As I write this, I’m in the middle of a depression. I’ve had worse. I’d rank this one a “five,” meaning that I can reasonably function, even if there are days when I feel like jumping out the nearest window. In fact, I just scared myself by checking to see if the one nearest to me opens. It does, but it would mean a tight fit climbing out. The least you should settle for in a dramatic plunge to your death is to be comfortable as you shove your way through the aperture. The urge is still there, but meh. If this is published, it means I got over it. I do know that all this is tied to The Work.
I am one of those who want to write because after so many years, I just have to—stories will spill out, fiction or non-fiction. But I can’t pretend I don’t have the selfish urge to be successful. I don’t “write for me”—screw that. I write so that hopefully, you’ll read me. You’ll be entertained. You’ll want to read me again. And maybe you’ll enlist others. If I’m not going to last on a shelf, what was I here for? What did I do it all for? Of course, this is irrational. So is Olympic bobsledding.
The novice aches to be published. The mid-lister is already published, but pines for a breakthrough book. And in the current publishing climate, we as writers have to prove ourselves over and over. It’s not enough to have a track record, what were the sales from your last book? Who are you again?
I don’t find inspiration lacking or revision difficult. What wears me down is the number of doors closed today for unagented submissions, the perpetual, relentless search for a home for your work, the grind. I was comparing notes via email with a long-time non-fiction writer recently (who obviously shall go nameless) who confided to me how they were disillusioned by their imprint’s complete lack of interest in marketing the book in the U.S., despite glowing reviews; they clearly felt hurt by the shameless lack of courtesy when the publisher didn’t even bother to explain why a paperback release was never issued. Now if that can happen to them (and that person is very good), it makes me second-guess my own efforts to pitch, to put together those polished sample chapters, the synopsis, etc.
There are those out there who might justifiably shoot back, Boohoo. Cry me a river. That’s the biz you chose, and if you drop out, there will be others with the stamina, not to mention the talent, to rush on—marketing support or not, good manners from imprints or not, pitiful advances or not. Dedicated newcomers and other old pros won’t give up, and they shouldn’t. And those who point this out will be right. In fact, they’ll be damn right.
I am just throwing things out there, trying to take the temperature, wondering if it’s just me, or if I’ll hear the ping back across the void, the mournful song across the ocean.
I’ve had 15 books published in different genres, both under my own name and pseudonyms, but science fiction is the only one for which I question my right to work. I don’t necessarily need to work in it—I can write other things, and I have. History. Thrillers. Really dumb erotica. But I feel about science fiction the same way I do about karate. Years ago when I was training hard in a dojo. I worked with remarkable athletes, and I had to make peace with myself that I would never be in their class, not even close. They were scary good. And so I humbly loved martial arts, even if I could never reach these individuals’ level of greatness.
I live in the same city as Robert Charles Wilson and Robert J. Sawyer, but if I met either of them on the street, I don’t think I could hold an intelligent conversation with either of them. Yeah, sure, maybe in the technical sense, all three of us are writers, but if this were an evolutionary scale, I wouldn’t even share the category of “Primates” with them—I’d be down there with “plankton.”
And I have only myself, of course, to blame for that. My scientific literacy is embarrassingly abysmal. I can read Spin and love it, but there’s no way I could ever write something that spectacularly good, either in terms of its literary level or its scientific plausibility.
It’s de rigueur for writers to self-reference and get the cheap advertising in on blogs, but maybe it’s necessary to make my point. You see I’ve only written two things that I think could be considered marginally close to the narrow pedantic definition of science fiction (I automatically rule out the fantasy stuff I’ve done under my own name and pseudonyms). The first is my novel, The Karma Booth, for which I think I at least came up with an intriguing premise (which you can check out for yourself if interested on Harper Voyager’s site). The second is my novel, Reich TV, about an alternative world in which George Orwell is a foreign correspondent in Berlin while the Marx Brothers put on a variety show on television in London to fight the Nazis. People seem to like that book as an overlooked tiny, unpolished gem, and maybe one day, it’ll get back into print by a major publisher. If it happens, I suspect it’ll be a fluke of modest luck.
None of this is consciously disingenuous or is intended to be false modesty. There are scores of sci fi blogs where we celebrate great stuff, and the mid-lister presents himself as you do on a first date: “Show confidence.” Well, what if you suck? I don’t believe The Karma Booth sucks. I certainly don’t believe Reich TV sucks. But if we’re tallying up writers active on ye olde Inter-web, that great salon and occasional verbal coliseum, how many folks do you run across who write, Jeez, I’m slowly coming to grips with my place on the shelf, and I may not make it; I’m plankton.
What does it mean? That you’ll give up? No. Because writing has become such a habit that you’re an addict now, and this is your coke, and maybe that next high will be awesome (instead of consuming, you create something—congrats, you’re the addict who “gives back.” Or maybe just gives and then hopes someone will pick up the snow-globe glittering world you leave on their doorstep). I will write another book because I hope it clicks. Maybe the one after that will. But sometimes… Sometimes…
We don’t talk about that too much, do we? Or maybe we do, and I’m looking in the wrong places.
This is why I’ve always been fascinated by the friendships of the pioneers in the genre (I even wrote a play about it, Defenders of Gravity, and that, too, was a modest success, performed in a professional theatre in Toronto—modest enough to feel good about it for a few days, but Broadway won’t be doing a revival any time soon). To me, it’s a kick that a teenage Isaac Asimov hung out with Frederick Pohl and others in New York City, that Heinlein and L. Sprague de Camp and Theodore Sturgeon and other legends all knew each other, that a bunch of them would frequently get together to discuss science fiction. How did they get through their troubles? What would they say when some of the great pulp mags died, robbing them of markets that had helped them make a living? We get a few answers from neat memoirs like Frederick Pohl’s The Way the Future Was, but that particular one seems to be out of print and increasingly hard to get.
It baffles me that we don’t have a movie or more books that put this pantheon of talents in the same league of worship as we give Hemingway and Fitzgerald in Paris or the Beats out in San Francisco. There’s a television show from the UK that will be making waves soon about the Bloomsbury set, Life in Squares. I’m waiting for the HBO series that has a plucky hero barging into John W. Campbell’s office, arguing with him over a rejection of a short story… and then going around to have drinks with Judith Merrill.
We love these stories because we aspire, because we fantasize what it would be like to be legends. You’re reasonably fair warned that writing is a lonely craft. And you should educate yourself reasonably well on the business side of publishing. But no one can prepare you for that midlife crisis of the also-ran, the low, low mid-lister. The teenaged Asimov started selling early, but did he know—really know in his heart—how far he would go, what a staggering catalogue of books he would publish and how successful they’d be? And when the legends—before they were legends—got stung with rejection or received numbingly stupid edits or had to face the poor sales because the book didn’t find an audience, how did they rally around each other or boost each other’s spirits?
I do know the answer doesn’t involve defenestration. Maybe it’s like seeking life on other planets. We keep hoping for the response, but we’re occasionally broken and tormented by the apparent futility of the search. Space is big and lonely. So’s writing. But we keep doing it, just as the little satellites keep floating on…
Jeff Pearce has written fantasy, erotic thrillers, investigative journalism on gangs, history, and his latest book is Prevail: The Inspiring Story of Ethiopia’s Victory over Mussolini’s Invasion. Sometimes he writes science fiction.