The Work and The Career

More and more lately, I feel that there is a widening gulf between my work and my career. I don’t know if I am getting old or if the world is changing ever faster. I suspect it is a combination of the two.
Recently I was a guest at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books in (surprise!) Los Angeles. One of the talks I attended was John Scalzi being interviewed by Richard Kadrey. It was, as one might expect of those two, both entertaining and informative. In the course of the interview, Scalzi confirmed what I have long suspected. I am a dinosaur. He was classifying writers in terms of their adaptation to the digital world, and came up with three basic types. Dinosaurs, doomed to perish with the old style of publishing, mammals, a more adaptable batch, and finally cockroaches, who will ultimately inherit all.
Now, I suppose I could choose to take offense at such a classification, except that it is so apt. In fact, I’d look silly arguing with it. I’m a dinosaur and unlikely to change. Especially since the thought of evolving fills me with dismay.
“Old school” publishing has been good to me, and that is the truth. It was hard breaking in. Very hard. I beat my head on that wall for years, and I have the fat file of rejection slips to prove it, still. But by the time I did crack the wall and began to be published in the fanzines and little magazines, I had learned a lot and earned my spurs. I’d learned to have a story and to tell it, in clear English with correct spelling and grammar. It had to have a beginning and an end, and something had to happen in the middle, something interesting. It had to be appropriate to the publication I was submitting it to, and it had to be something fresh that still met their criteria.
But before I learned that, I wrote a lot of dreadful prose. I am grateful that I got to make all my mistakes in private. All my malformed half stories, my vignettes about a melancholy moment of navel gazing, my mawkish, stumbling, idiotic pages of dull prose are still somewhere in my basement boxes, unseen by any vulnerable human eyes save those of the iron-cored editors who, with stony-hearted kindness, rejected them.
I sold my first story when I was 18. When I was 30, I sold my first novel. That’s a long apprenticeship, but believe me, I needed every year, month and day of it. I was not idle. I learned. And I became, not just a writer, but a published writer. Writing the story was my job, and I devoted myself to it. To someone else fell the editorial tasks of prodding and molding. Someone else worried about the fontsize and white space, someone else thought about the cover art and the publicity needed to launch the book. All I had to do was write the story. And as long as I held up my end of the deal and wrote the very best book I could, I could count on that entire editorial team to put their best effort out there, too. All I had to think about was writing that book.
That really worked for me.
Well. Scalzi is right. That model of writing and publishing is starting to fade. More than ‘starting’ actually. Writers of today do their own publicity, create their covers and marketing campaigns, seek out their own blurbs and create amazing book trailers. Then some of them self-publish. Some do it very well indeed, with the sort of enthusiasm that indicates they truly love every minute and every aspect of those peripheral tasks.
But I don’t.
For about twenty years now, I’ve tried to keep up with it. I’ve answered scads of e-mails, done on line interviews, sent out newsletters and postcards and provided free copies of books for giveaways and contests. I’ve done everything from AOL ‘bulletin boards’ to Live Journals, Myspaces, and more recently, Facebooks, Linkdin, Reddit Ask Me Anythings, Goodreads Q and A sessions, and Twitters. I’ve had and have newsgroups and fan pages that I visit, and yes, my very own websites. I’ve had headshots professionally done, and I’ve attended all sorts of events from SFF conventions to book festivals to Romance conventions to Comic cons.
Sometimes I’ve enjoyed the interactions, mostly the face to face ones at conventions. I prefer SF cons to literary or academic gatherings. I know what I am. I’m a genre writer. No apologies for that. And yes, I go on line, several times a day, to read and sometimes to post. I do it the same way I used to make 25 cups of tea a day, and for the same reason. It’s what I do when I’ve typed all the story words that are in the front of my mind and I’m waiting for the back of my mind to send more story to the front where I can see it. That’s all.
And I won’t apologize that I’m not an editor. That’s a specific skill set. I don’t edit others and I don’t edit myself. I’m not a publicist, either. Not any more than I’m a graphic artist or a website designer. There’s a reason why I don’t do those things for myself. I’m not good at them. And I don’t enjoy doing them. And I don’t want to learn to be good at them.
There’s one thing I want to do. I want to write stories. That’s all. I don’t want to be clever about promoting them. I don’t want to twitter an update at least four times a day, nor post daily on Facebook, with or without a cute picture of my cat. I don’t want to write a clever or compelling blog, don’t want to share my politics, don’t want to persuade you or educate you. I don’t want to collect the statistics of how many new likes or friends I have on the Internet. That’s why so much of that is shoved off on my long-suffering assistant. She knows her job description. “You get to do all the parts of my career that I don’t like doing. Which means, you do everything that needs doing, except for the writing. I get to do that. Because that’s the part I love.”
I just want to write my stories. If I’m lucky, during what remains of my writing days, there will be some sort of publishing system that will continue to do all the rest of the work that is needed to get my stories out to readers. If I’m unlucky, I will reach a point where I am writing stories, carefully saving them as a printed copy and a digital file, and then shoving them into virtual cardboard boxes and writing the next story. I believe that if I write a good enough story, it will still find its way to readers, even if I don’t blog, twitter, or Pinterest it.
But then, I’m sure those other dinosaurs also believed that they could just go on being dinosaurs and that the sun would continue to shine down on them.
And we all know how that turned out.

