Reader Request Week 2009 #2: OMW and Zoe’s Tale (and Angst and Pain)
Compare and contrast the pain, angst, and horror of writing, agenting, selling OMW vs. Zoe. Differences in process / time / fear of failure?
Just in case anyone doesn’t know (which given the crowd seems highly unlikley), “OMW” here is Old Man’s War, my first published novel, and “Zoe” is Zoe’s Tale, my most recently published novel. I think this question, aside from asking about the specific books, is asking about how things have changed for me from the beginning of my pro career to where I am now, with an emphasis on the existentially dreadable aspects of it all.
To be blunt, however, there wasn’t much pain/angst/horror in any of it. Talking specifically about the books in question, writing OMW was a breeze, frankly, and I had a lot of fun doing it; when it came to selling it, I didn’t bother, opting instead to put it up on my Web site, where it was found by Patrick Nielsen Hayden, who then made an offer on it. Total angst there: Close to none. I got a fiction agent after I sold OMW, and that was relatively painless as well, because agents are easier to get when you already have a contract in hand (that said, the first agent I went to passed on me, which I found puzzling, but not angst-inducing, since I still had my book contract. And I found another agent soon enough).
As for Zoe, well. It’s not really that difficult to sell a fourth installment of a highly-selling, well-regarded series, and it fact it went pretty much like this:
Me: “Want me to write a fourth OMW book?”
PNH: “Are you kidding?”
Agenting it was likewise a breeze and in fact what we did was have it take the place of a book in a two-book series I had planned but abandoned for the reason that stinkin’ Max Brooks stole my idea (the oral history part, not the zombies part, and he didn’t actually steal it, he just came out with it first). So it was quickly and easily done. The writing of Zoe was more difficult than writing OMW for the reason that I needed to get down the voice of a teenage girl, and that gave me considerable trouble at first. But once I got that figured out, the writing was fairly simple. As these things go, it was not a horribly difficult process, or that much different from when I first started; ultimately it was a matter of ass in chair.
In neither case was there really a fear of failure, because it’s hard to say what constitutes failure at this point. It wouldn’t have been a failure not to have sold OMW, since I hadn’t planned to sell it at all; likewise the failure of Zoe would have been not getting the voice down, and if that had happened you’d’ve never known about it, especially since we didn’t publicize the book in any way until it was mostly completed. If I had failed, I simply would have written a different book. The closest I’ve come to failure in any of my books so far is pushing The High Castle off the schedule, because it wasn’t working as I had envisioned it. However, I don’t see that as a genuine failure; the failure would have been grinding it out despite my issues with it and releasing a substandard book. Pulling it back into the workshop and retooling it is a good thing, since it means when I release it I’ll be happy with it, which means (hopefully) you’ll be happy with it too. And in the meantime, I’m getting to do other cool stuff.
In a general sense of my career to date, it’s difficult for me to generate a whole lot of angst/pain/horror at my writing life or process, because in fact I am indisputably one of the luckiest sons of bitches in the history of science fiction literature. I am stupid lucky, people. Yes, yes, I’m also good at what I do. But you know what: I’m not that good, particularly relative to the success I’ve had to date. Very few people are. Understanding that I have been lucky does a number of things for me. One, it gives me a sense of perspective on everything, so I don’t labor under the illusion I am actually the second coming of Heinlein, or whatever. Two, it keeps the angst/pain/horror at bay because it’s insane to feel any of these things when confronted with the good fortune I have had. Three, it motivates me to pay my good fortune forward, because my luck has given me the ability to be useful. The last of these is the hardest, mind you, because I’m also naturally lazy. But I do work at it.
Getting back to angst/pain/horror of writing, one of the ways that I avoid this, at least in fiction, is that I know at the end of the day I have other writing skills that I can use to pay the bills, including doing various corporate consulting work. I did that when I was writing OMW and could easily do it again if I had to, or do other freelance work. This means that I don’t have to do something, fictionwise, that makes me unhappy; I have the luxury of being able to do stuff I like, or to put something on the back burner to cook a little while longer, or whatever it is I need to do. I know a fair number of fiction writers consider day jobs or non-fiction writing as an option of last resort and possibly an admission that they can’t hack it as fiction writers or whatever. I see it as an insurance policy that makes sure I never (intentionally) write crap. And that makes me happy.
So, in sum: Very little angst/pain/horror, either at the beginning of my fiction career or now. I don’t mind saying I hope it continues that way for a while.
(You can still get in requests for Reader Request Week! Put them in the comment thread at this link. Please note: I have all the writing questions I want to deal with already. Ask me something else!)