Business Musings: The People in Your Office
So, it happened again. A big name fantasy writer made his fans angry because the next book in his series hasn’t appeared in years. And, in a passing remark, he compared the comments fans make on his overdue book to those comments people make to their unemployed adult child about getting a job or to their single grandkid about getting married.
Patrick Rothfuss made the foolhardy decision to let a reporter shadow him all day and of course Rothfuss had an unguarded moment. He said, on the record,
“[The fans] don’t realize this is so wearying,” he said with a sigh when we spoke a few weeks ago. “It’s like asking, ‘When are you going to get married? When are you going to go to law school?’ It’s like, just fuck off. Just die. I don’t need any more of that in my life.”
It’s not a good plan to tell your fans to fuck off and die. Nor is it a good idea to tell them that their favorite author “is not your bitch” the way Neil Gaiman did for George R.R. Martin several years ago.
It’s especially not a good plan to tell the reporter who is also covering the fact that The Kingkiller Chronicle superfan Lin-Manuel Miranda (of Hamilton fame) will be the executive producer on a version of your series that’s going to be aired on Showtime in the next year or two.
But writers are who writers are. And most of them (most of us) spend our time alone in a room, making things up. Writers tend not to realize that their fans are people. Nor do some writers—especially newer writers who have fast success—realize that the only reason they’re going to be remembered as artists is if they have fans of their work.
I have watched writers behaving badly to their fans for years. The worst I ever saw was a big name fantasy writer (maybe there’s a trend?) reduce a fan to tears. The fan brought a well-loved book up for an autograph, and the author held up the book and mused, loudly, rudely, I can’t believe people love this thing. It’s so awful.
Insulting. Rude. Terrible. And that writer (now dead, thank heavens) isn’t the only one I’ve seen treat fans that way. If you can’t properly appreciate your fans—even the ones who lack social skills—then don’t do autographings and stay off social media.
Rothfuss did not make this comment on social media. He made it to a reporter who had been invited to trail him all day at a convention. Mistake number one. Mistake number two was treating that reporter like a friend. Reporters report. I’m sure Rothfuss did not want that comment out, but he uttered it, in public, perhaps thinking he was talking to a like-minded person.
Instead, he insulted his fans. I actually saw a link to the article above because another writer friend of mine and a fan of Rothfuss posted an angry response to being told to fuck off. Then a big-name writer came on board and explained how Rothfuss might have come to that emotional place where he would make a comment like that. The younger writer backed down as he gained some understanding.
But most fans of Rothfuss won’t end up with that understanding and many of them will remain angry at him, perhaps never buying his books again. (Think that doesn’t happen? I have nothing kind to say about Margaret Atwood who insulted an entire group of young writers at the University of Wisconsin nearly forty years ago. I was in that group. I’m still insulted. She may have changed and I know I have, but I still hold that no one should treat other people the way she treated us. I refuse to buy her work, even now.)
I know some of you reading this right now are fans of mine, not writers. I hope I’ve never treated you that poorly. If I have, I’m sorry. I value you all, and the support you give to my work.
I also want you all to understand one thing about this post: The rest of this post is directed solely at writers.
When Dean and I teach, we talk about trading up for problems. Having fan voices in the middle of your work is a problem that writers trade up for. Once you have fans, they will have opinions about what you do. They will also want more of what you do (if you’re doing the job right), and they will be vocal about it.
They have that right.
It’s your job to understand that.
Yes, I know it’s a burden at times. And right now, some of you are scrolling down to the comments section to write me a reminder that it’s a burden you all want.
Well and good. Figure out now how you’re going to handle it.
Because this is one of the biggest career killers there is.
Not because of the fans, but because the writers can’t make the transition from hobbyist to professional writer to famous person.
When we start out, we’re writing for ourselves. We are telling stories we want to tell in the way we want to tell those stories. Eventually, we figure out that we want to have others enjoy those stories. Some writers never go beyond sharing stories on fan boards or with a few close friends. And that’s perfectly fine.
But a large portion of us start taking classes, attending workshops, submitting our work to markets, or publishing that work ourselves.
And then the work is in public. Once the work is out in the world, the world will respond—for good or for ill.
It’s up to the writers to guard their offices. Once they go inside their office and sit down at their writing computer, every other voice should be silenced. The only voices in the writer’s head should be the voices the writer makes up.
Of course, it doesn’t work that way.
