The Son of Man, René Magritte
I had a long day out, in the city and away from my island, today. The result was that I had plenty of time to contemplate some words. It’s the end of another year, and I’ve been mulling over what I did, and did not accomplish this past annum. Added to this I’ve been thinking a lot about what I’m going to work on next year.
When I got home, I knew I needed to return a couple of emails. My story contribution to Doomsday Chronicles has been passed along to the editor and consequently there’s some work to compete. I’ve also spent a lot of time stewing over DISTANCE and workshopping FIRE WEATHER. So, as soon as I was able, I opened up ye olde laptop and dug in. Emails off, plot points recorded, I noticed a post from Django Wexler, Myke Cole, and Mark Laurance.
Turns out an aspiring author named EC Williamson sent Mark a short collection of questions that can be summarized “Share with me the secret of your success.” His questions — addressed on Mark’s blog by the aforementioned authors — segue nicely for me.
This is not something I would typically ever do, but I’m just really frustrated. And I apologize for cold messaging you like this. Really, I am.
I’m just getting discouraged, because I’ve been writing for 25 years, and I’m starting to lose belief in myself that I will ever be able to be fortunate to make a living with my writing. Not even an “uber successful” (even though that would be pretty cool) life, but just a comfortable living.
Without the usual cliche of “just keep writing” – do you happen to have anything at all to keep me believing. Writing is, and has ALWAYS been one of the most sacred things that I have had, to lean on in life. It’s the one thing I love to do, and at 43…I’ve been around long enough to know what I want, LOL. Telling a story, sharing the story or journey of someone for others to enjoy, is a great feeling.
It’s easily one of the hardest things to do, successfully. And I don’t think writers get nearly enough of the due respect they deserve for what it takes to be a writer.
Again, sorry to bug ya. If you have a moment to respond, that would be cool, and really appreciated.
If not, no problem there either. Just figured I’d try.
EC Williamson and I seem to share a couple of traits, so this is as much advice for him as it is for myself. And while I haven’t nearly the notoriety nor the publishing history of the three authors that have already responded, I do have a plan for making more success from my words.
- Understand my place in the changing market: This is not a market prognostication. I’m just not smart enough or sufficiently well connected to know where literary markets, genre or otherwise, will go in 2016. Extend that timeline to 2021 or 2026 and my “roadmap” looks more like a crayon drawing done while having a seizure. And frankly, as much as I read about what reader markets are doing, there’s absolutely nothing I can do to change either vector or velocity.Put another way, given the storm that constantly rages around me it would be foolish for me to take either hand from the boat or the wheel. Shaking fists at the maelstrom or giving up because the waves won’t stop pounding my pilot house is pure folly.
Next year I plan on plotting a better course, I want to take advantage of those close reaches near the edges of the hurricane, so I get to my desired destination as easily as possible.
This year I published some shorter works. With the publication of Ser Pan Comido in Galaxy Chronicles, I finally got my first taste of something that felt suspiciously like success. Based on these data points I can triangulate a better course toward a more fulfilling goal.
My advice to EC? Better understand where your position. Do you have representation? Do you have a stack of saleable manuscripts ready to send out? Do you know people at publishing houses? Do those people know that you write, have they read anything you’ve written? Do you have a stack of rejection letters? If the answer to any or all of these is “no” then perhaps you need to take a couple of moments to understand better your orientation within the market. You might be trying to sail into irons or against a strong current.
There are many, many ways to publish, but if you’re only trying to publish one way you’re passing up opportunities.
- Develop your voice, perfect your platform: If you’ve spent any time at all at conventions or workshops you’ll hear this one often. Usually, it pops up after you’ve made your way through the standard string of banalities. “Just keep writing.” “Work harder” or “work smarter.”It took me a little while to realize what this means.
Consider if you will, one John Scalzi. Arguably, one of the most prolific authors in our sector of the universe. He understands that regular feeding and proper grooming of his fans is the critical component to his success. And he gives the people that love his work a routine amount of kibble.
