A Season in the Show

This last weekend I had an enjoyable time at the Confusion convention, which is no surprise, as I usually do — it’s one of the reasons I’ve gone back to it now for nine years running. I mostly hung out in the bar and talked to writers, doing the usual combination of business talk and complete idiocy, as writers generally do at conventions when they chat with each other.

One evening I talked to a couple of different authors about writing careers and the ups and downs careers have, and how from time to time we’re all filled with frustration with them, especially during a downturn. We all want to be on award lists; we all want to have bestsellers. If those things don’t happen we can wonder if what we’re doing matters much at all. As we were talking about it I came up with a metaphor which I thought was useful, in terms of talking about careers. Not entirely surprisingly, it involves baseball.

In baseball, getting into the major leagues is called “going to the show.” When you get to the show, what that means is that your skills are advanced enough that you can play at the highest levels — you’re one of the top 750 people who play the sport. Even the lowliest major leaguer has skills and abilities that can impress.

Not every player in the major league is going to play in the All Star Game; not every player in the major league is going to go the World Series. Some years will be better than others. You can have a career year one year and be in danger of being dropped the next. Sometimes a player will be traded. Sometimes a player will be sent to the minors and will have to fight their way back into the show. Some will be instant stars. Some of those stars will fade. Some will never be more than journeymen, going from team to team and hoping to be seen as utility players, working whatever position there’s a need for. Some of these utility players, with the right team and coaching, might find everything clicks and be propelled into the game’s front ranks.

Thing is: You never know. You only know what’s going to happen by playing the game. The longer you play in The Show, the more chances you get to make things happen for yourself.

Being published (by major publishers primarily, but with some notable exceptions) is like being in The Show. It means that you’re working at the top levels of your field — just having a book out there in the world means you’ve got skills that distinguish you from the mass of people who hope to be where you are. It’s an accomplishment in itself.

But as with major league players in their idiom, not every author is going to be an instant, obvious success. Not every book is going to get into the bestseller lists. Not every book is going to get nominated for an award. Some writers have instant hits; some have to keep at it for years, slowly building an audience of readers. Some authors will never hit it big; some that do hit it big will have it happen just once. Sometimes authors will be dropped from their publishers and need to find another one. Sometimes they will have to use a different name to get published again (and sometimes they will be a hit under that different name). Sometimes the book an author thinks is their best will sink while something they think as inconsequential is a major hit.

Once again: You never know. No one knows. But as long as you keep publishing, you get to keep making chances for yourself.

An example, you say. Okay: Once upon a time, there was a young author who started publishing in, oh, let’s say, 1970. Within a couple of years this writer started making a name for himself and getting nominated for awards, winning his first major award five years later. He starts writing novels but they don’t do fantastically well, and one of them does so poorly (by the writer’s own admission) that less than a decade and a half after his fiction writing career began, the writer assumes it’s over and moves on to other related fields to support himself.

Nevertheless, two decades after his first story is published, this writer decides to try again with another novel. It’s published more than a quarter century into this writer’s career and is a success. The fourth book in the series, published almost a decade later, is a number one New York Times hardcover bestseller. So is the fifth. A television show based on the series becomes one of the most popular and talked about shows in the medium, now forty-four years into this writer’s career.

I am obviously speaking of George RR Martin here. His career was up; his career was down. He was finished as a novelist; he’s currently arguably the most famous novelist alive. Who knows what will happen tomorrow.

Will you, as a writer, become like George RR Martin? Probably not. But you might find your own measure of success, so long as you keep showing up. Maybe you have the sort of career where at the end of it all you’ve done is published a bunch of novels that have sold just well enough to allow you to get that next contract. Which means that you’ve published a bunch of novels, i.e., stories that previously existed only inside your head are now out there in the world. You’ve done a thing, and had a career, that millions of people have only dreamed of. You made it to The Show, and that’s a hell of a thing.

So, writers, just keep writing. Every time you publish is another season in The Show. And maybe you’ll be a bestseller and maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll get an award and maybe you won’t. You never know. It’s fun to find out.

42 thoughts on “A Season in the Show

  1. Good analogy. Since I am published with a tiny publisher I consider myself a minor league professional, maybe AA, or A. I’m not in the majors but hey someone is paying me to write! Go me!

