>Telling Fortunes

Cross my palm with silver. More silver. Um… let’s try platinum.

Oh, there it is, I see now. The future is coming into focus: Any of you who really want to be successful at writing and who are willing to fight enough for it, will make it. Oh, there will be setbacks. There will be blows of fate. And, yes, you’ll make mistakes (probably many) but you will eventually make it. If you live long enough. And if there is still a publishing industry.

Why all the weasel words? Because there is no fate. It is all in your hands.

I’ve told everyone I’ve mentored that writing is one of the most “superstition inducing” professions there is, because so little is in our hands. So, if you’re one of my fledgelings, right about now you’re scratching your head and going “Sarah, you have, as they say, zee issues.”

Yes. Comes with the territory. But what I’ve said isn’t necessarily contradictory.

Let me explain. Yesterday I caught myself thinking “If only I could have gone back and told my idiot twenty something year old self that I would eventually get published. How much anguish I’d have saved.” And then I stopped, because what I’d just thought smacks of fatalism, of resignation, of a pre-scripted future. For just a moment, I was in that place where I was born to be or do something; where I would have become that regardless.

I won’t go into why this view – regardless of what some scientists think – must be wrong. The short of it is that it would require the belief in an all-controlling (and dumb) divinity. Any scientific theory that requires Deus ex Machina, isn’t. No, not particularly going to argue it. Not here. There will be a blog on this in the future but not here.

Instead, I’ll go into why it’s so prevalent in writers’ (and other artists’) minds. First, it’s because most of us are in the grip of a compulsion. Surely we can’t want to do this so much if it’s wrong. Second, it’s because it absolves us from our failures.

Heaven knows that half the time in this field, the failures really aren’t our fault. As Dave has mentioned several times, you can’t attribute every crash to drivers’ error. There are a lot of factors influencing this unstable situation. That, of course, is the other end of it. Sometimes, no mater how hard you fight, you are doomed. And in retrospect, it seems inevitable.

The thing is that writing is not “all your money behind one horse.” Oh, sure, if you only ever write one novel, and it can’t succeed for whatever reason, you will fail. The question is “Why do you only write a novel?” “How much can you want to make it, if you only write one novel?” Yeah, it might be the best novel in the whole dang world. It still won’t make it, if it’s something no one wants to read/publish right then. You keep on trying and you’re not being defeated by fate. You’re being defeated by you.

Take it from me – you will make it as far as as you want to make it, dependent on how hard you’re willing to work.

This comes prettily from an almost unlimitedly ambitious writer who isn’t even a NYT bestseller yet, doesn’t it? Sure does. Because it’s doable. Eventually. If I live long enough. And there have been times along the way when the world not only wasn’t my oyster – it wasn’t even my kumquat with mustard on the side. That I haven’t got there yet is a function of “How hard I’m willing to try.” In my case, two factors have forced me to take – shall we say? – the scenic route: a) the one thing I will not sacrifice to writing is my boys’ future. This means times when I should have pushed hard were “wasted” shepherding them through childish issues and teen angst. (Not their fault. I signed up for it. Glad I did it too.) b) I don’t work as hard at self promoting as 99% of authors. This will have to change. I know it will have to change. But it goes against a basic part of my personality (yes, the lazy part, smarty. True to an extent. Writing is far more of a pleasure than promoting, so I write more than I promote.) and those can take time to defeat. It can be done, it’s just takes a long time.

Are you really whining “but what if I don’t have enough talent?” Right. Because that’s the operational quality. You sit down, you breathe deep and writing flows from your fingertips IF you have the magical thing “talent.” Look… I won’t deny there’s such a thing as “talent.” I.e. by inclination and character, you do some things more easily. For me, that’s characters. But to compensate, I’ve fought EVERY inch of the way for plot and I don’t flatter myself I’m any better than “solid midlist” on THAT (Except for the last submitted book, Sword and Blood.) I don’t know anyone – not a single professionally published author – who is naturally good at the many parts that make a successful novel. Besides, come on, so far as there’s talent and you can discern it, read the bestseller list. You’ll come across at least two at any given time who have NO discernable talent. But they made it. Now, yeah, maybe they were golden children, raised up by fate with no struggle. However, my guess is if it looks that way, they’re REALLY good liars.

So, this is the bad news: you’re not fated to be a massive bestseller. These are the good news: You’re not fated to be ANYTHING. The future is wide open and even if at times it looks like the south end of a northbound donkey, it is open to change.

