Business Musings: Beginner’s Luck
One of the most astonishing moments I had as the editor of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction occurred at the Hugo award ceremony. A writer won a Hugo with a short story I had rejected. He got in my face—literally inches away from me—and said,
“I bet you’re sorry you rejected me, aren’t you?”
Then he bounced away from me before I had a chance to answer him. How would I have answered him?
I would have said, “Congratulations on your win,” and I would have meant it.
But had he obnoxiously pressed the point, I would have added, “I still don’t like your story.”
Editing is about taste. We reinforce that lesson every year at our anthology workshop. The writing quality in the workshop is incredibly high. We open the workshop to professional writers only—folks who’ve published a lot, whether fiction or nonfiction, indie or traditional. Some writers come back every year, partly to test their abilities to write six stories to order in six weeks, partly to see old friends, and partly to see the editors bicker.
And the editors do bicker. A lot.
Mostly, we bicker over our points of view. What happens is this: Generally one of us will think Story A is brilliant, and some other editor will think it tragically flawed. We’re editors and writers and opinionated as hell, so we argue our positions. But we respect each other, and we know that some of us have an affinity for stories that the rest of us don’t like.
When it comes down to choosing between two stories that are not to our taste, we six editors have learned to rely on each other.
In fact, we always agree on one thing: the editor who purchases the story is the final judge of its quality. That editor has to love the story to buy it.
Which I’m sure the editor who bought that Hugo-winner loved the story. I didn’t. But even then, I knew that editing was about taste.
The writer didn’t.
He also thought his shit didn’t stink.
Is he still writing? I don’t know. Is he still publishing? I don’t know. But I do know this: He’s not being published in science fiction. In fact in science fiction, his career didn’t last beyond a few years of short stories. (I’m not sure if there was a novel or not: I didn’t pay attention.)
Over the years, I’ve run into a lot of writers like this guy. One of those writers wrote one of most unintentionally funny letters I’d ever read to Dean. As editor of Pulphouse: A Fiction Magazine, Dean had rejected one of the writer’s short stories. The writer wrote back to say that he had just sold his first novel and that Dean didn’t recognize the quality of this writer’s work. In fact, the writer added, Dean should eat that writer’s manuscript for the “only words of substance” Dean would ever have inside him.
I do remember that writer’s name because Dean tells that story with great delight (as an example of writer ego/idiocy). The writer’s book appeared and vanished that year with no follow-up. I just Googled the writer’s name, and discovered that for about 2 years, he self-published a few other short stories. Nothing since 2012, though, which does not surprise me.
Why doesn’t it surprise me? Because I think this guy is a bad writer? He’s not. He’s eloquent, particularly when he’s pissed off. But his I’m-better-than-anyone-else attitude ensured that he will never have a long-term career in the arts.
These egotistical writers still exist. One book sale to New York, one major traditional honor, and the writers will believe they’re better than every other writer.
But there’s a new twist to the old breed. It’s an indie twist. I’ve seen it at some conferences and workshops in the past few years. It’s the indie writer who, after receiving constructive advice which the writer asked for, dismisses that advice by saying, “Well, I sell thousands of books per month.”
The writer usually is selling thousands of books per month. Obviously, the writer is doing something very, very right. Readers like the books and buy more.
When such writers come to me for advice on craft, I always think they’re asking about future projects, what they can do to improve their craft. When I tell them what I think they need to work on (remember, the advice was solicited), they respond with that sales thing.
So why did they come to me if they’re already doing well? These writers come to me (and others with traditional publishing experience) to be validated. They want us to tell them how very brilliant they are. In fact, they want us to understand that brilliance can happen outside of the traditional framework.
I know it can. I read a lot of writers who are indie published. I love their work. I watch a lot of my friends do exceptionally well with sales, often at thousands per month, while publishing their own books.
Those writers continue to learn. In fact, several of them came to the anthology workshop (and have come to past workshops). I’ve seen these indie writers continue to grow in ability each and every year. These writers are improving. They’re augmenting what they do well, and working hard to improve their weaknesses.
