This is a post I don’t know how to write, but which – yet – I feel needs to be written. Last week I talked about whirlpools, and this is a particular form of whirlpool. Not the only one, mind you, nor the worst. Arguably the worst whirlpool on your way to bestseller status is the need for a roof over head and three squares a day. It is the reason my husband – arguably a better writer – hasn’t made it there yet. He’s better at the earning at a regular job thing, and therefore the designated bread earner.
But entanglements are a serious stumbling block for many writers and in fact I would say most writers have experienced at least some of them. Like whirlpools they come from something that is beneficial, something that most writers need.
First let’s establish some facts about writers and writing.
The first fact about writers is that in the dark of night, in the privacy of our own heart, very few if any of us think we’re any good. Recently a writer who is just slightly behind me on the path tried to justify his lack of doing something or other with “you see, I have no self confidence.” At which point I stared at him and said “you talk as if I do.”
There might be one or two writers out there who really think they’re better than sliced bread with peanut butter. I don’t know. It’s hard to tell because in public most of us put on a really good front, and some of us are REALLY good at it. (Some of us, like yours truly suck.) You see, sooner or later writers stumble on the fact people tend to believe what you tell them, and if you tell them your writing is better than doughnuts with plenty of jam, chances are you’ll sell better.
It doesn’t mean that inside you’re not a massive black hole of insecurity and doubt. I’ve had bestselling friends – mega bestselling friends and legends of the field – tell me they’re as full of doubt as I am.
To make things better, there’s the writing life. First, like what Heinlein says about the army in Glory Road, the writing life has two departments, the Fairy Godmother and the Practical Joke department. Mostly you experience the second, but you hear about people who experience the first.
What I mean is, how many of us, writers or readers, have picked up a massive blockbuster, read the first ten pages and thought “If I picked this up out of slush, no power on Earth would induce me to continue reading?”
This was more so with the traditional publishing model when I came in. It not only relied on push to make massive blockbusters, but it gave most midlist books negative push. As in, it’s really hard for you to become known for your book, no matter how much the fairy godmother tries, if only five thousand copies were printed and most of those are in the warehouse, because pushing them was not a priority for anyone. So there are two books on half the chain stores, for two weeks and after that no reorders and (at the end of this three years ago) no special orders unless paid in advance. For a few of my books (the musketeer mysteries) even my friends looking for the d*mn things, and armed with the release date couldn’t find a copy.
However, even with indie – which seems inherently more meritocratic because no one is controlling your results – there is a Fairy Godmother department. This is obvious when you look at the books that suddenly have mega sales. You read them and you go “okay, they’re okay, but…” But, they hit a book blogger on the right day. They started buzz in the right place. They were lucky. The difference is in indie “decent” will sell a certain number, no matter what. (Certain caveats apply: short stories sell much worse than novels. Volume counts. One short story out, no matter where, will barely sell. But once you have six there’s an uptick. Twelve, another uptick. And so on.)
The truth is what seems to count most for making it in writing is persistence. This applies to both traditional and indie publishing. Keep plugging at it, multiply your efforts, try different things (even different genres if you’re capable) and learn.
But most of us don’t want that answer. Most of us were raised on the talent myth. Also, to some extent, as artists (bah, I hate the idea I’m one) to improve you need to believe that there’s an “objective” good to move towards. So the nagging question that comes to all our minds and wakes us screaming in the night is “Am I good enough?”
The worst afflicted by this were the traditional midlisters – tons of books out, tons of experience, no sales to speak of – and might now be the beginner indie.
We/they are terrified there’s something inherently wrong with us. (There is. In the old model, you failed to make enough politically correct noises to attract attention and identify yourself as one of the good people who deserved push; in the new model you haven’t written enough.)
This makes us vulnerable to entanglements.
The simplest entanglement is a writers’ group. Somewhere in the archives here I have a post on writers groups – when they’re good and when they’re bad. I’m not going to rehash it. Let’s say when writers’ groups are good, they’re very very good. When they’re bad… they’re terrible.
It all depends on how long they’ve been around and what they want out of the group. I’ve belonged to groups where they’d been around forever; most of them had given up on ever being published; the writers’ group was an aim in itself. The group both told them they were writers as a form of validation, and had become a sort of Café Klatch. In practicality this meant that when you joined, the things they told you to change and the stuff they tried to teach you was not designed to make you more saleable but to make you FIT IN. To make you like them. I never stuck around very long because I’m mulish and I had the certainty of what my aim was. If it seemed to me like I was hanging out on the bench with the losers, I moved on, no matter how much they told me their lack of success was because they were better than what was out there.
