Wednesday 30 December 2015

Keep me believing: A writer's plea.

I recently got a Facebook message from EC Williamson. I've copied it below, with permission. I gave my answer (see the end of this post), but since it seemed a heartfelt question, and one that is offered up in various versions quite often in the writing community, I thought perhaps it deserved more than just my opinion. So I've also posed it to successful fantasy authors Myke Cole and Django Wexler whose answers appear with mine below. (click their names to find out more about them). Additionally, I've augmented the basic question with two more parts: i) Are hard work and skill sufficient to assure writing success, or is a large measure of luck required? ii) Is the skill element also due to hard work, or is the skill mostly written into our DNA such that hard work can uncover it if it's there, but if it's not there then no amount of hard work is going to get you to the necessary level of talent? Here's EC's question: Hello Mark,
This is not something I would typically ever do, but I'm just really frustrated. And I apologize for cold messaging you like this. Really, I am.
I'm just getting discouraged, because I've been writing for 25 years, and I'm starting to lose belief in myself that I will ever be able to be fortunate to make a living with my writing. Not even an "uber successful" (even though that would be pretty cool) life, but just a comfortable living.
Without the usual cliche of "just keep writing" - do you happen to have anything at all to keep me believing. Writing is, and has ALWAYS been one of the most sacred things that I have had, to lean on in life. It's the one thing I love to do, and at 43...I've been around long enough to know what I want, LOL. Telling a story, sharing the story or journey of someone for others to enjoy, is a great feeling.
It's easily one of the hardest things to do, successfully. And I don't think writers get nearly enough of the due respect they deserve for what it takes to be a writer.
Again, sorry to bug ya. If you have a moment to respond, that would be cool, and really appreciated.
If not, no problem there either. Just figured I'd try. Myke Cole (author of the Shadow Ops series)
EC, I’m going to answer Mark’s two bullets first, and then I’ll address your general letter. I’m going to be direct and uncompromising, but I want you to know that it’s coming from a place of love and support, and that my ultimate goal is the same as yours: I want to see you succeed.

i.) This question is irrelevant.
Whether or not luck is involved is an academic point that is only of use to scholastics. There’s a limited number of compute cycles spinning around in your head to be expended. Why expend them in trying to factor luck? Luck can’t be scientifically proven, and even if it could, you can’t control it. So, whether or not luck is a factor, or how much of a factor it is, doesn’t impact your goal (to be a professional writer) in terms of an ACTION you can take. Whether luck exists or not, it cannot be controlled. So, focus on what you CAN control: the quantity and quality of your work. There are all kinds of cool bumper-sticker quotes about luck (my favorite is that it’s the intersection of opportunity and ability) and all of them are total bullshit. Forget them and work harder. Focus on making damn sure that, lucky or unlucky, you have produced the best possible work in the greatest volume you could manage while sustaining the quality.
One more thing on luck. I get a little wary that people can use it as a crutch to avoid examining their work with a critical eye. You can shrug and say “Well, it’s not my fault I wasn’t able to sell my manuscript to a publisher, I was just unlucky.” When what you should really be saying is. “Man, I fucked that one up. I better sit down and take a long, hard look at my writing and figure out what’s wrong with it and how I can make it better.”

ii.) Again, irrelevant.
Whether writing ability is baked into our DNA or whether we are instead honing skills necessary to achieve our goals makes no difference in the ACTIONS you must take (writing, revising, submitting) to achieve your goal of selling your work. You will never know the answer, and so again, I wonder why you should waste compute cycles on it. As with my answer above, you have to be wary of the siren song of “talent.” It’s far too easy to throw up your hands and shortcut around the sweat and blood required to make great art. “I’m not even going to bother, because I don’t have talent.”
Well, maybe you do, and maybe you don’t. But I can promise you one thing: the only way you’ll ever find out is if you write, edit and submit until you can’t anymore. So, why waste time thinking about it? Sit your ass down, stop whining, and get to work.

