years until the kids leave the house, but… would still be worked on. And as I said, that’s not a consideration for now (this year is on track for earnings) and probably not for next year (I want to try some things to increase the flow) but who knows? I was just curious if ohter people went through it, or it was just me. I realized yesterday that it was no longer a “given” that there was a time to walk away…

  5. Sarah;

    I got that. I was trying to speak in affirmation.

    I can see a point to relieving the pressure. Somebody — Kris Rusch or I don’t remember who — recently wrote that, when it stops being fun, it’s time for a change. Which might make you want to quit writing or painting or dancing or whatever for your daily bread. Get a job flipping burgers or something to keep the wolf from the door and do the art for the love of it. But you can’t stop doing the art.

    You’ve heard the line, “It’s what I do; it’s not who I am.” That may be true for some professions or vocations. But for artists, it *IS* who you are. It just doesn’t have to be what you do … for a living: you do it for life.

    I consider myself incredibly lucky to be able to work for money doing something I love. But even so, there are days when I think I might be happier swinging a hammer. But I’ll never stop creating.

    Was it Harlan Ellison who said you know you’re a writer because you can’t NOT write?


    1. Mark,
      Heinlein made comments to that extent too. There are days when I AM happier swinging a hammer, and if my career would just get to the point I can survive on two books a year and putz around with tools and shovels I’d be a much healthier Sarah. BUT I totally get the “it’s not what I do, it’s who I am.” It is. Besides I grew up thinking no one could live from writing, and well… if I were single I could support myself from my writing. Not lavishly, but who needs lavish?

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