  2. I still have hopes of reaching the minors.

    I’d say you’ve put together a string of Hall of Fame years. I just hope that Coke Zero isn’t considered a performance-enhancing drug or they might not let you in.

  3. You know, this is pretty good advice for all of us lucky enough to do what we enjoy in a competitive field. Thanks. (Research scientist, here.)

  4. Ha, awhile back, I made a similar analogy on a Facebook writer’s group. However, it used football instead of baseball, and was from the perspective of the pre-pubbed.

    The group had dissension on whether employing professional-level discipline and habits made one a pro, or whether being paid made one a pro. I said I’m not a pro because no one has yet paid me money, but I was pointing out that I’m working on the craft much like a high school or college football athlete who wants to make it to the pro leagues would work on the sport, vs. someone who just plays flag football on the weekends. (And yes, there were references to your posts on the topic.)

  5. Great encouragement, Thanks. Now, if I can just hold the bat for a whole game, maybe I’ll get a home run, I mean published, wait…what am I meant to be doing?

  6. Good advice for more than one field.

    I am a martial artist, it is hard work, physically and mentally, but I keep working at it. The advice I got once was that getting really good at something, or making a major breakthrough, is like the Zen concept of enlightenment, it happens by accident. So if enlightenment is an accident, there are ways of encouraging accidents – work hard…

  7. There was an article on the SFWA public site with in the last few years by a guy whose career went no where and he lost his publisher. He then got back in by writing in shared worlds for fees (like star wars). I believe he said he had over a million books in print (thats alot right?). He mentioned that you lose creativity when doing this since you are writing what someone is paying you to write, but it allowed him to get his career going again.

    can’t remember who wrote it. It was pretty interesting.

    I would guess that 90-95% of aspiring authors never get a single book published. There are probably different categories of aspiring authors. Most are probably people that send 1 or 2 manuscripts off and then give up and were never that serious. There are probably others that spend years and never get in. That must be frustrating. There must be a thought of ‘i don’t know why they don’t like this’. Figuring that out can be hard.

  8. A few other examples for conversation purposes: You can literally be Ray Bradbury and die without a Hugo. You can literally be Herman Melville and die poor and starving before anyone thinks to notice that your big novel is one of the best ever written in your language.
    You can literally be Seanan McGuire/Mira Grant for years and multiple popular, award-winning and nominated series before you aren’t supporting your writing with a day job.

    More reason to agree – if awards and sales are your only yardstick to measure success, you have a good chance of being disappointed, but at least you’ll be in good company.

  9. A nice piece, this. But to be honest, mostly what I’m getting out of it is that I need to go watch Bull Durham again.

  10. I’m a poet – even if I make the big leagues in my sport, my sport is… I dunno, competitive cheese rolling. :p

  11. We missed you, although I looked around a bit (didn’t hit the bar, which might explain why I didn’t see you).

    What I thought about your baseball analogy was that sometimes, great players have great careers, but don’t go to the World Series or get that World Series ring. And sometimes (Cecil Fielder comes to mind), they leave a team they’ve had enormous success with because they want that World Series ring and don’t think they can get it where they were at. I think that can be applicable to writers and their relationships to publishers as well.

  12. Probably because of different life experiences, when I think of baseball careers as metaphors for writing careers, the guy I tend to identify with is Ike Brown. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ike_Brown Maybe because I happened to be there to see the exhibition game after which he finally got called up from the Mudhens to Detroit. Maybe his habit, which I remember well, of telling people that he had a great year because he got to spend a whole year playing baseball. Maybe because he played a lot of meaningless innings in meaningless games (towards the ends of seasons when the Tigers were already eliminated) just because he wanted to and more valuable players didn’t want to take a chance on getting hurt, and played his heart out whenever he did. Maybe because, if you look at his statistics, you’ll see that he sometimes did way better than average but was never first in anything … except being there.

  13. (That said, thanks for this post. But for some reason the Martin thing jumped out at me first; I think you get through at least ten people before you get near the fantasy genre, and I’d bet a substantial portion of the people who watch Game of Thrones wouldn’t know what “A Song of Ice and Fire” even refers to, much less know Martin by name. But that’s a side point to the overall piece.)