iii.) It seems like the question you’re asking yourself here is: “When should I give up?” and I really can’t give you an answer. Kameron Hurley has written a number of great essays about this, and it’s something all writers struggle with.
Look, EC, writing is a game with really, really REALLY long odds. The high high high likelihood is that you will labor in obscurity for the rest of your life, never sell anything, never see the success you clearly want. Those odds will either galvanize you, or they will drive you to despair, and only you can know where you fall on the spectrum between those two poles (although, I’d say that if you’ve stayed in the fight for 25 years, then you’ve got some steel).
The odds are just as long for all of us, and the only difference between myself and anyone else is that I have made the continuous decision to get up every morning and stay in the fight. I’ve met with some success that way, but I take each accolade with the full knowledge that my momentum could stall at any time. That every novel is my debut. It never gets any easier, EC. There is never a point where you have “made it,” and you can coast. There will be blood in the water every day you hang in there, and you will claw and curse and burn for every inch of ground and fight even harder to hold it. If that’s what you want, then writing is for you. If not, well . . .
Lastly, give up illusions of making even an uncomfortable living from writing. I can count less than ten people I know who make livings I’d describe as “comfortable” writing in my genre. The vast majority of those of us who work in this business either have day-jobs or supportive spouses. It is possible that you may be able to reach that goal, but it shouldn’t be the thing that drives you.
In the end, the thing that drives you has to be the work itself. Writing is hard, and it is satisfying to do something that is hard, and to know you’ve done it well. The field is merciless, and the material rewards light and fleeting. Telling the story you want to tell has to be enough. Otherwise, you’ll be vulnerable to the despair of not achieving the success you have held out as the brass ring you’re reaching for. Believe me, I know of what I speak.
Personally? I hope you hang in there. Writing is clearly what you want to do, and if you stop, you will wonder into your grave if you could ever have gotten that book deal if only you’d kept at it. Put aside thoughts of luck and talent, and focus on putting your face down in the mud and pushing with all you have.
If it helps, I’m down there next to you.
Good luck.

Django Wexler (author of the Shadow Campaigns trilogy, and more!)
Oof, that’s a tough one, and really hard to disentangle. Let’s take these one at a time. Is luck required in addition to hard work and skill to assure writing success? To my mind the answer to this has to be “absolutely yes.” A lot of people seem to object to this – I’ve seen a fair number of comments along the lines of “I never got lucky, nothing was handed to me, I busted my ass for years, etc”. But that’s kind of missing the point. Saying that luck is involved doesn’t mean hard work is irrelevant, that success comes from having some publisher pick up the manuscript you accidentally dropped on the bus and make you a best-seller. As the question says, you need luck in addition; hard work and skill are required for writing success (usually) but they don’t assure it.

I have to think this, because I know too many people who are very skilled and hard-working and yet haven’t found the kind of success they’re looking for. Some of them probably will eventually, but some won’t, and to me that comes down to luck. Luck can be an agent or editor that your work happens to hit on a particularly good day; it can be a cultural trend that that you accidentally end up on the right side of; it can be a reviewer at a major publication who picks up your book on a whim and loves it.

To cite a popular example: George RR Martin, while a successful author already, was catapulted to super-stardom because two big fans of his book happened to be a) showrunners at HBO, and b) willing to fight hard to get a TV show made. It’s easy to imagine a world in which that didn’t happen, and A Song of Ice and Fire was just a moderately successful fantasy instead of one of the biggest hits in publishing.

I, personally, have been very lucky in my career. I got a great agent who rejected my query in the first pass, then accepted it when I fortuitously got a second chance at him, because he’d just hired an assistant and was looking to expand his list instead of feeling overwhelmed. Would I eventually have been published anyway? I like to think so, but without Seth on my side I’d probably still be working a day job and writing in my spare time. Ultimately acknowledging the role of luck is an expression of humility; the course of our careers is not under our complete control, and nothing can assure success. All you can do is do the best you can, and keep doing it. How much of skill comes from “intrinsic talent” and how much from hard work? This is a really sticky question to answer. You can’t repeat an experiment – every person’s path is unique, so we can’t pop into an alternate universe and see how well they’d do if they worked a little harder. “Talent” is also very hard to disentangle from things like “interest”. When I was in school for Computer Science, for example, there were definitely people who felt like they had more basic talent than others; if you talked to them, though, it usually came out that they’d been poking at this material from a young age because they found it fascinating, and genuinely enjoyed staying up all night debugging code. So do they find these things enjoyable because they’re talented, or are they talented because they found them enjoyable? You see the same thing in all kinds of fields – all my friends who are great artists, for example, are the kind of people who spent their school days filling notebooks with doodles, just because it was fun.

