The agony of hope and the tragedy of love, and why these must be.
(fair warning: long)
It’s fair to say my dogs have all loved me with a whole-hearted adoration that I really don’t deserve. With a devotion more fitting for a god than a very fallible man. In turn, well, I have done my fallible best for them, not to imply I haven’t been an asshole to them occasionally (which unlike cats, never seems to make the least difference). Humans are very inept at the god business and fail to appreciate the sheer joy that rolling in a nice decayed wallaby carcass will bring to a doggy life (and the study they share with their deity.).
It’s also fair to say my life is richer and fuller for having had them share that love and their all-too-short lives with me.
That doesn’t make the parting any less hard. As I get older…well, my Wednesday (the black lab), and 16 year old brother to the late Puggsley the golden lab, is snoring peacefully on the cushion next to my desk. I know 17 is unlikely and I will go through the tearing of my heart again.
A part of me says: enough. I cannot bear this again. No matter what joy, what companionship, what love… I’ve used up my cup of coping with the grieving. I will have no more dogs and not have to mourn their passing again. I will insulate myself from it. Give a little affection to dogs that do not own me as I own them.
I’m not ready to give in to that part, because I know that being Dave’s dog is not a bad billet for a dog, and there are dogs who need a decent home. But… well, looking back over the lives of my faithful hounds, it is harder every time. I understand, even if I think it’s the wrong answer (just like my never adopting a dog – almost all have been rescues – would be the wrong answer) how people hurt in relationship break can decide they’re never going to engage that deeply. They’re never going to let themselves hope or love that much again. Because it hurts like hell if and when it goes wrong. They insulate themselves, and form no deep attachments, never again allow themselves the chimaera of hope – or at least, not much. Distance lends insulation from the hurt.
This will make sense to some of those of who write, and very little to those who don’t, but this in way is true of the writer and their books. It was certainly true for me. I set out, a long time ago, back when fax machines roamed the earth, with hopes to write the books I loved, and with the proceeds buy a farm, or at least a small-holding, where I, Barbs and the kids and the dogs could have space, and I could raise our own food, in between writing. You laugh… and well you may.
I spent seven years working at selling that first book, writing a couple of million words, getting to the personal handwritten and quite lengthy rejections from two editors (both turned down at editorial board level –which meant nothing to me then, but I now know was rare) as well as the manuscript returned unread form rejections. I had a deep cup of hope and a belief both in myself and the fairness of the system, back then. Sending out a book manuscript, with its post-paid return envelope cost me around half a month’s income. It was hard to justify, as we were living on the bare bones of nothing. Eventually, I sold that first book out of the slush-pile. A pile about 3000 manuscripts a year deep – of which they bought… one.
Was I great? Had I written THE sf novel? As an older, wiser guy: no. It’s a good book, I had put a huge amount of effort into it, and, for what I knew then, it was best book I could write, in that sub-genre, and of that type. It, realistically, deserved to be in the top 300. Maybe even the top 30 of those slush subs. What differentiated it from the other 29 was more luck than anything else IMO.
That, at the time, was not something I was aware of – not that I’d climbed a massive cliff, or that there were probably a good few who passed the rest of the hurdles but lost on the luck at the last one. There were, I am sure a fair number of authors, like me, who had given everything they had to give to their book, which they believed in it, that, realistically, could have done well or at least as well as me. It had happened to me a lot of times along the way, even with that particular book.
Now: consider. I’m a guy living in a small foreign country. I only got the internet after selling that book. I was a prolific reader, but that was via second-hand books and the library system. There was no spare cash, and what there was, had three other places to go before books. I knew absolutely nothing about publishing, and just about the same about the US, my principle audience to sell to. I didn’t even know that was the case. Full of hope, I thought my book would get a fair shake. I knew it wasn’t DUNE or LORD OF LIGHT, but, doing my best to be dispassionate, it was more entertaining than a lot of the more recent offerings I’d seen. It was a fast-moving story and chock full of what I thought was clever stuff (Hey, I’m a monkey. Clever isn’t really our forte). I assumed all books got much the same and the market sorted ‘em out. And the right and honorable thing for an author to do was to stay out of the way, and let this happen. My heart was pure, and my love deep, and my hopes at their highest…
Um. I said I was pig-ignorant, didn’t I? Of course, in reality, my poor book got a cover that company had bought on spec (not a bad cover – but really nothing to do with the book, or selling it), and a title I hated, and exactly what most noob paperback authors bought for boilerplate minimum (the equivalent of a quarter in loose change in the ‘how much to we care about spending and recouping this’ stakes). The book got put onto the bottom of a list handed to Simon and Schuster to distribute. And that was it. No marketing, no incentives, no publicity. The equivalent of a punter finding a quarter in his pocket and tossing it into a slot machine and pulling the lever. If they got lucky, great. If not, shrug.
I was still luckier than the other 2999 authors trying for that slot. And despite me and my delusions about the marketplace and a fair crack of the whip… and doing everything wrong, THE FORLORN, tucked away in a scattering of bookshops, as near invisible as possible… did ALMOST well enough (it sold more than the ‘never-touch-again’ level but not enough for the ‘contact the author and buy’ – I was sorta-maybe class).