  14. @Em I am slowly expanding from poetry to fiction, partially because of the urge to explore creative horizons, but also, I must admit that getting out of the cheese-rolling league is a significant incentive.

  15. @M.A., Canyon42 is expanding on Scalzi’s MLB reference by incorporating a reference to “Bull Durham” on the simplicity of the game of baseball. That movie is where I (and I suspect many others) learned of the reference to “The Show.”

  16. That career-killing fourth book? It’s also his best. Just try to put it down once you’ve picked it up and started reading.

  17. I’m pleasantly reminded of Benjamin Sisko trying to explain linear existence to the Prophets in the first episode of DS9: “In the end it comes down to throwing one pitch after another and seeing what happens. With each new consequence, the game begins to take shape.”

  18. I keep reading that headline as “A Season in the Snow.” I guess that’s where my head is at this morning, what with all the schools in Cincinnati closed.

  19. Reminds me of something you said in another blog post:

    You don’t have to be the best to make it. You just have to be good enough.

    That comment gave me the kick I needed to start writing again, so thank you. (This post is also handy, but it’s more feeding fuel to a fire that’s already going.)

  20. @infinitefreetime: You beat me to it. And I agree it’s a great post, except for the detail of “most famous living author”. But if we use “sales” as a proxy for “fame”, then George RR Martin is nowhere near the top.

    The top living, English speaking authors from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_best-selling_fiction_authors are:

    1. Danielle Steel
    2. JK Rowling
    3. Jackie Collins
    4. RL Stine (Goosebumps series)
    5. Dean Koontz
    6. Stephen King

    I was a little surprised to see Mr. King placed so low, but there you have it. Danielle Steel has sold roughly 500 million books, Stephen King 350 million. The ASOIAF Wikipedia article estimates that 15 million copies of books in George RR Martin’s magnum opus have been sold. I think anyone commenting on this blog (including its host) would be delighted to sell 15 million copies of anything, but it’s a long way short of the real giants.

    Having said all that, Stephen King has been around long enough, written in enough sub-genres, and had enough successful film/TV adaptations of his books that he may qualify as the most famous living novelist in spite of not having the highest sales.

  21. Thank you for this JS. I am “only” self-published, but when I get a royalty payment from Europe or the UK, I think “wow this is really happening” (because I know that wasn’t one of my friends doing me a favor). And while the amount of money is trivial, it makes me happy that anyone anywhere will actually buy what I’ve written. :-)

  22. Just a niggle about this particular metaphor: At least in baseball there is something approaching an objective notion of competence (running, throwing, hitting). That is lacking in the arts, at least within a horizon of less than several generations. Sales figures? Those are the publishing equivalent of television ratings, which would mean that, say, “Two & a Half Men” is superior to “The Hollow Crown.”

    The part about working one’s way up to the pro ranks is apt, and the point about the high level of competence of any major-league ball player is well-taken–and right at that point the comparison breaks down for me. I’m not going to name names, but the bookstore shelves (in every category) are loaded with the products of the writing equivalents of minor-leaguers.

  23. In that context I think it might be wise to remember the words of a great philosopher:

    “Know what the difference between hitting .250 and .300 is? It’s 25 hits. 25 hits in 500 at bats is 50 points, okay? There’s 6 months in a season, that’s about 25 weeks. That means if you get just one extra flare a week – just one – a gorp… you get a groundball, you get a groundball with eyes… you get a dying quail, just one more dying quail a week… and you’re in Yankee Stadium.” — Crash Davis

  24. @Russell Letson: Well, no metaphor is perfect. But if I may stretch it a little further, you’re talking about two different metrics. Suppose that sales equates to batting average, and artistic merit is number of winning games pitched. A player’s success in one tells us nothing much about his ability in the other.

    Those novelists with the massive bookstore displays are not exactly bad writers. They are writers who are very, very good at writing books which people will buy. On other measures, they may be less good. But the writing game has room for both highly refined artists and wildly popular bestsellers, just as baseball has room for both great batters and great pitchers.

