The Business Rusch: Out! All of You!

Business Rusch logo webThose of you who read this blog regularly know I have a magpie brain. I find shiny things here and there, and then I put them together—not to create a nest (I have one, thanks)—but to help me form a realization or to figure out the solution to a problem or to reinforce things I already know.

I have been reading Peter Guralnick’s Lost Highway, a collection of his 1970s essays on music—from blues to rockabilly to country. Lost Highway collects articles he wrote about musicians from Rufus Thomas to Hank Snow. Art is art is art, and musicians are artists, just like writers, struggling with the business and trying to hang onto their creativity in the face of difficult economic forces.

I picked up the book because I love Guralnick’s writing. He has a way of making music and musicians come alive. His two-volume biography of Elvis Presley is one of the best biographies I’ve ever read, and his book on Sam Cooke is equally impressive. These essays, written earlier in his career, show the same talents that informed his bestselling biographies.

The essays also form a snapshot in time. Written as the music industry was completing its change from regional performers to national hit makers, the essays occasionally lapse into an argument I haven’t heard in more than thirty years.

Every artist in this book has an audience, Guralnick wrote in 1979, every artist in this book has a mass audience—whether of five thousand, fifty thousand, or even half a million—but that is not enough. In order for a record to be successful, it has to sell millions. In order for a performer to be successful, he has to appear on the Johnny Carson Show. In order to appear on network television, it is necessary to appeal to the lowest common denominator; all regional identification must be smoothed over….If Elvis came along today, you have the feeling, he would not get the airplay, simply because he was, well—too strange, too out of the ordinary.

And there is some truth to that. Music that appeals to millions of people sounds different than music that appeals to an educated or traditionalist few. But, as Guralnick points out over and over again, it’s the originals, the artists who have a flat sound or make a banjo sound like a harp, who inspire other artists. He begins the entire book with a short essay on Jimmie Rodgers, because he felt—even then!—that his readers had no idea who Rodgers was.

I hadn’t heard of Rodgers until I heard the Alannah Myles hit, “Black Velvet,”  about Elvis Presley. The first verse mentions baby Elvis on his mother’s shoulder as she plays Jimmie Rodgers on the Victrola. If you look up the lyrics, you’ll see that most transcriptions misspell both of Rodgers’ names. He’s not well known any longer, but he was in his time. He died in 1933, after influencing musicians as diverse as Elvis, Howlin’ Wolf, and Gene Autrey.

What goes around comes around, however. Now, the music industry discusses how impossible it is to appeal to that “lowest common denominator,” that the age of million-selling albums is over. Many artists, who came of age in their industry after 1980, lament the loss. Other, younger artists see the potential of the new system.

As Maroon 5 lead singer Adam Levine said in Vanity Fair:

The diversity in people’s tastes now is so much cooler. Everyone is saying MP3s and the Internet have ruined the music business—and it’s sad there are no record stores—but music is just so present now in the culture. More than it’s ever been. That’s a result of the [technological] advancements we’ve made. I’m such a huge fan of where music is right now.

I am too, just like I’m a fan of the diversity that’s springing up in the publishing business. RT Book Reviews had a recent article on a new publishing category that they call New Adult—something between adult fiction and young adult fiction, dealing with college age protagonists. Apparently, traditional publishing felt books with college-age protagonists did not sell, until indie-published writers proved that myth wrong.

The audience is there. It’s just impossible for the suits and sales forces to recognize something new, or to see the value in something older, something that isn’t the flavor of the month.

The older artists in Guralnick’s book talk about the things we discuss on my blog—surviving in changing times. Their world was falling away. At the time of the book’s first publication in 1979, Ernest Tubb had been dropped by his record label after forty years because he wouldn’t change with the times. But he still had his fan base, and he was still making music. He wasn’t happy, but he was rolling with the punches.

That’s what it takes to have a long-time career. But it takes more than an ability to pick yourself up after each knockout punch. You also need to believe in yourself with a fierce passion. You need to know that your vision is the correct vision for you, and then you need to defend it.

I started the Guralnick book the same day Sally Field was interviewed on Nightline. She told a story she has told a hundred times before. I’d read it, but I’d never seen her tell the story. Watch her face, starting at the 2:45 minute mark. You’ll see a fierce woman, who defended herself at great cost.

Defended herself against what? you might ask.

Against her agents, her business manager, and her then-husband. In 1972, Field wanted to go from television—oh, let’s be honest here: from being typecast as the beloved airhead Gidget—to a career in the movies. Her agents told her she wasn’t pretty enough or good enough.

