There are two times that movies made me and a friend who is also a writer laugh so loud we were almost kicked out of the theater. This was made worse by the fact that the lines weren’t particularly funny.
Not to anyone not in our business.
The first one is from sliding doors, when the girl tells her no good writer-wannabe boyfriend “I know you’ll finish your novel and we’ll be rich, but…”
Yeah. It happens. Look at the mountain who is buying a a mountain. Of course it happens. But it takes so many things. Talent, that’s a given. Under the old system, many were pushed, few had the staying power. It takes push, too, so it takes a house believing in you. The debacle that was my first trilogy kind of did for that. Sure I could get a house to pick me up, but not to pick me up with any sort of push because I’d “failed” once. (Oh, yeah, and “fail” in this field is interesting too. I “failed” while earning out the advances on all books. But, oh, it was SUPPOSED to have push and go big. The fact it didn’t actually GET push didn’t matter. It’s all still my fault, as per rules of traditional publishing.) But once you get push you have to have the talent there, to back it up. And you had to have the sort of book that is just right for that place and time. And… and…. and…
Someone says it’s like one in a thousand in this field that even makes it to making a living (yay, me, I’m a winner) and perhaps a tenth of that that makes it to “rich” by any definition.
I was once told that Heinlein ran scared (financially) his whole life. It seems impossible, for someone who had millions of dollars in advances, but million dollars in this field is qualified. Usually those are benchmarked to this and that performance and paid over ten years. In the end, you get the kind of money you’d make at a normal day job, but with twice the work and the hassle.
So my friend and I laughed and laughed at that line. Years later, while working nights at Target, she got told that she must be there to do research. Her books were still on the shelves, so surely she had millions. I don’t know if she laughed or cried.
Then there’s the other line. It was at the end of Chicago, the musical. One girl had told the other she wasn’t sure they could do their act together because they couldn’t stand each other. And the come back line was “Well, honey, this is the one business where that doesn’t matter at all.”
Is this true of writing? Oh, brother.
It used to be way worse. I get a feeling it’s still worse for other people. For me? Once I realized I’d always have indie and proved with witchfinder that indie would pay me at least as much as I made from trad (or in this case more) I stopped clenching, stopped minding my words, stopped being envious of my colleagues, and just generally started liking the people I liked and hating the people I hated and not generally giving a damn.
But it used to be you watched yourself and your back all the time. If a friend were in bad odor, particularly if you didn’t know why, you distanced yourself, because there might be a whisper campaign, and it might rub off on you. If someone you hated were a bright rising star, you at least tried to be nice in public. And if you got a chance to work with someone you purely couldn’t stand you did it if it was good for your career. (I’m an oddity. All three collaborations this year are with long-time friends who-are-like-family.)
There were currents running through the field that fans never saw, and you tried not to let them see. After all they might love you and what’s his name who is always sticking a knife in your back, and you didn’t want to disappoint them.
Perhaps it is this way still. I suspect for most people it is. Particularly for newbies who don’t seem to view indie as quite true, since they suffer from the velveteen syndrome and want to be “real.” (A lot of them after being ‘real’ once regain their senses and hie off to indie again. But some don’t.)
The problem is that unless you’re one of the darlings, right on top of the heap, with book tours and ads in Times Square, it’s kind of hard to read if you’re in favor or disfavor at the publishing house. I had an editor that, while I was earning out, would often completely cut me dead at cons, not answer my emails, and treat me like trash, and then sometimes, when I was in trouble (or not) out of the blue would be my bestest friend. Never figured out why, but she was a hell of a strain on the nerves. Around here we called her “the hot and cold running editor.” Possibly it corresponded to the stage of divination of my political leanings that week. Who knows? Or perhaps to the birds she saw out her window in the morning.
This reduces most writers to the state of teen girls with a middle-school crush. “My publisher sent me an email this morning, so they probably like me.” Or “I didn’t get invited to dinner at Little Con so they probably are about to punt me” or the truly crazy making “my editor only had three minutes for me and turned off my pitch like a faucet, but she spent an hour with that new chick they just hired. OMG, they love her and hate me. They’re going to give her my promo money.”
It’s crazy making, and if you ride it it will make you crazy. Don’t. I was only able to do this when indie became a possibility, but indie is a possibility. Even if you are hell bent on traditional, you have other options. Relax. Be nice to newbies, even ones who look like they will take your promo. If a colleague tries to stick his knife in your back, he might be a dick. Or he might be completely insane at the moment, from trying to read the tea leaves of his career. File whatever he did as in the realm of possibility with this person, but don’t retaliate. Shrug and smile. Get over it. Try not to have an enemies list. Yes, of course, I DO have one, but those are people who have sunk more than an incidental knife in my back. No, you may not know what it is, nor what the knives were. None of your fracking business. And the biggest retaliation I’ll do against these people is not work with them. I.e. they won’t get invited to anthos I edit, and should I become big, I will not offer a hand up. In a business as shaky (and getting shakier) as ours is, that’s punishment enough.
