Make Your Life Difficult

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or craft for their first two or three published novels (and those are usually at least five or six, if you add unpublished.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.

47 Comments

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47 responses to “Make Your Life Difficult

  1. Lea

    Their classmates have gone to Europe (beyond visiting grandparents, which is not the same)

    It’s not the same, but it is probably better because you get to stay longer, see it from a local perspective, etc…Maybe that’s me romanticizing, though. I’ve never been to Portugal. The majority of my vacations growing up were visiting relatives/family reunions, but every few years we did a bigger thing, like florida or dc or colorado. Actually the colorado vacations were probably my favorite and they were vacations + extended family where we lived in a cabin, cooked our own food and hiked and fished. And drove across country, which was part of the fun.

    But to your larger point, the most satisifying was the vacation in high school I paid for myself with my best friend in installments (to NYC).

  2. pouncer

    Are we talking about David Palmer’s _Emergence_?

    • Uncle Lar

      Emergence was first serialized in Analog. The book came out in 1984. Palmer wrote one other novel which ended in a cliff hanger then announced that no one could support a wife and family as an SF writer and that he was putting writing aside. He did eventually write the sequel to Emergence something like 20 years later. IMHO it wasn’t nearly as good. And I’m still waiting for him to resolve that damnable cliff hanger.

      • I’ve got two books my wife got for me that were written by a fellow SCA member. It appeared from these two that there would eventually be a total of seven or eight of them, but he doesn’t seem to have written any more. No idea why. They were good enough reads, though leaning pretty heavily on some pretty tired tropes, but it looks like he just gave up.

      • Matthew

        I *loved* Threshold. Ended up creating a custom D&D race based around the Isi.

    • Laura M

      I liked Emergence. I don’t remember it because I read it so long ago, but I remember that I liked it because, every time I try to cull the shelves, that one survives based solely on the memory of liking it.

  3. I was secretly afraid I was one of those writers who only had one novel in them – but I had so darned much fun writing it, that I wanted to do another. And low-and-behold, that second book expanded into three, and gave me the ideas for another four.
    The Lone Star Suns series does give me a chance to experiment with characters entirely different from me.
    I’m meditating on a WWI novel, though … which would be as different from the 19th century American frontier as it is possible to get…

  4. Martin L. Shoemaker

    When your results far exceed your expectations, it IS scary. Knowing you have potential but not knowing how to tap it leaves you constantly wondering and second-guessing.

    • Dan Lane

      Ye dogs and little fishes, yes. “What, I did something right? Where? How!? And how do I do it again?!” *chuckle*

      As for “different,” one of my shorts-in-progress is 3rd person (which I rarely ever write), MC is a practical-minded grandmotherly person and a relic that time and technology have bypassed. And yes, I totally stole the idea from Dr. Ted Roberts. *grin*

      Whilst the Hugo mess is still falling out, I think I’ll go back and scribble some more. It’s entertaining *me* at least, but then I am easily entertained anyway.

      • Martin L. Shoemaker

        Especially when you can’t tell the difference between “something right” and “what I normally do”.

  5. There’s a story Isaac Asimov told in his autobiography of encountering Daniel Keyes, whose story “Flowers for Algernon” is a good example of a home run the first time at bat as well as a “one-hit wonder.” I’m paraphrasing from memory, but Asimov was passing out Hugos at the 1960 Worldcon and rhetorically asked the crowd to the effect of “how did Dan manage to catch lightning in a bottle the very first time?” Then Keyes tugged at his sleeve and said, “Listen, Isaac, if you find out how I did it, let me know. I want to do it again.”

    • Another such, if I remember correctly was Cold Equations.

      • Tom Godwin actually wrote three novels and 27 shorts, but none of them had that impact.

        • They all had enough fuel to make it to their destinations safely?

