If you’re a new writer, I want you to think about this.
Technically, the idea applies to everyone—I lived for years in the corporate world of product development, and the idea applies there, too—but new writers or others in creative fields will probably relate to it more than others.
To you, I want to say that you are going into a field where actual people make their living as their actual selves. By that, I mean their name is their brand, and the brand is their name—unless, of course, you have a series of pen names…but even then it’s the same thing, it’s just that those names can come and go. Names matter. Readers buy names they trust. Even the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises learned that they sold more books when they had name writers do the work.
When you are a new writer, completely out there on your own, those names you see chiseled into the bookstore racks feel like unobtanium, right? You go to there and see the Gaimans and the Kings and the LeGuins and the < insert your favorite author here >s and it’s like stepping into a hall of Gods.
However, you’re going into a business where, if you don’t quit and you work hard, you’ll almost certainly have at least a little success. And having at least a little success means that a newbie writer is eventually destined to rub elbows with those heroes. When you work in the field long enough, it’s natural to get to the point where some very cool things happen.
Yesterday, one of those things happened to me when Kris Rusch posted her recommended reading list for January, and included both Starflight and Starburst on it.
My first thought was “wow, that’s really, really nice of her,” and that I was going to thank her when I saw her later this month.
Then I read her commentary, I flashed on something valuable (to me, anyway).
I’ve read Ron’s work since before he sold his very first short story. I remember his work arriving across my desk when I was editing. I always looked forward to whatever he had to offer, even before his craft had caught up to his idea machine. Once those two things combined, and he added powerful storytelling to the mix, Ron went from writer to watch to writer to read no matter what.
This block made me reflect on where I’ve been.
The thing is, I know Kris Rusch now. I’ve written for her, I’ve learned from her, marveled at her innate skills from close up. We’ve shared jokes. She’s given me contract advice, helped me with dialect, helped me make an award quality story even better. Along with my daughter, we’ve shared a laser battle, fer cryin’ out loud. That’s right, I’m among what are certainly only a few people who can say “I’ve been to war with Kris Rusch.” (this makes me giggle just typing it).
When I read that block she wrote about me, I looked at Lisa and said, “If someone told me twenty years ago that Kris Rusch was going to put something I wrote on a recommended reading list, I would have…well….”
Because Kris, to me, was one of those icons. As a newbie writer, I wanted to sell stories to her, of course, but mostly I wanted to be like her. I wanted to be able to write across the spectrum of fiction. I wanted to be prolific. I wanted to know what I was talking about. I listened to her at convention panels (these were the days when “blogs” didn’t really exist, but were, at best “web journals”). I went to her and Dean’s “show” when it was in town. I devoured her short stories in particular, because that’s what I was trying to write at the time.
I’m not saying this to pump myself up, or to pump her up, or anything else. Nice things happen from time to time when you are in this business, though, and the day I stop being excited by being included on this kind of list is the day I should quit doing this kind of work. When these things happen, however, rather than spend a few hundred words on them, I generally just note them here and move on.
This one is a little different, though. If I look at this in the right way it helps me see things more clearly. If you are a new writer, I want you to see that this is a business where people flow in and out, and where the people are just that—people. The names you see as unobtanium today? Well, a lot of them are going to be gone from the racks twenty and thirty years from now, but they’re still just folks like you and me. Assuming you stay with it, those who remain, well, somewhere along the line those heroes—while remaining heroes in that compartment of your brain that is always an awkward beginner—have a very real chance to become “just people” too. You are, in all the ways that matter, just like them. Talk to them and you find their careers happened just like yours did and will, by doing hard work that they loved until they got where ever they are.
Which is pretty danged cool.
If you are like me, that change of view is not going to happen at the flick of a switch. You’re not going to sign a contract or get the keys to SFWA or whatever, and suddenly feel like you’re with the “in” crowd. In fact, if you’re like me you’ll never really feel any different at all. If you are like me, your “career” will not feel like it ever changed.
Of course, I am no Name. My career is not (yet?) in the leagues of the people I grew up reading. I’m no Stephen King, as the comment invariably comes up when speaking with people who suddenly learn I’m a writer. I’m no Dean, I’m no Kris. I’m no Mike or Laura Resnick or Kevin Anderson. I’m no J.K. Rowling. No Neil Gaiman. No Connie Willis. No John Scalzi. I’m not any one of a hundred different people I could name (some of whom came up in my “class”). I’m just me. My career is whatever it is. But I can look back and see a hundred or so short stories, and a successful fantasy series, and a newly launched SF series, and a thriller coming out, and … well … holy crap … I mean, I may not feel like any of those folks, but the fact is that if my 20-years-ago self saw this he would be holding parties every night. I can fairly honestly say that under my blustery exterior, my 20-year-ago self would have considered what I’m doing right now as being unobtainium. Somewhere along the way, though, somehow, without me understanding how it happened, this level of unobtanium became, uh, obtainium.
That’s the thing, you see? That’s the reason I’m writing this overblown bit of self-aggrandizing conversation.
I’m a writer. I have a career. I can tell, because I’ve been doing this for … well … a lot of years, and because I’m still doing it, and because there’s at least a little bit of money in it. I can tell because I feel like I’m slowly getting better, and because I still want to keep getting better, and because … well … it has become part of who I am.
If you are a new writer, this is important to keep in mind. It’s been helpful to me to see Kris’s comments because, like the people I know who are successful in this business, I’ve been on a months-long struggle to make various deadlines. Nose hard to the grindstone, as it were. Creating things. Packaging things. Attempting to live something of a real life in there somewhere, and watching some projects do okay while others just kind of cook along at a slow burn. Add on top of that the extremely depressing and distressing things that are going on around us, and it’s been easy to get stuck in the mire.
So, here’s the thing:
If you’re setting off on this kind of a career I want you to promise that every now and again you’ll stop and look at yourself from the eyes of the person you were five years or ten years before, and I want you to see how cool the current you would have looked in the eyes of that person of the past. I want you to say “Wow, that’s freaking awesome. I wish I could be them.”
Because, if I’m right, you’ll be mired in the muck and trying to keep your head above water. And if I’m right, you’ll be worried that your next book, story, song, or whatever, is going to tank. You’ll probably be in the middle of a day job that’s not working how you want it too, or worse, a day job that’s brilliant and that you’re good at that’s taking all your time. Or you’ll have a family thing happening that you know in your heart is higher priority. Or you’ll get your 50th rejection (or, like me, your 1,000th), and you’ll be questioning the very idea of your existence as an artistic person.
That’s the moment that I want you to promise you’ll do what I did when I saw Kris’s words: Look into the metaphorical mirror and say “hey, dude (you can call yourself dude even if you’re a woman, right?), check this out. It’s all cool. You’re making it, right? You’re making it.”
Then take a deep breath, take care of yourself, and get back to making what you make.