And now, like any good fortune teller I want you to open up so I can advise you (Only if you answer me, I suspect you can advise you after 😉 ): What are your fears? What do you think can block you forever? What are your limiting factors? What will you not sacrifice to your writing, no matter what? What is your special talent? What do you know you suck at? How do you plan to get better at that? AND – for fun – what is your ridiculous superstition which you know is nonsense but makes you feel “safer” as you’re on your way? (My own security blanket in this area is that if I eat at Pete’s Kitchen in Denver, I sell something. Might be a short story, mind. Or Japanese rights. But I sell something. So far, so good.)


  1. >Just for the sake of philosophical gnattery, I'm going to point out that the drive to believe in determinism or fatalism might come not from science or theology but a fundamental aspect of our faculty of reason: the belief in the cause-consequence relationship.But irrespective of this! A very inspirational article. Personally, the thing I have to overcome is characterization. Three of my favourite characters (of the ones I've made up)–Maxwell Munroe, Jack Graven, and Lars Moonrift–I recently realized are all just sarcastic cowboys plopped into different professions and areas of spacetime… yikes. On the bright side, they usually speak good twang.-bn

  2. >Ben,If you mean the illusion of "fate" and "Everything always happens for the best" and even of "it had to happen" is the same sort of order the human ind gives to stains on the wall to see a human face, you are probably right.Having the same type of character over and over is not a bad thing. Lots of very successful authors do that. Sometimes, you just have to get better at the fan dance. 🙂

  3. >Loved the pictures, Sarah.Like you, I was not willing to sacrifice my family on the altar of ambition. Besides, I think rearing children and seeing life helps you grow as a person, which helps your writing.I've reached the point where I just do the best I can and hope for the best. LOL

  4. >Did you really ask us to open up? Did you really? By this point I know pretty much what I'm *not* doing.I still spend a certain amount of time trying to figure out why I'm not, and actually this was encouraging. Maybe I wish I could go back to my younger self and to kick me in the butt, tell me to get my head out, and explain that the only real difference between the 20-somethings who were "writers" and me was that they wrote instead of second guessing. (Or in addition to second guessing… I'm not picky.) But I'd always feel like I wasn't qualified to comment on life. I figured I needed to be older. Say… 40. I could publish when I was 40.Well, guess what? I'm still not writing. At least, I've never stopped making up stories and characters, and I live out scenes and parts of their lives and imagine their world, but it doesn't make it to paper.Which is *whining* I know. Oh, boo hoo… feel sorry for me. Ack! No. (But you did say "open up.")At least I did get over the fear of success. For a while the terror that I might succeed at a book and then be required to write another was a sort all encompassing thing.

  5. >I think as soon as we got to the point of "If I hit that big animal with a sharp stick, red stuff comes out of it and it dies and I get good food" we started wanting to make everything fit into stories. Or pictures. Or patterns.Being good at recognizing the patterns that meant "good food" and the ones that meant "it will eat me" is how our ancestors survived, after all. Heck, we even have similar ancestral myths and the same need to make it all fit no matter what culture you start with.As for the on topic stuff. Um. Eek. I'll just go hide under the desk and gibber for a while, shall I?

  6. >Superstitions… well mine is a weird one, and I can't say it has worked for me:-). I spend a lot of my time with my brain overtired or not as sharp as it could be. I know this, but I work for a SOB who insists I put in ridiculous hours (what's worse is Mr Concience SPIES on me and knows when I goof off) AND I personally insist on time for B, family and friends and cooking meals and going outdoors. Not to mention the dogs behaving rather like very young kids (take us out twice a night and show us you love us). Something has to give and that's usually sleep – which I know (and the boss nags me and threatens to fire me – boy, I hate being self- employed, because that bastard is always on my back. Otherwise, except for the money, it's good). At the extremes I am aware of it, but I realise that there is a slide in quality and intellect across the extremes, that is less obvious. And i want the best. So I have a little test – which is pure superstition because luck come into it: before I submit a proposal or a letter or even a final draft, I play 3 games of Free Cell. I must win all 3 in less than 2 minutes – or I know my brain is pap, and I need to sleep, go through it again – test again.There are lots of other tests which would work better but it's the only game I allow myself to play. Yep, I know I have an obsessive addictive personality 🙂 And no, this has not resulted in a sale every time, or even frequently enough for any substance to be attached to it. But I still do it.

  7. >Hi Sarah,I love this post because it's where I am. There are so many excuses to do things other than what I'm most passionate about – writing. The phrase "Don't give up your day job," rings constantly in my ears because I can make money from my day job. And while I've written for newspapers and even sold a few stories recently, it sure doesn't "bring home the bacon." But I'd much rather write than do almost anything else like work, finish my masters, keep fit, watch TV, play computer games, have a social life, travel, etc.Weaknesses in my writing include: pacing (I'm too quick), description (I'm too brief), depth (I'm too shallow), and these are only the ones I'm aware of!Assessors have told me my strengths are in characterisation, humour and technical ability (possibly due to a background in scientific writing).I've written a novel-length story in the past year which I see as my first potentially commercial work of that length, but I don't know how to sell it, or even improve it.Rowena has been helpful with providing avenues to publication in Australia though. But I think selling is my biggest weakness of all!

