Writerly Thoughts, 12/7

Soon I’ll stop writing about writing every damn entry. But not yet.

* If the events of recent days teach us (and by us, I mean me) anything, it is that for some reason, sloth continues to pay dividends for my writing career. Yet again, plastering something on the Whatever has led to people giving me money and (more importantly) opening up another potential writing market (i.e., yeah, I’d like to sell more stuff to National Lampoon, preferably without the intermediary step of putting it onto the Whatever first). I used to be worried that putting up stuff here would hamper my career (or simply not matter), but since the majority of my book sales and humorous freelance writing can now be traced back to something I put up here, I don’t really worry about that any more. This is my self-marketing, and it’s easy and fun, which self-marketing really isn’t supposed to be (A good basic rule of thumb is if you’re not feeling slightly desperate about your self-marketing, you’re probably doing it wrong).

I would imagine there are lots of reasons why doing this works for me, but I think primary among them is simply I’m not worried about anything when I write on the Whatever; this site is meant to be my playground, and I don’t have to amuse anyone but myself with what I write here. It’s a no-pressure zone, so that allows me to do off on whatever topics I choose, however I want to do them. Most of it never goes further than the site (and rightly so), but every once in a while something clicks with someone who actually publishes things, and then I get that serendipitous moment. It beats the hell out of sending out query letters.

I can’t in good conscience recommend this “be slothful and wait for people with money to find things on your site” as a strategy for others. For one thing, I don’t know if it would work for anyone else because (outside the half-assed explanation in the previous paragraph) I’m not exactly sure why it works for me. Lots of clever smartasses put stuff up on their personal sites, after all. Also, to be honest, I suspect that if I did do things like query letters and the like on a regular basis, my career might be more… well, not more, but different and possibly contoured more like the usual sort of writing career. I’d probably actually know more people in publishing, instead of hanging out here in Ohio like a trap door spider, waiting to ensnare editors who come my way.

In short, I like that this strategy works for me, and it’s possible it could work for you, but as a backup, you might still consider picking up a Writers Market and tracking down writing opportunities the old-fashioned way. And please do be aware that the second the “wait for things to happen” strategy stops working for me (as no doubt it one day will), I’ll be hitting the Writers Market, too. I love my sloth, but I’m not stupid.

Also, be aware that once the sloth strategy gets me through a door, I work to keep the door jammed open, and a good thing, too. If either of my agents ever heard me say something like “I’m just waiting for work to come to me” I’d imagine I’d need new representation pretty damn quick. I am but slothful north-northwest; when the wind is southerly, I know how to work a sale.

* Author Gwen Zepeda is having a bit of a freakout over at her site: Her first book is out and she’s discovered that to balance out the validation that having a book gives a writer, it also dumps a truckload of new things on you to worry about, among them whether or not anyone will know you’ve actually published a book. Moreover, as she notes: “And I’m starting to realize that having a book published is not at all the happy, life-changing, FAIRY TALE EPISODE I thought it would be – all it is, is a foot in the door for my potential second book.”

I sympathize with Gwen quite a bit, not in the least because my first book was a pretty big stiff — a book on money and the Internet that was released just in time for the collapse of the Internet bubble, and whose media tour coincided with the disputed 2000 presidential election, which meant that pretty much no one gave a damn about me and my little book (reading with one person in the audience? Check! Three minute appearance on a tiny business TV show that ran in a 4:45 pm slot when no one was watching? Check!). The book was good, but the timing for the book was just about as bad as it could be. On the basis of that book, both in the attention it got and the sales it pulled down (very, very little in both cases), it didn’t seem like I’d be an obvious candidate for getting a second book.

So what happened next? Well, you know. Life happened next. I saw an ad looking for short historical articles, and I happened to have written a bunch on the Whatever (for my “That Was the Millennium That Was” series), so I followed up; that led to my association with the Uncle John’s Bathroom Series, which in turn led to the Book of the Dumb series of books, the first of which, at least, has sold very well. Then the people who published the Internet book decided that it really wasn’t my fault the book tanked and hired me to write the astronomy book — which is going pretty well for them, too. That led to the book I’m writing right now. And then there’s Old Man’s War, and the novels which will follow it.

