Mark Terry

Thursday, March 27, 2008

When Successful, Talented Writers Fail

March 27, 2008
Bear with me, because the links on this thing get a little complicated for l'l ol' me. You could bypass me entirely and just go read the entire thing on Tobias Buckell's blog. The other day he posted a chunk of a blogpost from somebody called Nojojojo or something like that. Part of what he posted is:

From Nojojojo:

The JotB knows she’s good enough to be published. Unlike most up-and-coming authors, who have to believe that they’re good enough, she’s got some kind of tangible proof: juried awards, multiple SFWA-qualifying sales, whatever. This shouldn’t make a difference, if she already believes in herself… but let’s be honest, here. External validation does make a difference to all but the most utterly self-confident. But in a JotB’s case, this knowledge adds more pressure. She’s good enough — got the SFWA card or Tiptree or Years’ Best credit to prove it — so why hasn’t she “made it”?


Let me tell you, folks, it's not an unreasonable question. If you've never published anything (yet, okay, I'll go along with your optimism), there are a lot of reasons why you might not be getting published. Maybe (yes, it's true) you're just not good enough (yet). Okay? Truth hurts, but it's possible.

What others of us wonder, those of us who make a living writing, those of us who have published novels but are either in between contracts or are trying to break out with a pseudonym or a bigger publisher or a different type of writing (and just off-hand, this seems to apply to almost every single fiction writer I know except for maybe the biggest ones; PJ Parrish commented on this blog not long ago that she had been working on a comic novel; Eric Mayer and Mary Reed, in addition to their excellent historical mysteries have written an historical supernatural novel that is being marketed; Joe Konrath has written screenplays and will be having a horror novel come out under a pseudonym; the list goes on and on), well...

Yeah, that thought got lost. What us published writers wonder is, how do you stay in the biz? How do you improve in the biz? If we've hit a roadblock, how do we get back on track?

Here's what I wrote on Toby's blog:

Because nothing is guaranteed and being a good, competent, very good or even very, very good writer doesn’t guarantee anything. The publishing industry is subjective, unpredictable, capricious and based more on a “good hook” and the publisher’s ability to place you and your book within a marketing context as it has to do with being a “good writer.” Even then, building a readership is difficult. Probably the only guarantee is that if you have the chops, develop your skills and persist (probably beyond anything any normal person would call reasonable) that you will have some level of success in the business.


For some reason I was thinking I sounded more snarky and bitter than it appears. I don't think I was having a smiley-face day when I wrote that by any means, but I don't think I was on the downside of a rant. Nope. Today, I stand with what I said.

Then, fantasy author Michael Canfield responded. I thought what he said was very insightful (and today, anyway, gave me hope). Here's part of what he said: 

Michael Canfield: (MichaelCanfield.Net)

A little success moves the aspirant from the realm of dreaming about the day when she feels the sword tap of legitimacy on the shoulder and is invited to sit at the round table. But the first thing one realizes upon arrival in paradise is that paradise has changed location leaving — in lieu of forwarding address — only vague clues about how to catch up someday again, maybe. Now however, the disappointed dreamer looks back at how much work she’s done and the dream seems more unattainable than ever, or furthermore probably a con and not even worth it. So she decides to stop writing (assuring herself the ‘nobody reads anymore anyway’) and takes up game design. Or golf.

The key, I think, is to think of every single step as the first step. The beginning is usually a terrifically exciting place to be anyway.

*  *  *

Michael, Michael, Michael. How the hell did you get inside my head? How did you know what I was thinking? How did you know what I was feeling?

Ultimately, I guess, it comes down to this:

Have faith. Persist. Pray for a little bit of luck. Work hard. Persist.

Of course, for a bit more nuance, I would also beg you to ask yourself this question:

Is it worth it?

Only you can decide. We pretty much cling to the notion that if we persist hard and long enough, we'll be successful at some level. How old are we? Six? Seven? Because we know better. We know that not everything works out for the best. We don't always get what we want. There aren't always happy endings. But in pursuing our dreams, we're often willing (and even encouraged) to cling to wild optimism despite what all our life experiences tell us. Perhaps that's a definition of insanity or perhaps just optimism.

Still, without hope, there's nothing.


Mark Terry


OpenID eric-mayer said...

Yes, Michael Canfield's comment is pretty profound. He's right as far as I can tell. No matter where I go, it's not there. Whatever, "it" is.

During the past few years I have been trying to change my attitudes toward writing and publication, and it hasn't been easy because I'm trying to change decades of attitudes formed by misperceptions about how publishing works. These attitudes become ingrained.

What I wish I had grasped earlier is how much of a crapshoot it all is. Not to mention how much crap it all involves.

One of the most important things anyone can do, in any endeavor, to do a good job, is to focus on the process rather than the outcome. In the case of writing, one needs to concentrate on putting words together when you're doing that and not be constantly wondering about whether it will sell, or where, or for how much and what if it doesn't. Not only will that probably hurt the quality of the writing, it will almost certainly wreck any enjoyment in doing it.
And, given the nature of publishing, all that fretting is is not likely to improve your chances much anyway.

But if I can't change my attitudes and have to take up something else, it won't be golf.

9:05 AM  
Blogger spyscribbler said...

I didn't think you sounded snarky or bitter or anything. It sounded like a logical, realistic statement.

Very interesting discussion! I am always so busy looking ahead, I have no idea if it's a first step, middle step, etc. It's a journey, I guess. I want to walk around the world, but I aim for one town at a time. And sometimes just one foot in front of the other. :-)

10:20 AM  

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