Posts Tagged ‘success’

I’d like to win a writing award some day.

This is hardly news; every writer wants to win an award someday, except for those who already have, and I am fairly confident in saying that they want to win more awards some day. There are, of course, writers who say they don’t care if they ever win any awards, but I’m sure they wouldn’t mind if they did.*

I don’t feel bad about this; to be honest, nothing I’ve done has merited such treatment (although a few years ago, when the Hugos were being manipulated by block voting, I did think that I had an eligible story which was equal to anything the block voters were putting up). In fact, I have my doubts that I ever will write something that special. Which is why it’s a darn good thing it’s not up to me.

I’m sure that many writers have finished a story and thought, “Damn, that’s good, even if I do say so myself. This could actually get nominated for something.” (Actually, we all say that pretty much every time we finish, but occasionally we recognize that it might just be more than fantastical thinking.) More often, though, I think that we write something hoping against hope just to get it published, and when it is nominated for an award–let alone when it wins one–we are stunned because we don’t think it’s good enough.

I mean, face it, we never think it’s good enough; it’s never really done. There is always a verb to be made more tangible or a sentence or two to be shaved (and I actually sold a story after just such an operation), but part of the trick of being a real writer is to know when to let go. After all, if it’s rejected a few times, you can always go back and edit then. But to think it’s not only finished, but award-worthy? That’s beyond most of our capabilities. Writers are the worst judges of our own work.

And that’s why it’s best that other people nominate us for awards. The best award, anyway, is having people buy what we write. Maybe we even get fan mail. But we’re writing to be read, not for trophies.

Still, it would be nice, some day, to stand at that dais and thank my wife, my readers, and my tenth-grade English teacher. Just don’t ask me how that might happen, because I’d be the last person to figure it out.


*There is a continuing topic question in the community: Would you rather be known as a commercially-successful writer or a critically-successful writer? There are about twice as many answers to that question as there are writers.



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A friend pointed me to an article the other day regarding the latest generation of teenagers and their addiction to their cell phones and tablets. According to this author’s research, the more time they spend staring at their screens, the unhappier they are. Now I am not a teenager, and I don’t have any teen-aged children, so normally this would be of little import to me. But it got me thinking about something else I’d seen lately, not about kids, but about the time spent starting at a screen–in this case, as an indie author.

As I’ve said, I’ve spent more than a little time researching the subject of self-publishing and making it as an independent author. I’ve read a lot of postings and articles by people who make a very good living (six figures annually) doing that. Naturally, the “how” is important to me.

One author I read recently opined that the absolute minimum for success is to put out four novels per year. I’m assuming these aren’t 200,000-word door-stoppers, but that’s still a lot output, a minimum of a quarter-million words. (Right now, I’m aiming for 180,000 words; we’ll see how it goes.) And that means a lot of time spent writing. (These are people who make their living writing; you’d think they have no day job, but apparently some do. Wow.)

I have seen postings saying that to achieve this milestone, you have to work all the time. You are writing or you are promoting or you are researching your audience and how to reach more of them. You do not watch TV, go to the movies, and although some have children, I don’t know when they found the opportunity.

I’m sorry, there are things I’m not willing to give up. Granted, I watch a lot less TV than I used to (something has to go), but I have a wife, and friends, and hobbies, and I will not surrender them. I won’t spend my life staring at a screen.

When I was in high school, I took a class that was supposed to provide life lessons for after you graduated. (Yeah, it was pretty laid back, and no, grading was not tough.) One of our exercises one day was to write an essay naming people we thought were “successful.” I came up with a few obvious folks, wrote about them, and turned it in. Nothing ground-breaking, except that I can still remember thinking that “success” is personal. It’s not making the most money, or fame, it’s being able to do what you want to do. (Maybe I learned more in that class than I thought.) He who dies with the most books doesn’t necessarily win.

Well, what I want to do is not sit in my freezing garret every day for the rest of my life, spinning stories, if it means sacrificing what I find makes life worth living. If I can find a way to write four novels a year and not lose it all, then great. (I may; writing three a year would have been unthinkable as far back as 2016, but I’ve already written one this summer and just started my second.)

I’d love to make six figures with my writing. I’d love to shower my wife with vacations to make up for all the time she’s allowed me to leave her for the company of my fictional friends. But if I spend my whole life writing, then she’s going to spending those vacations alone…

…and I don’t think that’s the point.






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So it’s been an exciting week in my little corner desk of the universe. I’ve had a story go up on a Hugo-winning podcast (read by a Hugo winner), I sold a reprint, I had four other stories come back with less fanfare, another (for which I have had high, but unrealized, hopes for years) is due to be judged by another market at any minute, and I had a book giveaway on LibraryThing that was oversubscribed (i.e., more people requested it than there were copies available).* Given that I’ve had months go by without any of these events occurring, this is a whirlwind.