Field’s response? “You’re fired.”

You’re fired.

She didn’t bow her cute little head and listen to their advice. She didn’t let them bully her. She left her agents, her manager, and her husband (who agreed with them). She ends the anecdote with this:

[That time] was like ‘Out! All of you!’

Four very important words.

Out! All of you.

All of you who don’t believe, who offer bad advice under the cloak of good advice. Who recommend that something innovative get tossed because it is unusual. Better to blend in, better to try to be like everyone else. All of you who are afraid of risks. You—out!

Field has had a fascinating career, filled with ups and downs, but she’s not the only long-time actor who took risks.

My third little example from my weekend of examples is from the Los Angeles Times. In an interview with Bruce Willis strategically timed to go with his latest movie, the Times shares this little nugget of wisdom:

Industry observers think that [Willis’s] longevity over the last three decades as a die-hard working man’s actor can largely be attributed to one thing: diversity of roles and types of movies.

How did Willis end up with those diverse roles in an unpredictable grouping of films? He listened to advice, but made decisions for himself. After he had become a successful action hero, he says, he wanted to play supporting roles too. His agent told him “Don’t do it. You’ll ruin your career.”

Instead, Willis guaranteed that he has a career at 58. Yes, he still does action, but not exclusively. His two old friends Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger had action films die at the box office this  year, while the fifth Die Hard movie, A Good Day To Die Hard, hit number one on its opening weekend. Even if the movie hadn’t hit number one, it wouldn’t have mattered to Willis’s career. He had six films come out in 2012 alone.

He also brought very little vanity to his approach to the roles. When he took a small part in one of my favorite movies, Nobody’s Fool (based on an equally wonderful Richard Russo novel), he did so in order to work with Paul Newman.

His agent, clearly distressed, told Willis that they didn’t have a billing for him in the credits. Lacking a billing doesn’t mean that they couldn’t be bothered to put his name on the film. What it means is that they couldn’t pay him to put his name in the proper place for a movie star on the credits. Each slot, especially above the title (which was where the Willis name should have gone) brings with it extra money—sometimes a lot of extra money.

Willis’s response to the agent? “I said, ‘I don’t need a billing.’ He said, ‘You’re out of your mind.’ Later, [Paul] Newman called me and said, ‘That’s the [gutsiest] thing I’ve heard anyone say for a long time.’”

And that gutsy thing is why these days the LA Times is comparing Bruce Willis to Academy-award winner Michael Caine, not to Sylvester Stallone. Caine, who has acted (bit parts to starring roles) in more than 100 films so far.

Sally Field displayed the same gutsiness. Imagine how hard it was for twenty-something Field, mother of two and the family breadwinner, to tell her agents, manager, and husband to take a flying—well, not nun. That gutsiness brought her Oscars and Emmys as well as an Oscar nomination for a role this year that she had to fight to get. She had to prove to Steven Spielberg that she was right to play Mary Todd Lincoln. If she hadn’t fought, he wouldn’t have cast her.

What these biographies and feel-good stories don’t tell you is the difficult times between the “Out! All of You!” and the next success. Think about this: Field fired her entire support crew in 1972 and worked on rebuilding. It couldn’t have been easy. I’m sure that she had almost daily doubts about the choices she had made. And those doubts probably lasted for the four years between the firings and her next success. That success was in 1976, as the title character in the TV movie Sybil. But her true vindication didn’t occur until she won an Oscar for her role as the title character of the movie, Norma Rae.

I’m sure the fired agents, manager and husband were surprised.

Was that vindication enough? Probably not. Because if you choose to remain active in the arts—to have a lifelong career—you can’t rest on your laurels. If you do, you’ll become that actress—you know, the one who won the Oscar for playing that woman union organizer? You know. Her.

To avoid the whatever-happened-to fate, you have to prove yourself—or reinvent yourself—over and over again.

Sometimes you do it, not because you fired your support team or because you decided to work with Paul Newman [sigh], but because the industry has changed around you.

Guralnick talks about the changes in music in-depth in his profile of Ernest Tubb. Tubb, without his original label, reinvented himself a second time (the first was in the 1950s). As an article on legacy.com says quite succinctly:

But as he’d always done, Tubb weathered audience vicissitudes, relying on a loyal fanbase he’d built over 30 years. Constantly on the road, he reportedly logged 3 million miles on his tour bus from 1970-1979.

