As apparently no one will rest until I comment on this review, in which the writer opines that “A literary novelist writing a genre novel is like an intellectual dating a porn star,” and then things get sillier from there:
1. I’m now putting a tag on each entry and collecting them in their own area, which you may find here. Also, there’s a link in the “Whatever Select Blend” widget in the sidebar. This will make it easier for you folks to play along at home.
2. I’ve had a few people ask me if they mind if they steal the idea for their own sites. The answer is no, of course not. I fully endorse the idea of other folks running with the idea and enumerating the things that are important to them. I think it’s a good exercise. So if you want to create your own Thanksgiving Advent Calendar, please do.
I’m a lucky bastard, and sometimes it annoys me when people don’t acknowledge that fact.
In most cases they mean well, because most discussions of luck around me come up in the context of my fiction career, when I note that I got lucky when Old Man’s War, my first published novel, was not only plucked from online obscurity by Tor Books but then became one of the big science fiction books of its year. This precipitates comments suggesting it wasn’t about luck at all, and that I shouldn’t underestimate my own efforts/skills/timing or whatever. My response, aside from thanking these folks for their upvote, is point out that of all the writers currently practicing the craft, in the science fiction genre or out of it, I really am the last one who needs to be reassured of his skills and talent. I’m good at what I do, both in writing and in marketing myself. Trust me when I say I’m not running down my skills or abilities. Indeed it’s because I am not notably neurotic about those things that I can say, with a full, clear and reasonably objective point of view, that aside from anything else in my life, I have been lucky. Extraordinarily so. It does nothing to minimize what I have done purposefully in my life to acknowledge that fact and to be grateful for it.
What is luck? At the end of the day, it’s the good things that happen to you that you simply don’t or can’t control. Stepping away from a curb the second before a car you didn’t see barrels right over where you just were. Finding a $20 bill on the sidewalk. Stepping into a restaurant for a bite to eat and seeing an old friend you lost contact with years ago just before she steps out the door. These are all some obvious examples of luck. It works the other way too; you can step toward a curb just as a car you didn’t see plows into it and into you; then you are unlucky.
In either case the event is not something you consciously or purposefully controlled. You can argue left and right about how much “luck” has to do with any particular event: In the case of me getting lucky with Old Man’s War, I still wrote the book, and I still had, for the time, a robust presence online which meant it had a better chance to be seen than perhaps other similar novel presented online would have. Both of these had a significant impact on my luck. Be that as it may, ultimately I had no control over Patrick Nielsen Hayden going to my site, reading the entire novel on his own time, and deciding to make an offer on the book outside of the usual submission channels. Had he not decided to do just one of those things (and particularly the last one), it’s pretty obvious that my life would be a different one than I have now.
However, this is not even the best example of what an incredibly lucky bastard I am. The best example is me meeting my wife. Many of you know that I met my wife in 1993 when I was doing a feature story for the newspaper I was working for at the time. The story was on a local DJ; I followed her around all day, including to a gig at bar, at which Krissy and her friends chose to show up, and at which she saw me dancing with someone else and decided to approach me later that evening. We then danced several times that night and than made arrangements to see each other again, and everything went from there. It’s a nice story.
Here are some things to consider:
1. I was originally supposed to follow the DJ in question on an entirely different day, when she was supposed to do an evening gig at an entirely different bar in an entirely different city. If the story had gone as originally scheduled, I would not have met Krissy.
2. The bar we did meet in was in a city that neither Krissy nor I lived in; she and her friends went to that bar specifically because they liked the DJ. I don’t think I had actually ever been in that city before that night. If it hadn’t been for the specific DJ, doing that specific gig on that specific night, I wouldn’t have been there, and I wouldn’t have met Krissy.
3. Even if Krissy had decided to go to a bar in my town one night, I don’t drink, and as a result, outside of science fiction conventions (which I did not go to at the time, nor did Krissy), I never go to bars. If I had not been doing this particular story, which occasioned me being in a bar for work, I wouldn’t have met Krissy.
4. If I had decided that being on job meant I couldn’t do any dancing, Krissy wouldn’t have seen me on the dance floor and become interested in meeting me. And then I wouldn’t have met her. Note, incidentally, that asking random women to dance is not what I usually did at the time; in fact, I’m pretty sure that night was the only time I’d ever done it.
5. Krissy tells me that she saw me because she was getting a drink at the bar and I happened to be dancing at that time. If I had decided to skip that particular song — or if the random woman I had asked to dance had decided not to dance with me — Krissy wouldn’t have seen me, and given how crowded the bar was that night and the fact she was with friends and probably would have spent most of her time with them had she not seen me on the dance floor, it’s entirely possible we would not have met.
6. If Krissy had made the assumption that the person I was dancing with was my girlfriend, she might not have approached me. And then we might not have met.
7. And so on.
If you add all this up, the odds of me having met my wife, given who I was, where I lived and what I usually did with my time, are so infinitesimally small as to be almost completely non-existent. Pretty much the only chance I would have ever had to meet her was that one time, that one night. You know, there’s a word for meeting one’s lifelong love on the single night in either of your lives that you would have ever had the chance to meet. It’s called “luck.”
When I want to drive myself hair-pullingly crazy, I think about all the ways it would have been so easy not to have met my wife. And then I call up my wife and tell her just how happy I am that she’s in my life, and that I love her and that when she comes home I’m totally gonna rub her feet.