If I already know that writers can have thousands of sales per month outside of the traditional framework, why do I say that the writers who ask for advice and then dismiss it with their sales figures are like the guy who wanted me to admit I was wrong when I rejected his one short story?
Because—honestly—I worry about those indie writers who only cite their sales numbers. All writers can improve, even those of us who’ve been in the business for thirty years.
Generally speaking, writers who have such great sales figures early on have one skill that’s very hard to teach. They know how to tell a good story. Even if there are other problems in the writing—clichéd characters, non-existent setting, poor grammar—the writer’s superior storytelling skills shine through.
It’s almost like looking through a dirty window at a badly decorated house. Yes, you’ll be comfortable there, but the house could use a good cleaning, some paint, and new furniture. If the home owner made those improvements, the house wouldn’t be a good house: it would be the best house in town.
Here’s the attitude that those writers—from the award-winner to the word-eater to the sales-figure folks—don’t have. They don’t understand that if they want to grow as writers, they need to look at those awards, traditional book sales, or high volume of indie book sales as a starting platform, and improve from there.
John Grisham did that. He felt like he had a lot to learn as a writer, even as The Firm hit every bestseller list in the world, and he set out to learn even more. His craft has improved tremendously. His latest novels are amazing. His short stories are breathtaking.
Yes, the storytelling chops are still there, but they’re even stronger. Grisham always had a can’t-put-it-down quality, but the books were “thin” and not always memorable. Now, the books are not only memorable, but achingly so. Look at the storytelling chops from A Time To Kill (his first written novel) to Sycamore Row (using the same characters). In A Time To Kill, you can see the furniture move as Grisham sets the bits of his plot into motion.
In Sycamore Row, the furniture is part of the story, and when the furniture moves, we don’t see it until the author wants us to. A completely different level of skill. Both books are readable, but one is masterful—and it ain’t the first one.
J.K. Rowling also grew as a writer after her first novel sale. The first chapter of Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s (Philosopher’s) Stone has no setting except a cupboard and a street (and maybe a street lamp). Look it up if you don’t believe me.
She continued to learn her craft even though she had already sold millions of copies of her books.
Looking back over what I just wrote, I realize you can misunderstand what I mean by the writers’ attitudes. Do I mean that because writers diss gatekeepers that the writers will fail?
Not at all.
I mean that writers who believe that one publication, one award, or some other kind of early success means that they’re God’s Gift to Literature will always vanish.
Early success is a minefield. I write this as someone who had a lot of early success. I won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 1990. That’s hard to do, not because of the talent involved, but because a writer has to be noticed in a two-year time frame to win that award. My rise as an sf short story writer was meteoric as are the careers of most Campbell winners.
Unlike many of them, though, I survived that early success. So I’m speaking from experience here when I talk about the perils of early success. I’ve watched more writers who had success right off the bat vanish than writers who struggled for years to achieve success.
Like the beginners who win a lot of money at a poker table or hit a home run their first time at bat, writers have beginners luck as well. And it can be just as harmful.
These writers end up believing that writing is easy, and learning business is unnecessary. Writing is easy compared to, say, fighting fires or a myriad of other jobs that require dedication, intelligence, and courage. But continually telling stories and going back to the desk each and every day can be difficult.
And not everything a writer writes—I don’t care who she is—will work. Sometimes a writer has to try again and again before a story bends to her will.
I’ve written a lot about the way that a lack of business knowledge can ruin a writing career. Quite frankly, the writers who get destroyed fastest from a lack of business knowledge are the Gods-Gift writers.
Or it used to be that way.
Indie publishing has allowed a lot of business-minded people to enter the publishing industry in a way that traditional publishing discouraged. I suspect these folks will make it through the business ups and downs.
But there’s a craft up-and-down cycle as well that will eventually trip these writers up, and they won’t know why.
Readers tire of the same thing from the same writer over and over again. I know, I know. A bunch of you are getting ready to tell me that your favorite writer tells the same story over and over again, and you’re not tired of it.
And I’ll bet you cash money that writer continues to study his craft and strives to improve.