Be nice to those above you, unless you really, really, really can’t stand them, and then just avoid them. Be nice to those below you. Offer help. Shrug off the shallow cuts to the back. Make note of the deep, and don’t take it too personally.
Writers be crazy. And part of it is business induced.
Which brings us to the other part: relationships outside the field.
Years ago, when I was green AND cabbage looking, Kevin Anderson offered me friendship. I was shocked and said something along the lines of “I don’t know why you’d bother with a newbie.” His answer was that I had written three books in two years, so I was probably in it to stay “and writers end up only having REAL friends who are writers, because they’re the only ones who understand our crazy business.”
Boy. Howdy. Was he ever right.
So far this business has cost me two outside-the-field friendships, both more or less the same way. This might not seem like much in 19 years, but you have to understand I don’t make friends easily and as one of my long-term long-suffering friends put it last time I talked to her (oh, hell, Court, I need to call or text or something. Was that a year ago?) “you have friendships that are more like platonic loves. Friends are not just people you hang out with. Friends are people you have feelings for.” And she was right. And that insight is probably why she puts up with my being the world’s worst correspondent.
The last of these friendships I suspected was lost but confirmation came of course during the last week, now known as “week from hell” for various family reasons that aren’t mine to tell. I suspected so because this person had intimated as much, but not WHY. We found out why last week.
Yep, it’s the old “you don’t care about us. You never make time for us, and this project I’m interested in helping with you keep putting off.”
With the exception of the project (more on that later) I got this in the last friendship I lost. (The other two were political, yes, even the one at 18.)
The last straw in that one was when my friend called me in the middle of the day, three days in a row and “just want to talk. We haven’t seen you in so long.”
This was 2003, the summer of paying two mortgages, finishing the house we’d moved out of to sell, and no one (NO ONE) touching my stuff. I was hanging on and making mortgage on SHORT STORIES by the skin of my teeth. (Bless the late Marty Greenberg of the old Tekno. If you told him you were in trouble, he’d put your name up on the list of people to call when there were holes in anthologies. At that time I was on call and could get “we need 10k word story on fairies in three hours. Can you do it?” and hell, somehow I did it.
At the same time, I had a new agent, and she wanted to submit my stuff, but we needed a blitz if I was ever going to work again. Yep. That was the year of the 17 proposals and two ghost written novels.
The third time my friend called, I pointed out it was my working time, and I REALLY couldn’t talk. (Back then my working time was when my kids were in school.)
I got hit with a tirade, half of it tearful, about how I was too greedy and I was trying to “roar everyone off the field with my sheer volume” and I didn’t care for anyone or anything but writing. And she could see she and her spouse had never mattered to us, and I had no decent feelings for anyone. It was all about my career and my ambition.
Keep in mind, at the time I was very nearly completely broke and she knew, or should have known that. But that image of the “rich writer” is so powerful, that in her head, the only reason I could want to work that hard is because I wanted more millions to roll in. Or something.
In this later case it was complicated by our friend coming over, for a scheduled thing, in February, also known as death-month. Neither Dan nor I had our heads on straight, and we must have come across as imbeciles. But if you think of writing as really high status and suspect people are looking down at you, then, oh, yeah, you’ll think we’re being snooty or something.
Then there was the side order of “this project I’m really interested in, you keep putting off.”
Which is when I sigh. I’m really interested in the project too. If it’s the one I think it is. And at least three of my fans email me about it weekly. But you know…
I’m a midlist writer. Yes, I know, this mean I work for myself and I’m free as the birds.
No, no, really. It’s okay, it only hurts when I laugh. And I ain’t laughing.
I’m grateful for the collaborations this year. REALLY grateful. These guys are my friends and in two cases I’m a fan of their world (in the other it’s a new world.) One of the paths up for people like me appear when bestsellers share their worlds and their fans.
I’m not a natural collaborator. Hell, I’m not a natural series writer. I get really nervous I’ll forget details or mangle them. So, I’m doing the work, but it’s slower than it would be without the fear of f*cking it up (particularly for series I like.) But yeah, those collaborations come first, because people count on me. And you don’t disappoint your friends, much less friends who are extending you a hand to climb up.
