Business Musings: How Writers Fail (Part 3): Expectations

Business Musings: How Writers Fail (Part 3): Expectations

I have picked apart this topic in my head so many times that I’m finally getting a handle on my own expectations. Not yours, not another writer’s. Mine.

We all have expectations of the way a career will go. Of the way life will go, but that’s another blog entirely.

We also have expectations of ourselves and others around us.

And never, ever, ever will our writing, our career, or even life itself go the way we expect.

We know that, intellectually, but that doesn’t stop us, deep down, from having all of those expectations.

Sometimes I think they’re built in, to help us get through the day.

The reason I know my expectations pretty well (although not all of them) is that I’ve picked them apart for decades. Why, when I won this award, did I feel unsatisfied? Why did I devalue hitting the New York Times bestseller list when I finally did? Why didn’t I accept the USA Today list as valid the first time I hit it?

Some of those are simple: I needed to devalue an achievement to keep myself motivated. But that isn’t all of it. Because I can find motivation in my sleep. I write for me, to handle the challenge or to tell a particular story. I would write if civilization vanished and I had to scrounge up the last few pens and notepads to do so.

Sometimes, though, the experience and/or achievement didn’t fulfill my expectations.

Before I get to my own, let me give you an example. The sister who helped raise me gave me a lot of books. Once she married and moved away, she sent me every Newberry Award-winning children’s book she could find. That little seal on the cover, saying Newberry winner, had a double meaning for me.

First, it meant that the book was good. (I can’t think of a Newberry winner from those years that I didn’t like.) Second, it was a little symbol of love. I still have those Newberry books on my shelf, and they remind me, not just of the read, but of the person who valued me enough to take the time to find the best book possible, maybe at a time when she couldn’t even afford it.

So fast forward decades (literally). A friend of mine won the Newberry award and posted pictures of the ceremony on Twitter, showing the room from his point of view, detailing the entire celebration, and talking about what happened.

He was beyond thrilled. He should have been. It was a hell of an honor.

I frowned when I saw the pictures, even as I congratulated him. And I felt weird for days afterwards.

It took me a while to figure out that my “weird” mood was actually disappointment. Not for him. I was super happy for him.

And I wasn’t disappointed for me, either, because I don’t write children’s literature. I don’t expect to win a Newberry. I don’t aspire to it, either. I think it’s a high honor, but not one I would ever compete for.

So what disappointed me?

Well, it didn’t really disappoint me per se. It disappointed child-me. Child-me expected a pre-pandemic Oscars-level ceremony, where writers showed up in limos and walked the red carpet in their diamonds and long gowns, tuxedos and shiny shoes. Child-me expected klieg lights and trumpets blaring and trophies made of gold.

Child me expected an all-out major ceremony, the kind that makes movie-star glamor obsolete.  When my friend tweeted his bird-eye view of the ceremony, I learned it was held in a hotel convention center, decorated in generic browns and whites, with standard hotel chairs to support the audience members, who were librarians, not fashion plates. So yes, they were dressed up, but dressed up the way that normal people dress up.

Child-me was greatly disappointed. My mother and I used to watch the Oscars together; that was the only time in my childhood I was allowed to stay up past bedtime. So that was what award ceremonies were to child-me, and boy, apparently, that went in deep.

But only for awards I knew about as a child. I wasn’t surprised by the Hugo ceremony or the Edgar ceremony. They were the same kind of normal-people dress up, and that was just fine.

Teasing out these expectations is hard.

Expectations can hurt us terribly. When I hit the New York Times list for the first time, it didn’t come with hearts and flowers and a band-playing. My status didn’t change at all on a day-to-day level.  Book sales were easier for a while, although I had expected they would stay the same or be better for life.

Nope. And nowadays, things are even worse for long-standing New York Times bestsellers in traditional publishing. Just look at the nonsense Stephen R. Donaldson had to pub up with on The Killing God this past year.  His editor told him to cut 100,000 words from his latest novel sight unseen. He’s been dealing with the issues this has brought, but none of it is easy.

And as far as I’m concerned, it should have been. They should have respected this long-term bestselling author of theirs. But his experience, and that of Nora Roberts at Penguin Random House (before she went to St. Martins) is just one example of the way things have changed.

Weirdly, my problem with the USA Today list, back when I hit it the first time (in the 1990s) was that the list wasn’t the one I aspired to. I had no expectations of the list—even though, at the time, it was the absolute best list in terms of accuracy. If your book was on that list, your book sold well. Bar none.

Now, all the lists have issues, because traditional publishing is a shadow of its former self. What meant something grand in the 1970s, when my adult expectations formed, means something completely different in the 2020s. And y’know, why shouldn’t it? That’s fifty years on. Seriously, things should change.

