On Persistence, And The Long Con Of Being A Successful Writer
It’s funny — my post yesterday on how a writing career takes the time that it takes comes in part from a conversation I was having on Twitter with two amazing writers, Tobias Buckell and Kameron Hurley. Kameron then turned in a guest post for this very blog that seems to come from that same conversation, cut from that same cloth, and the result is a smart and personal post about what it takes to stay on this bucking bull known as a “writing career.” This is an amazing read. (Oh, and by the way, her novel, God’s War, is completely awesome, too. I might suggest that if you likes Blackbirds, you may wanna check it out.) So, without further ado:
It was the answer to a question posed to Kevin J. Anderson in an interview, about what he thought a writer required most in order to succeed in the profession.
I read that interview when I was 17, hungrily scouring the shelves of the local B. Dalton bookseller for advice on how to be a writer. I’d already sold a nonfiction essay to a local paper by that point, and a short fiction piece for $5 to an early online magazine.
I felt like I was on the up-and-up. By 24, I figured, I could make a living at this writing thing. By that point I’d been writing with the intent of being a writer since I was 12, and submitting fiction to magazines for two years. Two years feels like a long time, when you’re 17. The rejection letters were piling up. I needed some motivation.
So I wrote “Persistence” on a sticky note and pasted it to my chunky laptop.
I have it pasted above my computer monitor, still.
The question was, how long?
I’d soon realize persistence wasn’t an end game. It was the name of the road.
My first relationship was with a blustering, panic-stricken teen who soon became a violent, delusional young man. We shacked up together soon after I turned 18, and shared a two-bedroom apartment. Lacking a third bedroom, the second bedroom became our shared office. He would blast endless tracks from Rush as he dithered around online while I hunched over my desk, headphones on, trying to write.
It wasn’t long before my writing intensity began to wear on his self-esteem. Apparently, when he was home, and especially when we were in the same room, I needed to be paying more attention to him. I’d soon learn that this odd insistence was part of a larger pattern of seeking to cut me off from friends and family and control more and more aspects of my life – a classic abuser pattern that I wouldn’t be able to name as such until I started reading feminist theory in my early 20’s and found this behavior named for what it was.
All I knew at the time was that my focus on writing became a bone of contention. It elicited a lot of screaming fights and passive-aggressive behavior on his part. But as things slowly spiraled out of control in that little apartment, I found that the writing was the one thing I still owned. It helped me push through it. I might be barely scraping by as a hostess at a pizza restaurant, struggling to pay bills on time, but I could build whole worlds that I controlled totally. I could send out stories. I could survive.
But the deeper I spiraled into depression, the more all the rejection slips hurt. The more it felt like a long slog to nowhere. At my lowest point, I started to fantasize about different ways to off myself. I spent a lot of time crying in the bathroom.
And then, one day, while writing about a blasted northern landscape in one of my stories, I started to look at how much plane tickets to Alaska cost. I thought, “Well, which is crazier – booking a one-way plane ticket to Alaska or killing myself?”
My relationship eventually fell apart. I survived it, despite a lot of screaming and death threats.
A year later, I booked a one way ticket to Fairbanks, Alaska.
Samuel Delany once said that to succeed at writing, he had to give up everything else. He sacrificed his health, his relationships, in pursuit of becoming the best at what he did. The people who won worked harder than other people. They were willing to sacrifice more.
I didn’t date for five years after high school.
Maybe I was being pathological, I thought. But if I was a dude, who would question it? How many times did Hemingway shut the door and demand a room of his own?
If relationships meant giving up being a writer, fuck relationships.
When not rip-roaring drunk (and often, even then) I’d spend most nights in my dorm room in Alaska working on short fiction and collecting more rejection slips. My biggest win during my two years of clattering at the keyboard in college was getting accepted to the Clarion writing workshop when I was 20. This is it, I thought. In two years, for sure, I’ll make it. I just need to keep at this. I can do this.
I hunkered down for the long haul. I decided I’d return to this crazy dream I had as a kid, to live in a rustic cabin in the woods in Alaska with a couple of husky dogs and just write books. I’d just write books until my fingers bled.
Clearly, I’d never pissed in an outhouse at 30 below.
After doing that a few times, I figured it was time to move on.
Durban, South Africa. Cockroaches. Humidity. Nonsensical Celsius temperatures. No air conditioning. Two bottles of wine. A pack of Peter Stuyvesant cigarettes. A Master’s thesis and a novel warring for my attention.
