Author Archives: Brad R. Torgersen

About Brad R. Torgersen

Blue Collar Speculative Fiction

Icebergs

Earlier this week I had the pleasure of dining with several other local Baen authors, as well as Baen editor Jim Minz. It wasn’t a business dinner, really. More like, get the gang together (spouses included) to have a good time, with occasional shop talk. At one point during the evening I was struck by the notion that we had probably a century’s worth of cumulative authorial experience in the room. And by that I mean, the aggregate total of everything each of us had individually accrued over our lifetimes: the stories which had sold, the stories which had not sold, the stories we had read, the stories we’d listened to, watched on television, or in movie form, plus the many different proto-stories each of us constantly has swirling in our semi-consciousness. Along with personal habits — both good and bad — and work ethic. Followed by achievements unlocked, dreams yet to be realized, opportunities wasted, lessons learned, and so forth.

The landscape of our writerly souls.

When one is a newbie sitting in the audience at a convention panel, it’s easy to look at those behind the mics, and see only the tops of their professional icebergs. The more stellar or accomplished the career, the taller the spire rising above the waterline. What we don’t see — the thing we can’t often grasp, until we’re in the thick of the vocation ourselves — is what lies beneath. The giant bulk of a person’s history, which keeps that visible portion afloat.

The majority of an author’s life is invisible in this way. Not immaterial, obviously. Just . . . out of sight. The learning. The toil. The joyless hours spent staring into a screen at odd moments of the day or night, when our brains would much rather be focused elsewhere. On anything. Just not the project that’s due. Held back by the heartache of failed expectations. Pulled forward by the glimmering light of possibilities still on the horizon. Wondering if we’ve got what it takes. Pushing ahead, regardless. Because we’ve decided that we simply must do this thing.

All of that — everything that goes into making us who we are — is submerged.

Just the exposed piece of us that’s public, gets any sunlight.

Which — of course — merely reinforces our false perceptions of ourselves. That we’re sinking, while everyone else is rising. We look across the sea and we marvel at all the many, many successful people all enjoying their moment in the sun. We don’t see their fullness. We don’t realize that they too have a massive, invisible piece of themselves underneath the blue waves. Their own history of learning, toil, missed chances, failed manuscripts, the endless repetition of picking themselves up by the scruffs of their own necks, again, and again, and again. That aspect of their history is opaque to us. We know all about our own history. All the baggage and warts. But unless we know someone else at a fairly intimate level, it’s easy to believe that having baggage and warts is unique to us, and us alone.

‘Taint so.

Many are the professional athletes who have remarked that it’s the losses which teach them, more than the wins. That behind every Olympic-class performance, there are thousands of hours of effort. Painful. Protracted. Unrewarded. Probably there is no endeavor worth doing, on God’s green Earth, which doesn’t tell a similar tale. Work is who and what we are, as human beings. The dividends of that work come from a combination of intelligence, talent, and persistence. With persistence being the major part of it.

Which is not to say there’s no value in working smarter, versus harder. Sometimes the efficacy of your method is the issue, not the zeal of your application.

But there comes a point when even smart guys have to roll up their sleeves. The world is filled with people who dwell in failure, because for all their wit and knowledge, they lack the oomph necessary to turn spectacular plans into spectacular action. Too much talk. Not enough walk.

Your iceberg — the huge hunk drifting beneath — is largely made up of that very same oomph.

Sitting at the table the other night, I was surrounded by a hell of a lot of oomph. It was almost intimidating.

But also instructive.

Because unlike intelligence or talent, oomph is a self-made commodity. Even if you don’t have any today, you can most definitely have some tomorrow.

Just about every person you’ve ever met, who has achieved success in any specific field — of athletics, art, science, or industry — decided to make a commitment. Which manifested as applied energy. Over days, weeks, months, and years. Almost none of it yielding immediate results. No. The goal was far off, for most of the journey. (S)he simply had faith that (s)he would get there eventually. Despite hardships, setbacks, and disappointments galore.

So, when you catch yourself feeling discouraged, or lamenting your lack of relative forward movement, keep in mind that there is somebody else out there who is looking at you and marveling over how well you’re doing. (S)he is seeing the top of your iceberg, just as you see the tops of all the rest. You are somebody else’s picture of success, just as others have been your pictures for success, too.

You may feel reassured as a result. As well as inspired.

After dinner was over, I went back to my home office and stared at my authorial goals for the rest of the month, and the rest of the year. Then I looked at my goals for the next five years. And the five years after that. I asked myself if I was being too ambitious, or not ambitious enough? I thought about the writers I’ve known — some of whom have become my friends — and who’ve done what I’d like to do. I reminded myself that their money and their books are merely the part I can see. What I can’t see, is the rest of the iceberg. The countless daily sacrifices. Frustration, tempered with patience. Early mornings and late nights dedicated to projects which won’t pay off for years. And a stubborn refusal to allow backward steps to turn into full retreat.

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Poor little rich girl


“Why won’t they love me?!”

It’s said that schadenfreude is an unworthy sentiment. But after reading this tearful piece, I must confess that my schadenboner is prodigious. Few things amuse me like watching a self-assigned moral and professional better slowly and painfully realizing that (s)he gets to be stuck in the marketplace just like the rest of us. There is no royal road to fame and fortune. No guaranteed path to glory. You dig it out of the mud like all of us, and if it doesn’t come with the first book or the tenth book, or it doesn’t come at all, that’s just the breaks of living and working in an era when more people are writing more quality prose — in the English language — than at any time in history. We also have more readers, too, thank goodness. But as Kevin J. Anderson once said, if publishing is now easier than it’s ever been before, success is still just as hard.

[my book got] more buzz than I’d seen for any book I’d ever written. People were telling me on Twitter that they’d bought three or four copies and were making all their friends read it. I heard from booksellers that the books were flying off the shelves. We went into a second printing almost immediately. I did a book signing in Chicago that sold a bunch of books. The reader response at BEA was surreal. It was magical.

Setting aside the fact that the author is talking about a non-fiction work of opinion, I feel like it’s worth pointing out that the advent of universal social media has also created universal concrete silos, into which many authors descend. These silos become perfect echo chambers: constantly reflecting praise and wonderment back to said author, until said author is sure in her heart that she’s the greatest thing since sliced bread. Get yourself a few hundred loyal sycophants, plus a cadre of like-minded peers — all sending you digital love notes every time you open your mouth — and it’s easy to perceive yourself as being on the crest of a wave.