We all have these expectations in our heads.

We finish a book and we expect everyone to fall at our feet, exclaiming what amazing writers we are. (Not even the so-called great writers of the past had that. If you read about Faulkner or Hemingway, for example, they struggled like crazy to get recognition. But we, the young writers who studied their work, don’t know about those struggles. We only see how they’re treated after death.)

Or…we expect to sell as well as—pick someone. Nora Roberts? Maybe. Or Writer Joe who says he’s making 100,000 per month on Amazon? (Is he? Can we verify this?)

We expect to do better than the worst writer in our creative writing class, but writing is subjective. Storytelling is what really counts, and some terrible sentence-by-sentence writers are actually the best storytellers.

We expect our careers to go smoothly after we sell our first novel or our fifteenth novel or we’ve reached a modicum of celebrity.

That one caught me in the 1990s. I knew a lot of very famous authors…who couldn’t sell a novel anymore to save their life. It took a lot of analysis to figure out that they were famous for their personalities and their in-person charisma, the speeches they gave, and the appearances they took fees for, but they had stopped writing new fiction years before.

The truth often blows expectations out of the water.

Then there’s that expectation nurtured at colleges and universities. If you write one great book, you’ll never have to work again. You won’t have to sully your little hands with business decisions. People will handle all of that for you. You’ll be renown, and you can remain untouched by the slime of the business world.

That, I think, has been the focus of this weekly blog for years. I’ve been trying to undo that expectation for writers for more than a decade now.

So, how do expectations cause writers to fail?

Simple. If the writer doesn’t do something to their own expectation even if that something is impossible in today’s world, the writer quits.

That decision to quit often isn’t rational. It feels necessary though, because the writer is deeply uncomfortable, the way that I was when I realized that the Newberry Award ceremony was held at a hotel convention center, filled with librarians. (Of course it’s filled with librarians. The award is given by librarians.)

Writing or publishing or writing-related success didn’t meet or exceed expectations, so writers fade away. It’s not fun anymore.

They don’t really analyze what they had been expecting; they just decide that writing isn’t what they thought it was, and so they stop doing it.

If you really love writing, stopping shouldn’t be an option. So then the trick becomes sorting out what that expectation was.

Sometimes it’s as ridiculous as my Newberry expectation which, when you really drill down, wasn’t ridiculous at all for an Oscar-watching ten-year old.

Pinpointing the origin of the expectation often takes away its power. Comparing that origin to the modern world helps too. Because a lot of things that happened 50 years ago don’t happen today. Some months, it only takes 5,000 copies distributed (not even sold) to hit the New York Times list, as opposed to the hundreds of thousands it took in traditional publishing’s heyday.

So is hitting the list important? No, not really. Especially if you’re an indie writer. And that’s hard on the ego too. Because we expect our books to sell hundreds of thousands of copies very fast.

Indie is all about selling a handful of copies every month, and having the numbers add up to hundreds of thousands. (Those hundreds of thousands distributed that propelled people to the Times list? Many of those books were returned. A lot of those books went out of print the following year or two because book sales dropped off precipitously. Success in the indie world is to continue to sell books, month after month, year after year, something that is often impossible in today’s traditional publishing environment.)

Expectations are a tough one to figure out. I know I haven’t weeded out all of the ones that stop me yet, and I’ve been at this forever. You have to figure out what the uncomfortable feeling or contradictory feeling is. You need to understand why something you thought was good turns out bad or why you’re disappointed at something that would have made many people very happy.

Then you need to figure out what you expected. Once you’ve figured that out, you need to figure out where the expectation came from, and whether or not that expectation is even realistic in today’s publishing environment.

Yes, it’s a lot of self-reflection and analysis.

But if you can do that, and slowly weed out the bad expectations, then you will have a longer career.

Because unmet expectations are a huge killer. Unmet expectations destroy more writers than anything else.

And the sad part is, the writers who quit because of those expectations often don’t understand why they’re leaving the profession. They just know that it isn’t what they “wanted.”

Translated? It’s not what they expected.

Nothing ever is.

But that’s a hard lesson to remember, even when the world is bent on reminding us of that, every single day.

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“Business Musings: How Writers Fail (Part Three) Expectations,” copyright © 2022 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / 4774344sean

8 responses to “Business Musings: How Writers Fail (Part 3): Expectations”

  1. jojoba says:

    I had the *exact* same reaction to the Nebulas and Hugos when I saw them! I asked a writer friend what was the spec fic award equivalent to The Grammys, since I’m coming from the music industry world and thus I’m used to the “sparkle” of the Grammys, Billboard awards, etc and friends going to those (not me because if I can’t sit through it at home, being there won’t be better).