And yet, my life is essentially the same as a week ago. I am no more famous than I was (so far as I can tell), I am little richer than I was (nor will I be when I’m paid), and nobody’s called me to make a movie deal of my podcast story. I will admit that at the beginning of the week, with all of these events (most of which were predictable) ahead of me, I had high hopes that my time was now. And really, I’m old enough to know better.

This is not to say that my time is not yet to come, it is simply recognizing that fame, fortune, love, whatever it is you’re looking for, doesn’t simply crash down on you like a lightning bolt that gives you super-speed. This is a very difficult lesson to learn, because we don’t want to wait–we want our fame and fortune now.

When I was in school, I approached every date, every dance, every opportunity to meet girls as if it was my last. Not in a dashing, devil-may-care way, but in desperation. (I was not exactly the captain of the football team, if you see what I’m saying.) It wasn’t until I gained some perspective that I realized that things take time. The girl I was going to fall in love with was right there all along, but our relationship required time to develop into what it became, and still is.

So it’s okay to get all excited and think, “This is it! This is my big chance!” as long as you realize it won’t be your only chance. I have other stories out there, and maybe one of them will hit it big. Or maybe it’s the next story I write. I know a lot of writers who have been dying of despair in January and counting their award nominations in March. After all, J.K. Rowling was flat broke before “Harry Potter” hit.

On the whole, however, I’d prefer to avoid more weeks like this one. They’re exciting, but draining. If Steven Spielberg is going to call, I wish he’d just get it over with. Maybe I should check my messages…

… Okay, nothing. But tomorrow is another day… Hey, that’s catchy. I bet I could work that into a story.


*I have two other giveaways running on LibraryThing if you care to look.



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I was at a football game yesterday, which my team lost. Part of it was due to my team’s mistakes, part of it due to the other team’s persistent effort, and part of it due to the absolutely atrocious officiating. (Yes, I know the losers always blame the referees, but this time it wasn’t simply hometown bias. They really sucked. It wouldn’t surprise me if official notice is taken of their incompetence.)

But I’m getting over it (slowly), largely, I think, because there is nothing I could have done about it. Nothing about my team’s performance, nor the other team’s, and certainly nothing about the officiating. In fact, no one could do anything about that. And there’s a lesson there, which I will now elucidate in a round-about way.

I’ve gotten to the point in my career where, thanks largely to the Internet, I am acquainted with quite a few writers. Most of them, I’m pretty sure, are younger than I am. And a good many, it seems, have had or are having, more success than I. And you know what?

Like the officiating at yesterday’s game, there’s not a damn thing I can do about that. (Actually, there’s nothing I can do about either their ages or their accomplishments.) Other writers are going to have successes that eclipse mine. Occasionally, I will have a success that some other writer wishes he had, and there will be nothing he can do about that, either.

So a large part of writing (a very large part) is accepting that there are things about one’s career that one cannot control. Other writers’ success, editorial preferences, the timing of submission windows, the timing of submissions that would have been sales except that someone else got to that editor with a similar story last week.*

It’s really tough when you know the person who’s being more successful than you. It’s kind of a survivor’s guilt in reverse; you want to be happy for her, but her accomplishment makes you sad. And maybe jealous. But probably it depresses you and you are unhappy about being unhappy.

It’s all very human, and it might make a good story if anyone other than a writer wanted to pay money to read it. But likely no one does. And you know what?

There’s nothing you can do about that, either. Except learn to live with it. And remember that no matter how jealous you are of someone else’s successes, there are people out there who are jealous of yours–and the first in line is You, five years ago.

*This has happened to me more than once. One time, however, the editor reconsidered and changed the magazine’s policy of one fiction piece per issue so she could buy mine. That has happened only once.

