Business Musings: Gamblers and Artists
After I published a recent blog post, a well published writer responded by saying that one of her business choices was the best possible bet she could take. Her entire response to the post was filled with gambling language. She said that business was about placing your bets where the odds are best, that becoming a megabestseller is hitting the jackpot (I actually agree with that one), and what you do with your career depends on what kind of gambler you are.
Her post took my breath away. I never think of my writing or my business as a gamble. I do know it’s filled with risk—anything worthwhile is. I also know that some people are risk-averse, and that means that certain aspects of a writing career are not for them.
But a gamble? No.
Her post was a lightbulb moment for me. It helped me understand some of what I’d been reading.
I have been getting a lot of pushback from writers for my Writing To Market and my What Market? posts of a few weeks ago. Some of those responses were in comments I did not let go through. Some were in email. And some were on other websites and listserves that friends forwarded to me (or that I saw in my weekly perusal of the cobwebby corners of the net).
First, let me explain why I didn’t let some of those comments through. I have rules about commenting here. I don’t take anonymous comments. You don’t have to sign your name for the public to see, but you need a website that I can go to, a functioning email address, a history of things other than trolling people’s blog posts, and/or your real name on the comment line provided for it.
I also draw the line at people who fill their posts with such invective that their message gets lost. I did, on one post, put through a man’s comment that insulted me and the folks who came to the blog, but he followed the rules. He used his real name (as far as I could tell), and included an email address as well as his website.
In other words, he was willing to stand behind his opinion rather than hide in the anonymity the net provides. Most of the stuff I get that insults me and mine—or you and yours—is truly anonymous and truly venomous. No one needs to read that.
I don’t mind if people disagree. I learn from posts that have facts and figures behind them, and I do investigate alternate opinions presented respectfully. I might not change my mind, but I will consider it.
But not from the haters and trolls. Those folks have no place here.
So…I took note of all the pushback I was getting to those posts on writing to market. At heart, those posts of mine are about trusting your art. About being an artist in the first place, and being the best artist you can be.
On one site, an anonymous commenter took me to task for the use of the word “artist.” He hated it in the context of writing. (I have no idea why.)
I admit: that stunned me. I’m a writer. That’s who I am. As a writer, I am both a craftsperson and an artist. I constantly strive to get better. I produce the best work I possibly can, and I always feel like I’m dancing on the head of a pin, trying to get something right.
Not the “right” of the marketplace. But the kind of right that Stephen King refers to in his introduction to Bazaar of Bad Dreams [Scribner, 2015, p. 2]:
I have struggled with feelings of inadequacy, a soul-deep fear that I will be unable to bridge the gap between a great idea and the realization of that idea’s potential. What that comes down to, in plain English, is that the finished product never seems quite as good as the splendid idea that rose from the subconscious one day, along with the excited thought, Ah, man! I gotta write this right away!
Honestly, the “right” that King defines here—getting it right as in realizing its potential—is the kind of thing an artist and a craftsperson cares about. The best way to write an idea is personal. Only King knows what that splendid idea actually was, and what he was trying to capture. Just like I’m the only one who knows what I’m trying to capture when I write some of my splendid ideas.
I miss most of the time. Yet I put those stories out into the wild, just like King does. Missing is part of the process. We might never achieve the potential of that splendid idea, but we can get close. And sometimes, we have even better stories that failed on the splendid idea part, but did something else.
It’s the pull of that splendid idea, though, that makes the true artist continue to learn their craft. They are constantly striving to learn more, to put more tools in their toolbox, so they can find better ways to capture the potential of that splendid idea.
That’s why King calls himself an amateur “still learning my craft” later in that same introduction. He says,
Every day spent writing is a learning experience, and a battle to do something new.
Exactly. This is not humble-bragging. These are words of wisdom from a man who has worked to improve his craft every single day of his life. I think he’s succeeding. It freaks me out as a writer to read King, because he does things I still don’t understand. Not in a how-did-he-get-away-with-that? way, which I experience with a lot of writers. (And then, when I figure out how, I steal from them.)
No, he does things in this way: I get so immersed in what he has written that the stories are as clear to me as my own memories, maybe even clearer. I have lived them. With most things I read, I disappear into the story and lose some hours in a wonderful entertainment.
But King doesn’t just put me into the entertainment. He makes it all consuming. When one of his characters escapes a Port-a-Potty by diving into the bottom of the damn thing as one did in “A Very Tight Place,” (collected in Just After Sunset) well, let’s just say, I have now done the same thing. Not in real life per se. But in my imagined life—not as a gross-out story, but as a lived experience. (And oh, thank heavens I didn’t have to actually do it.)
There’s something about his writing, something that he does that very few other authors do for me. He transports me into the world completely.
For me, King is a writer of such quality that I can only aspire to his level of greatness. I’m sure all of us, as readers, have a handful of writers like that. Not necessarily favorite writers (although King is one of mine), but writers who have achieved something in their craft that we have yet to achieve.
What does this have to do with gambling and writing and markets and all of the stuff I started with?
A lot, actually. In fact, the attitude of striving to be the best artist you can be is at the heart of it all.
Because writers often confuse “getting it right” on a craft level with “getting it right” for the teacher. Most of us learn how to write fiction in school. We took creative writing classes in college or had a creative writing unit in high school. We wrote short stories and submitted them to workshops, hoping that the workshop would help us “get it right.”
