Monday, April 11, 2011

Adjusting the Scale

I remember watching the Jetsons where one family member or another would sigh and complain about having to do a task like make dinner, or clean the house. They would drag themselves out of a chair and with heavy feet reluctantly walk to a wall where they would press one button and the job would be done for them. Still they collapsed as if they had worked ridiculously hard. This is one of those jokes that are funny or memorable, because they’re true. People have a tendency to find something to complain about or to regret, even when it appears absurd to others with different situations. If the worst thing in your life is that you are only five-eleven and a half, you might find yourself miserable because you aren’t six feet tall. People, it would seem, require a scale to know good from bad even when bad isn’t really all that bad.

For an aspiring writer, being published is the grand goal. Being published through a major traditional house is just about the best possible achievement. There is a magic to it. You might write stories for years and all that time is wasted--a practice in stupidity, like buying a lottery ticket each week, or saving a collection of artwork by a neighbor hoping one day he will be famous. It amounts to nothing, besides the enjoyment of the writing--until you are published. Instantly, the moment you are, all that time is not a waste, but an investment--the time it took to hone your craft. It was all worth it. Play money is magically turned to real money as if by the wand of a Disney fairy. Like Pinocchio, you are now a real-author. This is the odd thing about real-life, because that’s usually where there story ends in fiction, along with the obligatory, “and they lived happily ever after.” In real-life, you keep going.

Initially there is the disbelief, followed by the shock of reality changing. People forget you were an idiotic dreamer, so full of yourself that you actually thought you could write a book and get it published. With the flash of that fairy wand, suddenly they always knew you were talented and destined to make it. “It was only a matter of time,” they say. In-laws, aunts, uncles, friends and acquaintances, all look at you with new found respect, and your “little hobby” becomes the moon landing. You go from couch potato to brain surgeon overnight--a genius with the rank of author, where before was a normal human being with no super powers at all. People call you, sir, and assume your time is too valuable to speak to them. It is amusing to see. You watch as a bystander thinking how crazy all of these people are, not knowing you’re the crazy one. Things have changed, you just don’t know it yet. Like Peter Parker, you think it’s great to have spidey-abilities, but until Uncle Ben is murdered, it doesn’t sink in.

There are several levels to a career in writing. The first is just playing around. You aren’t sure you’re serious. You aren’t sure you’re good enough. You achieve something, win a contest and you knuckle down. You study, attend groups, read how-to books, listen to authors and get an agent. This is a bad time. You’re committed. You’re investing time and money, and there is no real chance of making any of it back. It could all be for nothing. Then you get published, either through an indy or self. There is a great sense of accomplishment, but it is diluted. Being published doesn’t mean quite what it used to, and perhaps it never did. Being the author of a book no one buys isn’t much better than being an unpublished author. So, of course, being a published author who makes a living wage or better, must be Nirvana, but if you remember the Jetsons, everything scales up.

When you’re in the first stage, when you are just playing around with writing, you can do anything. No one cares, and you have all the time in the world. I know people who took nearly a decade to write one novel. There’s no pressure, no expectation, no concern. It’s just a hobby. Then suddenly you’re published through a big house. You have a dedicated fan base, and your wife is thinking of quitting her job because you can support the family with your writing. Sounds great…sounds wonderful…sounds like success at last.

But Uncle Ben is dead.

You now have responsibilities. Fans expect a certain quality, a certain type of story. What you write is limited. Taking your time is no longer an option. Not only will fans be upset, but your bank account can’t afford it. This is a job now, with all the weight and baggage that comes with that. And of course there are the distractions. Contracts, meetings, interviews, conventions, email, favors, and with it all comes stress. Stress associated with politics and appeasement. Even stress that was never before part of writing. Can you do it again? Now that the spotlight is on, can you capture lightning in a bottle on cue? The more successful, the more everything else gets in the way and time devoted to writing is limited. This just increases the pressure. Soon you need the literary equivalent of Viagra just to break the cycle.

So yeah, it sounds absurd, and no I wouldn’t ever trade positions with myself from two years ago, and sure it beats the hell out of roofing in August or power line work in January, but life is never perfect because the scale shifts. So if you are an aspiring writer, remember that there are good things about not being published yet. That’s about as convincing as a sixty-year-old telling a twelve-year-old to enjoy the time you have being a kid. It really is better being older, but there are still some unexpected tradeoffs that you might look back on wistfully forgetting the fear and anguish of an unknown future. Things like the chance to spend a summer day running through a sprinkler, or the freedom to write anything you like in anonymity without pressure or interruption.

Author gets up, drags himself to the wall and presses the button.

7 comments:

  1. As Dylan said, "There's no success like failure and failure is no success at all." [or something like that].
    Interesting blog. I hope pushing the button works out well for you. So much fantasy has gotten so dark (and grisly)...Have enjoyed the Riyria series immensely. Looking forward to the final book (ah, but will it really be the last one?).

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  2. Adjusting the scale is a good way of putting it. And I love your Jetsons analogy.

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  3. Percepliquis will be the last in the Riyria series. There is a chance I might consider some other things dealing with Elan afterwards, but we'll see how these six go over first.

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  4. I found your books on my Kindle (you were recommended on one of the sci-fi lists) four weeks ago. Now I have ready all of them and am waiting for the sixth in the Riyria series. I am a rabid George R.R. Martin fan, and buddy, you are just as good. It is amazing that you can tell such an awesome story without all of the gristle and gore. I thought I would miss it, but I didn't. Keep up the GREAT work.

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  5. Mike, I really enjoyed this post. I've actually had some of the same thoughts too, that maybe I should enjoy this unpublished phase more, since it's all about being creative and pursuing the great story. Once you're published (as a children's author,) you have to worry about how to get people to review your book, how to get it into bookstores, the library, how to get school visits and whether your agent will like the next book.

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  6. Could you also have the countdown for Percepliquis up there :)

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