My point, and I do have one, is that as I sympathize with Gwen’s freakout, I also know that life is pretty long and that for writers, opportunities come in unexpected places and in unexpected times. I don’t know a single writer whose career turned out how they expected it to before they began the writing path — this being an extension of the general rule that for the most part no one’s life turns out how they expected it to. At the risk of sounding rah-rah, it really is true that the best thing to do in all circumstances is simply to keep writing and keep ready, and not ever to expect life to do what you want it to. It won’t, but this is not always necessarily a bad thing.

18 thoughts on “Writerly Thoughts, 12/7

  1. Well, if nothing else, thanks to your link a lot more people know about Gwen’s book. (Maybe that was your goal.)

  2. John – I can’t speak for the others, but I, for one, am glad to have you back after the hiatus. Any post is a good post ;)

    also, you say “Old Man’s War, and the novels which will follow it.”

    Have you mentioned this before? Does that mean there will be *sequels*? Or are you referring in a hypothetical sense to the other novels you may write in the future, seeing as you’re, you know, a writer and stuff?

  3. Well, no. There’s one completed novel in the pipeline, called “The Android’s Dream,” and then there’s the sequel to “Old Man’s War,” which is due for around this time next year (I haven’t written it yet). “TAD” is done, although not related to OMW, & the OMW sequel is pretty much a done deal.

  4. Don’t worry about the entries about writing; they’re actually my main reason for visiting regularly.

    OK, were my main reason. Now I’m addicted, and need continuing doses of Scalzination.

  5. John:

    My take is that your story is a pretty good example for anyone who aspires to success outside the normal pattern of working for someone else in an office.

    From what I have gathered from my reading here, in late 1998 you were just another unknown guy with a website. You had suffered “a layoff of one”–as you put it. So you put a plan together and you gathered momentum slowly over a few years.

    You’ve kept at and now things are starting to catch fire. There’s a lesson here for those of us who haven’t yet attained your level of independent success. Perseverance does pay off in the long run.

  6. I started reading here because of your writing advice. “No one gives a shit if you are the best writer…” etc. I appreciate the combination of chasing a dream while being realistic about it. Most people tend towards pie in the sky or straight out pessimism. So, go on writing whatever you feel like writing.

  7. I have been a regular visitor to the whatever since early 2002, and while I enjoy all of your entries, I have to say that it’s your observations of the writing life that I have enjoyed the most. I myself am an actor, and I find many parallels between the two careers. Probably about .01% of the people who attempt this career will enjoy the financial success of a Harrison Ford or the critical acclaim of a Merryl Streep, but if you’re open-minded, tenacious and practical about the business, you can find ways to make both a living and a life. Your writings on writing have helped me to see that.

  8. I see parallels to my career goals too as I attempt to bring room for personal expression into my academic research.

  9. I see parallels to my career goals too as I attempt to bring room for personal expression into my academic research.

  10. “For writers, opportunities come in unexpected places and in unexpected times. I don’t know a single writer whose career turned out how they expected it to before they began the writing path.”

    Testify, my brother!

    Every professional writer I know (and I’m including myself in there) has begun his or her career by grabbing opportunities from unexpected sources. Editors often love flexibility in a writer, and are often willing to give them even more opportunities for having been willing to bend, instead of remain rigid in style and ideas. Of course, the trick later is to figure out which new opportunities will keep a writer with an already full plate happy and productive, and which are mere distractions.

  11. Well, sure, your three minute appearance on Bloomberg News may have been a washout publicity-wise, but don’t you remember the TOTALLY FREE snack bar they had for visiting guests! Perhaps you were too nervous about being on TV to properly take advantage of it, but as your well-fed-for-the-afternoon publicist I have to say that that appearance was a total success.

  12. Ha! Actually, Dave, I was thinking about my Chicago stop, not Bloomberg. And I remember the snack bar well — not to mention the little Italian place we had lunch at after the snackage. Good times, good times.

  13. Oh yeah, and I got in trouble later for buying you that shirt for the TV appearance. So you owe me big time… Next time I’m in Ohio I plan to collect (though I’m currently boycotting Ohio for their bad presidential judgement so you’re safe for now.)

  14. “Well, if nothing else, thanks to your link a lot more people know about Gwen’s book. (Maybe that was your goal.)”

    Twenty-seven more, to be exact.

    Congratulations on your success, John.

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