The problem with that approach is clear, if you look at King’s first quote. No one in your writing workshop, no teacher or professor or first reader, will ever know what your splendid idea actually was, nor will that person ever know if you reached the splendid idea’s potential.
So…relying on a workshop to tell you if a story works makes as much sense as asking your next door neighbor to guess what you were thinking last night at 11:30. There’s no way for that neighbor to know exactly what you were thinking even if you were talking to him at the time, and there’s no way anyone else will ever know if your story works—in the way you’re asking these people to know.
Nor will they be able to help you achieve that splendid idea. Because they don’t know what you’re striving for, and if you can’t put that idea into writing, you certainly won’t be able to tell them verbally.
Most workshops fail because the writers in those workshops come at the stories from the perspective of “improving” them. That’s not how readers read, however. We read to be entertained. So if you want to know if a story “works”—as a standalone piece of fiction, separate from the initial splendid idea—then have someone who is not a writer read it for pleasure. If that person has a visceral reaction to the story—they love it, they hate it—the story works. If they have a lukewarm reaction, then the story is probably pretty mediocre…or you have the wrong reader.
Put the failures into the marketplace, whatever that marketplace is for you—be it traditional publishing or indie publishing. The readers will decide what a success is. You’ve already judged the piece, and it has come up lacking—because it doesn’t achieve the potential of your splendid idea.
But there’s something that I haven’t discussed yet in regards to craft. King starts his introductory essay with it.
That something is confidence in yourself and your abilities.
Here’s what he writes,
…writing [short stories] makes me happy, because I was built to entertain. I can’t play the guitar very well, and I can’t tap-dance at all, but I can do this. So I do.
Repeat after me:
I can do this. So I do.
That confidence has to exist long before the first sale. That confidence, that willingness to say I can do this needs to exist when the writer first turns on their computer or first puts a pen to paper.
The confidence, the belief in one’s self and one’s work, has to be the core of every writer.
Yes, yes, I know, we’re all insecure. As I’ve told my writing students, we’re all a combination of extreme confidence and horrid insecurity. After all, the impulse to write—the belief that we have something to say that others will listen to—takes confidence. Extreme confidence.
The insecurity comes from a variety of places, including the nature of being an artist. We don’t fit in society. The society is built for people with day jobs and spend their free time with their families, not making up stories or playing piano to a half-empty bar.
People who want to make a living at the arts are constantly fighting other people’s perceptions—and two damn questions:
Why don’t you get a real job?
What makes you think you’re so special?
Well, the answer to the second one first: we’re all special. We truly are. We’re unique individuals, and some of us choose to express that uniqueness by writing stories. We have a confidence that underlies the choice, and makes people who live their lives by society’s rules very nervous.
Why don’t we get a real job? Many of us do. But that’s not what we want to do with our lives.
At heart, we all want to prove that we’re good enough to be professional writers, that we can play in the same park as our favorite writers. But we also know that there’s a hell of a gap between that splendid idea and its potential.
Some of us never learn that the gap is normal. Some of us never learn that we must persist despite the gap. We need to constantly improve to narrow the gap, but we’ll never make it go away completely.
Many of us who never learn (or accept) that the gap is normal reach outside of our art and our abilities to get approval from other people. From society or our family or our friends. We use their measuring sticks to measure our writing.
Some writers believe they need to climb the writing ladder the way that they’ve climbed the corporate ladder. They have to start in an entry level position and work their way, rung by rung, to the top.
These writers believe that the writers who catapult to stardom with their first novels have cheated somehow—when, in fact, the writers who have that kind of early success have told a damn good story. (And often, those early successes lead to failures later on, because the writer hasn’t yet learned what made that one story great, and keeps trying [and failing] to replicate the magic.)
Other writers who never learn that the gap is normal measure their writing with money. If they earn a living, whatever “earn a living” means to them, then they’re successful as writers. Which means this: If the bottom drops out of whatever they’re doing to make money—whether that is writing science fiction for the pulp magazines, the way that writers did in the 1950s, or writing for whatever version of Kindle Unlimited exists at the moment—those writers will believe their writing is now, somehow, flawed or has failed.
Many writers quit at that place, because they never really believed in what they were doing. They used the outside world to tell them how to succeed.
In order to chase those outside dreams, many writers write things they don’t believe in, because it’s popular and they can write well enough to get readers or sell a few things or make whatever they consider to be a living.
What these writers do is drain the energy from their creative batteries, so that when it comes time to write what the romance writers call “the book of the heart,” the writers don’t know how to do it. And books of the heart are often new to the marketplace, different or unusual, and they take a while to find their niche. So the writer struggled to write something they love, only to see it “fail” by those external measures.
Rather than looking inward, and improving craft or growing as an artist, and trying a book of the heart again, the writers look outward, claim that what they write “isn’t worthwhile” and write things they don’t believe in—to meet other people’s measures of success.
When you view writing from the outside in—from other people’s perspectives, not your own perspective—writing always seems like a gamble.
What do I mean by gamble?
The turn of a roulette wheel is all about blind luck. It doesn’t matter if you bet red or black, one number or another. The chances of you winning anything based on what you do are pretty damn slim.
That’s a gamble.
Every endeavor has an element of risk. If you have a corporate job, there’s a chance the head honchos will make a mistake that will shut the corporation down or make them consider layoffs. You can lose that job, no matter how good you are and what protections you have in place.
