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.

C. Robert Cargill: Website | Twitter

Queen of the Dark Things: Amazon | B&N | iTunes | Indiebound

34 comments

  • Never thought someone telling me I have a very small chance of ever becoming a famous writer could be so inspirational. If ever there was a desire to write more its words of wisdom like this that forge the river!

  • First of all: Shotokan Karate! Ah, the memories! Had an awesome, badass sensei too. And second, I love this post. Really, I do. And because of this, I will now open my manuscript and write. I want to be Bruce Lee. Or Brandon Lee (who doesn’t love The Crow?).

  • 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.

    “Age and treachery” comes to mind when reading that phrase. Until someone starts losing their powers, or getting into a rut, experience makes a writer better and better, and more “Dangerous”. Its a marathon, not a sprint

  • I think I will save this post as reference / motivational post for all those times I feel unappreciated in my writing career. “May the Force be with you, young padawan. Go tackle the next dragon.”

  • We, as writers, are in charge of motivating ourselves. Thank you for taking over that job for me just for this one day. You have provided my motivation. Gotta go, writing to do…

  • Love it! Words of wisdom, right there. I actually had a writer friend give up on writing because his first book wasn’t selling. I read it – it was pretty awful, but I also read his second book, which was much better. But because his first book flopped his just gave up.

    For me, I haven’t even published anything yet, but I’m still writing. Its a marathon, not a sprint, and fame is fleeting.

  • Now this is some home truth. Like all medicine it tastes bitter going down, but ultimately cures you; of the delusion that three years of half-arsing and putting made up things into grammatically challenged sentences will convince someone to bestow you with fame, and fortune, and plaudits. Here’s to the next thirty years!

  • This should be posted on the door of every writing class on the freaking planet.

    Fortunately, I had the illusion of instant fame and stardom beaten out of me long, long ago.

  • May 14, 2014 at 3:02 PM // Reply

    Thank you so much for this! It’s something I really needed to hear. I know we’re not supposed to compare ourselves, but sometimes it’s hard when we read something that just takes our breath away. First exaltation, and then despair that we’ll never be as good as that writer.

    I have to tell you, I read DREAMS AND SHADOWS in one sitting. It took me my surprise. Someone was tweeting about it at the same time as Richard Kadrey’s latest; I downloaded the sample and couldn’t put it down. Amazing. Thank you for writing the sort of book I can just fall into. I’m halfway through QUEEN OF THE DARK THINGS and loving it just as much.

  • “Oh, just a mid-lister with a respectable following that has to work part time to pay the bills.”

    I say that most of those saying that are those who now know the score and willing to still be in the biz. Like the guy who’s been submitting for years and still can’t get a break.

    At the beginning, though, they were just as Kung Fu crazy as everyone else.

  • Er…I absolutely do not mean to be rude or to nerdsplain here, but…I feel compelled to point out that the metaphor here with regards to Bruce Lee doesn’t quite work. He WAS a young kung fu genius. He did enter the gates of the temple as a fresh-faced ingenue and blow the old masters’ minds. (In fact, he invented his own system b/c the old masters were angry at him for sharing kung fu with non-Chinese folk and he was very frustrated with the slow, old ways of doing things. He believed that you could get to the kind of martial arts supremacy he sought much faster than the masters taught). He was a brilliant star, but he burned himself out, dying at age 32. Yes, he did in fact work EXTREMELY hard. He devoted his life to kung fu (and the cha cha, as it happens) and I think the lesson really is *there*–that he devoted EVERYTHING to the art and craft and science of kung fu, that he broke down cultural barriers to do it at a time when those barriers were still very, very visible and tough, that he suffered and struggled and kept going and REINVENTED himself even when everyone around him told him it was impossible. But using him as an example of spending five decades learning the craft of writing is not an accurate metaphor, I’m afraid, even though the message is wonderful and very true for most of us.

    Still and all, a very inspiring post. Certainly brings back good memories and reminds me of things I’d let myself forget. Thank you!