There’s a career arc for writers who don’t improve their storytelling skills. They publish many good-enough books in a few years (fewer years now than before, thanks to the short-publication time for indie books). After a while, the readers can see everything that the writer does, and after starting a novel, will see exactly how that book will end. (Or, worse, the ending will come out of left field with no warning, pissing the reader off.)
Once a reader figures out everything in a writer’s bag of tricks, the reader will move on to other writers, often without thinking about it. The reader might buy a few more of the writer’s novels, but will eventually realize he’s not reading those novels. The sales will taper off, even of the new work.
And the writer will have no idea why.
Careers in the arts are cyclical. Writers are popular for a while. Then they’re less popular. Trends are hot for a few years, and then they are out-of-date and considered stale.
Genres rise in popularity, and then the popularity falls.
Now that traditional publishing has less involvement in trend-making and genre popularity, I suspect that the downs won’t be troughs.
What I mean by that is this: once a genre becomes popular, it will gain more readers. When the popularity drops off, some of those new readers will remain. So the low part of the cycle will be higher than a previous low part of the cycle.
(In the past, traditional publishing just plain old stopped publishing the “unpopular” genre except for a few bestsellers, guaranteeing that the genre would die off. Right now, trad pub is trying to do that to urban fantasy. More and more writers tell me that they can’t sell the next book in their series or a book in their new UF series because trad pub says “urban fantasy doesn’t sell.” Yet indie writers are seeing urban fantasy sales grow.
(What trad pub is saying is that UF doesn’t sell at blockbuster levels any more, so trad pub is no longer interested. Indie is picking up the slack, and UF indie writers are doing very well indeed.)
The cyclical nature of the arts isn’t just in business and genre, but also in interest over a writer. A new writer has a brand-new, never-before-heard voice, and readers flock to that. Once the voice becomes familiar, some readers will abandon that voice for other new voices.
Surviving that familiarity trap requires more than writing the same old thing. It requires the writer to step up his game.
And the Gods-Gift writers don’t believe they need to step up their game. After all, they’ve been winning. They’re like the poker players who watch poker on TV, sit at a table, and make thousands of dollars during their first week.
Poker is a game of skill, as I’ve learned watching the career of my professional poker player husband. Like any game, there is chance involved, but the true professionals mitigate the luck factor and try to take it out of the equation as much as possible.
Beginners who don’t understand much more than what hand of cards defeats another rely on the luck factor.
And we all know—every single one of us—that luck runs out.
Gods-Gift writers are often lucky bastards, with the right book at the right time. Or with a competent short story on a topic that excites readers. Or with a series of indie books with a compelling narrative told by someone with enough skill to hold the reader’s attention—for now.
But what keeps a writer in the game over the long haul—what keeps an artist in the game over the long haul—is a genuine humbleness combined with a willingness to learn.
This very idea actually showed up on The Voice last week, when Anthony Riley, one of the contestants, said there wasn’t a song he couldn’t sing. He told this to Pharrell Williams and Lionel Richie (!). Both Richie and Williams jumped on Riley, telling him that he had to be humble.
Lionel Richie took it one step further, saying, ““If you’re great, let [the audience] tell you. Never tell them.”
Richie seems to live this philosophy. In video that accompanies his album Tuskegee, he talks about all he learned from re-imagining his hit pop songs as country songs and singing those old hits as duets with country artists, some of whom had not been born when the hits came out.
It takes courage—creative courage—to reinvent your hits. So many professional musicians of Richie’s age tour the casino circuit, playing the same old tired renditions of their past glories. Richie not only reinvented his, but he also learned from artists younger than he is.
(If you want to see what I mean, watch this duet with Jennifer Nettles. I’ve never been a big fan of the song “Hello,” but this performance of it is quite memorable, and takes it to a new level, imho.)
Let’s go back to Richie’s words. What happens when the audience tells you that you’re great? Are you done? Can you rest on your laurels?
So many writers, so many artists, do. They’ve climbed the mountain. They’ve achieved greatness.
The problem is, that greatness is fleeting.
Enjoy it when it happens, but realize that ten years from now, the Hugo win or the megaselling pop hit will seem dated to a new generation.
