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?

Sure.

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 MagazineLightspeed MagazineYear’s Best SFThe 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.

Empire Ascendant: Indiebound | Amazon | B&N

 

41 comments

  • Telling it like it is never sounded so good. An acclamation for the ages more uplifting than a champagne ‘n pancakes hot-air balloon flight past Everest. Deserves framing, laminating, illustrating or possibly all three together. The casino/meritocracy comparison in particular would have a great many supporters.

  • Admirable sentiments. But, from my perspective there’s an element missing. If you can live without Nebula awards, agents, advances and traditional publishers, in the shadow world of self-publishing where we no longer build our houses out of desiccated rejection slips, you can avoid the gatekeepers, write what you want, publish when you want — and make a living.

  • I know this was supposed to be motivating but I found it as depressing as hell —

    ” … 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.”

    — excuse me while I cry into my own bowl of cornflakes.

  • Hell yes! I am so with you on this, Kameron.

    I’ve spent the last couple of years, ever since the release of my second novel, watching fewer and fewer books sell, to the point where if I’d quit, barely anyone would have noticed. But I’m not quitting. I’m still in the game and I’m here to the finish, no matter what.

  • Well said. I took 16 years between my first published short story and my first novel sale, too. If at any time during those sixteen years I’d given up, I would not have a book deal today. I’ve just delivered the third book of my original book deal (with DAW) and have just signed a second 2 book deal. There are still 4 completed books on my hard drive that I don’t (yet) have contracts for. I certainly couldn’t live on my writing income. (But, hey, it just paid to get my roof fixed!) My publishing deal is in North America, but I’m not (yet) published in my own country (UK). The concerns I had before I sold my first book are not the same concerns I have today, but I still have concerns. However, like you, if I ran off to a cottage in the country, I’d still be writing. Very best wishes for your future success.

  • “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.”

    Yup.

    Oh, and btw, that is one glorious cover for Empire Ascendant.

  • Wait a second… if you’re not eating carbs, why are you crying into your cornflakes?

    Maybe I should be an editor instead of a writer 😉 Great post Kameron. I need a sobering read every now and then.

  • I’m reading one of her books right now. Can’t get enough of it.

    And to the post itself, yeah I’m one of those stubborn ones. The ones motivated by the grim forecast. If it was easy, it wouldn’t be worth doing.

    It really doesn’t matter though, I can’t not write. It’s like a gag reflex. Can’t be stopped.

    And then there was that day I got an email from someone saying they couldn’t put my book down, that it’s their favorite of the year, and they can’t wait until the next one. Reading that message was like signing a contract in blood. Now I can’t quit; I have to finish the series. Some stranger is counting on me.

  • I’m sorry, but I can’t stand her negativity. It’s why I took her blog off my list and her off my twitter. She clearly has another income and life is too short to torture yourself for a living. In fact, I have no idea why she’s still writing if it’s such hell. She could always self-publish too.

    Writing is fun and should be fun, and if it’s not even a tiny bit fun, you shouldn’t be doing it. Though lord knows she’s not the first martyr writer, wearing their torturous perseverance like some spiky medal.

    I write because it’s fun. Because it’s a puzzle that’s full of joy and catharsis. I’d like to get published one day, and if that book doesn’t…well, I still have my full-time job, and a bunch of other books on my mind that I’d love to explore. I can put that one on the side and work on another, and maybe someday when I get my first contract, I can show them the old stuff, see what they think.

  • I agree with JT Lawrence, D and K. I respect the “tell it like it is” intent and need to hear the baseline truth sometimes, but she sounds like Chuck without the optimism. If writing is a compulsion, as it is for most writers, make it fun somehow. I’m tired of martyrs whining about how they “have” to do it. I want to hear how those who don’t give up find pleasure, motivation, inspiration from NOT giving up. A positive self-image even. Wow! There’s an idea! Let’s do it to build a sense of accomplishment and purpose despite the pittance it earns. I’d be grateful to earn anything right now from it.

    I will check out Hurley’s books. I just hope they aren’t as gloomy as her blogs.

    Wallowing in depressing truth without a seed of hope is suicide.

  • I just have to say, I LOVE what abuzzinid said: “wallowing in depressing truth without a seed of hope is suicide.” Well put!!

    I definitely write because it makes me happy. I recently got a concussion and was not allowed to read or write for weeks, and I got super, ridiculously depressed. The moment I started writing again, I started to feel happy again.

    I need to write like I need sleep. It’s what keeps me sane. Before I could even read, I would scribble nonsense words onto paper (and sometimes furniture) and then “read” the story to people. Usually my stories would have something to do with dinosaurs and/or unicorns (in other words, they were pure awesomeness). I would study the binding of books as I tried to figure out how to make my own. This is really as much a part of me as any of my limbs. To quit just because it’s hard would be like severing a leg.

    I am not a published author. I’m currently revising my first novel and have hopes to see it on the shelves one day. I have to say, as negative as I kinda find this post, it actually kind of fuels me. Because I just had this realization that I’m not really threatened by how hard I know the future is bound to be for me. Because just like she said:

    “…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.”