I would like to think that hard work is always enough; that if someone has a real love for the material, and is willing to put in the hours, that they’ll be able to reach any level of skill. But that has more to do with my preferences then any hard information, because the truth is it’s impossible to tell. You can always invent alternate explanations for events. I meet people who haven’t been able to get to a high level of skill; I could tell a story that says they lack some intrinsic spark, but equally I could say they’re not willing to work and improve. From the outside, you really can’t know. It’s frustrating, but that’s the way it is. EC’s question. There’s a couple of things to unpack here. First and foremost, “making a living” at writing isn’t the average, ordinary level of success – it’s actually an extremely high level of success. Writing is not a lucrative profession, as a general rule. Most writers you see in the bookstore fall into the mid-list level, and the vast majority of midlisters have a day job or an understanding partner to support their writing career. And those are the people who have succeeded by almost every metric! Below them is a vast number of people who have gotten somewhere – published with small presses, indies making small but steady sales, respected authors selling short fiction (which pays almost nothing), and so on. The point is that you can tell great stories, reach readers, and even change people’s lives, and that’s all success, but it doesn’t add up to making a living.

A personal anecdote: My first sales were two novels to a small press called Medallion: Memories of Empire and Shinigami. They appeared on shelves at Barnes & Noble. They were reasonably well received, by the people that read them. I still get the occasional e-mail to this day from someone who says one of them was their favorite fantasy, which is immensely gratifying. The point is that it felt at the time (and still does) feel like a success, in most senses. That said, I was paid $2,500 total, for two years of work, and this was not me getting ripped off. My personal career plan always included a day job, and I was shocked when I was able to leave it. (And I still have contingency plans to go back, if I ever have to …)

So my first advice to EC is, don’t define success by making a living. Writing is something you do because you love to do it, because you feel like it’s important, or for a hundred other reasons, but not for the money. I advise all writers to plan on having a day job, and consider it a stroke of great good fortune if you ever get to quit. It’s harsh, but that’s the world we live in.

Now, I don’t know EC’s circumstances, so this next bit may not precisely apply. I’m imagining the question as “I haven’t had any success selling my work after 25 years,” so if that’s not the case you have my apologies. But if that is true, then I think it’s time to consider changing something. I would never, ever advise someone to just give up on writing, but after that long it’s pretty clear that the market does not want to buy what you have on offer. I think you have a couple of choices: if you really love what you’re doing, then you can keep doing it, and accept that it may not ever be enough to make money. If you really want to pursue making a living at it, you need to change up what you’re trying to sell. Try a new style, try a new genre, get some criticism outside your usual circles and stretch beyond your comfort zone to address it. Most of the time, when I see someone who has worked for a long time without success, they’ve fallen into a comfortable groove and stopped improving their work; it’s easy to do, but it means nothing’s going to change. Again, EC, I don’t know anything about you or your work, so any or all of this may not be valid. It’s just the best I can do sight unseen, and I wish you the best of luck.

And ME!! Last and least cool!

(this is just what I typed back as a reply, not with a blog in mind, that idea came later when I thought EC deserved a better reply) Hi EC - I'm not sure I do have anything to keep you believing. Opinion on the matter is mixed but I've always felt that the odds against publication are long however skilled a writer you might be, and that achieving the 'required' level of skill simply buys you a lottery ticket. You then need to be lucky.
Others disagree and maintain that skill will win out. Of course what constitutes sufficient skill is, like beauty, in the eye of the beholder, and it's essentially impossible to judge how good your own work is by any useful metric.
I took a rather different view of the writing game from the one you appear to have. I was happy enough being a scientist - that was my ambition from a fairly early age. I wrote only because I enjoyed writing and enjoyed sharing the results on small critique groups. I generally advise people to write because they enjoy writing, not because they want to be a writer. That way you're automatically a winner.
This early blog post of mine may, or may not, be of interest: So ... yes. My own feeling is that success requires skill and dedication but those aren't enough, you also need to be lucky. With that in mind I won't tell you to keep on believing, or to try harder, I'll simply say enjoy the writing and good luck with it!