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I often talk about how hard it is to be a writer, sometimes in jest, sometimes in earnest. I do this because, in the end, while it is not so hard to be a writer, it’s hard to be a good writer, and ever so much harder to be a successful writer. Of course, there are as many definitions of “success” as there are people, but let’s just settle for defining “successful” as having made sales to paying markets, or having significant success in self-publishing. Yes, that leaves grey areas that could span galaxies, but bear with me. It’s not relevant to my point anyway. You can also define successful as “award-winning,” and that is relevant. Let’s take a writer who has had sold half a dozen stories to paying markets. He wants to be more successful. He wants to place stories in top-notch magazines. He wants to sell a novel to a Big Publisher. At this point, he’s risen above the crowd. He has the skills. If he perseveres, he will probably sell to the best magazines, and he might at some point sell a novel. But he wants even more than that: He wants respect, from his readers, from his peers. He wants awards. Well, that, as he soon finds, is an entirely different kettle of fish. See, there are literally dozens of fiction markets out there today (again, using SF as our world). These markets demand scores of stories every month, and while there are thousands of writers trying to break into them, he’s already done it several times, which puts him in the 95th percentile, at least. He can honestly hope that a significant percentage of his output will sell. But awards? You can count the major awards on one hand, and they don’t all have a short fiction category, and each of those only has a handful of nominees and one winner per year. You see the problem. And that’s only the external problem. It’s merely a matter of mathematics. There are ways to improve the writer’s odds; some markets produce more award nominees than others, because of circulation, or public perception, or just because the editors are that good. He can target these markets, study them, and if he cracks them, his odds go up. That’s the easy part. There’s also an internal problem. Maybe the writer just isn’t the type who writes award-winning stories. Award winners tend to the avant-garde, or the deeply emotional. Even editors of award-winning magazines do not pick only award-winning stories. Sometimes they like to balance deeply-affecting tragedies with rock ’em sock ’em space operas. Maybe that’s what the writer sells. Nothing wrong with that, but it probably won’t win any awards. (Yes, this year is apparently an anomaly in the Hugo nominations, but such an anomaly won’t help our friend the writer.) Now our writer, descending from his post-sale high to his more typical slightly-depressed “what have I done today?” state, has to confront the truth: He may not be an award-winning writer. He may be good, but never great. (It’s possible he could achieve “great” through sheer sales volume, but honestly, he’s better off hoping to win a Nebula.) What does the writer do? This is not an academic question, this is his career. This is what he has dreamt of all of his life. And now he has to face the fact that, just as not all writers can be successful, not all successful writers can be great. Hold on, you say, no one can predict the future. New writers rise to fame from obscurity all the time. And even if the writer will never win an award, Robert Browning said that, “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, / Or what’s a heaven for?” Really? Hope should never obscure reality; shouldn’t even someone who has conquered the gigantic odds against being published at all be able to recognize that his scope is limited? Should the writer use his newfound knowledge as a crutch, or a lever? Will he be happier if he accepts his lot, or will he regret not following Don Quixote to tilt at those Hugos? And how does he decide? #sfwapro

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There was a discussion in my peer group concerning the passing of Leonard Nimoy, and whether it qualified as “untimely.” It was pointed out that he lived to be 83 years old, well past the American average, and that he had, not ironically, “lived long” (as well as “prospered”). Given that fact, although we were not prepared to see him go, we should consider that he had lived well and fully.

Not surprisingly, this lead to more thoughts about death, specifically about those I have known who did not have a chance to “live long.” I have lost three friends from college now, bright people who were never able to fulfill their promise because they left this life too soon. I wondered what they might have accomplished given more time, and the thought reflected back: You have the time they didn’t. You’ve been given the chance they weren’t. What are you doing?

I like to say, “Don’t ask yourself where the time has gone. Ask yourself where it’s going.” And with me, as with most of us, it’s going toward working, commuting, catching up with “Downton Abbey”–and writing the occasional piece of fiction. I haven’t done anything great with my life, and odds are I will never make the difference in people’s lives that Leonard Nimoy made. Few of us ever have that opportunity, and fewer take it.

But that’s no reason to despair, or to panic, because as long as I’m alive, I may have that opportunity still. We look at famous people now and we recognize them, but who on that train knew the name J.K. Rowling the day she dreamed up Harry Potter? Did you know who Leonard Nimoy was before “Star Trek”?

I’ve seen it happen time and again: one day you’re in the dumps because it’s all going nowhere, and the next day you’re in a TV series, or you’re nominated for a Hugo, or maybe you just sell a story, and suddenly life is all about possibilities, and people know your name.

Some gain success early. It may build, it may peak and die away, leaving one to wonder what he’s going to do for the rest of a life that may already have seen its apex. The thing I’ve noticed about success, though, is that it’s never really in your grasp. The success I’ve gained in the last few years would look really impressive to the seventeen-year-old who first started writing sword-and-sorcery stories on a manual typewriter in his bedroom, but it’s not enough for me. I dream of being a full-time writer, but I know enough full-time writers to know that even that is only a step, not a culmination. So we keep at it. You have to; resting on your laurels is comfortable, but it never gets any better.

I’m pretty sure that I haven’t peaked already. I don’t know if I ever will. But I know that I will die trying. And that’s the way I want it.

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Winning through losing

When you’re a writer of a certain level, which is to say when you can still go to the supermarket and no one recognizes you, there are levels of success. Level one, of course, is making a sale. But even when you don’t make a sale, you can measure your success by the types of rejections you receive from magazines.

Today I received rejection from The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, a first-rate market. It offers good rates, wide distribution, reviews in most venues, and exposure for award consideration. Selling to F&SF is a long shot for someone like me, but I keep trying, hoping to break in. Up until today, my efforts had pretty much fallen on their face, gaining me a polite but impersonal note from an assistant editor who probably sends out a hundred such notes a day.

Today, for the first time, I received a note directly from the editor. This means that my story was read by an assistant editor, and for the first time, passed up the line. I don’t know how many stories at F&SF get passed up to the editor, but if it’s like most other markets, that means my story rated in the top 20%, if not higher, of their current submissions. I know the kind of people who submit stories to F&SF, and if I can come even within shouting distance, I’ve done well.

It’s not a sale, but on the continuum of success, I’ll take it. For today.

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