After that come the series continuations, which means another three books I’m hoping to do for Baen this year, and three for the indie side. Yeah. Because, you know, I not only owe it to my fans (and I do. You’ve been extraordinarily patient through my years of illness and moving. And yes, I’m mailing loot out. That too has been back burnered, partly because I still have unpacked only HALF the office, because well… 5 moves in two years. Some stuff I can’t find at all and might have to re-order, like t-shirts and mugs.) I owe it to the house. Baen is re-issuing DST, so I owe them a “future history” post-scriptum, to distinguish the edition, but the investment calls for my also giving the series continuation asap. Hell, the series has suffered from long hiatuses. If it’s ever going to recover I need to hit it hard.
There are books I want to write, practically climbing their way out of my head, but you know… this is my day job too. And there are considerations beyond “what I really find oh so exciting.” EVEN when you have friends who’ve done research for you and are waiting. Because you’re a midlister. You can’t just say “Yo, publishing house, there are these books you’re waiting for, but I want to write THIS instead.”
I probably actually shouldn’t have been surprised — and I actually wasn’t, because as I said, there’d be allegations and intimations — because under those lost friendships (only they weren’t really friends, more like friendly acquaintances) we could add a fifth: a couple Dan and introduced. She was my college friend. He was Dan’s college friend. We introduced them and they got married before us.
They happened, pure happenstance, to be at our wedding. But they were never exactly friends, because they wouldn’t stay in touch. We called when we were near. We spent years trying to call and didn’t have their number. That kind of thing.
After one of those hiatuses, when Dan was working on assignment near DC (they live near there) we called. My first book had just come out (and sank without a ripple) and I knew my career was in serious trouble. No, this matters for the story. We called, because we had a day in the area and thought we’d visit. They weren’t close friends, but they were college friends. We thought we’d talk.
Turns out the girl worked at the time in an airport bookstore and had seen my book. When we called we got screamed at and told we were looking down on them, because she worked in retail, and I was a rich-and-famous writer (given the area they lived and worked in, she probably made as much in a month as I did from that book) and they knew we didn’t care about them, and get lost. Then we got hung up on.
That one didn’t hurt much, though it still sort of did in a hurt-and-perplexed sort of way, because other than the college connection, we didn’t have much linkage to these people. But it should have impressed me as a warning of things to come, instead of leaving me staring at the phone in a hotel room, wondering if the world had gone crazy.
The other two… the other two hurt like hell, and the last is still hurting like hell. This too shall pass. And it would probably not have hit as hard except for the Murphy week for this family.
If you’re friends with a writer, cut them some slack. No, they really aren’t horrible human beings (well, some of them might be, but most probably not.) Yes, we forget lunch dates. Yes, we spend months not calling. Doesn’t mean we don’t think of you. Yes, you might live three blocks away and we never see you. At least with writer friends, you often (though not always) see each other at local cons. KJA and I average twice a year for face to face meetings, and we usually have to make an effort. He lives… 45? minutes away.
But in the end he was right. Only other writers fully understand the crazy business we’re in. Only other writers get that we don’t think we’re massively important because we write stuff. Holy hell, people, we get paid about as much as a secretary. And that’s the ones who are LUCKY enough. And there’s a reason I used to cry when I heard Billy Joel’s “running on ice”. I no longer remember who said that far from being a series of plaudits and triumphs a writing career more resembles a series of kicks to the teeth. (It might have been Jerry Pournelle.) Whoever it was, he was right. I could tell you of the year I wrote six books and NOT ONE made it to the shelves in ANY bookstore. (And yes, of course that WAS my fault, duh.)
If a writer even TRIES to keep up a semblance of contact, you’re probably massively important to them. Yes, I know, we’re incredible pains in the ass and more so as friends, but don’t attribute to malice what can more easily be explained by a crazy making career. Don’t count on us, but don’t count us out either. Because more kicks in the teeth, we don’t need.
And meanwhile, I have a future history to finish. I’m late on the collaboration with Larry and I HAVE to send him chapters today (and again on Wednesday.) Week from hell with side-order of sprained ankle as mom would say “emburked” everything. (Always wondered if that came from Burke and Hare.) And I’m hoping the week from hell is past, and I can get some work done and catch up on what was lost to Drama!
I’m grateful for indie, which makes my relationship with my publisher WAY more relaxed, but I still owe them a modicum of professionalism (we owe it even before we are professionals, which is weird) and reliability. Not much of which has been in evidence the last five years. And for that I’m sorry, and I’ll seek to improve.
There’s books to write and places to be, and no time to mourn for lost friendships. And this too shall pass. It only hurts when I laugh.
And I ain’t laughing.