But even my favorite group – the one that lasted ten years and started with all of us as beginners – turned into an entanglement. Oh, sure, some of the pressures were good: it was the only time in my life I wrote a short a week while also writing novels. But I became dependent on it. Without the group’s seal of approval, I couldn’t send stuff out. The year after the group broke up, I couldn’t finish anything, and sometimes – looks at the pile of stuff to put out that’s edited and sitting on her desk – I still have trouble showing stuff to people because, well, the now long defunct group hasn’t seen it.
What applies to groups applies to people, too. Most of us have one person they rely on. For the longest time mine was Dan. We sort of grew up in writing together and who are you going to trust if not your spouse?
But then I found myself going in directions he clearly hated, or thought were “just wrong” based on where he was and I was. I persisted, nonetheless, and eventually it worked for me. And he now has no problem with those books, and denies his first reaction to them was “she can’t be talking to the reader. That’s just wrong. She’s telling, not showing.”
Dave Freer at one time showed me excerpts of letters between C. S. Lewis and Tolkien, in which Tolkien told C. S. Lewis how much he disapproved of Narnia.
If you take your friend’s opinion, not yours, as the be all, end all of writing, you’ll end up perhaps not writing your Narnia, or leaving it unfinished. It’s find to have friends and first readers – I do – but mix it up a little. Not all of them are going to like everything you write, and some will hate a subgenre, a character, a voice with a flaming purple passion… and yet it might prove to be your most popular one.
With newbies in indie now, I’m seeing this desperate need to have someone validate that you’re a writer – and while understandable, that too can become an entanglement.
There’s a local press that does anthologies. As far as I know they’re extremely reputable. Back in pre-history, when I went through Kris and Dean’s course, one of the things they told me was to never ever ever sell to “pays in shared royalty” anthologies, because those never paid. Also back in pre history – 11? years ago — I broke that rule because a friend of a friend “needed” a story. I gave them a trunk story. The contract was strangely restrictive, being forever and all over the world, but this was a trunk story. I’d never sold it, would never sell it, and what was I doing with it. So I signed. They’ve had the story out for a dozen years. Periodically I get “statements.” I have yet to see a thin dime for that story. And of course, nowadays it means I can’t put it out in my own collections or ebooks.
This is sort of what I expect in those circumstances, now. However, the local press is not like that. I also gave them two stories, more than five years ago. Again, trunk stories, again because a friend “needed” a story.
Their contracts are decent. They’re well distributed at cons. And – miracle of miracles – twice a year or so I get a check from them. About enough for one take out pizza, but I suppose in time it will amount to normal pay for a short story. Also, their anthologies have got my story seen at cons (which seems to be their main avenue for distro) and has got me calls from editors looking for similar stories.
Not a bad investment for two trunk stories, right? Nope, not a bad investment, and I’m glad I gave them those stories (which are, at any rate, non exclusive) but—
But I have beginning friends who seem to be mostly wrapped up in the press, writing for the press, editing for the press. The press is the be al and end all of their endeavors.
It’s none of my business, of course, and if it makes them happy – but it risks turning into a whirlpool. The press and the people involved are doing nothing wrong. A lot of their writers also edit anthos. It’s clearly giving them a lot of pleasure.
BUT if they’re relying on it exclusively and not doing their own thing as well – “self’ publishing, writing novels, even submitting novels traditionally – they are spending their entire capital – the effort and the time – on a venue that will never make them “professionals” – the definition in this case being “living from their writing.”
And this is why, for those who have asked, I still publish Indie and will publish Indie novels, even though I’m quite happy with Baen.
The mother of all entanglements in traditional publishing was agents and the – normally – sole publisher model. It put you in a position where if your agent didn’t like your idea, it never even got sent out. Or if you came up with an idea – say paranormal romance – that the one publisher your agent wanted you to be with (this system tended to mutually feed) didn’t publish/like, you couldn’t write it.
That’s control over your creative life you shouldn’t give anyone. Most of us learn by doing. Sometimes you need to write that paranormal romance to understand what you’re doing wrong with your mystery. And sometimes you need to write the mystery to learn pacing for science fiction. You shouldn’t give even the best publisher in the world control over that. And you certainly shouldn’t give an agent control over that. (Three of my agents refused to submit Darkship Thieves because it was “fluffy space opera without a big philosophical point. The fourth only submitted it because the publisher demanded it, having seen it on the bar.)
It used to be difficult to keep your publisher (usually only one, and agents fought tooth and nail to keep you from having two) from being an entanglement. It was even hard to keep your agent from dictating what you wrote and what turn your creativity took.
Now, it’s not. You can go with multiple publishers or none. You can go with two or three and self-publish on the side. There’s no reason to limit yourself. Your alphas don’t like it? Write it anyway. Your publisher doesn’t like it? Write it anyway. You aren’t sure it’s any good? What is stopping you from writing it and finding out.
You can always put it out under a pen name. No one need know. The future is wide open. Cut that rope off your ankle and RUN.