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.

Notes on Harassment Policies, 1/20/14

Convene magazine is the magazine of the Professional Convention Management Association, i.e., the people who actually organize and run conventions, and its December 2013 issue had a long piece on why harassment policies are a good and intelligent thing to have (pdf link). I’m quoted in it quite a bit, but the article also features quotes and comments for several professional convention runners, as well as lawyers, discussing liability, setting and managing expectations, and what conventions and conferences can do and can’t do with regard to attendee behavior. For the folks who are interested in this particular topic, it’s well worth the read.

(As noted above, the link is to a pdf of the magazine, and note that the article is bisected by an insert on another topic entirely; just keep turning pages.)

Among other things, the article answers, rather more comprehensively than I could, this hand-wringer from Michael Kelley in Publishers Weekly, concerning the ALA posting a statement of appropriate conduct for attendees of its conferences, starting with Kelley’s sensationally leading opening sentence and going on from there.

I will say, as someone who was ultimately responsible for a small convention for three years (and who was incredibly fortunate to have seasoned convention runners at the tiller to ensure things ran smoothly as possible), that when I see people thumping about on how harassment policies are a threat to free speech, I see them as naïve at best and disingenuous at worst. Leaving aside (yet again) that conferences and conventions are almost always private events by private companies in private spaces, and that each of these private entities is able to set its own policies and expectations, in the best traditions of free enterprise, the sort of person who conflates “free speech” issues with a convention or conference rightly deciding to set attendee expectations as regards reasonable behavior and limiting its own legal liability should an attendee decide to do something stupid, is someone whose understanding of any of those concepts is simplistic or at the very least blinkered to the point of uselessness.

Tangentially related to all this is the ruckus that went down this weekend regard in the Chi-Fi Convention, in which the organizers cancelled the event, claiming the hotel was unwelcoming and that it disapproved of the convention’s harassment policy. The hotel replied rather strongly to the assertion, flatly calling the claims “false”; subsequent investigation suggests that at the very least lots of details were elided, regarding Chi-Fi’s initial statement.

There’s a lot I don’t know about the details of the Chi-Fi ruckus, so I’m going to offer what follows here as a general comment, not tied to any specific convention or hotel, regarding harassment policies. And it is:

If a convention wants to have a harassment policy and the hotel hosting it disapproves of the convention having such a policy, it’s possible that the hotel is staffed by assholes. However, if a convention decides to publicly and falsely (or at least so incompletely as to effectively falsely) claim that a hotel did not support its desire to have a harassment policy as a way to deflect attention from the convention’s other organizational issues, then it’s not the hotel staff who are being assholes.

A harassment policy should not be used as a shield to deflect attention or legitimate questions with regard to the organization of a convention. Aside from any other problematic issue with such a maneuver, doing so has the potential to make it harder for other conventions who wish to implement harassment policies to do so, or for other conventions to work with hotels at all — now hosting hotels may be concerned that such a policy might be used as cudgel, i.e., “if we don’t get our way, we’ll use the harassment policy to drop the Internet on your head.” The short-term (and very temporary) ass-covering for one convention has long-term implications for every other convention.

So let’s hope that never actually happens.