C. Robert Cargill: The 36th Chamber of Wri-Tin (Or: “Welcome to the Wizard’s Tower”)
Cargill’s one of those writerly bad-asses you hear about. Disgustingly talented, show-offingly able to jump from talking about film (Ain’t It Cool News) to actually writing films (Sinister) to writing books (Dreams & Shadows). We should probably throw things at his head or, failing that, actually listen to what he has to say. Let’s try the last one first, see how that goes. Here he is to talk about the writer’s career and how it leads to his newest, Queen of the Dark Things.
When I was 11 years old, my parents signed me up for self-defense classes. I was your typical nerd/geek/dork hybrid with a loud mouth, few social skills, and had sprouted up half a foot taller than my classmates a few years too early, making me the perfect target for any bully worth his salt trying to make a name for himself. “Hey! You with the book! Get over here!” My parents were tired of me losing so often, so they dragged me to the nearest gym and signed me up. What they didn’t know was that they weren’t signing me up for any mere “self-defense” course. They were signing me up for Shotokan Karate, taught by a traditionalist master who had come back from ‘nam with a knee shredded by a bullet which he’d had rebuilt after being told he’d never walk without a cane again before recovering and becoming one of the highest ranking Shotokan black belts in the United States.
Yeah. He was a bad ass. And I got a lot of life lessons out of that guy. A LOT of life lessons.
The first thing he taught me came on the very first day of class. “Every week there’s some knucklehead who walks in here thinking he’s going to be Bruce Lee after a couple of lessons,” he said. “And every week that guy leaves after a few classes pissed off because I wasn’t good enough of a sensei to do that. So if you’re the guy who thinks he’s going to wake up fighting like Bruce Lee tomorrow morning, the door is over there. Leave now and don’t waste my fucking time. If you stick with this for a few weeks, I’ll teach you how to throw a decent punch. Stick around for a few months and you’ll be able to hold your own in a bar fight. Stick around for a few years and I’ll teach you things to make sure you never have to lose a fight again…or even have to fight one to begin with. But Bruce Lee? Almost no one ever gets that good, and when they do, it takes a lifetime.”
He was right. I never became Bruce Lee. But I stopped losing fights and eventually had won enough – and learned enough – that I never had to fight again. And 25 years later, I still haven’t.
I mention all this because every few weeks or so I run across an impatient young writer asking for advice about publishing. When pressed about their desperation, their response is almost universally the same. “I need my career to start now, not a year from now,” they say. “I’ve got bills to pay and I don’t want to wait for success. A year is a long time! And it could take even longer than that! That’s just the average!” When you ask them who they want to be, they rarely answer small. Sure, you’ll occasionally run across someone who says, “Oh, just a mid-lister with a respectable following that has to work part time to pay the bills.” But most of the time you hear “I want to be the next George R.R. Martin! Or J.K. Rowling! Or Neil Gaiman! Or Kurt Vonnegut! Or Charlaine Harris! Or Stephanie Meyer! Stephen King! Isaac Asimov! Kim Harrison! Ray Bradbury! Brandon Sanderson!”
You know. The bestsellers. The kung fu masters. The grand wizards. Bruce. Fucking. Lee.
Almost none of those names hit the jackpot with their first book. And none of them did it overnight. Few writers that get early, big success actually maintain that notoriety and position for long periods of time. And there’s a reason for that. The career of a writer isn’t analogous to that of any other entertainer; it is its own beast entirely.
In other entertainment careers, one great season, hit single, album or movie can make your career. But athletes only get from their teen years to their early thirties to make their mark. Same goes for pop stars and actresses. Actors and Rock Stars tend to start a little later – in their late 20’s – and get until their early 40’s to try and make it. And you can count on one hand the number of people who ever make it past those limits. But writers? Writers are different.