    -A humble student of writing and Shaolin kung fu :-)

    • May 15, 2014 at 1:51 AM // Reply

      While that’s a fair comment, it’s important to note that while Bruce Lee died at the age of 32, he began his martial arts training before the age of 10. Wing Chun training, his 2nd form of martial arts, began at age 13, the only solid date we have. Bruce Lee the superstar wouldn’t appear until 1971, when he was 31, over 20 years into his Martial Arts career. It’s true he’s an imperfect example (imperfect because the anecdote is 100% true and not invented for metaphor’s sake) which is why I chose to focus on GRRM for the writer portion of it. Lee, like Presley, Monroe, and Dean, enjoys a special level of fame devoted to those who die long before the shine of their fame had faded. I’m of the opinion that the elder Lee would have been epic beyond words, far surpassing what we saw in the films of the early 70’s.

      • May 15, 2014 at 1:04 PM // Reply

        “I’m of the opinion that the elder Lee would have been epic beyond words, far surpassing what we saw in the films of the early 70′s.”

        Agreed. More thought, philosophy, and spirituality mixed with the martial. More of this:

        “When the opponent expands, I contract. When he contracts, I expand. And when there is an opportunity, I do not hit. It hits all by itself.”

  • Thank you thank you thank you for this post!

    I have never been a Bruce Lee of writing (taken in the context of ‘true, natural geniuses are a rare phenomenon that probably only 2% of the world’s population can realistically aspire to – the rest of us have to put the graft in’ which was how I interpreted your meaning) and at times in the past I have beaten myself up about that. However, when I look back at old stuff I’ve written, I can totally see why it wouldn’t have made the grade anyway. If all a person wants from writing is fame and fortune they need to walk away right now, because they’re in for a VERY long wait before that happens.

    And yet the media do still love to paint that rose-tinted picture, don’t they? I still remember all the publicity about E.L. James being a ‘shy housewife and mum’ who hit gold with her ‘debut novel which started out as a fanfiction piece’ – her little hobby when she wasn’t hoovering and looking after the kids, bless her little cotton socks. No mention of the fact that she was also an executive of a television company in between being a ‘shy housewife and mum.’

  • May 15, 2014 at 11:28 AM // Reply

    My biggest fear is that I don’t have enough time on this Earth to get there. Then I remind myself that I actually love to write, love to craft a story and share it. I’m trying to enjoy right now because there may not be a later, even while I maintain a goal and keep walking in that direction.

  • Top, top words. There are always many of years hard work behind every overnight success. One of the other Mum’s was saying to me how amazed she was that Julia (Gruffalo) Donaldson seemed to have a lot of books out and how could that be when she’s only just started. I think my reply was something along the lines of “because she’s only just got famous, she was writing books for about 25 years before the Gruffalo and that came out about 15 years ago.” Oh yeh and two more words War Horse – huge now, published in 1986 was it? 80 something anyway. I’m a realist, I know I’ll never be Adams or Pratchett but fucking hell, I’m going to give it my best shot, in 250 word a day slow mo (mwahhahahahaargh!) Yes, Melorajohnson (above) I so know how you feel there. But what the hell, 250 words a day is better than none at all and over 5 or 6 years an amazing thing has happened… I’ve written 4 books (although only two of them are out at the moment). So the back catalogue can happen, if you just ignore the fast people, put your head down and go. It’s all relative.

    Fine words Mr Wendig. Bang on, as usual. I may even reblog this. Or at least point to it. I don’t really like reblogs.

    Cheers

    MTM

  • Wow this was very inspiring. Thanks for the guest post! Also, I loved Sinister, and I didn’t know that you had novels as well… I will be purchasing Dreams and Shadows as soon as I finish the last 200 pages or so of the book I’m reading (“It” by Stephen King, which is fucking LONG).

    P.S. I could beat Bruce Lee’s ass in Super Smash Brothers.

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