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.
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“Business Musings: Gamblers and Artists,” copyright © 2015 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.