First, he writes stories that people want to read. This is important, and it’s one of those things we can all use as a model. If I find the magic munchables that will bring many new readers into my herd then I will write that story a million times and then sideways to keep them begging for more.But Scalzi was never content to stop there. He’s made it a routine to take the witty dialogue that anyone might find in his books and send it out into the internets as often as possible. His blog, his twitter feed, his public appearances — all of those things are chock full of the words you might expect to read in any of his stories.
Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t an act. I believe that this is his voice, both within his storytelling and in his routine life. The fact that so many people find his banter compelling while entertaining is exactly what we all want. He’s built an impressive career in words just by being himself.
In 2015, Ser Pan Comido did okay. I felt it was an okay story too, but in the days running up to its release I started to wonder if this was my voice. Would my words dazzle in just the right way to win me a bigger audience?
Right now, it feels like most people read it because they’re doing me a favor. That’s not what I want. That’s not how I want to build this beast. If I were sitting next to a blazing fire telling that story tonight, I know it would come out differently. Perhaps I needed more time with it?
GOAT, on the other hand, I know is a better story. I was moved to write it; I anticipate it will move some readers too. This is how I think and talk. It’s based in my experience, events and adventures that moved me, so the hope is that it will do the same for some of you.
In 2016, I’m going to examine what I can write that works and why. Then incorporate those lessons into the new collection of words I will produce. It is about building trust with the readers you have so they know what to expect from the words you’ll soon write.
My advice to EC? Pay attention to the way people react to you when you’re talking. Figure out what works and what doesn’t because the way you relate to other people in person is almost certainly embedded in what you write. Your voice as a person and your voice as an author are conjoined and if the former doesn’t do the job, the latter will fall flat. Look for ways to build trust with your readers. They want to trust you, so don’t let them down.
- Read more: My final personal goal of 2016 and last piece of advice, read more.I came across this bit from a 1935 Esquire article written by Hemmingway and I believe that it’s an excellent writer’s rule.
“The best way is to read it all every day from the start, correcting as you go along, then go on from where you stopped the day before. When it gets so long that you can’t do this every day read back two or three chapters each day; then each week read it all from the start. That’s how you make it all of one piece.”
My plan? Read what I’m writing in exactly this manner. In fact, I do this already. But to be able to “correct” as I go along most effectively I’ve got to give other people’s work the same degree of criticality.
Understand what does and does not work. If I learn to discern adequate writing from truly inspired and memorable prose in other’s manuscripts, my writing will consequently and effortlessly be improved.
This last year I had the privilege to read a number of books and works in progress. And in that hairy mess of words and imagined moments, there was this one perfect hook that haunts me while I write.
“Despair could never touch a morning like this.
“The air was cool, and smelled of sage. It had the clarity that comes to southern California only after a Santa Ana wind has blown all haze and history out to sea — air like a telescopic glass, so that the snowcapped San Gabriels seemed near enough to touch, though they were forty miles away.”
“Pacific Edge”, Kim Stanley Robinson
When I read this I knew that I wanted to approximate the truth of that first sentence in something I’d write. I hold it up and compare words I’ve written against its precision. I measure myself against its impact.
Advice for EC? Read what you write, read it until you like what you’ve written. Read it, rewrite it, until you’re certain it’s as good as, if not better than, your favorite writing.
Look, I’m 43 years old too. I’ve been writing for a long time although presumably I haven’t been trying to make a living at it as long has you have. But listen, I understand your despair. I too, from time to time, toy with the idea of quitting.
We both know that the genesis of quitting is the bastard child of a mutual frustration with our own personal limitations coupled with the mean anxiety of obscurity. It stinks being a featureless member of the crowd. But it is a far worse fortune to languish in a life devoid of story, lacking even clumsy expression.
That is why I write. I want to create something new, special and completely my own.
Words shouldn’t be written for a profit, notoriety, or even recognition. Those are all potential fringe benefits; possible consequences of publication in an increasingly democratic marketplace. If you need something to believe in then consider the notion that you might write some true words, you might be able to relate a moment of emotion with a stranger and have them utterly understand, you could dream up the world’s funniest joke, or describe a sunset that invariably provokes people to shed tears of joy.
All of these things are only possible if you believe in yourself and then write solely from that faith.