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  • Paul says:

    I hope there will always be room for dinosaurs. I would say I have a familiar relationship with a lot of modern technology. I read most of my books on my kindle. Buying the sequel to an enthralling series in less than 2 minutes at 1AM is very convenient. But I think (or hope) that there will always be a place for professional publishers and editors.

    I have tried reading a few self published books, but had to swear off of them because they all had irritating flaws that an editor would have pointed out. Reading self published books made me realize that what publishers offer is a brand, and with a brand comes a promise of quality (and perhaps subject matter). There are good self published books out there, but there are a lot of bad ones too. As a consumer I don’t really want to have to play the role of publisher in searching for quality books. As long as publishers keep publishing quality literature, I will keep buying and reading it.

    New technologies can eliminate obsolete jobs. Telephone operators no longer manually switch callers on the telephone network. But self-publishing online is a technical solution to a non-technical issue. Where telephone operators were replaced with automatic switches that were hundreds of times faster, many self publishing endeavors leave positions, such as editor, completely unmanned, or with inferior substitutes.

    One of the premier features of the internet is its ability to circumvent gatekeepers, to rise above censorship and suppression. Nonetheless I hope that as our culture grows with the internet, we come to understand that some gatekeepers, such as publishers, in fact provide value to culture.

  • Hi Megan,

    Tried to post this via your contact form but it wouldn’t send. Anyway, I so enjoyed this blog, though if you’re a dinosaur, you’re one of those who managed to avoid the asteroid hit, and continued to evolve (like those in the wonderful Harry Harrison series that began with WEST OF EDEN). Me, whenever someone mentions ‘skype’, I still think: now THERE’S a word should have been used in a fantasy novel…
    But you’re right, the old way IS beginning to fade and I’m trying hard not to “go gently into that good night” by indie-publishing all my books. After a long exile I’ve returned to my first love, the Six Kingdoms, re-issuing as e-books those first two–THE SHADOW OF HIS WINGS and THE MACE OF SOULS–you once graced with your thoughtful comments, and come this October will be indie-publishing a new one in the series, PASS ON THE CUP OF DREAMS. I’m currently working on a fourth, KRAKEN’S CLAW.
    I, too, just want to write my stories, and the challenge these days–not just for self-pubbed writers but for those traditionally published as well–is to minimize those distractions we didn’t have when we began the journey, when twittering was something you heard the birds do in the backyard cedar.
    Meanwhile, as you wrote, it’s still a matter of “(typing) all the story words that are in the front of my mind (and wait) for the back of my mind to send more story to the front where I can see it.”
    That’s probably the single best summary I’ve read about the writing process.
    So here’s to ‘seeing’ more stories–yours and mine!

    Best,

    Bruce Fergusson