If you open your own retail store, there’s a chance that no customers will ever come inside. If you take a promotion, move to another company, move to another state, there’s a chance that your opportunity—this thing you’re risking your career or your family’s livelihood on—will fail.
We all try to mitigate the failures, but they exist. Often, the risk of failure has nothing to do with us, and everything to do with what the people above us in that corporate scheme or that company do. Some people prefer that lack of control, that lack of certainty.
I hate it, which is why I’ve walked away from jobs without a lot of control, why I’ve always run my own businesses (not just writing), and why I prefer to handle my own finances.
If I fail, the failure is on me.
If I succeed, then—usually—the success is on me as well.
When you gamble, however, you are trusting odds, if you’re even aware that there are odds. You’re giving into blind luck.
If you pursue writing as a gamble, then you are by definition making a mistake. Because you should never ever ever operate a business that relies on blind luck.
Writers who believe that writing is a gamble rarely go freelance. They take corporate jobs or they teach. And if their belief systems are deeply rooted, then that’s the way these writers should operate.
Gambling should always be a hobby, never a profession.
But indie publishing has allowed some writers to pursue their writing gamble as if it were a career. These writers are having some luck right now. They’re working the odds by playing a game. They calculate what they can make per-page reads in whichever genre hovers near the top of Amazon’s indie bestseller lists, and then those writers write that. They’re no better than people who go into a casino and play the same slot machine as their friends, because the “payout” is better. Or the people who have a system to win at Keno.
Eventually, the House will win. Eventually, Amazon will change its algorithms or lower its payouts. Eventually, some other (as yet unknown) company will take over the marketplace, and the gamblers will get wiped out.
It’s happened repeatedly throughout the short history of the ebook revolution. Anonymous writers who tried to comment on this blog in 2011, telling me I didn’t know anything (in horridly invective-filled posts like those I mentioned above) are mostly gone now. (Yes, I often knew who they were because they’d repost the same thing on the Kindle boards, only signing their names there.)
The problem those writers-gamblers have? They don’t have that deep down confidence in their own writing, that feeling of I can do this. So I do.
I think it got beaten out of them. They know they can write at some base level, but they no longer trust their voice. They no longer trust their art.
And they’re impatient. They seem to believe they can be as great as Stephen King without putting in the day-to-day work, without focusing on both the craft and the art of writing.
Deep down, all gamblers are terrified of losing. Failure could mean the loss of that last little bit of confidence, the loss of that last bit of self-belief. It can mean the end of everything.
I get that. I do.
But it’s a problem, because your self-worth as a writer is based on outside things, things out of your control. Artists must trust their art, and their own voice.
I can see the comments now: Rusch says that because she has a long career. She’s sold this and that, she’s won this or that award, she’s been around for a long time.
She uses Stephen King as an example, and he’s a multi-millionaire. Of course, he’s good.
But here’s the thing about me—and about Stephen King:
We knew we were good writers long before we sold a single word. King used to tell stories aloud to his friends in school, just like one of his characters does in “The Body.” He knew he could entertain them, and he did.
Back when I was in school, if I was offered a choice between a multiple choice test and an essay, I took the essay every single time. If the teacher gave me a chance to write something to get a good grade or to do something else—anything else—I wrote. Every single time.
I write. It’s what I do. It’s what I’ve done since I could put words on the page.
I’ll bet most of you are like that and were like that from the start. And many of you were taught that writing is, for some reason, a gamble.
What many writers never learned is that writing is also a craft. It takes much more than talent to do well. Talent is simply a measure of where you’re are at one particular moment.
In the fourth grade, I was a better writer than almost everyone else in my class. Was I a better writer than I am now? Hell, no. I’ve been learning my craft each and every year since.
Given a choice between making my living at a nine-to-five job or making my living as a writer, I choose to be a writer.
If, however, I must write things I don’t like in order to make money, I’ll get a nine-to-five job. And have over the years.
Because deep down, I believe in myself and in my craft. I also know that I have a lot to learn—even now. Especially now. I’m only just now beginning to see some (most) elements of the craft that I’m still striving to learn. If I have to do something else for a while to make money, I’ll do it—just like I did twenty and thirty years ago.
I learned back then not to drain my creative battery writing things I did not believe in. Even when I took tie-in work in some very dark days in my writing career, I only took tie-in work for properties that I loved. And I used that work to improve my craft, to reach new levels of storytelling.
And I always, always, always continued to write my own art, my own stories, my own novels.
I must say, though, that I took the tie-in work because a business I owned went so badly south that I owed hundreds of thousands of dollars. There was no other way I could earn enough money fast enough to repay those debts. So I wrote the tie-ins for money, and while that was a good financial decision, it wore me down emotionally. I ended up hating the work. I constantly looked for other ways to make that much money that fast. I was offered work in Hollywood and decided that, while it was very, very lucrative, it wasn’t work I could do and retain my own sense of my art.
At least with the tie-ins, I controlled my writing schedule. I wasn’t at someone else’s daily beck and call.
But when I wrote tie-ins, there were other people in my writing office, where they do not belong. I wasn’t working on my art or my voice. I was doing something for the money, something that badly drained my creative battery and slowed my own work to a crawl.
I knew, once the money was paid back, that I could quit that work—and I did.
If I had kept with the tie-in work—or, in the past, the nonfiction that I did (before giving it up to work exclusively on fiction)—I wouldn’t be anywhere near where I am as a craftsperson.
I returned to my roots. I went back to writing what I loved.
