How to Achieve

Every writer has an idea in their head of what it is to be successful, whether it is buying a supervillain level lair, with its own helicopter pad, or to write books like Xs who inspired me and helped me survive adolescence.

The one thing I will tell you is that you have to aim for something.  I’m not the first one to compare a writing career to a voyage in various ways. All careers, in fact, are voyages, I think. And as with any travel, you can take the scenic route, but if you don’t have an aim, you’ll never get anywhere.

So, what’s with the seven principles of highly confused writers?  I’ll tell you.This morning Amanda chose to share this with me: Sci-Fi & Fantasy Author Fonda Lee Criticizes Barnes & Noble Stocking J.R.R. Tolkien & Robert Jordan Books: ‘We Are Competing With Dead Guys’.

I don’t know why Amanda shares these things with me. My theory is that she’s trying to kill me of a heart attack because the berserker tries to activate and I can’t let it.

When I was done hitting my head on the wall (poor wall, now thoroughly dented) I had no clue what to even say about this.  Look, no, seriously… the poor child above actually thinks this is a valid complaint:
Screenshot_2019-11-06 Sci-Fi Fantasy Author Fonda Lee Criticizes Barnes Noble Stocking J R R Tolkien Robert Jordan Books 'W[...]

There are too many things wrong with this to dissect them all here, which means this post will continue at According to Hoyt with “What part of product and demand with you fail to understand.”

For here I’ll concentrate on two things that are wrong:

1- This is the mentality engendered by traditional publishing.  I.e. people are taught to see the ability to sell — to anyone — as a limited thing.  Writers are widgets, shelf space is scarce. Publication and even someone knowing your book exists is a privilege extended to the few.
Since there are — and with Indie we have proof — about a hundred more good writers per writer that gets published, and since out of every writer who gets published there’s one in a hundred who gets even minimal support from his/her publisher, it’s a scrum for a very tiny and artificially restricted market.

So, anyone who takes that space away from you is an enemy, or at least a rival.  You’ll fight them tooth and nail in any way possible for that exposure.

2- This poor child has bought into the idea that the future is all that is relevant, and that nothing that happened in the past mattered.

She also has absolutely no concept of how long people have been writing before she was born.

Look, child, every writer who comes, mewling and groping for writing materials out of her mother’s womb is stuck competing for readers with Homer, with Shakespeare, with Jane Austen.  More importantly, we all compete, in our genres with giants.  Not just Tolkien and Jordan, but Heinlein, Asimov, Bradbury, Rowling….

Someone that young, born into the digital world should be aware that she’s not just competing on shelves.  In Gutenberg there are hundreds upon hundreds of very good authors… free. We compete with them too.

So, how do you not panic, pack it in and decide you can’t hold your own?

First, past writers will sell less.  No, seriously. There is some not inconsiderable portion of readers who doesn’t want to make the effort to deal with a world with no cell phones, or with something that we thought would work that way in the fifties.

More importantly, wording and ways of expression age.  I love Shakespeare, but I know he’s difficult for many people.

So as time goes on, the past of writing “thins” — there are fewer and fewer writers who are even remembered, much less read — and you have less competition.  Of course, the competition you have is the very, very, very good.

My question to anyone worried about this is: why are you writing? What do you want to achieve from this?

If it’s merely (ah!) to make a living, rest assured that super readers will read everything that’s out there and ask for more.  The dead writers aren’t in the way of your path to success. Write and publish and if you’re passable, you’ll find your audience. You might have to write a lot to make a living, but this was never easy, nor do you have the right to demand it be.

If it’s to be great and shine and be remembered… then you probably still want to be read when you are dead.  Otherwise, why all the effort?

And if you want to shine and be remembered, you have to get as good as the people who are remembered, the deep history of your field.

You can — tons of people do. The scientific name for them is “idiots” — stand on the shoulders of giants and piss down, but be aware that your piss hurts them not at all.  You are a gnat stinging titans.  The more you try to diminish the past, the more you diminish yourself, and the more people know how small you are.

Or you can choose to work really hard and up your game.  And while most of us know we’ll never get there, there’s always the chance you’ll become so good, such an incredible craftsman, such an inspired artist, that the giants unbend and give you a hand up, and you get to stand beside them, as generations yet unborn view you as the benchmark to achieve.

Yeah, for people like me it is highly unlikely.  But it’s a dream worth working for.


  1. Hey, don’t blame me. Last night you asked me for help finding something to blog about. All I did was share the pain–er, wealth this morning. Can I help it if you decided to hurt your poor wall again? VBEG

  2. “I don’t know why Amanda shares these things with me. My theory is that she’s trying to kill me of a heart attack because the berserker tries to activate and I can’t let it.”

    Oh go on. Let it out for a run. Do we really need Colorado for anything right now? I’m sure the lava will have cooled enough to walk on in a couple years. ~:D

    1. Hey, not only do I live here, but my daughter does too. Give me some advanced notice so I can ship the toddler out to Missouri or some place out of the blast radius.