    I remember going to my friend “Why is no one wearing [super haute couture clothing brand here]? Where is the glamour? Everyone looks like jazzed up librarians at an employee banquet.” I’m certain their expression should be in the dictionary for the word “befuddled”. Doesn’t help that I work in libraries, I suppose.

    I learned that these expectations can make for some nasty craters. I already had to unlearn a bunch just to feel okay about how trad publishing was and that my work still had value. Seeing what trad writers deal with, it isn’t too bad a trade up

  2. allynh says:

    I always called it “toxic competitiveness” otherwise known as, “Keeping up with the Joneses”, or in my life, “Who has the bigger fishbowl”.

    When we were kids, somebody got a fishbowl. Then each kid had to get a bigger fishbowl. My sister “won” the contest by ending up with an aquarium. She won and promptly abandoned the aquarium, so Dad ended up maintaining it.

    It’s essentially “social shaming” where someone snarls, “How dare you….”

    – The feeling of social shaming is real and visceral, gut wrenching, and I try to avoid that at all costs.

    It extends to all aspects of life.

    – I get a new pair of shoes because the old ones wore out after ten years and family is instantly saying, “Oh, you got new shoes. Must be nice.”

    – The North wooden fence blew down in the big wind a few months ago. I had it replaced and suddenly had neighbors showing up asking about the contractor, wanting their own, “Clean fence”. I point out that the fence may look clean today, but won’t come ten years from now. That my South fence is still 30 years old and will not be replaced until it too blows down. They just want to replace their perfectly good fence with something “new”. Yikes!

    Each time that I’ve seen this in writers the reaction never makes sense.

    I attended the SFWA Nebulas in Santa Fe in 1998, and the number of people who expressed snarling rage about Stephen King surprised me. His success is literally based on movies being made right from the start, because his stories translated cleanly to film. They did not require major CGI. Other authors that came out at the same time had less success because they came out decades before CGI could capture their books, so no movies were made. As simple as that.

    – Those same authors who wrote books needing today’s level of CGI would be massively successful, if they came out today. The Marvel and DC stuff shows that. Take a look at any comic book film before The Matrix and they are cringeworthy. (Blade(1998) was right at the edge.)

    What’s interesting is that King has mentioned hating certain authors and their success, stating equally pointless reasons. So no matter how big somebody is, they can still let social shaming disrupt their lives.

    – Success to me is writing the books and publishing them, period

    I have no control of the number of people who buy the books or how much money they generate, so I don’t look at those numbers as “success”.

    – This is why I use pen names, to avoid upsetting people, so that they do not upset me.

    I’m not looking forward to the level of social shaming that will hit when the time comes. I know that too many writers are prepared to attack me for what “they” perceive as my “success”. Glug!

  3. Lindsay Buroker says:

    I regularly get frustrated emails from authors asking why they’ve published their first three books in six months and aren’t able to go full time yet. The various podcasts and Facebook groups with people sharing success stories can be inspiring, but they can set up crazy expectations about what’s possible/likely too.

    When I started, I was pretty stoked when I got to the point where I was making a couple hundred a month. It was more than what I made from the once-a-week paper route I had when I was 10. Success!

    I always try to tell newer authors not to expect to sell any books, and then every one they sell will be a pleasant surprise. 😀

  4. I really needed to hear all of this. The explanation makes so much sense to me. Sometimes those nagging, unsettling feelings that I wrestle to understand really are as simple as “I expected the Oscars for authors and got a round of applause in a brown hotel conference room.” Love that insight, thank you. I just discovered your website and am really enjoying it!

  5. Alice Sabo says:

    I bounced through a couple of vocations realizing that I didn’t fit. I wanted to be an artist but found the gallery scene much too pretentious. I tried scene painting and realized it was too…political. Each time I tried something out for size I would eventually realize that I would never succeed because of the internal “rules” or secret expectations that I had been too oblivious to see. I probably stayed too long at each, convinced that if I worked hard enough, I would achieve my unnamed goal. It had to stay unnamed because I didn’t know where that vocation might lead.

    Being a writer fits so much better. I finally found my comfortable milieu. And now when I put in the hard work, the results are much more satisfying. My goals are clearer and if I miss them I can go back to figure out any missteps. I’ve finally learned one-size-does-NOT-fit-all. And knowing myself better now, I can see what doesn’t or shouldn’t apply. It’s a relief to stop throwing spaghetti at the wall…at lest in some things.

  6. Quitting isn’t an option. That makes the tough parts easier – they just need more work, and I know how to work.

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