So when I tell you that in my life I have been blessed with an extraordinary amount of luck — more luck than one person should probably have, in fact — don’t rush to assure me that luck has nothing to do with where I am in life today. I do appreciate the thought, to be sure. And I know you mean well. But I know the truth. I’m a lucky bastard. I’m thankful for it.
(P.S.: Wanna hear the first song Krissy and I ever danced to? Go here.)
Richard Kadrey’s “Sandman Slim” series is one of my favorite sets of fantasy books from the last few years, so it’s a pleasure to bring Kadrey back to the Big Idea to talk about its latest installment, Aloha From Hell. This time around, and with a nod to his series’ main character, Kadrey’s here to talk about the value of persistence, even when by all indications you’ve been entirely left for dead.
Before I try to convince you that my new book, Aloha From Hell, is better than pizza or antibiotics I want to say something about writing and publishing: Remember that you’re not dead until you’re dead. What I mean is that unlike your actual rotting carcass, publishing death is largely a state of mind.
My career couldn’t have been deader than it was after the publication of my second novel, Kamikaze L’Amour, a science fictionish magical realist novel about California after it’s been swallowed by the Amazon rainforest. Critics hated it and readers ignored it. My publisher wasn’t pleased and I was wrist-slitting depressed. Kamikaze L’Amour wasn’t exactly the Hindenburg disaster but if a writing career could get food poisoning mine would have been lying on the floor, pale and puking, for the next several years. During that period I wrote one short book, Angel Scene, but it was largely an experiment in style and working methods. While it’s gained a small cult audience, it did less for my career than if I’d become an alligator wrestler.
I thought I’d try breaking into comics so I wrote a mini-series for Vertigo/DC. Accelerate came out to no acclaim and worse sales. Another failure. It took a few years of drinking, therapy and pills before I tried another book.
By the time I sat down to write Butcher Bird I had nothing left to lose. It’s the story of a San Francisco tattoo artist whose life is saved by a blind swordswoman whom he then reluctantly follows on a search for the ultimate magic book.
I wrote Butcher Bird with no thought to markets or readers and with no desire to please anyone but myself. I liked the book but no publisher in New York would buy it. After my friend John Berry designed a nice PDF, I gave away Butcher Bird online for free (It was better than letting it sit around getting dusty). This might sound like another failure but by giving the book away Night Shade Books saw it and ended up buying it. After one major rewrite Butcher Bird went on to become a modest success and continues to sell steadily.
However, I was still broke. I decided to take one last shot at novel writing. I wrote the first hundred pages of Sandman Slim, a violent and funny urban fantasy noir, and sent it to my agent telling her I wouldn’t write one more word unless it sold. If it didn’t I’d know my career was as dead and I’d stick to stories and journalism.
To my shock, the book ended up in a two-day bidding war. Okay, maybe not war. A two-day slap fight. When it was over the book had sold for more money than I expected. Since then we’ve sold a movie option and reprint rights all over the world. My original deal with Harper Collins was for three Sandman Slim books and since then I’ve signed a contract for at least three more.
Does that mean I’d suddenly become a genius? No. It means I kept working my ass off and that for once I had the right book at the right time and the right place. But I wouldn’t have had a book to get lucky with if I hadn’t kept working. That’s what I meant when I said in publishing, “…you’re not dead until you’re dead.” Success isn’t just a matter of talent. It’s a combination of desire, arrogance and a sense of “What the hell else am I supposed to do?” Every pro writer knows a better writer who started out at the same time but you’ve never heard of them. Why? Because they gave up when things got hard. And you know what? Fuck ‘em. They didn’t have the guts to stick it out. If you want to be professional writer get yourself a truckful of guts but a shot glass of ego and maybe you’ll make it. You’re not dead until you decide you’re dead. Look at me. I’m that guy you hear about sometimes. The 20-year overnight success.
Now back to shilling.
In Aloha From Hell James Stark, the magician sent to Hell by Mason Faim in Sandman Slim, finally has to return to Hell to clean up the mess he made by trapping Mason there. Instead of torturing him, Mason spent most of book two, Kill The Dead, recruiting Lucifer’s generals in a rebellion against both Lucifer and God.
Aloha From Hell opens with a magical mystery that turns out to be a deeper, darker mystery leading Stark to discover that Mason has kidnapped his dead girlfriend Alice’s soul and dragged it to Hell. Mason gives Stark three days to rescue her. Of course it’s a ploy to get Stark back Downstairs. Of course he goes. Of course everything goes wrong.
Stark isn’t a nice person. Terrible things happen to him and I’m responsible for that. But I have great affection for Stark no matter how hard I make things for him. It’s my job to drop pianos on his head so he can get up and keep going. And no matter how over the top the story becomes and his hyperbole gets, I take writing his stories very seriously.
I received a great reminder about the power of what writers write. I met a guy who’d tattooed a passage from Butcher Bird on his body. The fact it’s one of my favorite passages in the book doesn’t matter. What I wrote meant enough to him that he had the words etched into his skin forever. Talk about responsibility to your audience. When I learned what he did I finally understood in my bones the old art maxim: “Take the work, not yourself, seriously.”
It’s something I try to remember every day when I sit down to work.