  3. On a more serious note, dear witling Fonda Lee doesn’t understand retail. There are three very valuable shelves worth of Tolkien with front-facing volumes because IT WILL MAKE A PROFIT. The store will move all those volumes in a timely fashion.

    There is one (1) copy of Fifth Season because that’s how many the store has left since the last time the publisher (or distributor or jobber or whatever) forced them to take a box. Its not selling. [Its not selling because its horrifying shite IMHO, but that’s just me.]

    If Nora KJ was selling the same number of volumes as Tolkien, Nora would have three shelves. They’d dedicate a whole bookcase to her if she was selling like GRR Martin, or Rowling. GRRM has his own bookcase at my local Chapters store. Rowling has something similar.

    The other thing she doesn’t understand is that the total floor space dedicated to SF/F has been shrinking since about 2005-ish. Maybe a little longer. This is because witlings like Fonda Lee get nominated for the Nebula Award, and unpleasant things like The Fifth Season get three Hugo Awards in a row.

    1. At the regional B&N, Larry C has half a shelf. Jim Butcher has a shelf. The _Destroyermen_ series has a shelf, ditto Sir Pterry. Apparently they sell. NKJ, KSR, Annie L, and other modern darlings have some space, but their work doesn’t seem to be moving, and I don’t see “Reader recommended” tags on them. Ever.

    2. The other thing she doesn’t understand is that the total floor space dedicated to SF/F has been shrinking since about 2005-ish.

      It’s mentioned in Fallen Angels, and I was noticing it at WalMart in the mid-90s, so late 80s at least.

  4. How many newer books have you seen blurbed: “In the tradition of Famous Author, Famous Work”? The people buying older works will buy the newer ones if they appeal to them.

  5. She sees three shelves of Not Her Book. I see a marketing opportunity. She should take to her newsletter (she does have a newsletter, doesn’t she?) and let her diehard fans know about this. Or the Pit of Twits, where no doubt some of her followers don’t yet own her book. “Hey, y’all. There’s ONE AUTOGRAPHED copy of my book at X B&N. I even tucked a limited run bookmark inside the cover.”

    1. That’s evile genius. I’m going to do that, should I ever have actual printed books in a real bookstore.

      But it does require at least one diehard fan for it to work.

      1. Now I’m considering leaving autographed copies of my book in weird places in cities we visit on the fly. You know “I left a book with the cashier at xyz diner on xy street. Tell the cashier Athena sent you.”
        THIS might have to happen.

    2. Oh yeah, marketing. How to make problems into opportunities and benefits!

      Your book had a limited print run and only has one copy in the bookstore? It’s not unpopular! It’s “unique”, “limited edition”, “worth the effort to find”, “carried by selected discerning booksellers.”


      1. “Hey, guys (and gals, leave us not be discrimatorious, here), X B&N has an entire shelf of Tolkein. You’ve read Tolkein; I’ve read Tolkein! You love Tolkein; I love Tolkein! The Master is one of my major influences, and I bet if you read my book Y closely, you can tell where.”

        Of course, you have to write things people want to read, first, and things at least vaguely like Tolkein, second.

    3. “Hey, y’all. There’s ONE AUTOGRAPHED copy of my book at X B&N. I even tucked a limited run bookmark inside the cover.”

      Oh, that’s brilliant, and inexpensive!

    4. People like that have been taught since birth that Whining To Teacher is the way to solve all her problems.
      Beside, things like “seizing opportunities” is Patriarchal Oppression and Capitalist Wrongthink.

      1. Worse, it’s expecting people to do for themselves and placing the burden on them. No one should ever have to take responsibility, especially not the downtrodden and oppressed.

      1. Gaiman, Sanderson, Larry. Lots of people do this. I’m not sure any of them take the “limited edition” tack, but I don’t follow people closely enough to know.

    1. Oh right. I’d forgotten her. One idiot is much like another. No need to comment though, because Larry roasted her like a Christmas turkey. Fsssshhh! Done!

    2. I remember someone complaining about various conservative commentator non-fiction books taking up limited publishing space… as if Malkin or Coulter took a single sale from a single “proper” author. But it was definitely all about the fact that if these *bad* books were published then fewer *good* books could be published.

      Because how would that work? Someone who bought Malkin’s book wasn’t ever going to buy yours anyway.

      Oh! Oh!

      And remember the chick who was trying to tell everyone not to write more than one book a year? Same ultimate reason… if you wrote three books then it meant someone else didn’t get their book read.

  6. Darn. I was really looking forward to the “the seven principles of highly confused writers”.

    I think “Begin with the end in mind” and “Put first things first” would apply nicely. “Seek first to understand, then to be understood” too.