This, I thought, is what it must feel like to have a book that’s about to hit it big. This was it. This was going to be the big one. It was going to take off. I gnawed on my nails and watched as big magazines picked up articles from it and it got reviewed favorably in The New York Times, and I waited for first week sales numbers.

Thing is, what does “big” look like? There are waves, and then there are waves. J.K. Rowling is probably the 21st century diamond standard, where Fantasy & Science Fiction literature is concerned. She’s second only to Tolkien, in terms of broad, deep impact. The whole planet knows Harry Potter just as the whole planet knows Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. If not through text, then certainly through movies — successful, big-money, silver-screen adaptations being the holy grail of all commercially engaged fiction authors.

But there are other waves, besides the 3,000-foot tsunami.

Not far south of me, there is a nice guy named Brandon Sanderson who is certainly enjoying his own wave. To my east and north is Larry Correia, who built his wave in just about the most difficult way I can imagine. Every time I visit a Utah authors’ conference of any sort, I bump into people who are riding different waves at different heights. I think you’d have to go to New York or the Pacific Northwest to find more bona fide successful authors crammed into the same geographical footprint.

Again, the era of social media has tended to create silos. Especially in New York publishing, which (as I noted in this space in an earlier article) tends to be a bukkake club of self-referencing, self-blurbing, self-praising, and self-promoting. It’s why so many authors — against all sanity — still make New York their home. Despite the crush of people, and the insane cost of living. It’s worth it to be “in the swim” as it were.

But even being in the swim, doesn’t necessarily translate to mass market traction.

I expected to see at least twice the number of first week sales for this book as I had for any previous book. The buzz alone was two or three times what I was used to. This had to be it . . .

But when the numbers came in, they weren’t twice what I usually did in week one. They were about the same as the first week numbers for The Mirror Empire. And… that was…. fine. I mean, it would keep me getting book contracts.

But . . . it wasn’t a breakout. It was a good book, but It wasn’t a book that would change my life, financially.

Reader, I cried.

Ohhhhhh, the heart bleeds! Her great political non-fic tome — which the whole world was squeeeeeeeeeeeing about, and lurving over, and Tweeting at light speed! — simply did average.

Again, I point to Larry Correia, who gets maybe a tenth as much New York press coverage as our plaintiff. He recently bought his family 50 acres on a mountainside. Over the next two years, he and his lovely wife will build themselves the dream home of dream homes, where they will finish raising a family, grow old together, and die.

I’d call that a wave worth celebrating. And Larry did it all by working his ass off, being entertaining, working his ass off, working his ass off, and oh yeah, working his ass off. 100 hours a week, or more; when he was still pulling down day job paychecks and writing full-time to boot.

Now, for somebody living on a New York City high-rise budget, Larry’s amount of “wave” may not go nearly as far as it goes out here in Deplorable Country. But that’s why I always encourage fledgling authors to use internal metrics and standards to create goalposts. If you’ve spent your adult life in the lower-middle class income bracket, a modestly successful series of books will change your financial situation forever. You will be rich! Or at least, you will feel rich. But if you’re from the silver spoon set, even a very nicely-performing book (or string of books) will seem like just so much chump change.

It’s been strange since then, because everywhere I go, people come up to me and congratulate me on the release of the book. It has the best reviews of any book I’ve ever written. People come up to me and burst into tears at the head of the signing line and thank me for writing it. It’s a transformative book for people. It’s a manifesto. It’s a book that’s even more relevant now after the election. It changes people’s lives. I’m very glad I wrote it, though it nearly broke me to do it.

Here again, the concrete silo. “How could my book not be a hit?! I don’t know anyone who didn’t buy it, and tell me it was pure awesome!”

Sort of like, “How could Hillary Clinton lose? I don’t know anybody who didn’t vote for her!”

The lesson — for those adult enough to discern it — is that you can do everything right, play the game precisely the way it’s supposed to be played, do the bukkake circle and bathe in the admiration flowing from the fonts of prestige — and still turn in a so-so performance. Not terrible, mind you. But not earth-shattering, either. Just kind of . . . midlist.

Gasp! That word! Midlist! Horrors! The giant graveyard of egotists with swollen heads!

Or, if you’re sensible, the wide, fertile field of robust commerce. Where even folk of modest ability can still make okay money. Enough to pay a few bills. Maybe a car payment? The rent? The mortgage? Or more? There is no shame in being a midlist author who handsomely supplements a “mundane” primary income, with writing dollars. In fact, if you don’t have a bloated ego — really, I can’t emphasize enough how important this is — the midlist can be your Shire. Replete with rolling hills covered in green crops, where the Party Tree is always alive with happy Hobbits raising a mug and putting their feet up. They still have to work during the week, sure. But it’s not misery. In fact, there are few finer places in Middle Earth — if you’re not obsessed with thrones and heraldry.

it’s not making money hand over fist, I’m not quitting my day job, and while yes, it’s selling steadily and well, this is not the breakout book I was tentatively expecting it to be (not this year, anyway). It will likely earn out by the end of this year, based on what I know (though we’ll see. I’ll get royalty statements soon). But it’s hard to say this out loud to people when they congratulate me about the book. Lots of people would love to have a book that’s sold as well as it has. But that’s the sixth book I’ve had in print, and you know, you get tired of the emotional rollercoaster in this business after so many years of it (only five years! But egads, I feel that I’ve lived a lifetime of publishing bullshit in that time).

My first novel earned out during its first six-month period of release. My royalties have only climbed in the period since. Granted, my publisher was smart enough not to freight a first-time novelist like me with a dead elephant contract — the kind many would-be novelists dream of bragging about, until they later realize that earning out a substantial five-figure or six-figure advance is tough even for established pros with an established audience. Once more I ask: how big does your “wave” have to be, before you’re satisfied? Each of us must ask ourselves this question, and determine what we can live with.

I always advise optimistic modesty. Don’t quit your day job. Moreover, don’t work a day job you hate so much, that you can do little else besides dream of quitting. Do a day job you can like, or at least tolerate. Work out a writing schedule you can tolerate too. Set sane, reasonable goals. And each time a book is released, have sane, reasonable expectations. The novel earns what it earns. You’ll be amazed how even a small royalty check seems kingly, if you’re not living an aesthete’s life where writing is the only thing keeping your tummy full.