Thirty years ago, when I quit the nonfiction, I went from fulltime freelance to part-time paid work for someone else, so that I had artistic freedom with my writing. It was the best decision I could have made, and it’s one I repeatedly make.
I always choose to believe in myself, my voice, and my art. Even when it makes better sense to play by society’s rules—to do what will earn me the most money or will get me the most prestige.
I would much rather work on trying to reach the potential of the splendid idea than I would on being a bestseller—whatever that means in the modern era—or on being the most award-winning writer in the world—or even on writing what would make me the most money, according to some algorithm.
All I have is my voice and my belief in myself. If I want to be read decades from now—and I do—then I need readers to come to my work because they get something unique from me. And if readers like what they read, they’ll tell their friends and their children and their children’s children. They won’t tell others about all of my books. It won’t even be half of them. It’ll be one story or one project, or just a handful of them, like it is with Charles Dickens.
And that’s if I succeed at what I’m trying to do. At my craft, not at my marketing. At my writing.
I also know that, like Stephen King, I’m still an amateur when it comes to craft. There are so many writers out there who are better than I am, so many storytellers that know much more about the elements of storytelling than I do. I have a lot to learn, and I will work on learning each and every day.
Is my writing a gamble?
No. Writing is my career. It’s also who I am. I have chosen a career with more risk in it than the average 9 to 5 job, but I have chosen a career with a lot less risk in it than some other careers. I’ve also chosen to work at something I love, and something I’m good at.
If I have to get a day job that doesn’t drain my creative battery some year in the future, I will. I doubt that’ll happen now, because my backlist is earning so much money through indie publishing that I could quit right now and still make more than I made in 2008. I also have other investments and other businesses.
But that’s where I’m at right now, not where I was thirty years ago when I quit writing for money. Then, I’d taken a day job to cover my expenses to allow me to work at my craft.
I don’t gamble with my creativity, although I did twice in my lifetime. For me, the gamble is burnout, writing something for the money rather than for the love. For me, the gamble is using my abilities to chase an outside goal, rather than try to do the best work I can possibly do.
I have known since I was in college that if I work hard enough, I can sell my writing to someone who wants to read it. I might not get as much money for that writing as other writers do. I might not sell to the first market I want to sell to. I might not be at the top of some bestseller list, and I probably won’t ever win the Pulitzer Prize for my fiction.
But I can make money doing what I love. It takes work, and patience. It means that I’m striving hard to learn how to tell the stories I want to tell.
At the end of the day, though, my writing charges my creative battery rather than draining it. I am constantly learning and growing and loving what I do, rather than slogging through it and resenting it, trying to find an advantage where there might be none.
I’m doing my best to be an artist.
And that’s the point of view that these blogs always come from. I assume that those of you reading these blogs want to be the best writers you can possibly be, that you write what you love, and that you’re working from your own vision, not someone else’s.
When I tell you to learn the business, when I say that you must understand what you’ve done so you can market it—those are all post-writing decisions.
I assume that when you sit down to write, you’re being 100% creative, alone with your thoughts, following your vision. I assume you’re pursuing art in this modern world, not pursuing riches.
There are other bloggers who can tell you how to make a fast buck. I’m not interested in that because it is a gamble, and it takes the kinds of risks I don’t believe in.
I’m here, talking about long-term careers for people who want to follow their own path, people who want to make a living from doing what they love.
And that’s why I sometimes get confused by the pushback I get from the marketers and the gamblers. Because we speak completely different languages.
I love to write. That’s why I do what I do. I don’t gamble. I choose to follow a path less traveled.
For me, that isn’t even risky.
For me, that’s as essential as life itself.
Click paypal.me/kristinekathrynrusch to go to PayPal.
“Business Musings: Gamblers and Artists,” copyright © 2015 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.
I had been wondering if I was nuts for writing what I felt I had to write, so I am glad to find I am not.
“Confidence in yourself and your abilities” is not always the same as “writing to entertain real readers.”
I agree that pleasing real readers should be your goal. The reason most writers have confidence issues, or feel like they are betting or gambling, is that they aren’t actually writing to please readers. They are writing for themselves, based on an internal vision, and they are hoping that readers like it. Confidence grows from publishing other books that readers like (and it dims when you publish stuff that nobody responds to). If you want to have more confidence, write more stuff that people like: make that your goal.
Most authors view that as heresy. They write for ART, audience and reception be damned. Hence, insecurity.
It is never healthy to have your confidence depend on other people’s actions (in this case buying your books) or their opinions. The best thing you can do is find confidence within yourself. That is hard no matter what you do. Even more so when you put your heart into your work.
I’m confused. Hasn’t Kris been saying here she writes for art? It seems like you took one tiny fraction of what she said completely out of context. I could be totally wrong (and if I am, Kris, please correct me), but my impression from what I read here is that Kris writes first and foremost for herself and her vision and her art. That everything she does is at the behest of THE WORK. Not what Sally Sue Reader might think about it. Because when you are working authentically from your voice and your art and your stories and your passion and learning craft so you can realize your vision in the best way you possibly can… there is going to be an audience for it. And in an international market, there is an audience for nearly anything if it’s done with some level of craft and authenticity.
You don’t write IMO TO that audience directly. You write authentically and then you find that audience or that audience finds you. It’s a bit like dating. You don’t change who you are as a person for a date unless you want to be an extremely miserable human being. You are who you are and then the right person finds you or you find them.