He did what he had to in order to maintain his career and the music he loved. I would wager some suit told him to learn what was then called “countrypolitan” music—the so-called “sophisticated” music that had risen to the top of the country charts in those days—and I’ll wager that was one of the many reasons Tubb and his label parted ways.

An artist must remain true to himself, if he plans to remain an artist.

It’s the only way to survive.

I have to remind myself of it repeatedly. Oscar season helps, because it’s usually filled with stories like Sally Field’s—an acclaimed, award winning actress, nearly denied a role that she would triumph in because someone didn’t see her that way. Or Willis, choosing to play a rather despicable character for little money and no credit, just to stand side by side with (and presumably learn from) Paul Newman.

I’m thinking about the ebbs and flows of careers a lot lately because the changes in publishing are allowing me to revive and/or finish old series. I know why I had to quit writing most of them. Early on, I took the loss of each series personally, figuring I had made a mistake. Eventually, I realized I was becoming one of the many casualties of an earlier change in publishing—the one Guralnick decried that happened in music in the 1970s.

Parts of my work had become widgets that didn’t have a high enough sales volume to reach the mass audience the corporations needed to keep up their hefty bottom lines. Other things I wrote did just fine; they made that sales volume.

But those things forced me into a series of ever smaller boxes, the idea that I should write only certain things, even though I wanted—and was capable of—writing several other kinds of things. To make matters worse, many of those boxes formed because other opportunities died because of someone else’s incompetence, or simple dumb luck. It wasn’t because I was best at the things I ended up doing; it was because those were the things that had had better breaks.

It all seemed random, and that made it even more frustrating.

And then there was the changing role of advisors. Instead of making wry commentary like Bruce Willis’s agents, mine were treating me like Sally Field’s treated her. One agent flat-out told me I wasn’t talented enough to write in genres other than science fiction. Another wrote a cover letter on one of my manuscripts that he had mailed to an editor, apologizing for the submission because it was clear to both of them I couldn’t write, but admitting that I had forced him into mailing the book anyway.

I wasn’t as bold as Sally Field in the case of the first agent: I didn’t fire her right away, although I eventually did. In the case of the second: I didn’t find out what he had done until I had fired him for other reasons and then I got copies of all the correspondence.

Somewhere along the way the advisors felt they should control my career rather than allowing me to control it. All of this was before 2007, and since then things have only gotten worse.

Only instead of saying “Out! All of you!” to advisors like that, most writers embrace the criticism or the snide comments, and try to shove themselves into the tiny boxes, not realizing that they’re destroying the one thing that makes them unique.

Dean and I have moved back into what we call our teaching season again. We teach to pay forward, since we can’t repay our own marvelous instructors for the boost they gave us—at least not in any meaningful way. All we can do is offer the same kind of assistance to a new generation of writers.

What disturbs me every teaching season is the way that writers wait for someone to tell them what box they fit in or what box they should go to. Every year, writers tell at least one of us that we need to give them better instructions. If we give better instructions, the writers insist, then they can write what we want them to write, so that we’ll be happy with them.

These writers entirely miss the point. The point isn’t for us to be happy, but for those writers to find their own voice. Sometimes they’ll fail an assignment and have to do it all over again from scratch. Oh, well. All that means is that they have to invest more time into their craft.

But for a certain type of writer, it means that they have screwed up completely, that they’ll never succeed, that they didn’t receive the help they needed to mold themselves into something someone else wanted.

We can’t help those writers. We try not to teach them, because we teach writers to stand on their own, defend their own vision, and become who they want to be, not who they’re told to be. It’s a tougher road to walk, because it means that there’s no one to blame when things go wrong.

Yeah, I get it. Up above, I said that series of mine failed, sometimes because of someone else’s incompetence. When I’m talking about that, I’m only discussing the business side of the equation—sending me on a book tour, but failing to provide books or to fulfill orders from bookstores. (Lawrence Block blogged on this very topic last week.)  Refusing to do a second printing on a book that was nominated for half a dozen awards because “it wasn’t time” for a second printing yet (whatever that meant) even though there were orders for the book.

When a book sold poorly because of something I could control—the wrong pacing for a certain genre, being ten years ahead of a trend (which is common for me), tackling a difficult subject that no one wants to read about except maybe me, I take responsibility for that. And I should.

But I also know that those failed projects have helped me grow into a stronger writer. If I don’t reach for the impossible, if I don’t stretch and write what frightens me each and every day, I’m failing as a writer.

