science fiction and fantasy writer

On the difference between writers and regular crazy people

I posited the idea recently, amongst a group of other writers in the bar at a convention, that the only difference between a successful writer and a regular crazy deluded person is a certain level of talent. This suggestion was roundly shouted down with cries of “Not even that!” “Talent doesn’t get you anywhere!” and “Drink! Nother drink! Whez ma drink?”

I think talent does have a role in a writer’s success or failure (along with hard work, skill, persistence, luck, not being a jerk, the ability to drink gin for breakfast and having a delusional outlook on your prospects of success). I think, as writers, we often bias towards things like lyricism of prose (for me, Le Guin, Bradbury) or mastery of narrative (Gaiman) when we think of talent. So J.K. Rowling might get criticised for clunky narrative or Stephenie Meyer for mediocre prose, and their successes attributed to something other than talent.

I think talent is part of the reason why writers who (may) have shortcomings in aspects of their craft can find such success. Because, despite those shortcomings, their stories have got the secret sauce that makes readers’ brains fizz, that drag you into the story and suddenly it’s six hours later, the house is dark and cold and you’ve hopelessly missed the dinner with your friends that you’d been looking forward to this past week. I think the ability to create stories that do that is not something that can be entirely taught. And, to my mind, that makes it (at least partly) a talent.

But what about being a crazy deluded person? Why is that an important attribute for being a writer?

Well, because, as a writer, you get rejected. A lot. You fail to succeed. Over and over and over again. And yet you still persist, beyond all rational expectation of success.

A definition of madness is doing the same thing over again and expecting a different result. When your story is rejected at one publisher, what do you do?

1. You give up. In which case, you’re not ready to be a writer.

2. You try obsessively to glean insights into your story’s failure to sell from the impersonal, three-line form letter you received in response. AKA, ‘rejectomancy’. In which case, you’re not ready to be a writer.

3. You argue with the editor. In which case, yeah, look, give up now and stop being a jerk.

4. Or, you send the exact same story back out to a different market. And when it’s rejected again, you send it back out to a third market, and then a fourth, and so on. In which case you are – by Einstein’s definition – a crazy person, and you may also be a writer.

My personal rule is to give up on a story after fifteen rejections. Sometimes, if I get personalised, substantive feedback from an editor that I find I agree with, I’ll rework a story before sending it out again. Because I have poor impulse control, my record is eighteen rejections before selling (to a pro-paying market). I read an article recently by a writer who’d sold a children’s picture book (to a decent publisher) after forty-five rejections. Crazy.

So, are the prospects of success always really so dismal? Well, yuh. A while back I trawled through the listings at Ralan.com and worked out that there are – at the absolute maximum – maybe twelve hundred slots at professional markets available for unsolicited short story submissions in the science fiction, fantasy and horror genres. Total, worldwide. In practice it’s probably far less than that, because many of those slots will go to stories solicited from more established writers.

Sure, there’s a heap of semi-pro and penny markets out there, some of them very good and with respectable readerships. But even so, there’s not enough slots to go around – certainly not in places where your story might actually get read by a significant number of people.

And selling short stories, I’m led to understand, is waaaaaay easier than selling books or scripts.

You can work as hard as you like, hone your skills, persist endlessly, have all those qualities and the secret sauce, and never get lucky. Which is the thing about luck – it doesn’t necessarily come to everyone. At best, you can put yourself in a position to be lucky, as often as possible. Maybe lightning will strike you.

Wear a tinfoil hat. You’ll fit right in with the rest of us.

But, if you can’t rely on success, how do you know if you’re good enough to be a writer, and that you’re not just a regular old crazy deluded person?

I suppose if you really are irredeemably shite at writing and storytelling – and many, many people who think they’re writers are – your loved ones, your friends, editors you submit to and well-meaning strangers might try and tell you that you’re not cut out to be a writer. But, of course, because you’re deluded, you won’t be able to hear it.

I’ve been in writers’ groups with people like this. You can see the little pause while they erase any critical feedback on their work from their personal reality, before prattling on as though no-one else has spoken. That, or they tell you that you’ve read their story wrong (see ‘arguing with the editor’, above).

Nope. The only way you’ll ever know if you’ve got what it takes to succeed as a writer is to succeed. This means there’s a very good chance that you’ll die wondering.

Why, then, do we persist? Because we’re delusional, and that might mean that we’re also writers.

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