Back in 2003 I sat in a room in L.A. with 12 other award-winning writers listening to Tim Powers talk about the craft. I honestly think I learned more about the business of being a writer in those 7 days than I had in probably a decade of trying to sell my soul for 3c a word.
We were the nineteenth class of Writers of the Future contest, and everyone in that room was more talented than me, that was my immediate thought listening to them. In terms of talent, a very quick breakdown would tell you Jay Lake went on to win the Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and landed a very nice deal with Tor that saw Mainspring, Escapement (and soon enough we’ll see Green) released; Geoffrey Girard published a series of short story collections with Mid Atlantic Press that have pretty much outsold any small press publication I have heard of, ever; Luc Reid published Talk the Talk through Writers Digest, a great guide to the language of various sub cultures; Ken Liu made it into the Years Best SF edited by David Hartwell; Carl Fredrick has become a staple of the Analog stable with at least dozen stories there. Others didn’t make it, or rather haven’t yet, it’s a slow game this.
There was, however, this one guy sat in the front row. He talked such a good fight you’d expect to see him on the NYT charts by now. Of course, for him it hasn’t quite worked out that way . . .
I spent most of the week in shock, suffering from what we call The Imposter’s Syndrome (One of my old Storyteller’s blogs pretty much focussed on this, if you want to delve through the archives… it’s from about 3 years ago). Long story very short, I didn’t think I belonged with these talented buggers. All of these other guys were just so damned brilliant and creative and clever. They were used to crit groups and dissecting the root of a story, pulling apart the words to find the mechanism, and as Luc’s book title suggests, talking the talk.
Day three, one of the guys turned around to me and said: “Steve, you really need to get an ego.” I thought it was the strangest statement I had ever heard. I mean, I have got a perfectly formed ego, thank you kindly. Just ask anyone who knows me… heck some would even suggest it was more than healthy, ahem, but next to these guys I think I was this blank slate of humility. I don’t know if it was a case of everything being bigger in America or what, but I began to think maybe they were right.
The thing is, hindsight being the wonderful thing it is, confidence in the work is vital, but ego informs arrogance, and arrogance is just an ugly human trait. I’ve thought about this a lot.
With a first time writer it can be forgiven as part of the learning curve, you know, another of the mistakes we make in the heady rush of excitement the comes with holding our first book in our hands… but what is it when we see the same behaviour surface in the five time novelist? The ten? It sure isn’t cute. Who wants to work with someone who thinks they’re that fucking special? It’s funny, my editor’s assistant over at Variance (hi Stan) mailed me about an hour ago and thanked me for being a regular guy and not all stuck up and demanding, and for not having the airs of a bloke who had had the kind of success I have had. I laughed at that. Now, in part, writing for properties like Warhammer and Stargate take care of that because more often than not people are buying the line, not the author, so that helps keep you in your place. I know it was the success of the show that made the Primeval book the hit it was, not my brilliance. If you ask me, it’s good for the soul. Keeps you honest.
I’ve sat on panels at conventions and watched writers build their book forts to hide behind as though they validate their presence up there. I’ve sat in bars with people who were acquaintances (if not friends) and listened to them play their one-upmanship games of career and sales because it’s human nature to want people to at least think you’re doing well – as well as them, if not better. Pretty much daily I watch people commit career suicide (or at least fan suicide with me being the fan) because they can’t resist some stupid internet flame war, because they think that what they have to say is worth bludgeoning someone over the head with until they get it. Is it that ego thing again? Maybe.
I’ve listened to pod casts and interviews where again that need to say “yes, listen to me, I am important damn it!” overrides common sense and the first thirty seconds to a minute are wasted in a list of accomplishments that wade into every small press sale and good review from gran on Amazon – which again is pretty much only important to you. So think, when Johnny Podcast says “hey can we interview you about your first book?” what am I selling here? The answer is, of course, your brand, yourself. Not the one book. You are selling the future, all those unwritten books. People like humour and grace and humility because these are likeable qualities.
I used to talk about ‘being on’ which basically is the public performance face – the guy who goes to the conventions and puts on the show for others… the thing is, you keep doing that, you wind up believing the hype you’re giving yourself, and that, my fellow storytellers, is the way to madness – and a great way to lose the real friends who ground us and keep us real. What we do is a gift. There’s no divine dictate that says our book is going to be a success or that people have to like it or love us. If I get some drawings of a dinosaur from a young girl in Devon, that goes down as a day I did my job right. If I get a bad review from Frankie’s Ezine, or PW or Booklist or Kirkus, then that goes down as a day I need to buy myself chocolate to feel better – but really it is just like all the other days, one where I need to put my arse in the chair and write.
I know personally they day that I sit in my study and think “man, I’ll be really pissed off if this book doesn’t hit the Bestseller’s Lists” is the day I am going to quit writing because it will have stopped being about the writing and have become about the ego. The ‘on’ persona will have triumphed over the real me. Personally, I am really hoping that day never comes.
See, I’m actually a naturally shy person, which again people wouldn’t believe if they saw me at a convention I actually wanted to be at (I have to admit I can’t stand conventions in general and would much rather go for a vacation somewhere warm than blow a thousand bucks on hotel, travel and membership fees, hence it has been two years since I forced myself to do it, and I am sure it’ll be three or four more before I put myself though it again). I have to force myself to be social. I sat at the bar the entire time during one World Horror, no panels, no schmoozing, no chasing book deals. Hell, I managed to read most of a novel while I was there. I had a fun time just watching. Then again I don’t like going in to bookstores and introducing myself to the staff as the guy who wrote the Primeval novel, or the guy who just did Doctor Who. I get kind of embarrassed by it, like it is wrong to show off… which is ironic when I remember what Powers said back then about why we write: to show off. I always joke it’s to get the girl, but of course that’s just another form of showing off…
So of course it is natural we’re going to develop this ego around ourselves. Some would argue you need it to handle the rejection, but I reckon that’s bull, too. See, what I think you need there is determination, will, drive, not ego, because ego will get wounded when you get the pink slip of death from whatever mag you sent your baby off to. Quiet determination will have you dust off the words, look for ways to be better, and send it out again. Ego will have you thinking the editor’s an idiot. They might be, there are plenty of idiots out there, after all, but it isn’t exactly a healthy outlook, is it?
And here’s the thing as far as I am concerned, without exception, it has been the hard working quiet guy who has impressed me. The writer who actually puts his arse in the chair and writes, doing his job with the minimum of fuss and bother, not talking the talk, standing there declaring he is going to pick up the gauntlet thrown down by Robert Silverberg (you had to be there, trust me).
That is the guy we should all aspire to be.