Let me open by saying that I am thankful for every sale, every reader, and every review. This rant comes, perhaps irreverently, at the same time as the news that Betrayal at Phobos is currently ranked second in sales with my publisher this month. I am grateful for the support system I have, which mainly involves my significant other, a handful of close friends, some former students, a couple of mentors, and my immediate family. It’s unfortunate that I’ve chosen to air my frustrations, but I just can’t keep my mouth shut about these issues any longer. I hope, at the very least, that this post proves instructional to those with hopes of becoming an author.
When I was a junior pursuing my BA in English, I had the good fortune of signing up for a creative writing class with a seasoned novelist who has been publishing on and off since the 1970’s. I got to know this professor, who many considered bitter and curmudgeonly, fairly well. And he, knowing my dream was to write fiction for a living, sat me down after class one day and explained that writing is quite possibly the world’s loneliest profession.
I thought I understood what he meant back then. After all, when you’re twenty years old and still struggling to find your voice, very few believe you have anything worthwhile to say. If you can, you seek solace in a group of like-minded people that will bolster your courage and inspire you to continue on the path to publication. They listen when you bitch about how most adults today are content to read YA novels and rant about the injustice of the university shutting down its Humanities program. They provide a mental forum to which you may bring your ideas, however hackneyed they might be. If your friends are geeks, you might even get to test drive a character or two in a Dungeons and Dragons campaign before you waste 100,000 words on a novel starring “he who nobody likes” as the protagonist and “she of the ever shifting nomenclature” as the love interest. These are your best friends, your brain trust, your stalwart companions on the metaphorical life-quest you all obsess over whilst rolling dice and punishing your body with Jack in the Box and Mountain Dew Code Red.
But are they really? Or did everything just mean so much more to you than it did to everyone else?
The biggest problem with being a creative type—and especially someone who loves Science Fiction and Fantasy—is that you elevate your interactions with people to the grandeur of an epic.
Somehow, I managed a three-book deal with a mid-sized publisher. By the time my first novel was published, I had more than a few followers online: former students, people who had discovered my blog when it was Freshly Pressed, co-workers who also teach English or history, and the aforementioned boon companions. In my mind of epic metaphors and unreasonable expectations, I believed my triumph would be shouted to the heavens—or that it would at least go viral. This, of course, would be even more unreasonable if I hadn’t stood by so many of these people when they needed my help.
There are certainly high school graduates out there doing well now but who never would have made it if I had not stepped between them and their parents, or between them and the administration, or between them and themselves. I can count a couple successful marriages that may not have happened if I had not smacked some sense into one partner or the other, usually the male. (I am also a damn good father, and anyone who doubts this does not know the first thing about me.) But failing even this, I have always stood for moral and intellectual pursuits while doing my best to keep my opinionated nature in check, which, for me, is more difficult than writing a book or teaching a college course.
In the end, none of this matters. You can’t expect those who died for you in D and D to show one iota of loyalty in reality. You can’t expect the college student you befriended more than a decade ago in a screenwriting class to be bothered to read your work now that it’s published—even when you offer to read his. You can’t even expect the students (and fellow geeks) you’ve dragged through high school kicking and screaming to show up for your book signing at the local library.
Oh, and you certainly can’t expect anyone on the Internet to do right by you. Over 2,000 illegal downloads of my first novel and counting. I’m a public servant, people—a teacher in what is statistically the most underfunded state in the Union. If you’re going to steal bread from my meager table, at least have the decency to write a review.
Here’s one thing you can count on: life isn’t really about doing the right thing, struggling, and being rewarded with a big payoff—that only happens in the world of fiction. So that’s where I’ve chosen to stay.
I am committed to the world’s loneliest profession. I understand now what that old “curmudgeon” was trying to tell me. The readers who will get something out of your stories are almost never the people you know personally. Those who were with you at the beginning will never see you as an author and will go to great lengths to ignore your accomplishments whether you publish through TZPP or HarperCollins. If you happen to inspire an epiphany somewhere in the world, it will forever remain unknown unless someone decides to write a review.
This presents a frustrating paradox: the first rule of writing is to consider your audience, but the odds are long that you’ll ever know who they are, at least not until someone invests many thousands in marketing you, and not some label, to get your work in front of them. When that happens, love and appreciate those fans, but never allow them to become the reason you write. The only person you can count on is yourself. Write for you.
If I’m honest, I get very few questions about my book series from legitimate fans. The most common question both friends and strangers ask me about being a novelist is, “So you’re published, but are you making any real money?” This is generally followed by, “Do they stock your book at Barnes & Noble? Oh, well why not?” These people don’t seem to understand that they, and not I, hold the keys to my success. All I can do is write the books. They also don’t seem to understand how incredibly rude this behavior is. What if I walked up to an engineer and asked him why he doesn’t make six figures working at Motorola? He’d probably break my nose. And you know what? I’d deserve it.
I, for one, am going to finish writing this book series regardless of who reads it and who judges me based on the size of my publisher. Eventually, the naysayers who didn’t support me will see me on the bestsellers’ list. It will likely be the only place they’ll see me from now on.