Kameron Hurley: Absolute Zero — The Temperature At Which Writers Give Up
I will never not give blog space to Kameron Hurley, because Kameron Hurley is a whip-crack crotch-kick of a writer. She is amazing, and she is welcome here forever. (I mean, it doesn’t help that she stole the keys to the blog and made herself a copy.) Read her books. But read this first.
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I’ve given up on a lot of things in my life: Relationships. Carbs. Being an astronaut. Adjunct teaching. Running for “fun.” Most things concocted at Taco Bell.
What I never gave up on is pursuing a career as a writer.
And when I look at all the other things in life I gave up on, I wonder why it is that I’ve been willing to stick with something that has been, at times, more brutal than the worst relationship, more punishing to my body than carbs, and certainly not nearly as tasty as some of the scariest shit at Taco Bell.
Why do some writers persist, and some writers – many of them the most talented and promising writers I’ve ever known– quit?
It’s a question I ask myself the longer I work in the business. And it’s a question I get from a lot of colleagues and fans the longer I persist.
This is a post for writers who want to make their career as writers of fiction. If you’d just like to “put something out there” or write a great book every ten years for a few thousand dollars, those are perfectly valid approaches to writing. But heads’ up that this isn’t going to be the post for you.
It took me sixteen years between my first short story sale and first novel sale, and twenty years and six published novels before I had a single year’s income that looked anything like a living wage. I still don’t write full time. The day job pays all.
Don’t I get discouraged? Don’t I look at the six and seven figure deals that some debut novelists get and cry into my cornflakes?
But I know something many new writers, and debut novelists, don’t know: you are probably going to quit. You probably aren’t going to have a publishing contract in ten years. Those are the cold equations. Do some people get lucky right out the gate? Sure. Million dollar contracts for books that actually earn out. Six figure contracts for books that go on to be hits and give you royalties enough every year to live on. It happens. It’s not impossible.
But for the 99.9%, it’s not realistic. It’s a dream. For the 99%, like me, you are working book check to book check, hoping that the next project is the one that takes off.
If these are the sort of truths that discourage you, yes, you should probably give up now. Because you are going to hit far more roadblocks and hurdles once you have that first novel published, and more again with the second. It does not, in truth, get any easier. Signing a three-book deal in no way guarantees you will sell another. In fact, once your shine wears off, it gets much tougher, because now you’re a known quantity. Publishers can no longer pitch you like you have infinite possibilities. You often have to reinvent yourself to keep swimming. And you need to learn to run your career like a business, not a hobby, because all the people you’re working with now are certainly running their own businesses like businesses.
The truth is, there will always be times you want to give up, no matter what stage you are in the process. My fifth book is out this week, and I’m sitting here working on edits for my essay collection out next year, and I want to give up. I want to send back the advance check and just pack it all in. I don’t want to fix another broken transition. I don’t want to dig up some other reference. I don’t want to dance again in the court of public opinion with a big collection of bloody personal work that will get me eviscerated all over again. I don’t want to read another review. I don’t want to see another sales spreadsheet. I want to get a little house in the deep woods with no internet connection and never speak to another human being ever again.
And as I’m sitting here I’m thinking about how easy that would be to just give up. To say, “Nope, not doing it,” and sweep all the projects off my to-do list. I’d be poorer for it, financially, but my day job certainly pays enough to live on. I wouldn’t starve. I have that going for me.
So why not give up?
Because what would I be doing in that little house? What would I be doing if I wasn’t out here on the internet? If I wasn’t stacked up four years deep with projects? And the answer is always the same. The answer is: I’d be writing. I’d be writing anyway.
I may as well be writing here.
It’s the same thing I asked myself before I’d sold a story, and again before I sold a pro story, and again before I sold a book, and again before I sold a second series (by the skin of my teeth). At every step, I asked myself if this was worth it, or if I could better spend my time elsewhere. Because however glamorous being a writer looks from the outside, the reality is that to get here, and stay here, I have to give some things up. I have to make some sacrifices.
The answer is, and has always been, that this is worth it, because I want it more than I’ve ever wanted anything in my life. It’s a singular purpose. And just for good measure, fuck all those people who said I’d never make it. Fuck all those people who said I’d give up. Fuck all those people waiting for me to fail.
A colleague of mine calls the stubbornness that keep authors in the game “grit,” and notes that those with a strong aversion to authority tend to hang in a lot longer than those who don’t. It’s the sort of person who hears, “You can’t do that,” and thinks, “You just watch me.”
This was the attitude that spurred me on through twenty years of rejections – rejections that continue to this day. It’s the attitude that gets me up at 5:00 a.m. to work on essays like this before heading off to my day job. It’s the attitude that keeps me marching toward a deadline even when I feel like I’m the worst writer in the world, and none of it’s worth it after all.
We all have a different point at which we hit absolute zero, that point at which we can’t endure another moment of knocking our heads against a publishing industry that so many treat like a slot machine, hoping that this hit, this time, will pay off. If you’re here hoping to hit it big, you will probably give up much sooner, because the reality that publishing works like a casino and not a meritocracy will be devastating.
You will come to this crossroads many times. There will never be a point in your career where you are done choosing to be here. No one wants you to be a writer more than you do. So you better care about it. You better care about it more than anything.
Who gives up? The ones who decide they want something else more. The ones who are done with the gamble. The ones who cannot bear to fix another transition, or deal with another bad advance or mean-spirited review. The ones who give up are good writers and bad writers. Introverts and extroverts. Young and old. The ones who give up are just like me, and just like you.
But if you are going to give up, give up when it’s still easy to give up. When you haven’t invested everything, when it’s still not too late to start over somewhere else, doing something more much sane.
So go on. Give up. I dare you.
But I’m going to get back to work.
About the Author
Kameron Hurley is the author of The Worldbreaker Saga and the God’s War Trilogy. Hurley has won the Hugo Award, Kitschy Award, and Sydney J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer; she has also been a finalist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, Nebula Award, the Locus Award, BFS Award, the Gemmell Morningstar Award and the BSFA Award for Best Novel. Her short fiction has appeared in Popular Science Magazine, Lightspeed Magazine, Year’s Best SF, The Lowest Heaven, and Meeting Infinity. Her nonfiction has been featured in The Atlantic, Locus Magazine, and the upcoming collection The Geek Feminist Revolution. Her newest is Empire Ascendant —
Every two thousand years, the dark star Oma appears in the sky, bringing with it a tide of death and destruction. And those who survive must contend with friends and enemies newly imbued with violent powers. The kingdom of Saiduan already lies in ruin, decimated by invaders from another world who share the faces of those they seek to destroy.
Now the nation of Dhai is under siege by the same force. Their only hope for survival lies in the hands of an illegitimate ruler and a scullery maid with a powerful – but unpredictable –magic. As the foreign Empire spreads across the world like a disease, one of their former allies takes up her Empress’s sword again to unseat them, and two enslaved scholars begin a treacherous journey home with a long-lost secret that they hope is the key to the Empire’s undoing.
But when the enemy shares your own face, who can be trusted?
In this devastating sequel to The Mirror Empire, Kameron Hurley transports us back to a land of blood mages and sentient plants, dark magic, and warfare on a scale that spans worlds.