Failing as an artist, really. Because all long-time successful artists talk about the same thing. If they aren’t frightened at the beginning of a project, if they’re not worried lacking the ability to do a scene or a story justice, then they’re not stretching themselves. And artists who don’t stretch eventually become artists who stop improving.

The most important thing an artist can do when she’s working is to clear out all of the naysaying voices. Sure, someone told you that you can’t write from the point of view on an unlikeable person. Try it anyway. Sure, someone told you that books about college students don’t sell. Write whatever you want to write.

An agent told a friend of mine that teens don’t buy books longer than 200 pages. When my friend pointed out the last few Harry Potter books, all weighing in at 600-plus pages, the agent said, “Well, that’s Harry Potter.” As if J.K. Rowling hadn’t been a beginner once. As if teens weren’t buying those books.

The world’s worst editor told me one afternoon that I couldn’t mix science fiction, romance and mystery. I had to write a romance with “trappings” of the others, but not the plots. I said, “What about J.D. Robb? Her books sell.” “Well,” the world’s worst editor responded, “That’s Nora Roberts. Of course, she sells.” And so I started listing all the other writers whose work fell into all three categories.  “You’re not them,” the world’s worst editor snapped.

Nope, I wasn’t. And maybe my crossover fiction didn’t work because the manuscripts were flawed. But the world’s worst editor didn’t even want to try marketing that work because it was “different.”

I found another editor. I write crossover fiction all the time.

But if I’d let that voice into my head, into my workspace, I would have stopped writing crossover fiction, which is 90% of what I write.  Sometimes you have to fire the person who gives you bad advice or leave them or just walk away from the publishing house.

Most of the time, however, you need to clear those voices out of your head.

The best way to do it is exactly what Sally Field said: Out! All of you!

Watch that little segment. See her tone, her half smile, feel the passion in those words spoken in reminiscence of an event forty years in her past. She doesn’t regret what she did, and she’s still angry about what they said.

As she should be.

Fight for yourself with that same kind of tenacity.

It’s the only way you’ll have a long career. It’s the only way you’ll survive.

Part of my long career includes nonfiction. I never thought I’d be a blogger, but I’ve become one. And since these posts do take time from my fiction writing, I would like these posts to earn their way, which is why the  nonfiction is the only part of my website with a donate button.

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“The Business Rusch: “Out! All of You!” copyright © 2013 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.

 




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41 Comments

  1. Yes!

    And whether it’s a long full out career, or just being the person who breaks ground and influences other — greatness comes from the work, from the risks, not the safety and the billing.

    Reply
  2. LOL This must be the week for analyzing Bruce Willis’ career. While the hubby was out of town on business, I introduced my son to “Die Hard.” He was delighted to discover the bad guy was Alan Rickman. (His specific words were “Oh, my god! That’s Snape!”)

    We had a long, fun talk about how both men took serious chances with their careers making “Die Hard.” How you have to take chances in life no matter how scary they may seem.

    On the other hand, thank you for saying that we writers need to walk away from advice sometimes. I’ve had well-meaning writer friends try to force me into their shoebox lately. Let’s just say my feet are not the same size as theirs. *grin*

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    • He was delighted to discover the bad guy was Alan Rickman.

      Now, now, don’t say that where Mr. Rickman might hear you.

      Remark attributed to Alan Rickman by John Sessions: ‘I don’t play villains. I play very interesting people.

      That may be the secret of it. Sally Field left off playing Gidget and started playing very interesting people. Stallone and Schwarzenegger let themselves be boxed into playing action heroes, but Bruce Willis plays very interesting people. And if you want to succeed at writing fiction, you can either let yourself be boxed into a particular genre and subgenre, or you can write about very interesting people.

      The tricky bit, of course, is to make the people as interesting to your readers as they are to you.

      Reply
      • Tom, I’ll be the first to admit Mr. Rickman was very interesting as the Sheriff of Nottingham, the one redeeming thing in the entire mess that Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.

        And of course, I’ve been told by many an editor and agent that my characters are too interesting to be marketable, which is why I love the new world order.

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  3. I remember a small press editor defending a horrendous contract she’d sent me by telling me flat out, “No one else will ever buy this book.”

    I put it up on Amazon myself and my readers bought it instead.

    I’m glad indie publishing came along when it did, because my reaction to gatekeepers blocking me (almost always for business or marketing reasons) wasn’t to be depressed because I wasn’t good enough… but to be angry that they were in my way. I may not have the numbers I would have had I gone the traditional route, but they’re my numbers and I got them by writing despite people telling me no one liked books without humans in them, or space operas with elves in them, or office stories with magic.