Early on, we learn that we “need” other people to “hone” our craft. I’ve dealt with this in a book called The Pursuit of Perfection, created out of three blog posts that you can still get for free on this site. I suggest you read them.
You need to learn to clear out the voices, particularly if you’re publishing in a series, particularly if that series—like so many fantasy series—is one big story published in several volumes.
Most writers publish a volume as soon as they finish it, leaving the overall story arc incomplete. Some writers, like Robert Jordan, die before ever finishing their series.
It’s tough to write one volume at a time as more and more voices enter your office. Your agent, your editor, your readers—they all have opinions, and most of those opinions will be wrong.
If you read the article about Rothfuss, you’ll realize that he let his agent into his process before the book ever sold, and now Rothfuss is paralyzed by perfection. He even says it in the article:
The best advice he ever received, Rothfuss says, was from the writer who ran the workshop he attended after he won that first short-story contest: “It’s late once, but it’s bad forever.”
I have a hunch I know who told him this, because I know everyone who teaches at that workshop. And frankly, that writer who gave him that bad bit of advice should be ashamed of himself. But that writer is one of those people who no longer makes his living at his fiction, if he ever did. Because every word has to be perfect, at the expense of the story.
Rothfuss is susceptible to other people’s voices. That’s clear throughout the article.
At a certain point, though, every successful writer runs up against this problem. And it is a problem. Whether you read your reviews or let an editor’s comment lurk in your head, or whether someone you care about disparages the genre(s) you write in, those words will reverberate.
And it’s the writer’s job to figure out how to shut those words out.
I suspect—but do not know for a fact—that this problem is one reason Nora Roberts does not tour for her books. She doesn’t go to conventions, except for RWA, and she rarely interacts with her fans.
She’s deliberately hanging onto the passion of writing for herself, telling stories that interest her. If she continually listened to everyone around her, she probably would have quit long ago.
Book tours, and all of the sundry work that is extraneous to the actual writing can get in the way of writing itself, and not just in time wasted.
The multiple #1 New York Times bestseller who wrote to my other writer friend told facts about demands on a #1 New York Times bestseller (published traditionally), demands that I’ve heard from other writers, other bestsellers.
Think about this for a minute: Until your book became insanely popular, you had one job. That was to finish your next book. The next thing you know, your previous book is a huge success, and everyone puts demands on your time. You’re to give up a month of your life doing book signings, readings, and interviews. You’re expected to go on social media and be cheerful and upbeat and oh, yeah, talk about your book. You’re supposed to be witty and charming and a great deal of fun.
And if you’re like most writers, you’re an introvert.
But even if you’re an extrovert and you get a charge from being in front of a crowd, you’re still not writing. Your deadline doesn’t change. You now have to produce the next book with a month’s less time on your hands and, to make matters worse, all those comments you heard on the trail—the good and the bad—are now in your brain.
- I don’t like your protagonist. He’s mean.
- All of your women characters are cardboard.
- The entire structure of your fantasy world is racist.
- My favorite character is Gwendolyn. (Crap, the writer thinks, I was planning to kill off Gwendolyn in the next book.)
- The books showed me how to be a good person. (Crap, the writer thinks, the next book is all about the anti-hero.)
- I would love to go to that world and stay. (Me too, the writer thinks. Oh, me too.)
Should the fans stop making comments? Heavens no. They won’t, any way. The online ecommerce world is built on reviews and ratings, and those will continue whether the writer wants them to or not.
Any writer with a modicum of success will have these problems—indie or not.
The bigger problem comes when the writer moves from professional writer to famous person.
Most writers whose books do well flirt with Famous Person for a while. They do the TV interviews. They give big talks to large auditoriums full of people. They do cameos in films made of their work.
And then…most of them stop.
Why? Because if they don’t, they’ll never write again.
Truman Capote became a case in point. He became famous for having written, not for what he was writing. When you cart the expectations of every fan you’ve ever met, plus every reviewer who has even looked at one of your books, plus the expectations of the entire culture—when your books get mentioned casually on TV sitcoms—then you’re probably having a great financial year and a terrible writing one.
Because all of those people—the entire world, in your mind—has joined you in your office. And instead of listening to the voices in your head, you’re listening to voices that you think you know, voices of actual people who have expressed their opinions about what you do.
It’s hard to remember that those are just opinions, and you should probably ignore them.