          • Holly

            Can anyone explain to me why they liked Cold Equations? It seems like the stupidest plot idea ever to me: like Apollo 13 never happened, like anyone would be stupid enough to not engineer redundancy, like no one ever heard of Murphy’s Law. I didn’t like it when I first read it as a teen and I still don’t.

            • Well, the story was originally written in 1954, before anyone had been into orbit. And all the speculation about how tight resources would be and how difficult it was to match fuel and energy requirements, it seemed like a natural problem. It’s not the only story to use that plot either. See Heinlein’s “Destination Moon” where a fuel shortage forces the astronauts to strip their spacecraft bare to make it back to Earth.

              • That’s also a repeated plot point in The Martian: one of the first things the stranded astronaut has to do is cannibalize half his equipment to service the other half.

      • The story I always heard was that “Cold Equations” was really more Campbell than Godwin, one more idea Campbell fed to his writers, but Godwin took the heat for it.

    • Reality Observer

      Well, Asimov certainly wasn’t a “newbie,” but he was certainly not very far into his career when he wrote “Nightfall” – however, in most ways, that represented the peak of his writing (although I would opine that the much later “Bicentennial Man” came *very* close).

      None of the later novels ever came up to the quality of the “Foundation” trilogy, in my opinion.

      OTOH, YMMV…

      • John R. Ellis

        He was still writing pretty good short stories up to the end. “Robot Dreams” haunts me to this day.

  6. Thanks for this Sarah. Your post has made me start to work on that book that I have always wanted to write, but seemingly never had the time to do, or was too afraid that it would be carp. Eitherway people have to stretch themselves if they are ever gong to run that marathon (okay that was a strained analogy).

    • Nah. Novels are marathons.

      • tocoons

        I’ve started my novel at least three times, and given up on it that many. I decided I was no good at fiction, and didn’t have the stamina, and my work wasn’t going to be as good as I daydream about, and I had other things I want to do more. But, doggone it, the thing keeps whispering “write me” and won’t shut up. It also insists on shoving more of itself out of the ground every time it rains. So I finally pulled the biggest pieces I’ve saved from the previous attempts and have started it again. If can’t run the marathon, I guess I’ll have to walk it.

        • Your work is NEVER as good as you daydream about. NEVER. but if you keep at it, it gets close.

          • An acquaintance on an art site I periodically frequent gave up art for a while because he succeeded in getting his art to match exactly what was in his head. He came back because apparently the images in his head had upgraded. Taking that as a warning, I rejoice that I still have something to strive for.

  7. meepbobeep

    Something like this happened to Brahms, btw.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johannes_Brahms#Brahms_and_the_Schumanns

    The Great Man Schumann (who had been going insane for a while) met and heard Brahms, loved his stuff, and gave Brahms great praise in an important musical publication….and it caused a lot of trouble for Brahms. Not only in terms of being able to produce at the level Schumann gushed about him, but also by creating instant enemies waiting to cut him down at every opportunity.

  8. Among them Scott Card, who got some *massive* early advances and then was criticised for years not up to his reputation.

    Now he’s being criticized for being a dedicated Mormon, so I guess that’s a step somehow.

  9. I met a young woman writer online who had been published to great acclaim when she was 16 — a “Twilight”-style book featuring young romance and the paranormal. She’s now 24 and struggling a bit to make a living writing, since even better versions of the same sort of thing now face a market flooded with YA paranormal [crap][emo crap][sensitive young woman’s fiction.]

    I hired her to help with some PR tasks, since she had a good network of young review bloggers. And tried to explain that quick success when just starting out is a blessing and a curse — at least you know you can tell a good story that readers will love, something not clear to most writers starting out. But then you can’t repeat the success, and it’s dispiriting. Learning to keep going without feedback is even harder when you have laurels to rest on.

  10. Wow. 1960 was the year for one-hit wonders (if you stretch yer eyes a little) . Walter Miller, A Canticle For Leibowitz. Daniel Keyes, Flowers for Algernon. Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird.
    Although I haven’t read the posthumous St. Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman, and I understand Harper Lee is releasing “To Set A Guard” in July.