    Anyway, looking at B&N’s latest reports, I’m not even sure traditional authors are ever going to have the numbers they used to when I was first breaking in. :,

    Reply
    • MCAH also shows how to roll with the punches — when life gave her lemons in the form of that stupid company I shall not name, and the one who went along with them, she turned it into a great educational tool and a PR coup for herself!

      (I bought “Spots” at B&N and cried at least twice. Fabulous.)

      Reply
      • I’m glad you enjoyed the book! But that is certainly -not- the way I’d suggest drumming up publicity for yourself. Way, way too stressful. :,

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  4. Excellant post! I think this can be the hardest thing for a writer to do-is be who they want to be. It takes persitance and stubborness to keep at it and do it your way.
    There is alot of different things I would like to write and with the choices writers have now I can do that.
    It’s a wonderful time to be a writer but the hard work is still there and you will still hit a lot of walls but if you’re stubborn you’ll find a way around the wall and keep going.
    We have to have a little of Sally Field in all of us and tell the wall and all those blocking our way in those tough moments to do as she did and yell-out-all of you!

    Reply
  5. You also need to believe in yourself with a fierce passion. You need to know that your vision is the correct vision for you, and then you need to defend it.

    I’m sure that she had almost daily doubts about the choices she had made. And those doubts probably lasted for the four years between the firings and her next success.

    Wow! Powerful words. Words I needed to hear.

    I think I’m using a “fake it till you make it” strategy. That is, I write every day holding fast to the belief that my writing offers something to the world and to readers. Yet I don’t really know if that is true. My not knowing is very real. And yet, under that, under the pretended courage, and under the corrosive doubt, a still small voice speaks: this is who I am, this is what I’m meant to do, this is what I love.

    In a sense, the layers of belief and disbelief don’t really matter, so long as I write regularly.

    Yet, the doubt does make it harder. I must let go of it continuously while I write.

    And, yet again, I suspect it’s a manifestation of writer’s angst that (for me) will never retreat. Because I always feel scared when I begin a new project. Can I do this? Is this the right approach? Will I be able this time to discern and articulate the story that is coming through me?

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  6. A very important post indeed.

    You might also have talked about Konrath’s books like The List or Origin which got rejected repeatedly and which sell by the hundred of thousands as ebooks.

    Even at my very modest level, my book Le Souffle d’Aoles has been rejected by several publishers, including Bragelonne despite a close working relationship at the time : I’ve self-published it and it had sold 1500 ex. for the paper book and 300 for the ebook.

    For me, it’s like a will contest : firstly against myself and secondly, sometimes against some people.

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  7. I have already had to learn this lesson, and I’ve only been writing for 13 years. If I hadn’t learned it, I wouldn’t still be writing and selling books now. I’ve gone from no-agent to agent to almost there to no agent to can’t write anymore to writing what I love again to now making a profit and doing things my way.

    So for me the trick will probably be when the time for exercising the lesson learned comes up again in a big way. I can handle the daily grind of staying true. But I’m naturally rebellious and independent and a control freak, qualities that help I think. Which is good because they don’t serve one well in the corporate 9-5 world.

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  8. How do you manage to write posts that are exactly what I need to hear, and usually need to hear often? I guess because most writers need to hear the same things.

    Sure, someone told you that you can’t write from the point of view on an unlikeable person.

    A few years ago I was in a teacher-led critique group. The teacher read my novel and suggested my designer-clothes wearing, 30-something woman, working 14-hour days, living in a minimalist loft-type apt in Palo Alto, California, whose life revolves around getting ahead in the corporate world, jogging, and an unacknowledged attraction to powerful men, should be given a puppy because she was “unlikable”.

    I left the puppy out. The book should make it into my publication queue sometime in the next 12 months. ;)

    Thanks for another inspirational post, and your openness about some of the brutal treatment you’ve received in this industry. It helps make my horror stories look lightweight in comparison, and encourages me to increase my tenacity.

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  9. Thank you for sharing this. Doing what I want instead of what I, ahem, should, is one of the scariest things in my life. But that doesn’t mean it is not the thing to do.