I have two non-authorly jobs. When I am not deployed, the military income stream is my tertiary, writing is my secondary, while healthcare tech is my primary. My pie-in-the-sky objective — over the next ten years — is to try to make my authorly income the primary, then I can make military secondary, and perhaps won’t need a tertiary? This outcome is largely beyond my control, because it’s predicated on one or more books/series becoming over-abundantly successful, to the point that all my debt is cleared, my home is paid off and fixed up entirely, and I’m sitting on a Smaug-sized pile of cash in the bank.

Sounds like I’ve set myself up for failure, right?

Nope. I’ve ensured that I won’t jump too early.

I’ve seen what happens when authors jump too early. They’re so desperate to escape their day work — either because they detest punching a clock, or they are ego-infatuated with the idea of being a full-time author — that they put the cart before the horse. Which is fine, I guess, if you’re single and lack dependents of any sort. Living in a garret is the luxury of being unattached. But if you’ve got mouths to feed? Little ones to clothe and shelter? Set the escape velocity high, and keep it high. That way you’re never having to explain to either spouse or children why they live like urchins.

It’s difficult to say these things out loud to new writers, that most of the books you write will mean a lot to some people, but that they won’t make you rich. They won’t even pay enough for food and health insurance. You will have to work two jobs, novels and day job, until you retire. And maybe even still then. We want to talk about the six or seven figure book deals, the breakout hits, the fairytale stories. But the majority of writers face only this: writing the next book and the next book and the next book, building an audience from scratch, from the ground up, hustling out a living just like everyone else does, cobbling together novel contracts, Patreon money, day jobs, and freelancing gigs.

It’s not difficult at all. It’s necessary. Burst that bubble early, and often. Keep re-bursting it. Put their feet in the soil. Get their heads out of the clouds. Again, the Shire is a wonderful place to live. If you’re not obsessed with thrones and heraldry. There are authors in the midlist making anywhere from the cost of their electric bill each month, all the way up to buying a new house with cash. I’m friends with folk all up and down that spectrum, to include some full-timers of the seven-figure variety. And even the seven-figure folk will tell you: being happy with a supplemental writing income is not a sin. It’s normal. And there is zero shame in being normal. Zero.

Certainly, any of my backlist books could still breakout at any time, but I need to acknowledge the emotional cost of that rollercoaster of hope and despair. We are all of us just working to put food on the table and revolution in the mind, working, and working, until death or the apocalypse or both.

I’m going to gently suggest that replacing the word “revolution” with “entertainment” might be the key to putting more food on her table. She’s spent far too long in her concrete silo.

People are less interested in revolution — even the Pussyhatters — than they are in being shown a good time. Revolution may sell well with zealots, but really, unless you ply your trade exclusively as a pundit at the Bill O’Reilly level, revolution is going to get you lots of praise from like minds — but precious few dollars in your pocket, as originating from wallets beyond your concrete silo.

Madonna and Ashley Judd didn’t become famous (or wealthy) by making batshit insane tirades whilst standing on platforms at marches. They became famous and wealthy being entertainers first and foremost, and they will remain famous and wealthy if they keep (or go back?) to the correct order of priorities. I know authors — cough, especially Left-wing authors, cough — like to see themselves as grand harbingers of the coming transformation of humanity and society. But here again, beware the power of ego. Of all the truly “transformative” books in the West’s considerable archive of same, precious few were ever written with the author thinking, “Yes, this book is going to change everything.”

Of the few who did set out to write such books — Karl Marx? — the results are often historically horrendous. So no, please, skip the revolution. Just forget it.

Take people on a journey instead. Lead them into the mines of Moria. Show them the Balrog. Let them cheer as the Fellowship fights off goblins and orcs. Keep your soap box tucked under your desk, as a foot rest.

And yes, don’t get your heart stuck on the idea that you’re waiting for The Hit. I know it’s hard, because every time we see somebody else enjoying The Hit, we wonder what it would be like to ride that kind of wave. But if you’re so caught up in waiting for The Hit you’re unable to recognize the good things you already have, when they come, what’s the point? Then your career truly does feel like agony! Because you’re perpetually progressing toward your far-off destination, without ever reaching it.

Better — I say — to set yourself up with a model for success which is quietly abundant. No Hit required. L.E. Modesitt, Jr. did it, and he lives better than sooooooo many New York types do. Like Larry (and Brandon for that matter) Lee was very practical and pragmatic in his approach. He has never, by his own admission, had The Hit. But he owns a whole shelf at Barnes & Noble, filled with books which are seldom out of print. And he enjoys a princely existence of productive retirement.

You could do a hell of a lot worse than Lee. Especially if you let your ego do the driving.

Don’t. You will be saner. And happier.

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Is it really so hard to be nice?

Sooner or later, 4th Wave feminists are going to have to realize that that price of equality, means not being able to hide behind oppression narratives. Especially not in a workplace such as publishing, the traditional arm of which — because it’s centered in New York City — is 98% Hillary-votin’ and Trump-hatin’, to the tune of “He’s not my fucking President!” In fact, I am pretty sure we’re going to watch the trad pub sector of prose publishing specifically spend the next four years loudly broadcasting its hatred for all things Trumpian and “deplorable.” Just in case we forgot how much Manhattanite progressives loathe and disdain anyone who lives between the west bank of the Hudson, and the eastern border of Sacramento.

But because 4th Wave feminists — lacking any real battles to fight, yet having been raised up in the ways of rage and anger — still have to find excuses to complain, we get things like this.

Uhhhhhh . . . okay.

Having pawed through the pouty entrails of this article, I’m forced to conclude that the author in question is unhappy with the fact that she can’t just be a dick, without consequences. And that publishing is — gasp! — an industry which runs on people perceiving you positively, even if your true self is a coffee-fueled hate machine.

I mean, I get it. I’m as drained by social interactivity as the next author. Probably, most of us are introverts. Social settings suck energy out of us. My wife is the opposite. Social settings put energy into her. Having observed my wife’s personality for a quarter of a century, I can inform Ms. Gould — with no small degree of surety — that even people who thrive heartily on social settings, get tired of the effort, too. So it’s not as if Ms. Gould’s “predicament” is somehow special.

It is instead — double gasp! — perfectly pedestrian.

