The Trouble With Mid-Career Advice
Posted on July 24, 2010 Posted by John Scalzi 24 Comments
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.
Yeah, I linked to Toby’s, too, asking my own readers, “What do you want?” Because I can focus on basic stuff and be happy-happy-it’s-all-gonna-work-out-great-if-you-just-keep-at-it, or I can point out what happens to a $10,000 advance after your agent, the fed gov’t, the state gov’t, and your marketing campaign get their cut, and discuss the so-called 3-book death spiral, and why a 60-70% sell-through is weirdly considered pretty good, and how hold-against-returns can screw you up pretty good if you’re expecting a royalty check, and all the other miscellaneous arcana of having a functioning writing career after you’ve “broken in.” Commenters suggested they liked the honesty. My blog tends more toward me thinking out loud about writing and I want to be honest with myself. What you get out of it, well… your mileage may vary.
sooooo there is one piece of advice which could be given to all of the writers. go back and review the careers of your campbell peers.
what did you do different than them?
what did they do different than you?
if you were less successful, how could following what they did improve your success?
or was the 5 year results a function of external factors? some were married and therefore had financial backing from a partner whereas some had to pay the bills with their non-writing jobs.
I’m not sure that I would find would necessarily be widely applicable. For example:
Q: How could I be more successful than I am, based on the careers of my Campbell cohort?
A: Be asked to write the final books of a long-running, hugely successful fantasy series.
See, that’s just not going to work for me or many others, for any number of reasons.
The interesting thing about this for me is that the advice that new writers need is just as YMMV–at least, it should be.
Once you get past a few basics about formatting, submitting and craft, the advice new/trying to break in writers ought to be just as idiosyncratic. But it’s not.
You are a very busy and caring person. it’s understandable that those two qualities will conflict. That being said, it’s probably wise to take time to edit a post for spelling, grammar and syntax when its subject is advice for writers.
Recently 2x in the first sentence, when I was first got professionally published. That’s a pretty wide spread of career states there. (That there?)
Still, it’s great to see that even this deep into your career, your raw passion remains at the fore of your process.
Did you notice how I didn’t follow my own recommendation? :)
Sanderson is a freaking machine. The man had how many books (6? 7?) out before he “got lucky” with the WOT thing a few years back. And he has still been publishing his own work in between the WOT books.
I find it fairly surprising that the majority of “your class” seem to still be in the business in one form or another…I would have thought that the attrition rate would be higher.
I wonder how other years stack up?
I had a book released 3 years ago that was essentially mid-career writer advice (REJECTION, ROMANCE, AND ROYALTIES: THE WACKY WORLD OF A WORKING WRITER; Jefferson Press, 2007), comprised of reprints of my NINK and SFWA BULLETIN columns, both of which were aimed at working pros. I currently write a new column for NINK (after a hiatus of several years) which is also aimed at working pros. And, indeed, I’ve just completed a 2-part installment for the Sept & Oct editions of the column, advising career novelists on how to work without an agent; I’ve been working without an agent for several years now, based on the number of experienced multi-published novelists I’m hearing from in the past year who can’t get an agent and are trying to figure out what to do now.
(In general, as an organization for multi-published career novelists, almost everything printed in NINK is aimed at the mid-career novelist–columns, features, etc.)
But, as you note, a lot of career (and craft) issues for an experienced professional are too specific for general advice. Also, advice-seekers tend to be more selective by the time they’re mid-career professionals; that is, once you have a lot of experience and knowledge of your own, you tend to want advice from very specific sources, rather than from anyone who happens to be offering it.
And as Toby notes in his blog, there are indeed many professional subjects that can be difficult for writers to discuss in public (and the blogosphere is mighty public) precisely because they can be difficult to discuss with or among non-professionals. Ex. Struggling with back-to-back book deadlines; it’s a problem that a number of writers discuss privately–but in a general public forum, it’s the sort of subject that often meets with sarcasm (“Oh, poor YOU, too many book deadlines. I weep for your pain.”) or longing (“I can’t wait to have a problem like that!”) or an honest question that’s nonetheless digressive (ex. “Couldn’t you hire someone else to write some of your books for you?”), all of which tends to ensure that professionals become less likely to discuss such subjects in public.
Then there’s the whole exposure factor, too. A lot of the advice that mid-career writers discuss, share, advise, and seek has to do with specific issues which writers don’t want made public, such as being dumped by agent, dumped by a publisher, going too long without a book sale, problems with a particular editor, etc. Many subjects are such a hot-button that even writers who’ve been through a problem, triumphed over it, and come out at successful at the other end won’t talk about it in public–for a variety fo reasons–ensuring that such advice doesn’t make it onto such public forums as blogs and chatboards.
There’s also the issue of whether anyone really wants this advice. One could easily ask why there is no advice on your blog for journeyman electricians. One valid answer might be that journeyman electricians are not looking for advice on the internet. Same is quite probably true for “mid-career novelists,” whatever that might mean. (It’s pretty ambiguous when you think about it.)
“See, that’s just not going to work for me or many others, for any number of reasons.”
Indeed. At one point, I had the same agent, same editor, and same publisher as another writer whose book, which was in the same genre/subgenre as mine, had recently been released with tremendous support and promotion, resulting in terrific sales.
When my book was accepted, the editor said to me that my book was even better than -that- writer’s book. And I said, “Thank you! Does that mean my book will get similar support and treatment?”
Well, no. (Why not? I never got an answer. But one obvious reason would be that there’s only so much promotional money and effort to go around in a house, and a lot of it was already committed to that other writer.)