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  10. I’ve been following The Business Rusch for about a year and a half but I’ve been too shy to comment until now. I love all your posts, but this one hit me on a really deep level. I’ve been writing for twenty-three years, since I became a stay-at-home mom with my first baby and needed something to do during naptime :) I’ve always loved reading and stories but had trouble finding the kind of fantasy with strong romantic subplots that I liked, so I decided to start writing the kind of novels I wanted to read. I finished my first novel, sent it off to an agent, and got the kind of nice rejection that made me think that maybe I would hit the target with my next novel. So I started writing my next novel, and froze up. Not only was it the kind of story I had trouble finding, I knew there was nothing like it in the bookstores. Instead of thinking there was an opening I could fill, I already had a sense that the lack of these kinds of stories meant that the people making the decisions didn’t think they were marketable. And the thought of trying to write to what someone else would deem marketable made me freeze up. I left a lot of novels unfinished while I tried to find something that felt “marketable,” but eventually I made the decision that I would stick to writing what I wanted to write and wait for the right opportunity to emerge.

    And now that opportunity is here. Last week, that novel I started twenty-two years ago and didn’t finish because I just couldn’t make it fit the mold went live on Amazon and Smashwords and I have in my hands the proof copy of the CreateSpace edition. I’m just absolutely amazed that this is possible. I’m finishing up a bunch of those other old, abandoned projects that I loved but was afraid would never see the light of day, and working on some exciting new things (fantasy-western-romance, anyone?) Being free to write what we want, when we want, the way we want is the best thing that’s ever happened to writers.

    It was your and Dean Wesley Smith’s blogs that first made me start thinking, Hey, *I* can do this! and that have kept me going through all the nerves and self-doubt. Thank you so much (and I’ve left a little thanks in the tip jar).

    Reply
  11. Thank you for this full-throated defense of the artist needing to be responsible for his/her own career. Perhaps it’s easier to see when the examples you cite aren’t writers. We can look on musicians and actors as (at least slightly) different creatures; we’re not so close to them that we’re blinded by our own concerns as writers.

    I love the idea of “Out! All of you” when it comes to advice givers who favor their own interests rather than the person who pays them for the advice. This is just what I needed to read today. Thanks for giving these ideas such a forceful voice.

    James

    Reply
  12. thank you, Kris. I read Dean’s blog daily, and am pleased to discover your timely tidbits as well. As an artist as well as a writer, I agree, different is better. Look at Van Gogh. Salon managers thought his stuff was crap and unsellable because it was different than typical paintings of the time, but he is a household word. Your advice is priceless. Here’s to Sally Field’s gutsiness! I am sure she a lot of self doubt along the way as she struggled to reinvent herself, but she kept going forward. We need to do that too.

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  13. Such wonderful advice, Kris! Thank you so much for always sharing your insights. You are so right. :)

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  14. You never fail to interest me in what you write in these posts, Kris. :-)

    These writers entirely miss the point. The point isn’t for us to be happy, but for those writers to find their own voice. Sometimes they’ll fail an assignment and have to do it all over again from scratch. Oh, well. All that means is that they have to invest more time into their craft.

    I had to write the first in my new series all over again because I didn’t like it. How could I put up something for sale if I don’t like it. Sheesh. It’s like those Gordon Ramsey restaurant make overs where he has to taste crap that the kitchens insist they have to for various reasons. No. If it doesn’t work for you, either put it to bed or start from scratch. Where’s the failure in that?

    Because all long-time successful artists talk about the same thing. If they aren’t frightened at the beginning of a project, if they’re not worried lacking the ability to do a scene or a story justice, then they’re not stretching themselves. And artists who don’t stretch eventually become artists who stop improving.

    Oh good, I’m right on track with the frightened thing. ;-) I’ve already started on the 2nd one in the series, and it’s started off well (as my stories tend to do), but there’s still are lots more scenes that have to be added to my scene & POV tracking spreadsheet.

    But I will get through it, because writing is what I really want to do when I grow up. :-) Seriously.

    The most important thing an artist can do when she’s working is to clear out all of the naysaying voices. Sure, someone told you that you can’t write from the point of view on an unlikeable person. Try it anyway. Sure, someone told you that books about college students don’t sell. Write whatever you want to write.

    I always despaired during the trad pub only days. Always. It’s why I never got anything done. Everything seemed so daunting: write a query letter; contact agent; cross fingers that agent likes your story; rinse and repeat. It sounded like going through a battlefield only to find the other side had retreated. That’s why self pub was so appealing to me and happened at just the right time – for me anyway.