    And that’s the truth for me. When I’ve felt like quitting, I knew that I’d just end up secretly finishing my story all by myself in some corner of my house when no one was looking. I can’t quit.

    I know that whatever happens, in the end, I’m doing this for me. Because I feel the worlds I escape to in my head deserve to be put on a page. Because those stories in my head are the ones I want to read. Because writing makes me happy and keeps me sane. It gives me strength, it makes the rest of my life bearable. I absolutely love it.

    So bring it on.

  • I’m one of the ones whose been doing this forever it seems and garnering rejections, but I love writing, that’s a simple fact and when it comes down to it, it will get me through whatever comes, publication or not.

  • Thanks for this piece.

    This is why I love writing as a hobby. I can write as much as I want whenever I want. And when I decide enough is enough, I can quit without any guilt or existential crises over whether or not I’m a “true writer,” whatever that means. If I happen to make it big one day, great! If not, that’s okay, too. I write because I enjoy it and that’s what’s important.

  • No wonder any politician who trys to deliver a dose of truth salts to the voting public is gone quicker than a buttered bullet. Seems that Kameron’s post has set quite the polarising cat amongst the pigeons. But seriously, isn’t she right – running for ‘fun’ – who needs it?!

  • Both this and Kameron’s piece on the lifetime figures for books are sobering, yet kind of reassuring. It’s not easy, it’s the path I’ve chosen. It’s good to know others are in the same boat and to see where my future hopefully lies. It’s not wrapped up in an unobtainable fairy tale. It’s not simply telling you not to do it.

    In the grim, dark future of your writing career there is only this. And you know what? I’m good with that. Thanks.

  • I know both sides of this coin, so I empathize with those who appreciate this post as well as those who find it demoralizing. I published five novels with major houses in the 1980s and 1990s. The last one was a disaster, for reasons I go into at justcanthelpwriting.wordpress.com (see “What Not to Do in Writing Novels” for starters–I took down some of the grimmest stuff but would be glad to share privately). My agent couldn’t sell my next book (possibly connected to the disaster, but possibly not), so I pushed fiction off to corner, got a PhD and a “real” job that gave me a secure retirement, where, now, when I can do anything I want, it turns out I want to write fiction again. I LOVE the option of self-publishing; being able to reclaim my best books, clean them up a bit, and give them new life is a gift.
    I know there won’t be any more big advances. Too bad, but this is just plain fun.

  • There’s another type of writer: one who repeatedly gets discouraged, throws in the towel, then the next day or the next week says, “what the hell were you thinking?” Over and over again. Up and down, like a roller coaster. It’s brutal, but we keep doing it anyway because we just can’t stop hoping. The story ideas and characters keep popping into our heads like whack-a-moles, refusing to be silenced.

  • This is an incredible post. It is almost word-for-word how I feel every day as I struggle and fight for just a little time to work on my craft. I’ve debated myself endlessly as to just how much easier it would be to pack up and become a normal person rather than the obsessive, poor, unread, writer. But can we stop when it’s so ingrained into our blood?

    • Credible and most incredible at the same time. Kameron’s post might just make it as one of the most insightful and bone-rattling posts of 2015 – and on Chuck’s site that’s no easy feat to achieve.

  • This portraiture is written with all the accuracy of an FBI Profiler. Thanks for putting this ‘type’-face on the map and into such elequent words.

  • Nice piece Kameron. I have often reflected on that nasty statistic that 99.9% who write books will never earn a living from them. Just walk into any book store to verify this. These books are written by the people who “succeeded” yet you leave the store without even looking at 99.9% of THOSE books. Screw that.

    I didn’t quit writing, I just forced myself to learn ways to make writing PAY that didn’t involve writing entire books. Then I forced myself to use my writing/interviewing/researching skills to find ways to earn passive income. Now I enjoy financial and time freedom. Free of money and time pressures, writing is delightfully fun again.

    You’ve got a great voice, a boatload of positive feedback and many successes. You didn’t quit writing despite all the obstacles. I would suggest that you also don’t quit looking for easier ways to make writing lavish you with the financial and time freedom you desire. That little cabin deep in the woods awaits. You’ll still write… but God it’s fun without the money and time pressures.

    • Dear Treetop,

      Firstly,well made point regarding the bookstore ‘successes’. Secondly, yours sounds like a story equally worthy of a full-length blog post at minimum – particuarly the mention of ‘passive income’. (Please tell us more!) Looks for you like a case of “Been there. Done that. Got the t-shirt.”

      • Hi glenavailable,

        Because you asked, I’m happy to provide a web address that shares what you requested. I’m a guest here so I’m not trying to sell anything or poach free traffic. I only want to fulfill your request and help other writers. My website WorldsBestWriter.com has several good posts at the very bottom geared to more lucrative ways to earn income with writing, including passive income. Good luck to all!

        • Knock and the door will be answered? Thankyou so much. Fate rarely calls at a moment of our choosing but you have answered this call. Heading over to the alternate world now.. and thanks again.

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