In fact, when you’re a storyteller, you should always ignore the opinions of those who are listening/reading/watching the story. It’s your job to surprise them after all. Because fans are fickle. They like what they like until the work becomes predictable.
Then they get bored and move on.
If you give them exactly what they ask for, your work becomes predictable, and they will leave you, given enough time.
How to remain pure?
You haul out my favorite word for writers:
No touring, no matter how much someone begs. No interviews with a morning show with the best ratings in the country. No special guest appearance at the biggest convention in the world. Nada. No. Zip. Zilch.
Or if you do those things, realize it will take a toll. And that toll will be on the writing. Make sure you push your deadlines back, if your deadline is with a traditional publisher.
Indies are now sitting smugly, thinking that they don’t have to worry about the demands of their traditional publisher. They’re in charge of their own schedules.
Which can be a serious problem.
I know too many indies who are writing a series with an overall single story arc, and the indies publically set up a punishing schedule for the books in that series.
Sure, in the best of all possible worlds, the indie can finish the books according to that schedule, but what about illness or a death in the family or maybe something uplifting like a new baby? What about a move or—God forbid—a book that takes longer than planned?
All of these things happen, and most indies don’t account for it. They either work harder to stay ahead or they get further and further behind. I know several writers who have just faded away, series unfinished, because the fan and reader response has gone from patient to the kind of response that Patrick Rothfuss talks about in the article.
When is the next book coming out? Why are you blogging about a movie when you should be writing? Okay, you had the flu. You’re over it. When will the next book be done? You promised it in March. It’s November.
If the writer hadn’t announced the schedule, then the fans wouldn’t be expecting the book on a timetable.
Yes, that means you’ll have to answer emails and comments on social media—if you handle your own fan mail and social media accounts. You might have a canned response, something about the book is being written or sign up for the newsletter to find out when the book will actually be published.
Or you set up a FAQ, saying that you’re working on the book (if you are) and that it’ll be done when it’s done. Sure the fans won’t be happy that there isn’t a set schedule, but they’d rather have a new book than no book at all.
I have never had a series go as big as Patrick Rothfuss’s series—yet, although two of my series are growing rapidly. Yet I also get those letters and those comments. Plus one I’m sure most series writers don’t get.
The moment I drop a book in one of my series, people write and ask when the next book in a different series comes out. And you know what? I understand that. Most of my readers don’t like all of my series. They have a favorite series, and they’ve been patient, and now they want their book, now that this other book has come out.
If I were a different writer, or a less experienced writer, I would probably schedule myself the way that many indies are scheduling themselves. Four books a year, one book per series per quarter.
If only I could be happy doing that. Everyone would be content. Maybe.
But I like surprising myself as well, and sometimes that surprise is how complex some stories get and other times it’s how some stories—not related to a series—push their way to the fore as possible novels.
I let that happen or I’d stop writing altogether. Writing has to remain fun for me.
I do have some tricks, though. These are my process. Yours might differ. I offer them up as ways to clear out some of the voices.
First, make writing fun again. Get back in touch with that hobbyist. Find whatever you loved about writing fiction in the first place. If that means writing an unsalable book under a secret pen name or trying a brand new genre, do it—and don’t blog about it. Just have a great time. Tell a story just for you, and only you. Have fun.
Second, if you’re telling a story arc that requires several books, finish the arc before publishing any of the books. Sure, that might mean waiting an extra year to publish (indies), but it’ll be worthwhile. Then the reviews and comments won’t interfere with the final books in the arc. You’ll have the story done before anyone from outside comments on it.
If you’re writing a series with stories that standalone, then don’t read your reviews. As in, ever. Keep the series pure. If people don’t like what you’re doing, fine. You don’t need to know that. You just keep writing.
Here’s the thing: generally speaking, the most vocal people about anything are the people who hate that thing. The people who like it share it with their friends and family and often don’t comment, don’t review, don’t feel the need to pat the writer on the back and say, Great job. They’re too busy enjoying. Besides, they get lost in the story. Who cares about the writer?
It’s not the reader’s job to care about the writer. The reader’s job is to read and enjoy whatever they’re reading. If they don’t like fantasy, then they might not read your book. If they liked the first few books, but not the latter books, fine. That’s their prerogative.
If you start thinking like a reader, rather than like a writer, you’ll remember that. You start reading series all the time and quit because the writer goes in a direction you don’t like. You have books that you’ll reread every year because you love that book so very much. You know of series that sound perfectly awful, yet your best friend loves that series to pieces.