Writers are more like Kung Fu masters or fantasy wizards. We’re all genre fans here. Think about every great martial arts or fantasy epic you’ve ever seen or read. How does it start? Someone kicks in the gates of the martial arts monastery/wizard school/MFA program at age 19, fresh faced, full of piss and vinegar, ready to show the masters what for, and they declare at the top of their lungs “I am going to be the greatest kung fu master/wizard/writer who has ever lived!” And the students around them all laugh. The teachers roll their eyes. But the long bearded master in back, the one everyone fears, who passes down nuggets of wisdom wrapped in enigmas, who has battled countless foes, slain numerous dragons, published bestselling epic tomes of repurposed bronie slash-fic in iambic pentameter – he just strokes his beard, smiles and mutters “We shall see, young one. We. Shall. See.”
You see, the master knows that every Kung Fu master/wizard/writer has kicked those doors in saying the exact same thing. Sure, most that try fail, give up, get a day job while dreaming of what might have been – the styles they might have bested, the dungeons they might have purged, the awards they might have won, movies and TV series they might have spawned. But the ones who stick around learn that no master becomes so overnight. First they have to learn how to throw a decent punch or magic missile. Then they learn how to hold their own in a bar fight/tavern brawl. Soon, after years of practice, they learn how to win most of the fights they get into. And it is only then that their legend begins to grow.
The career of a writer isn’t about one fight or one dragon; it is about a career full of fights and dragons. Of victories and defeats. Of good books and bad. Of acceptance and rejections. Bestsellers and flops. Cancelled television shows and movies put into turnaround. It is about getting into anthologies only to find your name on the cover listed as “and many more!” It is about doing that for a few more years until your name actually makes the cover of the anthology…as filler between more recognizable names. Soon, if you keep writing, keep publishing, your name *is* one of the recognizable ones on the cover. And after a decade or two of work, your name might even make top billing. But not right after your first fight, or zorching your first skeleton, or writing your first novel.
Unlike almost every other entertainment career, age is not your enemy, but your ally. There’s a reason the New Yorker publishes its “20 under 40” and not “20 under 20.” The fresh faced martial artist or wizard isn’t the one to be feared or admired – it’s the wizened old bearded one in back, chuckling to himself. It’s not the 16 year old George Raymond Richard Martin who bought the first ticket to the first comic con in 1964 and frequently wrote letters to the editor at Marvel and articles for fanzines; it’s the George R.R. Martin who fifty years later, despite losing out on many of the major awards he’s been nominated for, who despite writing for short-lived TV show after short-lived TV show, whose novel A GAME OF THRONES didn’t become a #1 NYT bestseller until 15 years after publication, who has a backlist so long that virtually no one reading this has read it all, who can’t even attend comic con anymore without a security detail just to get from one side of a room to the other. It’s the Stephen King who was bagged on by critics for thirty years until he had written so many good bestsellers that they couldn’t argue with the mound of success he was standing on and had to declare him one of the greatest – not only of his generation, but of all time. It’s the Isaac Asimov with his name on over 500 books. Full stop.
That’s the guy you watch out for.
That’s Bruce Lee. Wong Fei-Hung. Fong Sai-Yuk. Gandalf. Merlin. Morden-fucking-kainen. Being a writer isn’t about writing one great book. It’s about writing 20 good ones…and maybe three or four great ones…if you’re lucky. That’s the job. That’s the career. It requires patience. It requires devotion. It requires decades of sleepless nights curled into a ball asking yourself what the everloving fuck you are doing with your life. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be that kung fu master, to be that wizard. You just have to think about it that way.
Blazing a career as a writer isn’t about where you’ll be next year; it’s about where you’ll be in five, ten and twenty. Are you a talented 16 year old with your own ideas for becoming the next George R.R. Martin? What are you doing for the next fifty years? Because *that’s* what you need to be thinking about. No career requires nearly as much devotion and time to develop, but none pays out such dividends for so long either, or affords so many chances to get it right. Maybe, if you’re lucky and play your cards right, some day you too might have fans walk up to you on the street and ask you not to die until you finish your latest opus. But you’ve got time; you’ve got a lot of living to do between now and then. A lot of fights to win, dragons to slay, knees to get shredded in ‘nam. That’s the career you’re embarking on.
Welcome to the monastery. We all want to be Bruce Lee here. And that’s okay. But if you’re not ready to put in the time, if you think it is going to happen overnight, the door is over there.