  11. pouncer

    Okay, so we are NOT talking about Palmer, (much)

    Another first book that might have seemed ‘too easy’ was from the late great and much lamented Janet Kagan, who sold, of all things, a “Star Trek” novel into that franchise of pot-boilers that SERIOUSLY raised the bar for all subsequent runners in the contest. Great new character, great development of old characters (in particular, Chekov) great aliens, and a “literary” theme — just what does it mean to be an adult, and how does one go about proving it? “Easy” — hey, it’s just a long fan-fic, right?

    But Kagan’s lifetime output — a life cut very short — is about three novels. Each and every one — given that _Uhura’s Song_ gives the title character the primary place — a great female lead, and each and everyone very VERY much the “sensawunda” hardline old-school SF I want to see in my recreational reading.

    Wikipedia reports there are no less that TWO sequels to _Uhura’s Song_ that have never been published due to the difficulties in claiming rights to both the Paramount set of ST characters, and keeping rights to the new characters invented just for _US_. Two sequels, in two years, before Kagan was able to sell the book she’d originally wanted to get in print, _Hellspark_. NOT an easy time of it.

    Were Sad Puppies or the Mad Genius Club _really_ trying to get Tor cheesed off. I’d like to see a fund raiser to buy back the Kagan manuscripts and rights from Tor, where they languish, cut a deal with Paramount, and e-publish the great work of a great woman author who was screwed over by the corporate giants who couldn’t recognize her talents.

  12. If you’re a novelist, write a full-length play. It does wonders for your dialogue – and your ability to visualize scenes.

    • Christopher M. Chupik

      Yes, the two radio plays I wrote really helped me with dialogue, as well as conveying details of setting naturally.

  13. I have another YA in progress (have to get art work for it), and untitled Paranormal/Christian book, a book on what it means (to me) to be a Christian, and three cookbooks for Single/Handicapped. I’ve also been “writing” for a long time.
    As for “Spoiling” children, I think back a fellow student in HS. His father was “Comfortable,” but made his sons work to earn money. I decided long ago that made sense. If I were rich, my “heirs” would have to “earn” their inheritances. IOW, meet successful education/job/income/age standards in order to get “large inherited sums.” Such as: college ed. funds, at age 18; at 25 have a degree/started a business that’s making money, get $250K; age 30, match income/savings at 5 to 1, at age 40 get balance.

  14. Wayne Borean aka The Mad Hatter

    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.

    Damned right. Stretch yourself. Push outside your limits.

    It’s a lot like weightlifting.

  15. Voyager

    On a somewhat similar tangent, did something happen to the series you wrote for PJ Media on beginning writing fiction? I’ve got a horrifically embarrassing fanfic rattling around in my head, and wanted to go buzz through it while writing it out.

  16. I believe I just reviewed the sequel to that first novel on my blog, haha. And I was thinking the same thing – that there was a good chance that the sequel would be even worse than the first book, but I actually like the sequel a lot more than the first book. And considering how basically the entire plot revolves around ingroup politicking and “who you know” being the make-or-break condition of the fictional society, I very much doubt that the author doesn’t realize EXACTLY why her first novel won. 😉

    I was really happy to be pleasantly surprised. As a reader, anything that kills authors’ talent development or prevents them from writing more good books makes me a sad puppy. XD

  17. Martin L. Shoemaker

    Coincidentally, this morning I read Kevin J. Anderson & Rebecca Moesta’s “Rough Draft”, reprinted in Writers of the Future Volume 31. (Obligatory marketing plug: I have eARC samples if anyone is interested.) The story concerns a writer whose first success is so overwhelming that he freezes up and can never write again — in this universe. But in another… The theme is simple: take the risk. Even if you might never reach the same heights again, take the risk. Only the risk-takers succeed.