I lived in a one and a half bedroom flat with a partial view of the Indian Ocean, with nothing more than a bed and some cardboard boxes as furniture. I spent most of my time tap-tapping away in the “half bedroom,” sitting on a rug on the floor, my laptop resting on a cardboard box draped with a sheet. I had books lined up all along the baseboards of the room – perfect hiding place for cockroaches.
I’d smoke cigarettes and muse that I’d finally achieved poor writer garret-style living. But like pissing in an outhouse in Alaska at 30 below, the realities weren’t as glamorous as advertised.
I submitted my first novel to publishers when I was 22, mailing the proposals and chapters out from the university mail room. It was time to be famous.
Every single house rejected it.
When I lived in Chicago in my mid-twenties, I’d sometimes go wander around downtown by myself. I had no real plans. No ambition. I’d just wander around this press of people and pretend my life was on the up and up like everybody else’s seemed to be. Chicago is a big, shiny city. Like Oz blooming out of flat Midwestern prairie.
One night I came home about ten o’clock at night after spending hours alone wandering downtown. Just… wandering. It was one of those aimless, “What the fuck am I doing with my life?” rambles that left me more confused than when I began.
I stumbled upstairs to my third floor walk-up and went through the mail. In it was a self-addressed stamped envelope: me, mailing a letter to myself. You’d include them with paper submissions, back in the day when hardly anybody took e-subs, so the editor could send you your acceptance or rejection without paying for postage.
I’d put the name of the magazine I’d submitted my story to on the back of the letter. It was one of the biggest magazines in the field at the time.
I opened the letter with that gloriously giddy half-hope, half-dread feeling building in the pit of my stomach.
It was a form rejection letter. The four or sixth or eighth or tenth or… however many, that month. I could barely keep track. All the stories, and all the rejections, just bled into each other.
I had no idea what I was doing with my life, except this. I knew I wanted this. Even if “this” was just some big magazine to say yes to something.
But “this” was just one long road of rejection and disappointment.
It’s strange, but I don’t remember the name of the actual magazine, because it has since closed up shop.
But I remember sitting on the kitchen floor, despondent, the rejection slip clutched in my hand.
At 26, I woke up in the ICU after two days in a coma and was diagnosed with a chronic illness. I received a bunch of rejections from agents for a new book not long after. One of them expressed outrage that I’d be so bold as to compare the book I was shopping to the work of Robert Jordan or George R.R. Martin, even though the query book I’d read said to compare your work to other marketable work. I filed away the rejections and wondered if I’d ever sell a book. Maybe I was crazy. Maybe I’d given up everything for nothing.
I lost my job at the Chicago architectural and engineering firm I worked for a few months later. And a few months after that, my relationship with my best friend, former girlfriend, and roommate imploded.
I found myself packing up everything I owned into the back of a rental truck with a couple of generous friends and driving my life to Dayton, Ohio.
It felt like I’d failed at everything. Life was a ruin.
I found myself living in a spare bedroom at a friend’s house, unemployed, deep in medical debt, and staring at yet another novel, three-quarters of the way finished.
When I opened my laptop, the sticky note still stared back at me: Persistence.
In all things. In writing. In life.
I finished the book.
I’d reached a point in my life where I didn’t know how to do anything else but finish the fucking book.
I got my first book deal when I was 28.
It came at a time when I’d hit rock bottom, professionally, financially, emotionally. It came just when I needed it. It wasn’t a million dollars. It was $10,000 a book, for three books. It was enough money for me to pay off three of my four credit cards and move out of my friend’s spare room.
Even when the contract was eventually cancelled, and the book never published at that house, I was still paid for the books. I still walked with the money. $30,000 for work I never did, for work that they wouldn’t publish.
I thought about all that work. About those screaming nights in that shared office with my ex, and the cold, drunk nights in Alaska, and shaking out my bug-infested sheets in South Africa, and thought… was this it? Was this what it was about?
That money saved my life. But when the bills were paid and my life was in order again, I asked myself what I was writing for besides money, because after writing with the intent of being a writer for fifteen years, now that I wasn’t dying in poverty, the money alone wasn’t satisfying. It wasn’t enough. It wasn’t why I was writing.
Which made me wonder what the fuck I was doing, then.
Another book deal, this time a keeper, a year after my former deal imploded. Books on shelves. Elation. Joy. End of a long road, right?
No. Just beginning.