    As for writing whatever I want to write – a resounding yes to that. Although I primarily write fantasy, I’ve uploaded 2 romantic comedies (under a pen name), and will soon delve into writing mysteries (my first love as a teenager, and making a comeback this year :-)). All I have to do is take a look at my bookshelf (and my Kindle) to see what genre I should write in. But I’ve also considered literary and women’s fiction, so the sky’s the limit as far as I’m concerned. :-)

    Too much info, Kris, too little time to comment, lol! :-)

    Reply
  15. This is great, great reading. It reminds me that for as long as I’ve worked in the book business, I’ve seen that it is, at it’s core, a business run from a constant position of fear.

    The folks Kris describes in here hand down their “you can’t do that” proclamations because that’s what they’re being paid to do: Eliminate risk. Risk produces this fear. The problem with that is that every book published is a risk no matter what, and making it into something “familiar” may seem like the less risky proposition. But it depends on the book. Blanket declarations of “you can’t do that” or “it’s Harry Potter” are fear-based opinions, not well-thought out business plans.

    One thing I’d like to see more of in traditional publishing is enthusiasm for … well, for lack of a better term, cool shit. Editors have lots of enthusiasm when they read some cool shit submitted to them. But I wonder how often the enthusiasm is killed as that cool shit makes its way up the ladder in-house and is treated not as cool, but as shit because it seems risky and scary.

    There are deep frustrations in this industry, and deep fears. Self-pub, if anything, eliminates all risk from the artist. Maybe some cool shit sells. Maybe it doesn’t. But at least the artist can now have the joy of creating something truly cool. Even if it’s just cool to him or her.

    Thanks for this, Kris.

    Mike Zimmerman

    Reply
    • Excellent point, Mike. So many businesses are run from that position, even writers. What we have to remember is that while we might be afraid, we don’t make decisions through that fear. I think that’s been the biggest problem in the book biz.

      Reply
  16. Thank you so much for this post! I recently realized that I am my own worst enemy in this, and that MY negativity is what needs to be kicked to the curb. After reading about what Sally Field went through, I feel even more blessed for the people in my life who–whether I believed it warranted or not–have ALWAYS believed that if I decided to do something, I could accomplish it.

    Reply
  17. Reading your discussion of Bruce Willis reminded me of how we saw him show up in a bit part as a retired astronaut in the movie “The Astronaut Farmer.” It was a completely uncredited part and his appearance was unexpected. But I realized that I was glad he had gone uncredited. Had he been listed in the credits, the movie might have been marketed and presented around Willis, and it would have detracted from, well, the art of the film. Instead, we got to enjoy seeing him play a small, quiet role for which he was the perfect choice.

    My wife and I also remember how surprised a lot of people were when Willis chose to make an appearance on a few episodes of Friends. It was as if no one remembered he had gotten his start on Moonlighting (and even then, played the role to perfection).

    Reply
  18. Oh my gosh, Kris. You have no idea how well-timed this post is.

    Myself, I write Fantasy, Contemporary and planning to nudge my nose into Sci-Fi. The thing is, every one of my story has a light-hearted and humorous tone. People have said that my work is akin to Pratchett or Adams, which I’ve been flattered with.

    Of course, I didn’t focus on that two days ago. I focused on the magazines that (seemingly) only bring in serious, heavy-hearted fiction, works that are quite serious and dark and literary. There was no room for my fun-loving works, and I started feeling like a black sheep with the weight of a thousand editors on my shoulders, demanding I ‘write more like Tolkien/Harry Potter/Game of Thrones’.

    I was dragged out of my sadness by my good friends J.A. Marlow and Necia Phoenix. J.A. Marlow writes Human Wave Science Fiction — Sci-Fi with a light of hope at the end of a tunnel and happy endings. She’s finding her niche in indie publishing and doing very well. Necia Phoenix was told several times in her career that she can’t write, but she’s slowly building up her backlog on indie publishing and finding new readers.

    And now this comes out of the woodwork, slaps the voices in my head urging me to ‘write more serious works’ and tells it “Out! All of you!”. Just what I needed to keep going with the voice I’ve developed! Thank you so much!

    Reply
  19. This year is the 50th anniversary of my first published book, YA nonfiction about women pirates, called PIRATES IN PETTICOATS. A top agent wanted to take me on then, as long as I continued just to write YA nonfiction.

    I didn’t go with her. In fact, I didn’t get an agent until
    five books later. But that’s not the reason I am writing to you, Kris.

    I tell anyone who asks me that the secret to my long career in writing is reinvention. I believe that if a writer stays in the same small box year after year, either the box gets smaller or the writer does.

    Thanks for your articles, but this one especially.

    Jane

    Reply
    • And think of the fabulous tales we readers wouldn’t have gotten, had you let that agent dictate your career path.