I know I don’t go out of my way to “write what readers want” on either of my pen names. (Whatever that means. Which readers? They are not all a homogenous blob of undifferentiated story consumers). I write what I want to read. I don’t do requests. I’m not a short order cook or a DJ. This is not Burger King. You cannot have it your way. That’s not what art is IMO. Art is what comes out of the soul of the creator. If it makes it big, awesome. If it just has a few readers, okay. Sometimes something has few readers because level of craft isn’t high enough yet. Sometimes it has few readers because it’s really just that niche or it’s hard to find the readership for it.
I simply cannot express how right this feels. Yes, writing is part of our souls if we truly mean it. Of course there are those who view it as a get rich quick scheme, but I dearly hope you are right, and that passion and belief will win out. Thank you, P.S, Yes, Stephen King is a fu** ing genius!
I have been reading this blog for years now and although I don’t agree with everything you’ve posted, I think I agree with about 90%. The only place we differ is in marketing, but I blame that on my love of marketing and not everyone feels that way.
But anyway, I agree about the love of your craft. I know there are authors out there in KU (I am not) who make damn good money. But their success is based on their ties with the distributor. Their ranking is based on something other than a “sale”. And their future is not really in their own hands. I can see why a lot of these KU money-makers refuse to believe that they are doing themselves a disservice by allowing this to happen–they want the money. They want to believe it will last forever. They want to believe “they’ve made it.”
But if my success was based on how much Amazon decided to push (or not push) my books, I would never be able to take credit for what I’ve accomplished. I’m not saying the authors are bad, the books are bad, or the results are bad. I’m just saying if I wasn’t responsible for creating my own success, then I would not be able to take credit for it.
Maybe not everyone cares about craft? Certainly there are readers out there who don’t. So they can fill a niche and make a living. But if writing is a career, then yes, it’s an art, it’s a craft, it’s about telling a story, being original, and being creative.
You get push-back, Kris, because you know better than most what it takes to survive as a writer and there are a lot of new writers who so desperately NEED to believe you’re wrong, they have to get defensive.
You “made it” and time will tell for the rest of us. But I’m with you, chasing trends is not something I’m interested in. Making trends, now that sounds like more my style.
Thanks for this post, Kris. When I read, I can. So I do, and the rest of the piece, it resonated within me. I really felt encouraged. Don’t let the trolls, and the fools keep you down, keep on doing what you’re doing with this blog. So many of us value your wisdom and experience, and the willingness to share it with others.
I published a book today, my first full length novel. I worked on it for a long time—too long probably. Before that I spent years learning the craft of writing. I did put some money into publishing this book. I don’t know for sure that I will earn it back. Is this the same as walking into a casino and betting a few hundred dollars on the roulette table? Uh, no. The two things are simply not comparable. Now, if I’d quit my job yesterday, because I was sure I’d be selling thousands of copies today, that would be gambling. Or lunacy. Enjoyed the post, as always.
Kris wrote: “Her post took my breath away. I never think of my writing or my business as a gamble. I do know it’s filled with risk—anything worthwhile is. I also know that some people are risk-averse, and that means that certain aspects of a writing career are not for them.
But a gamble? No.”
Dictionary definition of the noun, gamble: “an act of gambling; an enterprise undertaken or attempted with a risk of loss and a chance of profit or success.”
I guess I just don’t understand.
Kris, you said you DO know that your writing business is filled with risk. So your writing is an enterprise undertaken with a risk of loss and a chance of profit or success.
Which is the definition of a gamble.
I think what this boils down to is: the person you were quoting was saying the SAME THING as you. She was just saying it in a different way. 😉
We all know there is risk in a writing career. There’s really risk in any career. How we choose to mitigate that risk varies from person to person.
But it’s ALWAYS going to be a gamble. As Kris said, anything worthwhile has risk involved as well as a chance of success. So anything worthwhile in life is a gamble.
Kevin, I think you are conflating gambling with risk. Risk is present as a possibility in every endeavor. Every time you take to the roads, you risk bodily harm and death. Rational individuals mitigate this risk by exercising skill behind the wheel, accurately assessing dozens of inputs from traffic, performing proper vehicle maintenance, etc. That is far different behavior than racing a train to the crossing and hoping you get there first.
Gambling relies heavily or solely upon the quality of luck. A person rolling dice recklessly at the craps table will be allowed to stay for as long as he has cash. The wise guy counting cards at the blackjack table will be invited to leave. One is clearly gambling, the other has mitigated one risk for another.
Likewise is business, you are free to invest money in Russian mining stocks or buy an Arizona goldmine. Alternatively, you can invest in the an energy utility that pays quarterly dividends or a small service business with proven demand. Both paths entail risk. Only one qualifies as a gamble. The critical difference is the measure of control exerted by the individual.
So, to bring this back to writing, what Kris suggests is not a gamble but long-term business development in art products. It’s counting cards, honing skills to find another percentage improvement in technique that tips the scales further in her favor. What many writers today are doing is rolling dice and hoping that the algorithm serves up another seven. Many of them are winning – until the house changes the rules.
The dictionary definition of a gamble (not mine!) is what I quoted. If there is an element of risk, and the hope of reward, then it’s a gamble. By definition. Counting cards is STILL a gamble. Investing in “safe” stocks is still a gamble.
You are artificially divorcing the word “gamble” from the word “risk”.
If there is risk, and the hope of reward, then the venture is a gamble.
