The Family Business by Sarah A. Hoyt

Back when joining SFWA was a mark of finally being a professional (okay, okay, so it probably wasn’t even then, but we didn’t know any better), our older son joined SFWA at thirteen, with his first professional short story sale.

We sent in the application and didn’t hear for a while. Turned out that there was a special meeting to decide what to charge for a third member in the same household, as it had never happened before. They asked if our second son also wrote, and we hemmed and hawed, which I think relieved them and they didn’t have another meeting.

The truth is our younger son was holding, feet planted in the ground like the proverbial mule, and refusing to join “the family business.”

I rather suspect — given that I know he was writing, and also where he hid the stuff he wrote by hand (shhh) — that he was submitting on his own under a pen name, because he wanted to “make it on his own.” A laudable effort, mind, but misguided as I’ll explain later.

To be fair, his brother tried to do the same, only he was 10, and didn’t understand that both his name and address would be known at the magazines to which I’d already started selling. Which led to an email from Stanley Schmidt that said, “I thought your husband’s name was Dan? Is it Robert?” To which I answered by saying Robert was my older son. He then told me he’d received the story and it had made it to his desk, which is how I found out older son was submitting. (He also got a rewrite request, but — being ten — didn’t know how to rewrite, so it kind of fell on the floor. Weirdly, I recently saw a story for sale that seemed to have the same premiss as his. Weird, because older son is an original. And no, I don’t suspect someone “stole” it. Just one of those things. Besides, it’s been 20 years.)

Anyway, last year, while madly looking for work, he finally accepted a hand up into also getting published. He sold his first short story to Baen (written in collaboration with his dad, but you know how Baen collaborations work (except not with Larry. It really was 50/50)) last year, and he’s collaborating on a novel with me. (Though given he seems to have found work (fingers crossed) that might slow to a crawl.) Which is good, because though this is a family of writers, younger son is easily the most talented one of us, with a second sense for wording, and a breezy, fast moving style.

Because he is so much like me, I think he would have aimed himself at writing much earlier, but he didn’t want to join the family business.

Which is what I need to level set about.

First, let me explain the writing business: the writing business is equal parts talent and luck.

I’ve pissed off my best seller friends by saying this, unless they are my age or older and came up the hard way first. Then they just nod sagely. And they shouldn’t be pissed off, I’m not taking anything away from their talent and hard work.

For this case — because I’m not absolutely sure I believe in talent qua talent — what I’m calling talent is that combination of inclination, interest, drive and LEARNING that can also be summed up as “being good”: only “talent” is less cumbersome.

It’s just that in a large and chaotic market — more on that later — you get two tokens off the gate. One is how good you are. The other is luck. Most of the luck talents are drab grey. You’re going to do okay. If you work your tail off, you’ll make midlist money, which I refer to as “underpaid secretary” with more work. You’ll find your audience slowly, one group at a time, and if you keep writing long enough and started early enough, by the time you’re retirement age you’ll be making a nice little chunk of change. (This is more likely indie, because in trad you’re unlikely to stay in print that long, but that’s something else.)

Some luck talents are rust black, and there, even if you have a shiny golden talent, you’re almost for sure going to sink.

A few, a very few luck talents will be bright, shiny and gold.

Now, they’re not all pure “dumb luck”. Your luck might have been that you were good friends in college with someone who became an editor a few years later, and who is going to break herself to give you the golden carpet ride to success. Or permutations on that theme.

Or you might just be lucky. The editor was sitting around going, “I need a space opera with magical flutes” and your space opera with magical flutes landed on their desk that day. Because editors think that what they want is what the world wants, you get all the push and all the publicity and the big print run, and the magical carpet ride to the top.

Now, does that mean you’re made? Well…. depends on your talent token. I’ve seen people who got it all in the first book, and rapidly sank to the midlist and then — slowly — below my own dogged midlist position.

So, you know, you need both.

The only difference for indie is that your luck doesn’t depend on an editor. It depends on hitting a lot of people, the right way to take off. Now, yeah there are a million formulas, and writing a lot, fast, will increase your odds. But it’s not guaranteed. And I know a lot of people who to my eye — and brother, at this point do I have a trained eye — are at about the same level, and produce about the same. And yet one, one in the middle of a pack, will be making hundreds of thousands, while the others are barely keeping their heads above water.