  1. Film Maker here, I make a living directing features and TV. This same question gets asked of me often.

    I feel inspired right into the hole of my soul by the answers given here.
    This is the stuff we want to hear from people who have success in their passions. Blood on the dancefloor!
    The whole 'you can do it' thing is very romantic but the elements of success are usually a cocktail of meeting the right people, actually being half competent at what you do, whatever version of luck you can find, stubborn resolve and a willingness to dust yourself off every time you fuck up or fall down.
    Nobody watches your movie, buys your product or reads your book because the feel sorry for you. They buy it because it is good - it adds value to their life somehow.

    Even when you reach that first version of success, a bigger goal looms and the same drive is required to climb that next mountain.
    Outstanding Blog Mark.
    It's good to see you taking the time to answer questions of this nature.

    As my son would say: "This Blog wins the interwebz".

  2. Hard work plays a major part! The very first story I wrote was a finalist in a radio competition, the next one I wrote was a finalist in a literary competition and made it into a Best Of book. I thought "this is a piece of piss", then the rejections started piling up, and I realised I could live without all that negative stuff dropping through my letterbox every day. I had other outlets for creativity, where I was more in control, so I stopped working at writing. I still dabble, but have never put in the hard graft required to become really GOOD. Anyone I know who is both good and hard-working has succeeded to some extent. Self-belief is very important, and 'trying to get published' seems to be designed to knock the self-belief out of most of us. You need to start out with dogged self-belief and dogged dismissal of rejection, because rejection there will be aplenty. Not sure if any of this is of use to any other aspiring writer, but the advice of a failed writer would be to find a way to deal with repeated rejection, without allowing that rejection to impinge on your belief in yourself.

  3. Hey Mark,

    I added my two cents to the call.

    Keep creating, just keep creating.

  4. I've read year end stats from 2 diff lit agents. around 0.7% of all unsolicited queries end up w/book deal. we're all fucking crazy to even try, aren't we?

    1. My own agent's figures are closer to 0.04% That's due to how many queries he turns down. About 50% of those authors he takes on get a book deal.

    2. Daunting indeed. But, if one does as one should and query wide and deep, their percentages could break the 0.10% percentile. There's always hope. Happy new year to you.

  5. Has EC considered self-publishing? I'm sure he has a sizable catalogue after 25 years. Regardless of how lucrative a move it proved to be, at least his writing would be available to an audience. That, at least, seems better than his efforts lying entombed in a forgotten cabinet or hard drive.

  6. Thank you all greatly for your knowledge and input. All of your experience and words have been absorbed into my spongy brain - and have given me strong drive to push on with my love.
    I have self-published, promoting my books through all the avenues that all self publishers run.
    I know that historically, self publishing has been frowned upon, due to the massive amount of lousy writing, I can just hope mine doesn't fall into that "ugh" pile.
    One thing I do want to clarify, I have been "writing for 25 years" is the overall years that I have been taking on writing projects.
    I have begun taking it more seriously (at my level) over the last 5-7 years.
    Thanks again fellas.

  7. There is a quote by Seneca that, to my mind, answers the luck question. “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” Opportunity will knock. It does every time, for everyone at least once; usually several times throughout a life. But was it recognized? And was the writer ready to take advantage of it? If they think they are simply unlucky, the answer is usually no.
    I would also point out that over the past twenty-five years, publishing has changed. There are multiple avenues previously unavailable. If a writer chooses to limit themselves to only one method, they decrease their chance for success tremendously. As with any industry things change. If you do not keep up with what is happening, you end up limited and left behind.
    But the hard truth is, even with hybrid and self-publishing being added into the mix, success is still rare. Of all the novelist in the world, only a counted few ever see significant income. And while I do feel fortunate to be counted among them, I was ready when luck came calling. And I continue to learn and work hard. Because as difficult as it is to reach your goals, it is just as difficult to hang on once you get there.