My hopes had taken a dent, but, as I lived out of touch with other authors, and had no idea that this wasn’t what the best outcome was or that Baen was considered the kiss of death by the hoity-toity new ‘literary’ sf in-group – i.e. most of sf publishing. I thought I at least had a sf publishing credit, which would get a chance at an agent or another publisher (from where I was, they all looked the same). Remember, at this time I was ONLY South African to EVER achieve this. I was vain enough to believe this meant something to the bookstores and libraries in my old country. It did. It meant ‘you’re a smelly local, eugh. We only buy imported. And only from the UK, or Europe, certainly not someone published in the US. And not (shudder) Baen EVER.’ (You have to say this with the sort of disdain a wino with holes in the butt of his trousers begging for change gets from a society lady to get the feel of it.)
I’m a battler, and a man with a lot of hope and love for what I was doing, so I kept writing and kept not selling, and did keep learning. In the process I’d made friends with the Bear – Eric Flint. He got a snotty rejection for a short about uplifted rats and bats – with the comment that the cranial capacity of rat was not large enough for uplift. He asked me my biologist’s opinion of this: Which was that I could think of at least three ways to get around that. He said ‘really cool, we should write the book’ (nothing to do with the short, barring having rats and bats) – and proposed it to Jim Baen – Who liked the idea and bought it for an advance $6500. This –split 2 ways was a step down for me, but 1) It was work, a chance and I’d take any chances. 2) I still believed merit would win out all on its own.
I wrote that book’s first draft in a month. I didn’t sleep much (I don’t, I’m a 5 hours a night guy, and I normally work around 14, I pushed it to 18+), and I did have some input from Eric when I got stuck. Baen had the finished product – from contract to book turned in — in less than two months. I put the ardent heat of a new lover into that book. Gave it everything I could, from layers of meanings and puns to plays on Shakespeare, Wuthering Heights and Gilbert and Sullivan operettas – and mixed this into a fast moving tragi-comic story.
Writing that was to me what writing ought to be: exhausting, demanding, reluctant to stop in the evening, and eager to get up and get writing in the morning. Loved to the core. I honestly believed it was the best thing I ever had written, and I thought it was leagues ahead of any other sf/fantasy humor outside of Pratchett in sf at the time. I loved it passionately. My hopes were as high as possible.
It got a title I thought sounded like an anthology, and a cover I thought a very poor fit (the book called, hard, for a Josh Kirby type art work IMO) It got into hardcover… and did badly. Two unknowns (before 1632) and a mediocre cover… But given the level communications in publishing Eric and I didn’t know that. And Eric was much better at self-promotion than I ever will be… so the paperback sold around 20 000 copies – which was exceptional for the chuck-and-chance marketing it got (although I didn’t think so. I expected that book to go big.).
I think you can see where this is going, can’t you, without me throwing all of my many books and their story at you. But over the years I’ve repeated the pattern of throwing my heart, hope and intellect into books… which, to continue the dog-analogy didn’t live that long. Some of them certainly deserved far better. I kept slogging away, building an audience slowly. There were no short cuts, no easy breaks.
Slowly, slowly I also insulated myself a little more from the hopes… Hope is an anchor. It’s also something you build on. We managed to buy a pocket handkerchief farm (due to inheritance and a favorable exchange rate), 12 acres, most of which was dense forest and verging on cliff-steep. Good for kids, dogs, tranquility, and view, not much else.
Then I finally negotiated another solo (which means not dividing the income) book, got a great cover. And… We also got our visa to immigrate to Australia – something I had worked on three years (because much as I loved it, I was at anchor in what could be the path of a hurricane one day, and was getting rougher.) It was a break we were truly lucky to get considering my age. It came with a very short window, which meant packing ourselves, our beloved dogs, our cats, selling our home, and moving to a strange, far country, to a place where we knew no-one. It took all our resources, our farm, all our cash… and I had a book coming out in the middle of it. A very important book for my career. A book I had put all my heart and hopes into, yet again.
By now I’d realized I was a chuck-and-chance author, not important or successful enough to expect more, and while I would never be good at marketing, at least I was doing something. I checked the Amazon listings, wrote the blurbs, told readers when the book was coming out (which I found out by looking at Amazon), did my best. Still, I had made some money for the company, and there wasn’t a soul there I hadn’t helped out, done things extra or extra fast for. It wasn’t like I was a crying whiner who constantly demanded and never delivered. I was going through a hugely difficult move at a crucial time. I wouldn’t even have internet access, let alone a place to work from. I sent e-mails to everyone at my publisher, asking if anything they needed before I went and please, please to give the book that tiny extra shove because I couldn’t do it. I had a choice of losing my visa or not doing it all for them…
Well: that was too hard, and too much to ask. Too much for anyone to even send a reply to Dave wishing him bon voyage and the best of luck. And – in a complex system I’d kept having check on… maybe someone did make an effort. But others dropped the ball in just about every way possible.