Arguments with my publisher over white-washed book covers. Late checks. Money that stops flowing. Then the publisher implodes, sells off its assets – including you and your books.
Take it over leave it. Fight the bullshit. Rage.
Sheer, unadulterated rage, that the work I spent a lifetime to see in print is now an “asset” a “property” a casualty of shitty business practices.
I fight the situation. I persist.
I sign a new contract.
The spice flows again.
But I’ve lost my joy for fiction.
I’m at the bar at a science fiction convention. I made $7,000 in fiction income the year before. I’m ordering an overpriced drink that I’ll be writing off as a business expense, because I’ll likely lose 30% of that $7,000 to taxes in a few months.
While I wait, I overhear a successful self-published author talking to a group of folks about how self-publishing can make everyone big money, and how traditional publishing is fucked. I’ve heard this a thousand times. Kickstarter is the key, he says. You can pre-fund all that work ahead of time, and generate income. He boasts about how he gave this advice to many under-advanced authors, folks paid, “These $7,000, $10,000 advances,” who were obviously small, silly fish. He sounds like a self-help guru. He makes writing books sound like a get-rich-quick scheme.
I take my drink. I don’t pour it on his head.
I remember this is a long game. I remember that both self-published authors and trad-published authors have the same small handful of breakouts and the same massive, slushy mire of “everyone else” clamoring for signal on the long tail.
I think I’ve been on the long tail a long time, but the more I talk to other writers the more I realize that that whole slog – the shitty apartment with the shitty boyfriend, the frigid outhouses in Alaska, the cockroach wrangling in South Africa – weren’t actually the start of it. That wasn’t the part where things got really interesting.
It was getting the first book. It was after the first book. It was being confronted with the fact that writing is a business, and expectations are very often crushed, and your chances for breaking out are pretty grim.
It’s persisting in the game after you know what it’s really all about. After the shine wears off. It’s persisting after all your hopes and aspirations bang head first into reality.
That’s when it starts. The rest of your life was just a warm-up.
Anyone who tells you differently is selling something.
Last night I rolled in from a convention in Detroit at 6:00 p.m. and stayed up until 1:00 a.m. catching up on business emails and preparing blog posts. I still have a day job. I also do a lot of freelance copywriting. Putting all that income together, I’m making close to $90,000 a year. But I’ve only been at that number for two years. Six months ago, half my department was laid off at the day job. I expect the hammer to come down at any time.
I expect that sometime soon, everything will burn down, and I’ll have to start over.
I’m working on another trilogy. Two of them, actually. I try not to squint too much at my prior sales numbers. It might affect my game.
I’m working all the time.
In the book I’m best known for, God’s War, my protagonist has a final showdown with the book’s antagonist, who tells her, “There are no happy endings, Nyxnissa.” And Nyx says, “I know. Life keeps going.”
I’m packing up my stuff after a panel where I’ve spoken about all sorts of things to other writers, aspiring writers, and fans alike. I’m feeling drained and exhausted. An audience member comes up to me and thanks me for talking about my day job. “You just seem so successful,” he says, “you’ve got multiple books published and you go to cons.” Later, somebody at the bar tells me it seems that every time he clicked on a link these days it linked back to one of my blog posts.
I don’t feel successful.
But it got me to thinking again – what’s my measure of success? Is it money? Copies sold? Or is it the act of persistence itself, the act of continuing to write when everybody tells you it’s a bad deal, and you should just suck it up and stop?
Persistence, I realized, was not the end goal. It was the actual game.
I had all the chances in the world to quit this game. Any rational person probably would have. Poverty, unemployment, crazy relationships, chronic illness, an imploding publisher… I could have quit. I could have said, “Fuck this noise.”
But after raging around on the internet or drinking a bottle of wine or taking a long bike ride, I came back to the keyboard. Always. I always came back.
Most people don’t.
I don’t blame them.
So when people ask me now – at panels, online, at the bar – “What does it take to be a successful writer?” I know the answer, now. Now, more than ever, because I know what it actually means. I know it’s not just a word. It’s a way of life. I know what success looks like.
“Persistence,” I say.
And take another drink.
Kameron Hurley is the award-winning author of the books God’s War, Infidel, and Rapture. Her short fiction has appeared in magazines such as Lightspeed, EscapePod, and Strange Horizons, and anthologies such as The Lowest Heaven and Year’s Best SF.
Visit kameronhurley.com for upcoming projects.