You might mitigate that risk. Some writers mitigate that risk by writing Star Trek novels. Others mitigate that risk by writing lots of books. Still others mitigate that risk by studying what readers want to read, and then producing such books.
All of these strategies work sometimes, and all of them fail sometimes. There’s no surefire solution. That’s why it’s a gamble. Because there is risk.
Actually, you’re moving the goalposts as laid out in the article. Everyone uses words differently and Kris laid out clearly how she was using the words for the purposes of this post:
Trusting odds vs mitigating risks. There’s a difference.
Well, ah, she was actually quoting me. And I was using the word “gamble” as expressed above in the dictionary definition. I specifically related my business decisions to being like an investment, or a strategic decision in any business (I was formerly in business, FYI, and I’m a cautious individual with an MBA and pretty good business sense, I think.) I don’t really appreciate my words being taken out of context and twisted. So I’m happy to see the dictionary definition, the definition I’d had in mind, used above. That is indeed the sense in which I was using the word.
Actually, you will notice that she does not quote you. She also does not refer to you by name, or link your comment. I think that’s for a reason.
Caveat: I’m not Kris. I don’t know Kris personally. This is entirely my opinion.
My reading of this is that your comment on her previous blog post included some words that stirred up some thoughts and feelings that she wanted to share. And it was just those individual words that caused the reaction, not the totality of your ideas. Even after you clarified what you meant, those particular words kept bouncing around in her head and combining with other thoughts and ideas until she had a new blog post.
From your comments on this post, it seems you are wondering why Kris is talking to you. (‘Why is she telling me not to follow the trends? I don’t do that.’) To my mind, the simplest answer is that she really isn’t talking to you. This post isn’t a rebuttal of your comment. It’s not a commentary on you, your writing, your career path, etc. You just used a couple of words that got her thinking. That’s it.
And if you read the comments, you can see that there are a lot of people out there who needed to hear some or all of what Kris was saying. THAT is who she was talking to, in my humble opinion.
Again, I don’t know Kris. And I don’t know you. (You clearly have this whole writing thing figured out better than I do, and it sounds like you’re doing awesome stuff. If I read romance, I would read your books.) But I think the two of you are 95% in agreement.
Thank you, John. That’s it exactly.
The definition of Artist
a person who produces paintings or drawings as a profession or hobby.
• a person who practices any of the various creative arts, such as a sculptor, novelist, poet, or filmmaker.
• a person skilled at a particular task or occupation: a surgeon who is an artist with the scalpel.
• a performer, such as a singer, actor, or dancer.
Therefore we are Artists
I CAN do this. So I DO.
This is incredibly scary, because there is literally nothing else I can do. When you have a disability such as mine, long-standing chronic illness which takes brain and energy away from you, but discover you CAN write, if you keep at it for years, using every bit of good energy, it is both liberating and terrifying.
If I fail at this, I have failed at the only thing left to me after I lost everything else.
And the amount I’m risking is the last fifteen years of all the daily drabs of ‘good time.’
Thank God it is my choice. Thank God and Jeff Bezos I could publish (just did).
But I understand exactly where you and King are coming from: the dissonance between the story in the head and the story on the paper.
And even though I cannot afford the adrenaline from excess emotion, I’m having a ball, and it’s as exciting as all get out.
Plus I was going to write when I retired anyway, so it has just been an incredibly different path to where I always knew I was going.
Great post. ‘Artist’ is exactly right.
A few years back as I started my journey to publication, I took an online course. I had about 20% of a novel’s first draft completed already. The instructor recommended I change the protagonist’s age and make it a YA story, because “that’s what’s selling.” I did, and lost interest in the story within a few months. It wasn’t the story I wanted to tell.
In a few days, I’ll publish my first novel on Amazon. It’s the type of story I’d want to read, so I’m hoping there are others that will want to read it, too. I’m prepared for low or no sales, but that doesn’t matter to me in the long run. I’m halfway through the first draft of Book 2 in the series and I’m applying all the lessons I learned in writing, editing, and publishing the first book.
I’m enjoying the ride. If I didn’t, then I wouldn’t see the point.
Happened to me 3 months ago. And 4 years ago. There’s no such thing as security any more. There are risks with any endeavor. The best you can do is try to identify them, and have a plan for mitigating them.
This is more or less precisely how I see the writing world. I’m glad someone put it into words.
That is exactly how I feel about Stephen King, to the atom. Thank you for writing this – it’s illuminating.
Thank you so much for this wonderful post! You have described everything I ever felt about writing — in a brilliant and yet comforting way.
I guess this makes me the frog in the punch bowl. I’ve been following the discussion with interest, and went to crunch some numbers. I write a combination of “market-y things” and books of the heart. One release covered both categories, and made the USA Today reviewer very happy. It’s sold, but not well enough that I can afford to ignore the other avid audience, nor is it a book that lends itself to duplication of what made it work. I haven’t worked out how to make my books of the heart terribly commercial, though I have worked out how to create “commercial books that at least make me smile.” In crunching the numbers, I find that the market-y books, even without a recent new release, have provided 40% of the revenue in the last 90 days, and the books of the heart have paid 10% exclusive of the new release, which unfortunately, took most of a year to write.
Yes, 90 days is nothing in the greater scheme of things. It’s certainly something when the kids are hungry. That’s a detail that Lawrence Block, Robert Silverberg, Andrew Offutt, and many others of equal stature also noticed and wrote accordingly. I won’t apologize for it nor agree I need to change. The kids are hungry now.