That was insulation point. I learned finally to stop hoping that traditional publishing would, except by accident, look to my interests as I had tried to look after theirs. If I didn’t believe they’d do anything much to help me sell, if I stopped expecting timeous royalty statements and communication which they’d benefit most from… well, I wouldn’t be angered when it didn’t happen. But I still loved the writing itself, although I started experimenting with indy.
For me it hit ‘Almost break’ point a couple of years later. Out of the blue I got a frantic message from my agent – he had someone from Funimation wanting to buy the rights PYRAMID SCHEME to make an anime movie. NOW. TODAY!
PYRAMID SCHEME had been out for 13+ years, without a solitary right being bought. This was true of all my books (and yes, many less-well selling authors sold translation rights, and film options, audio etc. Baen insisted on having all of them and never sold any. Shrug. I couldn’t sell them either). The movie rights were, de facto, worthless, unsellable. Trust me on this: such offers are once in a lifetime things. Most authors never get an offer. Better ones than me don’t.
Things were at a particularly rough patch in this New Australian’s life, what with rent, the cost-of-living in Australia being a long way up on South Africa, and the exchange rate meaning my income got 15% taken off before banks stole their cut – about the same again. And we’d had medical expenses that had to be met (I was glad we could) and yeah, things were hard and tight. I spent money I didn’t have chasing my publisher down with several expensive calls to the US, until I succeeded.
I made a terrible, awful mistake.
I let my hope blossom, and left myself with no insulation at all. Why wouldn’t I? There was no reason on earth it wouldn’t go through. We had a willing buyer who wanted something no one else did, and a surely a seller who would be delighted to get rid of something that they couldn’t sell to anyone else.
I had a promise that the publisher’s Hollywood agent was right onto it.
Except of course, they weren’t.
Funimation is a relatively small, reputable Texas-based Anime company. PYRAMID SCHEME was a book by a minor pair of authors, bordering on being out of print. It was a colossal dreamed-of break for me. I’d have given it to them for free, just for the increased visibility. I had in fact had my agent offer them CUTTLEFISH – for which I had the rights, for exactly that sum. They said, no, they wanted PYRAMID SCHEME.
A lot to me…. was not enough for the Hollywood agent to bother.
I spent hour after hour waiting, full of hope and I admit full of glee and delight.
And then a week full of worry.
And then asking questions by e-mail that got no answers.
And then actually making more expensive phone calls… to be informed it was with the agent.
And… eventually repeating the process, and getting a promise of an answer.
To which, eventually -a nag later, I got the answer he’d given: No deal. Funimation were just buying up rights from all and sundry on the cheap. It wasn’t a real offer at all.
This was, bluntly, an outright lie. I have a lot of contacts among other authors: none of them got the approach. I’d also offered them a book for nothing.
But… my publisher accepted the agent’s statement as the truth… and as months had passed on a ‘hot’ deal… it was all over.
I was nearly all over too. Facing writing again – something I loved – was hard. Facing 14 hour days for my hopes… writing, blogging, working, well, yes. Not easy. I was burned. Getting up to write in the morning was not something to make me explode out of bed.
I’ve failed to get back to that hope. I’m a stubborn bastard, and I escaped by writing a book I felt was really important – CHANGELING’S ISLAND and then TOM – a book I thought enormous fun.
I got back to the contracts and wrote the next HEIRS book. I’m busy with a KARRES book now. But the ‘a book in 2-5 months’ (5 months for a goat-gagger) is avoiding me. It’s been bothering me.
It was only in the last week or so I finally figured out what was wrong. I’m once again in that tense waiting phase for something I desperately hope to make true: we’ve put in an offer on a little farm. For various reasons, a large part of which is even by growing own food and never buying anything new and being incredibly careful, there just isn’t much money, this is also a ‘once in a lifetime’ chance for us. It hangs on me being able to keep various balls in the air, some goodwill I have no control over, and some effort from our local council and no hurdles (there are no real reasons for hurdles – but there were no reasons for Baen not sell PYRAMID SCHEME’s rights.)
My stomach is a knot, and I’m a phlegmatic sort of guy who doesn’t flap under stress. I have, minimum, another ten days –max 26 to wait. Doing anything coherent is hard.
But… the old hyper-energy is back. I can’t wait to get up in the morning, to start building, planting – even writing. Without letting myself hope too much I wasn’t giving up, but the drive wasn’t there. I’m still afraid to hope unqualifiedly, to drop all the insulation, the distancing.
But that is what it needs. That’s what feeds the drive. That’s what makes us build. And that’s what my writing needs too. I need readers, I need people who love my books. I need make those connections and get the rewards from them. I must not insulate myself, I must hope with all I have, I must love the books with all I can give. This profession needs you to be driven, to get the best out of you.
Hope is anchor, but of course that anchorage can also be in worst place, where you get pounded by the storms, and can never reach harbor. Ask any abused spouse. What keeps them there is hope. And being without that anchor is really hard on most of us. But you cannot insulate yourself. This is not ‘just a job’, you can do and hate.
The key is finding a better anchorage. My readers are that. My first mail has now gone out, with a free RBV story. You can sign up here
That is what I must do. That is what you must do, if you want to succeed.