Robert A. Heinlein, among many other maxims, said not to ruin your children by making their lives too easy.
I was thinking of this because I feel a little guilty sometimes that, because I hated translating and haven’t had a real job (except for six or so months at a time) in the last 23 years, I raised my children tight on money except for books and educational stuff. Their classmates have gone to Europe (beyond visiting grandparents, which is not the same) and they ski and they do other stuff we never had the money for. And older son quoted that at me.
Which got me thinking.
We’re not going to talk about the Hugos. Well, only tangentially in this case. I was thinking, you see, of a certain work, first novel, full of promise, won an award.
It’s fairly certain the award was won on the writer’s “correct opinions” and the book’s gimmick that made gender seem like a social construct.
Opinions of this book vary. A lot of people, even in disagreement with its gimmick, say it’s “pretty good.” I didn’t find it so from the sample, but then I am more astringent with new authors than the run of the mill reader. You see, I do a lot of mentoring, and so “beginner thumbprints” stand out to me, like jam on a white tile counter. And I kept finding them in that beginning, mind you, along with a great deal of native talent.
It is beyond the scope of this post to determine whether or not the novel was award-worthy.
What is in the scope of this post is to mention that recognition, received too early, tends to “freeze” the writer.
There are many writers who are excellent right off the bat. There are very few who don’t have slip ups of technique or craft for their first two or three published novels (and those are usually at least five or six, if you add unpublished. For me it was tenth. I’m special.) This is because writing is a craft and it’s learned, and I’ve only come across – in my entire career – three naturals. Two of which never actually GOT into the field (one never finished and the other has spent 20 years revising that first novel, which was already good enough first time out.)
For the others, the “highly talented” who get into the field, the worst thing that can happen is sudden and overwhelming success, be it monetary or awards.
Some people survive it. Some people are internally driven and will work to perfect their writing, even though they already got “there.”
Most people don’t. Half those people become so afraid that they can’t reproduce that first success (because they haven’t intellectualized what caused it) and freeze. I.e. they stop writing, walk away, or keep trying and failing in different ways as they try to make the books “better”. The other half become convinced they’re perfect and jump instantly to “bestseller, late career, too big to edit, you’ll read my raw drafts and LIKE them.”
Mind you sometimes those are still pretty good, but the author doesn’t “grow”. This mean we miss some truly wonderful authors that these pretty good ones could have become.
To my mind, the tendency to give awards (and advances, often) based on correct opinions and not craft is to blame for the tide of “pretty good” books, that all sound alike.
So – should you pray that you’re an abject failure?
No. Not even that you’re a failure first thing out.
There is a way to harden yourself against these failure modes. I want you to start the exercises on how to do it today.
- If you always write in the same world/genre/style, try to do something different. Just a page or two. You don’t have to finish it, though bonuses if you do.
- Write a world where everyone disagrees with your idea of “good” and don’t make it preachy.
- Write a character as different from you as you can imagine.
- Write a length that’s not natural to you. If you’re a novelist, write a short. If you’re a short story writer, write a novel.
Keep doing these exercises. Keep challenging yourself. That way when you hit big, you’ll know who you are as a writer: the depth and breadth of your abilities.
And even overwhelming success won’t kill your craft.