Because dudes don’t get a free pass, either. Regardless of what Ms. Gould thinks. Very seldom is any employer looking for male prospects who are aloof, cold, rude, distant, socially clueless, or otherwise apart from (and above?) their peers. We still have to strap on that winning smile, and march forth into the cold snows of the workplace, trying to make our bosses and our coworkers love us. Or, at least, not actively despise us. Because we want paychecks too. And there’s nothing in Ms. Gould’s complaint that doesn’t precisely echo the experiences of thousands of men working in thousands of different professions and vocations. Almost all of which require a bare minimum of social ability. Yes, even the military. (Hint: past Basic Combat Training or the halls of Candidate School, there isn’t nearly as much yelling as the movies would have you believe.)

Yes, yes, I know, Ms. Gould is fed up with trying to make people who are not her friends, feel as if they are her friends. Or, at least, make them feel friendly toward her. Because this is how you schmooze in the traditional publishing capitol of the known universe. Which also happens to be one of the politically progressive capitols of the known universe. False comradeship? Passive-aggression? Never daring to let down your guard — or your facade — lest they shut you out into the cold? Golly, one could almost write a psychological thesis on how bastions of progressive thought often become social minefields, where one dare not breath the wrong way, lest one be marked off Santa’s “good” list, and placed onto the “bad” list.

But that’s a whole other Oprah.

For now, we’re discussing Ms. Gould’s soul-destroying adventures in trying to be nice, even when she doesn’t feel like it.

Madam, I am sorry to inform you: it ‘aint no different, no where, no how.

Granted, it is infuriating that so much of traditional publishing really does boil down to, “Who’s your latest BFF?” For well over two centuries, New York’s publishing Cosa Nostra has engaged in an intergenerational contest of blurb-bukkake, combined with rampant nepotism, and a tendency to let people linger on for far too long, in jobs they should never have been hired for in the first place — people who often were unfit for real work, so they turned to publishing because it was all they could get.

But if you’ve spent any time working other jobs in other arenas, you know damned well that it’s not terribly different anywhere else. Dreadful employees who can make the boss smile, survive. Hard-working employees who can’t make the boss smile, no matter how hard they try, move on. Or are booted out. Or (worst of all) suffer through a kind of workplace purgatory, neither living, nor dead. Can’t bring themselves to quit. Never fired, either. Just . . . existing. Day after day. As the clock on the wall gives you an up-to-the-minute account of how much you’re spending yourself to make other people rich, doing something you didn’t really want to do when you grew up.

I’ve worked a job or two which fit that final bill. I suspect many of the people reading this, have too.

So dab your eyes, Ms. Gould, with your personalized handkerchief; its corner embroidered with a Venus symbol — and a fashionable fist clenched in the middle of the circle.

Life sucks for bros, too.

But wait, oh wait. We knows, yes, Precious, we knows the hurtses that womenses endures because of the patriarchy! Smeagol has heard all about nasty patriarchy his whole life, and how poor Smeagol needs to check his privilege! GOLLUM (spit) GOLLUM!

Only, this time, no.

I can think of few desk industries in this nation which are more welcoming to the brainy, politically left-wing female, than traditional publishing.

Besides, is it so damned hard to be nice?

I mean, seriously.

Even someone who came from that notorious cesspool of journalistic and media malpractice — Gawker — should know that it’s good to check your jerkface at the door when you leave the house. Doesn’t matter how you self-identify. Male, female, or A-10 Warthog. Getting along with people, pays. And not just in publishing. In everything. And if you believe you’re getting strung out on social media and author events — if the schmooze is killing you — then by God put the fucking brakes on, and get some recharging time for yourself! It’s not the world’s fault that spending too much time “working” other human beings, makes you want to rip the skin off every face you see.

You also would not be the first author to watch the shine wear off the apple of her publishing dream, either. It happens to all of us, Ms. Gould. And while the advice, “Don’t hate the player, hate the game,” can sometimes be apt, I am going to gently suggest that hating the game doesn’t much help where trad pub is concerned. Not indie pub either, frankly.

You see, authoring is — at best — a service industry. You know, service industry? Hello, how may I take your order! Would you like to supersize that? Please pull around to the second window. I am sure those words have come out of your mouth at some point, have they not, Ms. Gould? Yes? No? Or did your parents pay for you all the way through college, without your hands having ever touched the handle of a mop, or a broom?

You are selling a product. Partially, it’s your stories and books. But also partially, it’s you yourself. To the editors. To the agents. And ultimately, to the audience as well. Nothing but salesmanship. Exhausting, tedious, draining salesmanship. You are Willy Loman. In a business already stuffed to the gills with millions of people — each scribbling furiously at his or her latest, greatest English-language tome — you’re not the exception. You’re the rule.

Relax, have a cigar, make yourself at home. Hell is full of high court
judges, failed saints. We’ve got Cardinals, Archbishops, barristers,
certified accountants, music critics, they’re all here. You’re not alone.
You’re never alone, not here you’re not. Okay, break’s over, ahahaHAHAHA!

You can either do the dirty chore of playing the game the way the good, proper, progressive, utterly “With her!” Manhattanites demand that it be played, or not.

But don’t pretend it’s got anything to do with things being easier for guys.

Nope.

Look, in the end, take some time out. Unplug from the endless swirl of schmooze. Gawker may have been a 90 MPH napalm-flaming train wreck of lies and deceit, but that doesn’t mean you have to keep up with that same insane pace, even if you’re afraid everybody else in good, proper, progressive Manhattan is going to climbs over your backses, then stab out your eyeses, Precious, because they sees you as competition, yes, yes, GOLLUM (spit) GOLLUM!

So effin’ what?

Figure out precisely how much schmoozing you can do — healthily — in a given week, or month, or year, and don’t let yourself exceed the limit. Learn to politely say “No thank you,” without being a beast about it. Don’t let yourself spend time with people you don’t feel like spending time with. And don’t fall into the trap of thinking that glad-handing is a task we males are somehow excused from performing.

We’re not. We’re expected to clean up and put on our Sunday best, and go be mannered and chatty, just like the girls.

And it’s probably a good thing, too. Especially in the era of social media, where face-to-face interactivity is suddenly even more taxing than it was before. Because you can’t just stare zombie-like into a small screen, while the world is forced to maneuver round you.

And in the end, if New York trad pub proves intolerable, there is always indie.