  25. I’m in a position to have watched a fair few would-be authors suffer mightily. It’s like, everybody wants to be agents for these ‘minor league’ authors for a fee, yet no one helps them get breaks. Seriously, I’ve read some of their stuff, and even now (years later) I think some was genius. I’ve dreamt some of their wacky tales later (what they’ve shared), if you get my drift; so why didn’t their writings sell? I wonder if its a “Bull Durham (1988)” thing.

    Personally, I can’t imagine being a novel-writer. I love to write, but I love to write essay level, kidding-around stuff; and only for the heck of it. I’ve written crazy things for newsletters for dozens of years … but a book? I don’t have the stamina.

    Let me give you an example. I remember a great idea I once had, where a guy gets blown out of an airplane, yet lived (sort of, that’s the key ). Great imagery. I slaved to get the idea out on paper and it became a great chapter. I thought, well, could it be a book? Maybe mit was a start! But I then thought, who is going to write more on this story — not me, I’m already bored! Will I slave through making any more realistic dialogue? It was hard enough on that plane! You have GOT to be kidding me. No, I want an ice cream cone. And that was the end of my novel writing. Am I a wimp or what?

    Anyway, while I have personally known a number of successful authors, I simply can’t understand why others fail to get to the big leagues. Some had quirks of genius (yes that maybe needed to be helped out a bit), but most everyone I’ve witnessed seemed to simply end up paying dues at conventions and such, like forever, and never getting their breaks. Poor Bull Durham. And me, ummm ice cream.

  26. Yup, though still getting paid as a minor-leaguer here to play the game I love, am working on enough hits and stats to get moved up. Being on a Bouchercon panel last fall with higher-paid established pros was (for me) getting an at-bat in the Show (hell, I felt like it was the All-Star game). Knocked a solid triple off the Green Monster (shoutout for you Fenway fans). Felt pretty damned good. Now am back toiling in the minors, waiting for that next shot, and looking forward to getting in the pro lineup for good. But loving every day of play.

  27. Things you remember when you’re thinking of something else … when I posted a link to a Danny Quinn song in another Whatever comment thread, I suddenly realized, Oh, yeah. That was what I was thinking of (besides Ike Brown). Danny Quinn’s “Overnight Success.” Another metaphor for that hanging in there process when you start to realize this might be as good as it gets, but that can be good enough if you can still work. An mp3 of it is in my “Play When Morale is Crashing and I Still Have to Write Today” file:

    Side benefit: whenever I feel annoyed and unfairly treated by editors, industry, readers, or universe, I find it helps to mutter “No one likes to hear the clown complain.” Though I sometimes add that whether or not they like it, some people deserve a solid pie to the face anyway …

  28. @John Barnes

    Side benefit: whenever I feel annoyed and unfairly treated by editors, industry, readers, or universe, I find it helps to mutter “No one likes to hear the clown complain.”

    It’s not so much not liking it. It just rings hallow. If someone wants to get their content out into the public consciousness unaltered from their own artistic vision, they really ought to do all the prep, packaging and marketing themselves. But as long as they’re relying on the resources of others to build and operate the launch platform, they shouldn’t expect those resources to come without any strings attached. If they feel entitled, that’s their reality disconnect. And if they want to try to earn even a partial living from it, it behooves them to realize that so does everyone else in the pipeline.

    Publishers have plenty of talent to pick from when deciding who to invest in. Only a fool would want to go into business with a firm that didn’t use that leverage to demand at least some say in the final product. Such a disinterested firm demonstrates poor business strategy and will go bye-bye sooner rather than later. Who would a wise author rather get into bed with, a publisher that practices commerce and produces what the customer will buy or a publisher that caters to artists at the expense of market share?

  29. Gulliver:

    Wisdom is relative to goal. Since I would like to be understood correctly, i.e. to have my writing say what I want it to say to people who are going to be interested in it, obviously what you refer to as “a publisher that caters to artists at the expense of market share” is the right answer. When you make phone calls, do you ask the phone company who you should try to call and what you should tell them?

    The point of “no one likes to hear the clown complain” is to not get in the way of one’s work getting to the audience. It is most certainly not to do someone else’s work, put one’s name on it, and shut up and take a check.

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