Does anybody actually believe this without a boatload of qualifiers?

Over at Romancing the Blog, there was a very nice article about a mystery writer’s convention comparing and contrasting how that genre’s culture stacks up against the romance genre’s culture (including ebooks, my pet topic, but I’ll pimp that later elsewhere). I found this tidbit interesting:

The motivating keynote and luncheon speeches sounded just like the ones we hear at RWA, discussing how important it is to write your story, to finish the book, to be persistent, hone your craft, and if you keep at it, eventually you will succeed.

Er, no.

Why do people keep saying this? In what context are they saying this? What venue and skillset do they have in mind when they say this? What are the assumptions present when it’s said?

The only thing I can do is make a comparison. Say I want to go into biochemistry. Okay, good. I can go to the college and enroll, spend two years doing my general education credits (if I haven’t already), some of which will include things like, oh, chemistry 101 and calculus 101, then it’s off to my major and I’m good to go, right?

Wrong.

I don’t have the heart, brains, or passion for biochemistry, just like some people don’t have the heart, brains, or passion for writing. Now, this is where the comparison starts to fall apart because while biochemistry is not accessible or even necessary (as an everyday intellectual need), language is accessible. We all use it; if we’re halfway literate, have a piece of pen and a piece of paper, we can all express ourselves in writing in some way even if it’s only to write a note to our kid’s teacher. So it’s hard to say to someone, “You don’t know how to write.” What do you mean? Of course I do! I do it every day! See, right here, I wrote.

However, that’s not the point I’m making today.

Let’s assume that we’ll take this quote in context of a bunch of aspiring published authors who actually do know how to write, and they do it well. After all, that is Romancing the Blog’s target audience so the assumption is valid.

Now let’s assume that the context in which you will succeed is A) you write a book; B) you hone it (and your craft, but that’s another post), even if you have to send it to an outside editor before submitting it; C) you submit it and submit it and submit it; D) you find an agent and/or publisher; E) you make it onto store shelves. Success. That’s the definition on the table here.

Given those assumptions and that definition of success, “eventually you will succeed” must be true, right?

Wrong. It’s called odds. As in, there are a lot more variables involved than writing, honing, being persistent, and submitting. I don’t think it’s unfair or unwise to point out that no, you (general you) will most likely not succeed because there are too many of you and if one “successful author” (see definition above) screws up (i.e., not enough sales, not enough promotion, whatever), she can be replaced, but probably not by you. And if she is replaced by you, you then have to be careful not to screw up so someone else doesn’t replace you.

I saw this comment on a Dear Author thread re ebooks:

Right now, e-sales are just starting to take off. But when this becomes a big percent of profits, I’m pretty confident that authors and agents will dig in their heals, as a group, and there will be mass defections from any publisher with an unreasonable contract. We control the supply, and we have free will to sign with the place that gives us the best deal.

Mmmm, no. Not in practice, you have no control over supply whatsoever because there are plenty more after you willing and able to take your place if you walk, with no thought to solidarity or that what happens to the people in front of them affects them. We (and I place myself in that context) are the infantry, the endless supply of cannon fodder for the publishing industry–and happy to be there if it means finding approval with an agent, editor, and then an audience. I am no different in that, for all I’ve chosen to go a different route. Writers write to be read.

In the context of all that reality however nastily flung, I think telling people “if you do X, Y, and Z, eventually you will succeed,” is more hurtful than helpful. It demands that a writer (and remember, we’re talking about the legions of good unpublished yet quite publishable writers) place her dreams on the shoulders of a mitigator, a gatekeeper with his own agenda, and then classify herself as unsuccessful when that gatekeeper says, “No thanks.”

Every time I go to Absolute Write, I see, somewhere, a published author telling an unpublished newbie (the status of their writing ability undetermined) that “if you can’t get published, your manuscript is crap.” That definition of success is flawed. The advice is flawed and ultimately (in my opinion) damaging. I’m not sure which is the cause and which is the effect.

My mother asked me something in the early ’90s after I had gotten my umpity-umpteenth oh-so-close rejection letter. This question has never left me and I use it as my guiding principle even to this day:

“Why are you making all your goals based on someone else’s decisions?”

4 Comments

  1. Re: We control the supply, and we have free will to sign with the place that gives us the best deal.

    LOL!!! This reminds me of that hilarious Onion article about a novelists’ strike.

    The one thing that makes me laugh and not cry is to remember this:

    Could be worse. Could be a poet.

  2. Chanson! That Onion article was hilarious.

    Will you write a sonnet about my penis?

    ROAR!

    I have some absolutely ghetto fabulous poetry I’ll get around to posting some time. And I must ask:

    What does make poetry good, bad, or indifferent? I never did know. (I’m looking at you, Allen Ginsberg).

  3. I agree with you to a point. But having been in this business longer than I care to admit, I do see a pattern. The ones who persist generally ARE the ones who sell to publishers.

    I’ve known very few who stuck with it who did not eventually see some level of “success.” However you define success. But I agree with you that persistence alone isn’t enough. Those who really don’t have the skillset, and who are not able to improve their skills, usually don’t get enough positive feedback on their writing and drift away to other pursuits.

    THAT said, I would be the last person to tell someone to give it up. I’ve seen some people who started out with manuscripts of a dismal quality improve to the point that they could not only sell, but have quite a profitable career.

    I’m glad you liked my RTB blog! That’s how I ended up here.

  4. Kara, I liked it very much! I always enjoy your posts. It was just that one small quibble and you happened to be the messenger today (and my post was too long to take up your comments with it). I’ve been thinking about this for quite some time, but please accept my apologies for springboarding off of your post.

    I’ll be the first to admit I’m impatient and I tend to take things into my own hands (a sore point with my dad LOL!).

    I’ve seen some people who started out with manuscripts of a dismal quality improve to the point that they could not only sell, but have quite a profitable career.

    I’ve seen this, too, and I really really admire that they have a level of persistence I can only dream about.

    And thank you for dropping by!

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