Yes, indie. I know it’s a dirty word on many lips, even in 2017.

But it’s viable. It can be done sans schmooze. And you don’t even have to leave your house if you don’t want to. Some people are making millions at it. Scoring movie deals. Becoming famous beyond the internet.

Me? I’m a pretty easy-going guy. Niceness isn’t tough for me. I can usually get along with just about anybody. Even the dicks. But I also know when to go home, close my door, turn off my conduit to the rest of the human sphere, and heal. Because constantly being in the mix is like turning the screw on an olive press. Sooner or later, there isn’t any oil left. Not for editors, not for the industry, not even for the audience.

Knowing when, and how, and where, and with whom — to expend your finite personal resources — that’s the ticket!

Not blaming men.

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What is “legitimate” in the 21st century publishing environment?

Not very long ago, the intarwebz — or at least that part of the intarwebz which is fascinated with all things authorly — became infuriated over this toss-off commentary from the Huffington Post. Now, toss-off commentary is not surprising at HuffPo. In fact, one might say that toss-off commentary is HuffPo’s raison d’être. Articles like this are supposed to inflame. HuffPo wants clicks, and caterwauling. That’s how HuffPo functions. And while men far better than me have taken the commentary to task, I think it’s worth pointing out that the article does bring up a very valid question, which lurks in the shadows at every author workshop, convention, kaffeeklatsch, and bar conversation: when will each of us know we are legitimate?

Way back in 1992, when I first got it into my head that I wanted to be a “for real” Science Fiction & Fantasy author, there was essentially one path to legitimacy. You typed up your story, sent it off to the slush pile(s) at the magazine(s) or the house(s) and you didn’t take no for an an answer — until somebody tendered a contract. Might not happen on your first submission, or even your hundredth, or maybe not even your five hundredth, nor your thousandth. But if you just kept after it, and kept writing and sending out new books and stories, sooner or later you’d make the grade. And when you had that paperback copy of your book (or your story, published in a magazine) in your hands, you could say with surety that you were legit. The other authors and editors at the conventions would agree. So too would most readers. You’d made the bar exam. You were (at last!) credentialed. Even if only modestly — because once you make the cut, you discover there is a whole new spectrum among published authors, from hobbyist dilettantes to million-dollar professionals.

In the year 2017, “legitimate” isn’t what it used to be.

Not when you have independent authors scoring movie deals and mega-contracts after ignoring the slush piles and the gatekeeping of the Agent-Editorial Complex.

I mean, just who gets to decide what “legit” looks like nowadays, anyway?

Partially, it’s you. The person doing the heavy lifting. You have to be able to look at yourself in the mirror. To thine own self be true. It doesn’t matter what anybody else says, if you yourself can’t or don’t feel like you’ve measured up.

And, partially, it’s the outside world. What does your cred look like? Does it meet or exceed any kind of external standard that others recognize, or agree upon?

The universe is filled with bullshitters.

Nobody reading this article wants to feel (or be looked at) like a bullshitter, right?

So we have to establish some criteria. Things which are both specific, and measurable. You will notice that the words “indie publishing” and “traditional publishing” do not appear anywhere in these criteria, because I think the 21st century publishing environment has made the old wall between “vanity” and “proper” press, obsolete. Anyone can publish anything (s)he wants at any time, and stand a chance of profiting from it. Likewise, awards are not included in these criteria, because awards are a completely arbitrary and external measure over which an author has little or not control. For any criteria to be valid (in my opinion) it ought to be something over which the author can exert some degree of influence, through both creativity and effort.

Productivity. Are you a fast writer? Are you consistent? How many words do you produce in an average day, an average week, and so on? How many book(s) or storie(s) can you get to market on an annual basis? Is the trend going up, or going down, or does it see-saw?

Readership. How many eyeballs are on your product? More importantly, how many eyeballs can you keep on your product, across stories, books, series, etc?

Income. How much money do you bring in weekly, monthly, yearly? How big are your paychecks? Is the trend going up, or down, or does it see-saw?

I’ve arranged these specifically in the order that they appear, because you need to be productive in order to get readers, and you need to have readers in order to get income. Q.E.D. I’ve also omitted things like movie and television licensing, games licensing, and so forth, largely because these are — like awards — things over which the author has almost no control. Would they be nice to have? Of course! Everybody loves to have them. But can you plan on them? Not really. I believe pegging your definition of success to things which are beyond your ability to effect (or affect?) is a very literal recipe for heartache. Because you may wind up hoping eternally for things which were never going to be, no matter how hard you try.

Let me tell you something, however. The five most financially well-off authors with whom I am personally acquainted, are also the five most hard-working and consistently productive authors with whom I am personally acquainted. Larry Correia, Brandon Sanderson, L.E. Modesitt, Jr., Kevin J. Anderson, and Eric Flint each bust their butts at this business. They don’t share the same publisher, nor even necessarily the same sub genres. What they do share is work ethic. One might almost call it workaholism? A relentless focus on prose output. Combined with a knack for telling entertaining stories. Some of them have more awards than others. Awards do not correlate to either readership, or income. Most of these men have been approached by different studios, regarding turning some of the authors’ work into motion pictures or television series. The only correlation in that case being, authors doing popular franchises have a far greater chance of being on a given studio’s acquisition radar, than authors doing obscure franchises. But again, the key is franchises. Plural. George R.R. Martin went most of his adult life, before the Game of Thrones books were turned into a hit small-screen series. Game of Thrones is hardly the only thing George has ever done in his career. And he’s regarded as a slow author.

More stuff on the market, means better chance to get and keep readers, equaling a better chance that some executive in Hollywood shows interest in your intellectual property.

But again, that’s not necessarily the set of goal posts you can or should be aiming for. Only a very small percentage of authors — even authors making six figures, or more, annually — will ever see his/her storie(s) turned into a Hollywood blockbuster.

So, it’s back to basics: production, followed by readership, followed by income.

In the eight years I’ve been “pro” in SF/F I’ve gone to a lot of conventions, and I’ve met a lot of different authors, ranging from people who are brand new starving artists all the way up to millionaires with the world seemingly eating out of their hands. One thing that gets respect up and down the chain, is consistent output. We all know how hard it is to keep a regimen. Especially those of us with additional career(s) and/or family and/or other commitments that take time, effort, and resources to maintain, grow, and manage. If you’re the kind of person who can consistently generate many books and stories over time, meeting deadline after deadline, you’re going to be regarded well by your peers — because nobody can fake it. A readership might be faked, in the form of cult-of-personality through a blog, or other social media presence. But if you’re the author at the convention who always has a new book out, every six to twelve months, and can always be counted on to deliver new, quality work within routine periods, that’s practically guaranteed to earn you respect. Even if you’re not necessarily a household name.