Kris, there are so many “pull quotes” from this piece that I can’t list them all. But the one below struck me on several levels–because it also shows why you’re such an effective teacher. And Dean, too.
“I miss most of the time. Yet I put those stories out into the wild, just like King does. Missing is part of the process. We might never achieve the potential of that splendid idea, but we can get close. And sometimes, we have even better stories that failed on the splendid idea part, but did something else.
“It’s the pull of that splendid idea, though, that makes the true artist continue to learn their craft. They are constantly striving to learn more, to put more tools in their toolbox, so they can find better ways to capture the potential of that splendid idea.”
Amen, and amen.
This post is amazing and I totally agree! I once told a friend about my dreams of becoming an author and she told me I should self publish romance novels on Amazon because she’d read an article about an author who did that and made a ton of money. I don’t think she understood why I said that would never work for me: romance is just not my genre. Obviously, I don’t have anything against people who read it or write it—it’s just not MY thing.
Also, I always chose long essay tests over multiple choice tests while I was in school, too. I never really realized how that connects to my lifetime love of writing until I read this post. 🙂
It really does bemuse me that you picked up on my comment as the subject for your blog post. My just-released book is about a cleaning lady, a high school principal, and domestic abuse. Not exactly werebears. Today, I’m writing a shower sex scene between two people in their 50s who’ve been married for 30 years. So . . .
I don’t consider myself an artist, no. I never have. I write because I enjoy coming up with stories, and because having the skills to tell them well is so satisfying. I’m always trying to improve on those skills, and if reviews and sales are a reasonable gauge, I seem to be doing that. It certainly does make me happy that other people enjoy what I’m writing. If they didn’t like my books enough to buy them (or pay to borrow them), I’m not sure what the point of publishing would be. Why wouldn’t I just write for myself? Why would I even put the books out there, subject to all that criticism?
However, I’ve always said that there’s not one path. There are many paths. I’m probably one of the least trend-chasing decent-selling romance writers out there. In some ways, I believe that’s helped me. In others, it’s held me back. I’m not the biggest seller, and that’s probably one reason. If others want to go for the trends? That’s certainly a method as well. Who am I to say it isn’t better? I don’t have to alter my tastes to write to my market (which isn’t all of romance, for sure, but fortunately, romance is a big tent), but that’s because I have comfortably mass-market taste, and I love writing romance. It lets me write about the things I enjoy exploring, and gives me all the freedom I personally need. If somebody does have more artistic intentions but writes “down” to appeal to more popular tastes, I’m not going to judge them. People are different, and from what I’ve seen, there are many paths to a successful career.
This. ALL of this. It’s like you reached into my brain in 2012 and scooped out all the realizations I had that year as I wrote the book of my heart. That I didn’t even know was the book of my heart until it was done.
I’m a romance author, and trend chasing is everywhere. I refuse to do it. I’m writing my first shifter paranormal right now because I love them, not to chase the trend. What’s coming out is soooo different from the trend chasing shifter romances. And I wouldn’t change it for anything.
I’ve indie published four books now, with the fifth going into edits next month. Am I making money yet? Only enough to cover expenses. Am I successful by the world’s standards? Not hardly. But I’m happy. I’m creatively fulfilled and having the time of my life. THAT is my measure of success.
Ah, it has all become clear to me now.
I’ve been frustrated by not seeing viable sales since I started self-publishing in 2011. So when you wrote about not writing to market I got mad at myself for making the wrong choice in 2011. I thought I should have been writing to market this whole time.
I felt like chucking it all in and writing to market in hopes of better sales. After reading this blog post today I now realise that the only reason I didn’t give up is because I didn’t write to market. If I had written to market with my newbie writing skills, back in 2011, I would have quit because my market written books wouldn’t have been anything that I actually enjoyed writing. They would have been awful books. Books that I’d have no confidence in.
The only reason I haven’t quit being an indie author, to date, is because I write what I want, I love what I write, and people who do buy my books (the few) love what I write too.
Thanks, Kris 🙂
External validation is probably the most addictive drug in the world. But like other drugs, a little of it is good but a craving NEED for it is bad. Having one glass of wine a day after work, or not, maybe the occasional weekend party is good. Jonesing for booze every time you do your job, just to get the job done — that’s bad.
I think what scares many authors is: The deep look into a long abyss of hard work, years with little or no results, the constant fear that we are not good enough, the polite questions from friends which are actually spoke as taunts. “So, what happened with that writing thing? Not going anywhere, is it?”
And then they come across this articles by a Best selling author. It promises to teach them the secret! You need to write Genre X / Always write in a series / Study the Amazon list etc etc. And they too can make as much money as Best Selling Author!
That’s the reason I’ve stopped reading most writer blogs (except yours and Dean’s). You spend a few years looking at the blogs/forums, you see the same things come up again and again. The same fads/fears spread by the same type of beginners masquerading as experts. If you try to disagree with them, no matter how politely, you are attacked.
When I was still doing the blog circuit, I was surprised by how many authors had been writing for less than 5 years. The majority had started less than 1-2 years ago. And obviously, most writers start part time. In any “real” industry, they would be classed as juniors.
For a long time, I tried to follow these fads. I dutifully submitted my books for “critique”. I tried to write everything in a series, in best selling genres, so that my books would sell like hot cakes. Success was just round the corner!
And then I started hated what I was writing. I gave up, writing nothing for more than an year.
Now, I write to entertain myself. Even if no one else reads the book, at least I am entertained.
