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.