Readership follows on, unless you’re just utterly lacking in storytelling skill, or talent. And I’ll be honest, I think talent is ever-abundant. Skill has to be forged through hard work, over setbacks and obstacles. But talent? Talent is everywhere. The convention halls and workshops are filled with it. What the convention halls and workshops are not filled with, are people willing to do the hard chore of putting that talent through the crucible of rejection. Of failure. Of editors and agents saying, “No thank you.” Of Amazon’s metrics flat-lining. Of sitting at a table surrounded by a pile of Createspace copies, and only moving one or two items in an entire weekend. Lots and lots of people think they have what it takes. But in the end, can they endure the disappointments? The delayed remuneration, or even no remuneration? Can they survive a failed book, or series, to create the next book, or series? And the next? And the next, yet again?

Ulysses S. Grant, one of the most historic and celebrated officers in United States military history, was a serial failure at business, not to mention field command. He did have one thing going for him, though. A simple faith in success.

One might argue that Grant’s simple faith in success, not only saved his career, it also saved the war for the Union, and made Grant into a legend. Not because Grant was the most talented or creative officer in uniform. He wasn’t. No, not in his own Army; and certainly not compared to the Confederate side, either. Grant was just the man who didn’t let setbacks cripple him as he drove forward. Grant’s friend (and right-hand man) General Sherman once said, after the disaster at Shiloh, “We’ve had the devil’s day.” To which Grant merely replied, “Yup. Lick ’em tomorrow, though.”

If you can be that author — the man or woman who simply refuses to accept setbacks — you will be able to carve legitimacy out of even the most inhospitable publishing terrain.

Which brings us to the last metric: money.

This metric is tricksy, yes, Precious, because it’s far too easy for any author to grow envious, even to the point of career toxin. Many are the obscure authors who believe themselves to have superior talent — they may even have the awards to “prove” it — but the money just isn’t there. Or, at least, the money isn’t there to the extent said author(s) think it should be. Even critics and taste-makers lament the “corruption” of expanded income, and will practically use money as an inverse rule — the more a given author makes, the more “corporate” or “commercial” (s)he is, therefore becoming a lesser “artist” and so on, and so forth.

My suggestion is to wholly ignore outside factors, and consider your specific situation alone. How much income — directly from prose writing — would it take to pay a single bill? How about several bills? The monthly rent, lease, or mortgage? Pay off the car loan? Wipe out college debt? Pay for a home remodel? Buy a new home entirely? These are scalable, individual goals which are within your individual grasp to quantify, and they don’t place you in competition with your peers. You are never keeping up with the Joneses, to use an old phrase. Your success is not determined by matching or “beating” anyone else in the business. It’s wholly dependent on how much progress you can make, and in what form, according to financial circumstances which are uniquely your own.

For example, I live in fly-over country. The cost of living, for my specific area of Utah, is rather modest. Especially compared to where I used to live in Seattle, Washington. It won’t take millions of dollars to pay off my home, or my auto loan, or to add a second floor onto my rambler, or to accomplish any other dozen things which I’d like to accomplish with my writing income. Better yet, these things can be accomplished without having to look at either Larry Correia to my northeast, or Brandon Sanderson to the south. I don’t have to “catch up” to feel like I am winning at the game of life. I am alone, on my own chess board, and I define my own conditions for victory. They can be reasonable. More importantly, they can be reachable. And I know for a fact that Larry, or Brandon, or any four dozen other successful Utah authors — we’ve got a lot of them out here — will understand completely. Because they’re all doing the same thing, too.

And so can you.

Once more, for emphasis: production, followed by readership, followed by income.

You don’t need an agent for any of that, though it might be nice. You don’t need an editor for any of that, though it might be nice. You don’t need a publishing house for any of that, though it might be nice. You don’t need trophies for any of that, though they might be nice. You don’t need a blog or twitter feed filled with thousands upon thousands of followers, for any of that; though this too might be nice.

Everything you do need — like, 90% of it, really — is within your grasp. You. What you’re made of. Your grit. Your simple faith in success.

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Christmas past, present, and future

Secret Santa struck early this year — thanks (I suspect) to Larry Correia and Co., of Writer Nerd Game Night fame. I received a 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set, as well as 5th Edition Player’s Handbook. Both of which have stunning production values, including mountains of full-color glossy interior art. Gaming certainly has come a loooooooong way since I received my boxed copy of the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set, back in 1981. I still have the dog-eared Basic manual, though the box itself deteriorated and went to the dumpster a long time ago. Looking through my small heap of D&D material — prior to 5th Edition, my most recent purchase seems to have been the 1989 2nd Edition Advanced D&D Player’s Handbook — I was overcome by an almost overwhelming sense of nostalgia. Largely because of the artwork that adorned those old D&D pamphlets and hardbound manuals.

I’ve said it before — in conversation with Bob Eggleton — that I am not necessarily a fan of the hyper-realistic science fiction and fantasy artwork that has become common in the era of digital painting. It’s not that such artwork isn’t amazing. It is. But there is a quality to the older-style art (which typified so much about 1970s and 1980s SF/F publishing) that I call better-than-real. And by that I mean the artwork projects a kind of mythic quality. Telling so much without words. Luring the reader (or player) into a new adventure, with fantastic, otherworldly imagery that doesn’t try to replicate reality as much as it surpasses reality.

Segue: does modern SF/F storytelling surpass reality? Or dwell too much on it? Good question.

It’s been a long time since J.R.R. Tolkien and Edgar Rice Burroughs first amazed their respective audiences. Hell, it’s been a long time since Frank Herbert, or Anne McCaffrey, or Robert Heinlein appeared in the pages of a magazine like Analog. Modern SF&F authors are constantly staring backward at over 100 years of robust SF&F storytelling. We’re expected to be aware of it all, recognize its influence on everything we’ve consumed or modeled our own work on; for decades. And this pushes us relentlessly to innovate: style, taste, content, subject matter, all of which makes the field ever more esoteric. Because there is so little “new” left over for us to play with.