So doing the same thing as someone else very often indeed does NOT yield a similar result. I (by coincidence) wrote a book in the same subgenre as that other writer, got it represented by the same agent, sold to the same editor, released by the same house… and got totally different results.
This reminds me of one of my favorite passages from The Lord of the Rings:
In fact, Tolstoy was wrong–sort of. Unhappy families are not utterly unique; there are certain commonalities, which is what enables family therapists to learn from their work with some families to improve their work with others.
The same thing applies to mid-career writers. The Campbell Class of 2006 shows quite a wide range of outcomes so far among its six members, which is of course a very small sample. My guess is that across hundreds of Campbell alumni, there might only be about a dozen or so “clumps” of outcomes, including the six that show up in the Campbell Class of 2006.
The implication for John is that, if he were to choose to address this issue at all (his spare time being so abundant and all), what he could do, in a given post, would be to address one issue involving one of the dozen or so “types” of mid-career authors.
Alternatively, in a given post, he could addess the path to success taken by one writer.
I’d be happy either way.
So you are saying any of you could have finished this long running fantasy series?
I can’t speak toward the other authors in my Campbell but I can say pretty definitively that I could not, for all sorts of reasons. I thought they made a smart decision, hiring the person they did.
Agreed, just sounded a little bit like it in your previous post.
Your irony meter might have been off, Fanzorc. The point of the comment was to show that such advice was in fact impractical.
Very insiteful post John. I really do like your take on things.
can someone post who John was referring to as the person who has critically series, but mediocre sales so needs to publish under a pen name? I’d like to check out this persons books.
Brandon Sanderson got the WoT books so that gives him a totally different career path than everyone else.
Guess, Sarah Monette has recently mentioned that her future books will be under pen name. Her critically-acclaimed series was called The Doctrine of Labyrinths.
Actually your year looks like a quite sucessful year (from my point of view) because I have to go back to 1996 before i’ve got books by anybody on the list and back to ’86 before I have or recognise more than two of the names. In fact in 3 of those years I don’t recognise anybody on the list, wheras I have books by three of your class – you, Monette and Sanderson. I briefly considered Bishop’s book last week and made note of the title to research on the internet – if it’s still in the bookshop I might get it.
The Campbells the year after (2007) I’ve got 4/5 of those writers, and 3 of the 2008 list.
Just a little context, I’ve got 2,800 books by 623 writers in my collection, almost half and half Science fiction and fantasy, and i’ve been collecting for 8 years.
I do not understand. Why does a author write books under a pen name anyway?
I did a post on some of the reasons a while back:
20 Sarah Has explained her reason on her livejournal, from memory it’s because bookshop and other commercial buyers don’t want to buy books by sarah monnette because she doesn’t sell well – they’d rather buy a new writer with an untried name hence Katherine Addison
aha found a link http://truepenny.livejournal.com/693134.html
I’m not really terribly sure that 5 years is long enough to be “mid-career.” I wrote my first salable short story (after about 35 that I think I have managed to destroy all record of) in 1980, and it was published in 1982. I wrote my first novel in 1984 (literally started Jan 1 and finished Dec 4, a pretty nifty coincidence); it sold in in 1986, after a half dozen short stories I’d written afterward sold first. Things still seemed to be in the “beginning” phase in maybe 1995 or 1996; everything begun before about New Year’s Day 1996 feels “early” to me. So some of us are slow about reaching mid-career; I was a beginner for almost ten books and something more than a decade.
OTOH I never found much of the beginner advice did much for me either. It seemed like a mixture of the dead obvious (but my mother wrote, so I probably just absorbed all that), the sort of things that made me stay out of creative writing classes (and vow never to teach a standard-model one), and a set of principles without applications (e.g. “Let your characters take over the story.” Dude, most of them can’t even type).
And although I didn’t actually know anybody in any Campbell class around the time I was starting (I only became aware there was a Campbell when Orson Scott Card phoned me up to make sure I really wasn’t eligible, and at that point I had not been for 4-5 years), I did know a fair number of other writers just starting out, and nobody was starting out the same way.
There appears to be some kind of a standard way of doing it nowadays, which involves writers groups, which I don’t do, but from what I’ve seen of writers groups, they don’t seem very much like each other either.
In the book doctoring biz, I see quite a few books that are close to publishable but not there yet — that’s what I specialize in, as it’s the most rewarding and lucrative for me — and I don’t think I’ve ever seen two books miss publishability by the SAME narrow margin. (When I’m politely turning down cases that are nowhere near, I have seen some that were bad in the same massive way).
So I guess I’m amplifying (or wandering) here; mid-careers (and books by pros that are not quite working) need to be figured out, and it’s more like psychoanalysis than it is like behavior modification. By the time you’re at mid-career, no one has ever stood where you did before, and no one has either your track record or your set of writerly whatsits.
(Interesting game that 3 friends and I played — we were all pros in different genres — we all tried to write a short story using a round-robin swap of procedures. The result was that we had discovered a hitherto unparalleled method for producing no work at all, but as soon as we said, “Well that’s dumb” — bingo, we all wrote our stories immediately (long incubations make fast writing, that’s something all 4 of us had in common)).
I suppose there must be an end to this post somewhere .. I ran out of other hands a while ago.
There is some good mid-career advice available out there, but it often ends up looking a lot like good business advice. I think as a writing career progresses the craft issues, as Laura said, get very specific to the writer and harder to find blanket advice for, while the business side of things ramps up and thus more information is skewed toward businessy things.