Do you need to reinvent yourself?
No, but you do need to look at your craft—continually—and figure out ways to grow. That way, you don’t get left behind as tastes change. You don’t become Whatever-Happened-To or Didn’t-She-Write-A-Book-Once or (God forbid) Who?-I’ve-Never-Heard-Of-Her.
You’ll never appeal to all readers all the time. And, quite honestly, even when you’re at your most popular, not every reader will have heard of you.
Appealing to everyone should never be your goal.
Your goal should be to become the best writer you can be. And this year’s best-writer-you should be better than last-year’s-best-writer-you but not as good as next-year’s-best-writer-you, because, in theory, you should keep learning and improving.
Does that mean you should take classes or go to workshops, hire editors or get a million critiques? Not necessarily. You need to figure out what works for you, and how you learn. Critiques are often destructive to writers, especially peer critiques between beginners or with professors who don’t make their living as writers. In fact, on The Voice, the superstar musicians often talk to the contestants about unlearning everything they picked up in their graduate music studies. If you watch, look at the sadness on the faces of the coaches when they realize someone has (or is about to) graduate from a major music school. Often as not, those artists never make it past the third round, because they’re too technically perfect and their work lacks heart and emotion.
I learn a lot from artists in other disciplines, like music. I’ve learned a lot as I watched Lionel Richie explore the roots of his own music. I learn from artists like The Roots, who seem to know every genre of music and play them all well.
I ask a lot of questions, and when I don’t know the answer, I go to someone who does. I also have a lot of students because students are always asking new questions, questions I’ve never considered. If I’ve never considered it, then I haven’t learned it yet.
I watch things like The Voice. I read all the time. I listen to the new writers coming in, and watch what’s working for them. I still read for enjoyment. I follow trends and I stretch my craft, trying things and sometimes failing spectacularly.
One of the things I do, as a series editor for Fiction River, is read a lot of stories in genres I’m not personally fond of. When Dean and I decided to return to editing short fiction, we decided ours wouldn’t be the only voices in Fiction River.
We have a lot of different guest editors on different volumes. Those editors provide different voices and points of view. They often have very different taste than I do, and sometimes buy stories I don’t like. I think that’s a good thing—not just for Fiction River, but also for me.
Because those stories are in Fiction River and because I line edit each volume (for clarity only), I have to go deep into stories I would never normally read. I learn a lot about other forms of storytelling, about plot, about craft.
I also learn from the way that the other editors work.
I also know my limitations. Every now and then, as the supremely confused line editor, I send a story back to the volume’s editor, saying the story makes no sense to me and here’s why. I ask the editor to have the writer make a few revisions. Sometimes the editor says the story is fine and I’m clueless Sometimes the editor asks for tweaks from the author that I would never think of in a million years because I don’t “get” the story. I learn from both of those instances.
Sometimes I think Fiction River is one of the best things I’ve ever done for my writing.
I learn from doing. It’s taken me years to find new ways to learn. I’m sure five years from now, I’ll find yet another way of improving my craft.
The key, though, is that I’ll still be looking five years from now.
I am not yet the best writer I can be. I’m not sure I’ll ever be the best writer I can be.
But no matter how many awards I win, how many books I publish, or how many copies of those books I sell, I will always know I have a lot to learn as a writer.
Chasing excellence—and knowing it is ever elusive—keeps me in my writing chair. I seriously can’t imagine playing the same old hits to ever-smaller audiences. I would much rather try something new and fail spectacularly, than receive applause for something I did twenty years ago.
Somehow I’ve managed to reinvent my nonfiction career while I was busy doing other things. It constantly surprises me when someone asks for more nonfiction from me. (I would have killed for that reaction thirty years ago, as a full-time nonfiction writer.)
I’m pleased I talked to friends younger than me who convinced me that writing on my website was a good idea. I’m listening to other friends who are urging me to try other things.
I’m thinking about it all, and I’ll bring what interests me to these blog posts.
Thank you all for coming as well.
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“Business Musings: Beginner’s Luck,” copyright © 2015 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.