As I’ve said several times in the past two years. We (the field) don’t have any common touchstones anymore. Even Dungeons & Dragons is no longer the centerpiece of nerd life that it once was. Because the number of paper-and-dice role-playing games has exploded since the 1970s. Not to mention the monumental success of digital role-playing games. You can pass right through adolescence, and never roll a D20, nor have to make a saving throw — on paper.

Looking at the old D&D material, though, I felt strangely reassured. Some of the old magic (of Christmas 1981) came roaring back at me, for Christmas 2016. As if 35 years ceased to exist — in the blink of an eye — and I could see everything fresh again.

Not an easy thing to do. Or at least it’s not easy for me. I am no different from anybody else. I feel the gravitational pull of my years. My generation has never known a time without ever-present SF/F saturation — in our games, our movies, and our books. It’s been everywhere, and in everything. Tens of creators turned into hundreds of creators, and hundreds of creators turned into thousands of creators, and now you have tens of thousands (hundreds of thousands?) of creators all feverishly blazing away on various forms of SF/F. Each of us hoping to be on the next big wave. Create the next blockbuster franchise. More SF/F product being produced by more competent, creative people than at any time in the field’s whole history!

How the heck does a person hope to stay afloat in that kind of media storm? Movies and books and games and stories, relentlessly pouring forth with ever-greater volume and velocity, each year.

Yet, it must be pointed out that Dungeons & Dragons has persevered through it all. As a coherent, definable product. With a coherent, definable fan base that now spans at least three generations, or more. And it’s not the rules that hold people rapt. It’s the idea behind the rules. Of a bold hero — or heroine — standing at the black maw of a crumbled castle’s gate. Inside may be horrors, or riches, or both. There’s only one way to find out. Draw your sword. Motion your companions forward. Adventure awaits.

I think this is largely true of the best novels, and novel series, too. Stylistic innovation, thematic allegory, topical relevance, these are a bit like the rules of a role-playing game. They may define how the game gets played, but they are not the heart of the game itself. Timelessness requires tapping into the audience’s desire — to explore that proverbial ruined keep on the outer marches of the civilized frontier. Wealth. Romance. Danger. Conquest. A chance to prove one’s worth and ability. See things no one else has ever seen. These are components every society has — woven into the fabric of its ancient myths. As modern storytellers we are faced with a similar task. Can we present the readership with a compelling adventure? Will that adventure matter to the readership, when all is said and done?

Tolkien pulled it off. Orson Scott Card pulled it off. J.K. Rowling pulled it off.

You can probably name at least half a dozen others (on your personal list) who pulled it off.

If you’re like me, you’re trying to pull it off yourself.

My sense is that too many of us spend too much time with our eyes on the rear-view mirror — afraid of being accused of borrowing too much. Or devoting frenzied effort to cross-mashing what has gone before, in our desire to manufacture something original.

Dungeons & Dragons was hardly original. It lifted liberally from Tolkien.

And became the king of an entire genre of games — reigning to this very day.

I need to spend more time looking at my D&D stuff. As a reminder — of the eternal magic contained therein. Timeless. Ready to be unleashed within any number of fertile imaginations. Regardless of age, gender, or ideological inclination.

There’s a lot to be said for crumbling castles and darkened gates.

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Author marketplace abundance theory

A few days ago I stumbled across some commentary — from a politically progressive, award-winning fantasy author — wherein said author somewhat viciously lamented the “fact” that other authors were actively wishing (and working!) for the award-winner to be kept out of the marketplace.

I smiled, not because the statement was true — it’s not — but because the statement reflected an all too common false-dichotomy paradigm that is prevalent in authorial circles.

Going beyond the old saw that award-winners covet money, and money-makers covet awards, I think it’s worth pointing out (for the umpteenth time) that the marketplace is not a zero-sum game. I know it’s very easy to believe that the marketplace is a zero-sum game. If you have an apple pie on the holiday feast table, when the last slice of that apple pie has been taken, there is no more apple pie. It’s gone. That’s just common sense. You either get to have a piece of the pie, or you don’t.

But readers are not slices of pie. When one author “takes” a reader, that reader does not vanish from the stream of commerce. (S)he is still there. And very probably going to be buying other books. Because (s)he is not satisfied enjoying a single story, by a single author. Most people who read for recreation, have a range of favorite author(s) and genre(s). As with their cars — which always have to be tanked up — recreational readers have to “tank up” on books. In an average lifetime, a single recreational reader may devour thousands of volumes by hundreds of different writers. And there are millions of recreational readers, with more being added to the world every year. There has never been a better time for more authors to be supplying more readers with more enjoyment.

Yet, the “finite pie” perspective persists. Why?

First, I think there is an undying and (completely superstitious) notion among authors, that what’s popular necessarily tamps down or shoves out what’s good. For any and all definitions of both “popular” and “good.”

Second, artists of all stripes tend to be competitive by nature. Writers are no different from anyone else on the artist spectrum. Even those writers who actively work to keep and foster a generous attitude — in their own lives, and in the lives of others — are aware of the fact that writers exist on a sloping surface. In terms of readership. In terms of monetary success. In terms of critical acclaim and notoriety.

Third, many people thrive when they believe there is an “againstness” working in their lives. Human beings were created (or evolved, if you prefer) in an environment of entropy. By the dust of thy brow, thou shalt earn thy daily bread. The marketplace is vast, and uneven. It’s easy to look at the whole thing, and assume it’s a hostile force to be reckoned with.

Fourth, people also want to prove they’re good enough. That they’ve got what it takes. That they deserve to stand among those who are above. Which connotes that there are people — the majority — who are below.

All of which creates the false impression that authors are jammed together shoulder-to-shoulder, jostling and scuffling for their share of the take, and if you’ve got more and somebody else has got less, that’s just because you’re better at competing. You’re the superior artist. Or, in the eyes of the person with less, you’ve benefited from unfair advantages. You’re the poorer artist, who simply has superior connections, or who rode the “popular” wave, versus what’s obviously “good.” And so forth.

I would like to place in your minds, this simple thought: everything above is bunk.