  8. >Dave,The SOB you work for, sounds a lot like the sadistic b*tch I work for. She also spies on me AND uses my eyes and brain to do it. Sigh.At least your superstition is somewhat rational. Well, maybe mine is too since Pete's means a trip to Denver and a stroll through museums. Maybe I need to unclench now and then.

  9. >Sarah,EEK! (Burrowing into the wall at the back of the desk)Waitaminute. I never hit a goal in my life…. Oh. You don't mean like in netball.Back under the desk it is.

  10. >Chris LOh. The "I should be doing something productive." I always feel like that too. Which means I STEAL the writing time. Give yourself permission to write if it's what you really want to. Okay, payoffs aren't the NORM in this business, but when it pays off it does so big, and remember, you can go as far as you WANT to.Now, you must do something for me — you must set goals you can control. Your goal should be "I shall write…" "I shall send out…" "I shall meet… " and "I shall learn…" SELLING is out of your immediate control, though the preceding influences it.Places to send. Look up ralan.com

  11. >Okay.You know… I don't think I ever tried writing for time before. It was always pages or word count. Then again, memory is the first thing that goes, right?But I have here a kitchen timer that looks like a chicken and… it goes to 1 hour. I just took a Sharpie and wrote, "My name is Sarah. Do me a favor, write for one hour." on it.It has eyeballs. It can look at me. Got to go now… I think it is scowling. 🙂

  12. >Not crawling under my desk … the dust-bunnies in there can almost certainly kick my butt …Superstition is old hat. I'm a Sailor. Sailors are the most superstitious people in the world. Submariners are singularly-superstitious Sailors. But none of that is the problem. Th problem is finding ways to work through the interruptions and maintain something remotely resembling a cohesive thought. I'm still working on that one. Because I only started thinking of myself as "a writer" about a year ago or so, and my family still tends to perceive my writing as "spending time on the computer". So I tend to write lots of little nibbles, then spend a LOT of time trying to quilt them together … with wildly-variable success … but it still feels (more-or-less) like progress, at least most of the time.

  13. >Selling. Putting myself forward. Talking to people. Nagging strangers. I need to write more short stories, learn to plot deliberately, and send stuff out regularly. Often. Lots.Start going to conventions and doing something other than sitting in the audience listening.Oy! I think I'll crawl under the desk!

  14. >Kate,Get out from under there. You have things to do. We have us a hardboiled vamp in a hard world to tackle. Or perhaps a hard vam… No, that would be a different type of book, wouldn't it?

  15. >Stephen,Try an hour or two a day, or a weekend a month. Once upon a time I got up everyday at five thirty am to write in peace and quiet. And I'm NOT a morning person!

  16. >Pam,WHAT is with you people and desks, anyway? Oh, and beds. Amanda threatens to crawl under the bed. An iffy thing as the dog and la kitteh would follow her under there.Yes, you need to do all that, because I have pointy boots. Take a look at Dwight Swain and ask if you have questions. Oh, and if you go to cons I'm at or to Baen cons, you have built in friends!

  17. >I only threaten to crawl under the bed to pull out those manuscripts that need burning — which you threaten to hurt me over. Mean. Pout. I'm actually hiding under the desk with Kate.

  18. >Gosh Sarah,You're a hard woman. It does help to focus on something achievable though. I like my fortune-telling eightball. "Try again" – "Try again" – "Try again"Never fails me.

  19. >Give me the address of Pete's Kitchen fast!:)My superstition, which I haven't quite shaken, is that my parents – who were always against writing and any sort of arts – put some sort of Catholic hoodoo curse on me that would only give me success in Engineering.

  20. >Chris McIt's in Denver. Come on out for a con, and we'll take you there.Eh. NAh. If parents could do that, I'd never have sold. Mom doesn't approve. With nuclear power type intensity.

  21. >Chris LWords to live by. "Try Again"; "Butt on seat, hands on keyboard" (the secret handshake of publishing.); "You learn through doing"; "The perfect is the enemy of the good"; "It doesn't have to be good, it has to be done. The next one will be better"; "Rewrites are hard"; "Publishing is a business, not a school. You don't get As for improvement"; and, oh, yeah "No whining."

  22. >Rowena,All of us — at least all I know — got free help from people ahead of us in the craft (and a great nuisance we must have been at times.) So, we should pass it along. Pay it forward, children, pay it forward.

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