      Thank you for not listening! (from a longtime fan)

      Reply
  20. Great and timely article, Kris!

    Alas, the person I’d really like to kick out of my writing office sort of has to be there (ie me). I guess I’ll just have to learn to get along better with her. ;)

    Reply
  21. Here is why your post hits home for me THIS week:

    After years of telling stories with words, I’ve started telling stories with fractals as well. My latest sale just found its way onto a Utah massage therapist’s wall. The woman in the office next door came in, looked at it, and said “Is that a Nicita? I haven’t seen one of those since I was in California.”

    Nontraditional career path, being gutsy (if having panic attacks at art auctions counts), Adam Levine’s diversity comment, and much gratitude at having you as a storytelling teacher.

    Carolyn

    Reply
  22. Awesome blog. Just when I feel defeated in my writing, I just have to read your blog and know that all is not in vain. Thanks for the info. Much success to you.

    Reply
  23. Great post, Kris.

    For me, the best thing about the advent of indie publishing is that suddenly all of those story ideas that I would have abandoned as unmarketable in the days of trad pub only are viable again and that I am free to write them without fearing I’m wasting my time, because there always is a market out there waiting. Of course, they might still not sell or at least not sell in great numbers. On the other hand, they might also surprise me.

    Reply
    • That’s how I feel. I know that if I experiment and like the story, but no one else does in traditional publishing, then I can publish it myself or hire someone to do it. That’s so freeing.

      Reply
  24. Great post! Sally Field has had a wonderful career and she’s certainly a model to study. I remember her acceptance speech for Norma Rae included the only line I can remember of almost any Oscar speech ever: “You like me! You really like me!” And I think any of us who have even one sale or fan letter can identify with that sentiment!

    Reply
  25. Another absolutely awesome article! ;)

    It comes at a good time for me, giving me a kick in the pants just when I needed it. Thanks, Kris.

    I’ve been struggling with a crisis of faith in myself lately, which has stopped me cold. No new work, no editing, no cover design.

    It’s very reminiscent of the years I’ve lost as a writer, when I doubted my ability to write — sometimes even my ability as a human being, but that’s another story — and thus spent many years writing nothing at all.

    Time to stop beating myself up about it, and listen to my heart. I have to trust myself, and write what I know I should write.

    Spielberg couldn’t see Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln? Seriously? The first thing I did when I saw a commercial for the movie was yell out “Sally Field? Perfect!”

    If I have a choice between a movie with Bruce Willis, and one with Tom Cruise, I’ll take Bruce every time. The quality of the actor’s craft shows through in the character.

    Reply
  26. Let’s not forget: agents and editors and publishers are not in the business of producing art or happy artists. Their job is to produce money. The easiest way to do that is to imitate (or at least suggest) what sells well. That being said, all of us have to recognize when our needs as artists and professionals diverge from the needs of our professional colleagues. Occupationally, be aware of where the exits are in any relationship and don’t be afraid to hit the eject button when necessary.

    Oh, and my version of “Out! All of you!” usually includes at least one obscenity and the word “NOW!” :)

    Thanks for a great post!

    Reply
  27. Great piece, KKR. Loved it. A message after my own heart. Thank you. FYI, I blogged about it and linked to your blog as well. Really good stuff!

    Reply
    • Thanks, Stephen, and thanks for the blog post as well. You can find it here, everyone: stephentharper.blogspot.com

      Reply
  28. My daughter J. A. Marlow told me to come read you blog. It was just what I needed. I use to write but gave up. I am now an artist, and your words are as true for us as writers. Thank you for the encouragement.

    Reply
  29. Thank you all for the great comments. I’m buried this week and next with lots of business stuff, and teaching two workshops, so my time to answer is limited. But I’m reading everything and greatly appreciate it all!

    Reply
  30. Because all long-time successful artists talk about the same thing. If they aren’t frightened at the beginning of a project, if they’re not worried lacking the ability to do a scene or a story justice, then they’re not stretching themselves. And artists who don’t stretch eventually become artists who stop improving.

    I was scared spitless recently over writing an assigned short story I felt I had *no* ability or credentials for. Two things helped me, though. A wise teacher (pointing at you) who tells writers to “trust the process,” and a friend who reminded me how FUN writing is.

    The result? A story I’m even happier with, since I was so afraid of writing it. :)

    Reply
    • I’m in that boat right now: at the start of a story that scares me, because it demands some new and different things from me as a writer. Do I have the chops?

      …“trust the process”…

      Just what I needed to hear!

      Reply

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