Your peers are not taking away all the pie. In fact, pie is exactly the wrong way to look at it. It’s more akin to being a catch-and-release fisherman. The marketplace is a huge reservoir. In it swim a boundless variety of beautiful, hungry fish. You have your pole and your tackle — your skillset as a storyteller — and your job is to cast out into the water again, and again, and again. Catching as many fish as you can. All along the shore, are countless other anglers just like yourself. But instead of tossing their fish into a creel, they’re putting the fish back into the water as rapidly as they’re taken out of the water. A fish that bites on the lure of the fisherman fifty yards east of you, is as likely to bite on your lure too. And you promptly throw the fish back, which then swims fifty yards west, to bite on the lure of still another fisherman. And so on.

A voracious fish might chomp on many lures in a short span of time. Slower fish will be pickier and/or not as active. The point being: nobody is ever going to run out of fish. Your only real obstacle, is figuring out which lure(s) are working on any given day. Because not all lures work on all kinds of sport fish, in the same season. Be they pike, or muskies, or bass, or trout. Pick your lane. Hone your skills. Get good at knowing what the trout are chasing, and when. Then, if you’re ambitious, develop an additional skillset for a different type of fish. Nothing says you have to fish for only one kind. Knowing how to catch one type, usually gives you a head start on knowing how to catch another.

And again, nobody — no angler — is ever going to run out of fish. Readers don’t “belong” to any single author, and the marketplace doesn’t either. Readers swim freely throughout, and you’ve got a near endless number of chances to hook somebody on your latest book, or story. At no point is the reservoir ever “used up.”

Now, this is not a perfect analogy.

But it’s a helluva lot better than the finite pie. Right?

It’s truer, too.

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It takes a lot of rocks to get to the candy

My wife and I coordinated our Halloween costumes this year, to correspond with It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown! She’s Lucy, complete with red witch hat and green witch mask; both custom-made — my wife is just talented as hell like that. My outfit, on the other hand, is far simpler: Charlie Brown — to include the white sheet with way too many eye holes. A family friend commented to me (tonight, at the local ward party) that all I needed to complete my portion, was a football, and a paper sack filled with rocks.

I’ve use the sack-full-of-rocks analogy before, to describe what it’s like being an aspiring author. Especially back in the days before dignified independent publishing existed. You either vanity-published, or you did the hard chore of sending your (paper!) manuscripts off to editors. As well as agents. In exchange for (paper!) rejection letters. Lots, and lots, and lots of rejection letters. I still have a fairly large three-ring binder, stuffed with all the paper slips I’ve ever received. As of 2016, I think my electronic rejections have reached or exceeded the paper number. Many hundreds, or more. I’ve lost count, to be honest. And they’ve not stopped, even with a robustly healthy publishing track record to my credit.

When you’re new, it occasionally seems like Lucy is eternally yanking the ball away. No matter how hard you run at it, you can’t connect. You just end up flat on your back, wondering what the hell is wrong with you, or your work. What’s the issue? Do you really and truly suck? Or is the system somehow broken? Maybe, stacked against you?

The truth is that publishing is now easier than it’s ever been. But success? In the words of Kevin J. Anderson, success is as hard as it always was. Maybe, I would add, harder? Because there are more people publishing prose — in the English language, in the 21st century — than at any other time in history. Thousands of new books and stories are launched every single day. The removal of editors and agents as the sole gatekeepers of the industry, means that literally everyone can take their books and stories directly to the marketplace. Which is a bit like having hundreds of new NASCAR drivers merge onto the track every hour, on the hour. And the track is infinitely wide.

It’s enough to make even a competently optimistic author throw up her hands and utter, “Good grief!”

Here’s the good news, as non-intuitive as it may sound. Getting rocks in your sack helps you get better.

No, really, it does. Even if you’re an indie author. Because this is what forces you to work. To not stay put, churning at the same level of authorial acumen.

My hundreds of rejections have been hard. They’re still hard. But they’re a reminder to me that there is always room for improvement. And especially in the beginning, when I honestly and truly did not know what I was doing — I still have many of those old manuscripts, believe me, I know how appropriate it is that they never saw print! — rejection was a limiter against which I had to push myself. And it also taught me humility. In addition to appreciation for the eventual wins, when they came.

But only after my sack had filled up with rocks, year after year.

Yeah, I get it. No sane person gets a sack full of rocks every single year, and doesn’t experience moments of severe doubt. I was getting ready to throw in the towel by 2005 — after over a dozen years of rejection — when my wife said to me, “If you let this dream go, you have to replace it with an equal or better dream.” I ultimately couldn’t do that, because I couldn’t turn off the story-generator in my head. Even if my storytelling chops weren’t yet good enough to take what was happening in my head, and smoothly translate it to words. So I redoubled my effort. And I switched up my style. Moving from third-person to first-person — especially for short stories — was a huge win for me. Uncomfortable as hell, at first. But it was the necessary move that helped me bump my short work into entry-level professional territory. So that by 2010 I had stuff under contract, with more on the way, and a bona fide career was launched.

And because I still had all those sacks filled with rocks, I could look at them and relish the (then, new) candy suddenly being thrown my way.

I still relish the candy, because it’s more common now, and of a higher quality, more often. I’d not appreciate any of this, without my requisite sacks of rocks — earned over my proverbial first million words of “practice” prose.

So don’t feel like it’s a thankless chore, if you’re still getting rejections, or your indie work is dudding in the marketplace. For whatever reasons, you’re still not connecting (yet!) with that football. It may take you a few more (or a lot more?) manuscripts, to hone your intuitive storytelling capabilities to the point that your prose is capable of doing what you need it to, in order to consistently entertain an audience. Be it the audience of the editor or agent, or the audience of the open marketplace. Again, thousands of new “drivers” merging onto the NASCAR oval every day. You’re not alone. Most of those people won’t stick. Bottom line. They won’t get traction, and will move on to some other endeavor. The way to win on the oval, is to simply keep going around and around and around. Ensure that you never take yourself out of the race. Keep showing up on those porches and front stoops, your paper sack open and ready to receive what’s coming to you. It doesn’t make you a blockhead, if you try and fail. You’re only a blockhead if you try, then fail, and assume that trying was pointless. Or that somehow, magically, everyone else who is getting candy, knows the secret launch codes or something.

There’s no secret. Just effort. And patience.

Don’t expect it all to come to you at once. Accept the setbacks and the mistakes. They are only fruitless if you don’t learn from them — if they have not shown you some way you can do better.

Because when the wins do come . . . believe me, you will experience satisfaction unlike almost any other.

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