The Trouble With Mid-Career Advice

Recently Jay Lake, Tobias Buckell and Sherwood Smith have all been discussing mid-career writer advice, and why it’s harder to give advice to people in the middle of their careers (let’s call that 5+ years in the business) than it is to people who are just starting out. Well, there’s a good reason for that, and it’s noted by the authors I’ve linked to: When you’re starting out, your writing career is pretty much like everyone else’s, and the advice you can use is going to be generally applicable to anyone else. When you’re in the middle of your career, it’s its own damn thing. The advice that works at mid-career for one writer may not be at all useful for another, because their careers may be dramatically different.

To make this point, let me trot out a group of people for you: The Campbell Class of 2006, being the six writers who were nominated for the Campbell Award for Best New Writer the same year I was. You’re eligible for the Campbell when you first professionally publish in science fiction, and you’re eligible for the award for two years. This means that everyone nominated for the Campbell when I was first got professionally published in science fiction in 2004 or 2005, and this means we’ve all also crossed the five-year threshold that constitutes being mid-career.

So in 2006, we were all just starting out and our careers (as most of us got onto the ballot with first novels) were more or less in the same place. At the moment:

* One of us writes comic books and media tie-in novels in addition to our own original work.

* One of us has hit the number one spot on the New York Times Best Seller list.

* One of us will be publishing our next novel under a pen name after the modest sales of our(critically acclaimed!) previous series of novels.

* One of us has a fourth book which has been published in the UK but not in the US.

* One of us publishes a novel about once a year on average and makes a good living from it.

* One of us has not published a novel since our debut novel several years ago.

That’s a pretty wide spread of career states there.

Now, ask yourself: What professional or creative advice could you give that would be more or less equally applicable to the lot of us? There’s a little (I’m a big fan of “get a good accountant”), and there more that is applicable to some of us, if not all. But overall the specifics of our careers are divergent enough that blanket advice doesn’t really work. And this is just six of us who are now mid-career in our writing endeavors. Spread this out to all the other sf/f writers in science fiction/fantasy who are mid-career and you sense the scope of the issue. Now apply it to everyone writing fiction in general — and then to those writing any sort of books at all — and you can get overwhelmed.

And thus, the difficulty of giving good, useful, general mid-career writing advice, especially relative to the ease of giving good, useful, general advice for people at the beginning of their writing careers. This doesn’t mean mid-career writers can’t or shouldn’t give advice to other mid-career authors. I do think it means they should be aware that the advice will be the very soul of “your mileage may vary,” and that the advice is likely only to be a starting point in a larger discussion. Which is, of course, not a bad thing at all.

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