You’re a lot more understanding and tolerant as a reader.
As a writer, you take everything personally.
And, honestly, it’s not personal. Once you release your book into the world, your book is on its own. You can’t fly out with it and defend your decision to end where you did. You can only write the next book.
If you let the voices into your office—the voices that are not your storytelling voice—then you are making a mistake. Find a way to protect that space.
And if you feel the need to tell your fans to fuck off and die, do it in the privacy of your office. Without the wireless turned on. With the internet shut off.
Don’t tell the people who spend good money on your fiction that they’re the problem when they aren’t. Accept the fact that you’ve done a really good job. They like what you do.
If you can’t handle the questions, don’t put yourself in the position to hear them. Hire an assistant to handle the fan mail. Don’t do book signings. Don’t go on social media.
If you don’t want to keep writing, stop. You have no obligation to finish your series. The fans will go elsewhere over time. They’ll be disappointed that your series never ended, but they’ll find enjoyment in someone else’s work.
And that’s okay.
If you want to continue as a writer, though, then you need to figure out how to hang onto the joy of writing. You are a professional writer, so you should act with a modicum of professionalism in public. You have no obligation to become a famous person.
If you have become a famous person and don’t like it, step out of the spotlight. Go back to your office. Write your stories. Remember you have a choice: You can be J.D. Salinger or Harper Lee and stop making your writing public. Or you can learn how to survive the fame like J.K. Rowling, Nora Roberts, and Stephen King. You can choose when you go out into public, if you choose to go into public. You can choose when you release your fiction, if you want your fiction out in the world.
You can choose.
One last observation: writing is, by definition, a lonely profession. It’s gotten harder to measure success in the past ten years, not easier. We used to have a ladder by which we could measure our success against that of other writers.
Indie publishing has blown up that ladder. Even the venerated bestseller lists have shrunk down to easily obtainable numbers (rather than hundreds of thousands of copies sold in a week to hit USA Today, it takes as little as 5,000 copies some weeks). Now we no longer have the drumbeat of attainable goals—get an agent, get a publishing deal, get a book published, hit a bestseller list, sell books in translation, get a movie deal.
Now anyone can publish a book, and many of those books sell better than books that hit the old-fashioned attainable goals.
No one pats writers on the head and tells them they’re doing good when they make $10,000 a month as an indie writer. Heck, most people don’t even notice.
And all that does is make writers feel even less important than they felt before. Which makes writers scour the internet for reviews or compare the size of their mailing list with the size of some other writer’s mailing list.
The writer is looking for affirmation, and not getting it from the outside. Except from readers who want the next book right now.
So the writer turns himself inside out trying to keep up that drumbeat of success.
When, in reality, the measure of success should be the process of telling a story—a good story—one you enjoy telling to yourself, alone, in your office.
Just like you did in the beginning.
Find the love for your work all over again.
And get those people out of your office.
The only person who belongs in your office is you—and all the voices you make up. The voices that are, in reality, as much a part of you as your elbow.
Find that again, and the writing will become easier.
The writing will become fun.
Just like it was in the beginning.
So here’s what I learned a few years ago when I took a hiatus from this blog to write the remaining six books in the Anniversary Day story arc: I learned that I love doing this blog. I like the learning. I like the interaction. I like the chance to think about things that I haven’t thought about before.
I’ve thought a lot about this topic. I know how hard it can be to have a world of attention on your writing, whether you want that attention or not. I’ve fought hard to reclaim my office, and there’s a lot of things I don’t do because in some areas my writing is fragile.
That’s why my Patreon page is for my nonfiction only. I have always worked collaboratively on nonfiction. I got my start as a journalist.
I don’t want other people involved with my fiction. And I’ve learned that just having the expectation of others on it can harm it. So if I were to, say, promise a monthly short story or a finished novel twice a year to my Patreon supporters, well, I’d blow that up in about six months in.
Hard-fought lessons. And some joy as well. Because the interaction on the nonfiction is great fun for me.
So thank you all for everything you do. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it.
If you liked this post, and want to show your one-time appreciation, the place to do that is PayPal. If you go that route, please include your email address in the notes section, so I can say thank you.
Which I am going to say right now. Thank you!
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“Business Musings: The People In Your Office,” copyright © 2017 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / Kakigori.