Well said. I can see the difference in authors who are into improving their craft and ones who just write. I enjoy the ones who are about constantly honing their craft. Generally their work is more interesting. They leave me thinking about their story at odd moments weeks or months later.
Wow. This was an epic post. I usually hate it when people say something was epic but I think it fits here, Kris. And inspiring. Inspiring fits too.
Cynthia, “epic” is exactly the word that came to mind for me, too. Epic and wonderful. Thank you, Kris! This was an inspiring and amazingly relaxing this to read!!
So, it boils down to write what you love….
I don’t read romances, so me writing one is not something I would enjoy. On the other hand, sci-fi, fantasy, suspense/ techno-thrillers are the types of books I love to read, and that’s where my interests in writing lie. Two of my co-authored novels were self-published on Amazon this, and while they aren’t hot mega-hit (or even minor hits) they have been met with some kind words and some sales.
But it helps that both novels are thrillers, high-stakes and firefights, good guys and bad — the type of books I like to read. The short stories I write for a sci-fi gaming line I enjoy writing because I enjoy the universe — getting paid for them is not the main factor for writing them (Though the money doesn’t hurt!). If somehow I was offered a chance to write in Star Wars, Star Trek, or any other universe I enjoy reading in, I would grab the chance. Until that unlikely day happens, I’m working on my craft…..
“’m here, talking about long-term careers for people who want to follow their own path, people who want to make a living from doing what they love.”
Well, since that’s exactly what I do and exactly what I’ve done since Week 1 in this business, for more than three years now, I’m not sure what your entire long post was about.
Once upon a time, I used to build furniture in my garage. I got all the best tools I could afford, and I tried like heck to make beautiful things for people to have, use, and if I was really lucky, pass on to their heirs some day.
Not long after, I found there was a certain artistry to woodworking and furniture making. It’s easy to watch someone who’s done it for a long time and makes it look easy. It’s quite another matter to take a stack of lumber and turn it into that beautiful thing.
It taught me a lesson about craftsmen, artisans, artists, and hobbyists. It took Dean, and you, to show me how similar writing – or any OTHER creative endeavor – is to this, and how much I’d let that lesson slip through.
I didn’t want to just make boxes over and over again, even though this is the advice I got from more accomplished woodworkers. I didn’t want to practice making joinery over and over. I didn’t want to make furniture you’d find at the local big-box furniture store, either. I wanted to create art. Just like years and years before, when I drew pictures and loved drawing, I didn’t understand the practice of the craft – storytelling for writing – would enable me to finally, eventually create the pieces of heirloom quality I wanted to make. I just…didn’t get it. I have no idea why it took almost half a century for that lesson to finally sink it, but it did.
Now I can see how practicing storytelling – and I’m desperately seeking ways to learn storytelling – and learning craft will eventually help me to realize each splendid idea I have, and the struggle to do so, along with the eventual failure, will strengthen my writing drive my learning even farther.
Thank you for the clarity Kris. I was told years ago that being an artist means starving, or not making a very good living, and I’m happy to know those voices of the long ago are wrong. And I can pursue this because I love it, because I want to.
I never cease learning, and I’ll never cease if I’m true to craft. I’ll always be grateful to you and Dean, too. Thank you for all you do.
Kris, what you write about the creative battery and the way it’s sapped by “writing for money” rings very true for me. I had a chance to revisit some old fan fictions I wrote few years back. They had “craft issues,” true, but they also had more life to them than a lot of what I write now. I wasn’t afraid to take risks, because there was nothing to lose. No reviewers and no sales figures, just readers who cheered me on every time I updated a story (i.e. posted another chapter.) I’ll try to recapture that feeling of glee and excitement I remember from back than as I write things I hope to publish for profit. I haven’t realized how much I’ve been censoring myself.
I absolutely want to become the best writer I can be. With each project I try to be better than the last one but I do write for me. I made that decision awhile ago. I’ll write it and then share it with the world and what I do write, I will put value on it. I’m reading your discoverability book right now. I believe I’m on the pricing section right now. I put some short stories under my own name up and I have to change the prices on those. I’ve switched mind modes. I’m shutting out the trends and such although I am pursuing the coloring books because I love them but on the whole I will write for myself, put value on it and put it out there. Nothing more.
“Some of us never learn that the gap is normal.”
Thanks Kris. I suspect that “perfectionist” thinking can get in the way of writers accepting the gap. I’ll remember your advice when I grow frustrated with myself.
On a side note, while I love King’s work too, in my heart of hearts I’m chasing after JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis. Sigh. 😉
I’m chasing them, too.
Tolkien was very well aware of the gap between the splendid idea and the reality–you can see it everywhere, most clearly in “Leaf by Niggle” (to be found in Tree and Leaf, or Tales from the Perilous Realms, if you haven’t read it). And for C.S. Lewis, of course, one need only think of the end of The Last Battle.
Wow, Kris. Everything I’m reading from you these days is exactly what I needed to hear. I’ve never considered myself a patient person, but now I see that I’ve been quietly plugging along, writing and learning and publishing, trusting in what I was doing and the stories I was creating.
I’ve always been frustrated that I showed my first attempt to someone who shut me down so hard I didn’t write another story for 5 years, but now that I think about my personality, I’d have gotten sucked into writing in college and I’d have been ruined. Timing is a funny thing.
I can do this. So I do.
This is such good advice. I wish I’d heard it when I was a kid.