Which means it’s a function of a chaotic system catering to secondary needs. (Also marketing research for books sucks for trad pub. Honestly, if you’re a trad publisher reading this, do yourself a favor and subscribe to K’lytics, okay? They’re doing the research you mugs should have done decades ago.)

Anyway, you can control your writing “talent” — I really think it’s maybe 1% innate and 90% work. Look, I have reason to think that. Yeah, I was born with a natural word sense, and an ability to tell stories, but then I changed languages, and by the way the story beats are different in different cultures. I adapted. I did the work — by how you work, how you study, how much you practice.

You can’t control your luck talent.

Unless of course, you control it downwards. If your college roommate is now the best publicist in the world and offers his services, don’t turn him down. If your mother, father or sibling has a name, for the love of BOB let them promote you and give you a head up.

Or if someone — clears throat — offers to publicize your book once a week on her blog (well, not the same book every week), don’t be an idiot and refuse to “bother” her. If she knows you can actually write, and offers to pimp you in the larger aggregator blog she works for, don’t ignore it.

Luck won’t catapult you to the top. Honestly? Nothing does unless it’s luck and talent.

But any leg up, in addition to working your tail off to be GOOD will help. It means your struggle starts at a higher level. You’re not one of the new, newly spawned alligators, trying to scramble to the water, while the adults gnosh on you. Suddenly you’re on mom’s back, and she’s giving you a ride to the water.

Mind, once you get there, you’ll sink or swim on your own. But at least you’ll get through the first gauntlet unharmed.

And getting that ride takes nothing way from your triumph or your talent. It just slightly increases your chances.

Turning down that kind of help is just dumb. Take it from all those of us who didn’t have any legs up: it makes us want to chomp on you.

Stop scrambling in the sand and get onboard.

22 thoughts on “The Family Business by Sarah A. Hoyt

  1. Luck favors the prepared.
    But Luck can also favor the wildly unprepared.
    The difference is the prepared can develop a career and the wildly unprepared will become one hit wonders and vanish without a trace.

  2. I saw the same thing in the movie ‘Flashdance’ of all places. The main character is about to turn down a place at Juilliard because a big-shot in the music world helped her get in. She got an ‘unfair advantage’ and her pride can’t take it.

    He sets her straight with, “I just got you into the audition. You got yourself into Juilliard.”

    Whatever it takes to get your work in front of the right people is fine. Where it goes after that is up to you.

  3. Luck is being able to take advantage of the opportunities chance offers you. You may or may not be prepared for it, though having a work ethic and an aptitude for whatever field of endeavor it is can help a lot with preparation and ability.

    Both hard work and “luck” are necessary but not sufficient conditions. You need both working together. And while that’s not a guarantee of anything in particular (chance will still have its say), only one of those is something actually in your control. So why not try to control it as best you can? Hoist a sail to take advantage of the winds of fortune, instead of insisting on banks of rowers.

  4. The kind of luck that endures takes work. Prep work. Then the work to be done. Finish work. And maintenance work. Chance is what happens when the world suddenly discovers a lust for space doggies and your space doggie story happens to cross a random editor’s desk (every story should have a dog. Or cat. Or pet analogue. Just sayin’).

    Put not your hopes and dreams in chance. She’s a fickle bitch. Work will make you suffer. But it pays off.

    1. I’ve had lightning strike once, when someone from a very different fandom read the first Merchant book and yelled, “Hey, guys, this is fantasy but it’s a lot like Quarter Share, give it a try!” I’ve never had that type of good fortune since then, but boy, I was grateful for it when it happened.

      And thus “blue-collar fantasy” became a book tag.

  5. Smiles in former stagehand and waves at all the musicians who came to Vegas to strike it big. Are they talented? Oh hell yeah. Would you recognize any of their names? Nope. Redacted but uberfamous’ son who plays guitar better than his dad was pushing road cases with me at the Aladdin. And on one loadout our head electrician was the guy who had gotten a grammy for the lighting design on one of Springsteen’s tours.

    1. Not yet. We’re still working on it. I thought it was the world’s scholkiest book, but I recently found a better one I mean schlockier one.
      Man, I found a series that’s like the schlock I write in my dreams. It’s the very best schlock.
      If I weren’t sick, I wouldn’t sleep and would inhale all five books.
      I mean, this man’s titles alone are a crime against literature. I love it so much.
      And he never explains anything, just establishing this complex world by Heinleining. And he write action like Larry Correia, with futuristic weapons…..When I grow up I want to be him.

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