    1. Seven principles of people with no idea what they’re doing. ~:D

      Rule 1) It doesn’t matter, do it anyway. Rules 2 through 7 we make up as we go along.

      AKA the Phantom Method: Squashed in the back seat of a fusion-powered pink Cadillac, driven by maniacs. Don’t drop the camera, big boy.

      1. Seven suggestions for dysfunctional lunatics trying to apply methods from entirely inappropriate disciplines.

        1. Okay, so maybe technically engineering processes can be applied to any human activity. That doesn’t mean successfully or wisely. So stop trying to generate a set of plot design tables.
        2. Okay, so Systems Engineering is a super flexible discipline, with a lot of applications. That doesn’t mean that a technique for many person projects should be applied to a single person creative writing. And you won’t find any collaborators willing to work with someone who wants gates with review boards. So, skip the PMBoK, and stick to the Clockwork Muse.
        3. Don’t get an MBA. Don’t get an MBA in creative writing management, or any other specialty you can build a case for. Just don’t get an MBA.
        4. Do not apply the methods of human resources to generate a candidate profile for the background of a successful writer of a specific project. Do not compare yourself to that profile. Very much do not work towards meeting that profile.
        5. Do not try to find a way to apply topics like Artificial Neural Networks to your process. Especially not because the topic is hot.

  7. I like the turnip in the comments over there who keeps chanting “But…awards! She has awards!”

    Yeah, everyone knows what kind of dreck wins awards nowadays, dude.

    An award medallion on a book cover is the literary equivalent of a warning label.

    1. Audible was pushing some “micro-genre” stuff and looked a bit interesting… until I saw the list of awards, starting with 2005 Hugo. Glad to have the warning.

  8. In a way, this kinda reminds me of the incident with Amelie Wen Zhao from a few months ago, though somewhat reversed. Now, Zhao struck me as someone who believed that being a writer involved getting invited into some kind of grand important literary club. That is was a high honor as well a personal calling. Naive, but well-meaning, I suppose. Instead, she ran afoul of the social justice windbags which, ironically, she thought were on her side beforehand. Fortunately, she seems to have gotten over that attempt at “soft” censorship.

    Here, however, there’s this… individual… (I’m temporarily subduing my urge to use Penn Jillette’s catchphrase), who’s apparently gotten considerable acclaim in the modern ivory tower of sci-fi award panels. So now, she seems to believe that getting such acclaim must automatically force all the bookstores into becoming her personal promoters, focusing on her work rather than, y’know, the books that people actually want to buy.

    Honest question: When does that ever happen? In what industry, entertainment or otherwise? When was the last time an obvious Oscar-bait flick was also a fan favorite? Sure, the opposite has happened… fittingly enough, with “Return of the King”. But a few too many critic-beloved bombs have demonstrated that industry acclaim doesn’t inherently translate into audience interest. I’m pretty sure the same applies to books.

    And as bookstores are so far, thankfully, more interested in running their business rather than becoming mouthpieces for the literary circle(jerk)s, it’s no great wonder why they’d opt to stick to the classics. And yet, this hasn’t stopped more than a few new authors from selling like hotcakes, from J.K. Rowling, to Suzanne Collins, and even *sigh* Stephenie Meyer and E.L. James. Y’know – the authors nobody’s supposed to like… apart from the bajillion readers and movie goers, but I guess they don’t count.

    All in all, it’s not just supply and demand that this… personage.. doesn’t understand. It’s the difference between critical acclaim and popular appeal. The notion that, every now and then, you have to pick your target audience, and work for them, rather than whichever critic you’re trying to impress. Or, as Larry Niven said: Writers, who write for other writers, should write letters.

    1. I can sorta answer this- record stores used to do a HUGE push after you won a Grammy, and video stores would push oscar winners pretty hard. (i mean places that sold tapes, not rental stores)…

      of course, both types of stores are largely gone…

    2. As usual, they got things flipped and upside down. Those Clever People With the Right Degrees noticed long ago that awards sell product.
      So, they started ginning up their own fake awards (JD Power!), fake reviews (a thrill a minute ride that will have you clinging to the edge of your seat!)- and began to game the previously established awards process.
      And have pretty much rendered all of it moot.

  9. More importantly, wording and ways of expression age.

    I just started reading The American Revolutionary Mind. It (reasonably) has a lot of references to John Locke. I read On Liberty in college, lo those many years ago. I want to read the works referenced, but I cringe at the thought of reading 300 year old dense prose. Not to mention that my copy (Great Books) has hideous typesetting and formatting.

    I refuse to get sucked into Wikpedia by looking up when “some Body” and “any Body” became “somebody” and “anybody”. And what’s up with Random and Unexpected capital letters?

    1. It goes back to when English and German were closer. You go back 350 years, and you still have the “dagger s,” which was like the German ß (now used when you have a double s followed by yet another s. And in books from before the great spelling shift of the late 1990s.)

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