Or: Do NOT come to me for advice on publishing.
I get email, facebook comments, and tweets from time to time where I am asked questions about marketing, publicity, and the publishing business in general. I hate these questions a lot more than I ought–enough, in fact, that I’ve been forced to ask myself why.
I’ve spoken before of how important it is for a writer to figure out what sort of lies are required to produce his or her best work. Do you have to tell yourself that you’re “just writing for yourself” to keep from freezing up? Do you need to convince yourself that you’re writing to change the world in order to focus properly? I have a bunch of lies I tell myself, and they’ve been very good to me. It’s the worst sort of pragmatism, and I hate pragmatism; this contradiction, I’m sure, has an effect on my work. I hope generally a positive one.
But one of the related things is my belief that the business of publishing–the way I need to produce work that will sell to a market in order to keep a roof over my head, food in my mouth, and nicotine in my bloodstream–has no effect on the words that end up on the page. On the face of it, this is absurd. Publishers sell a commodity–books–and will continue to pay me only as long as I provide something that they can use to secure a profit; and to say that this process has no effect on the work is to deny that I am a part of the same world as the publisher, the readers, and all the vagaries of an anarchic social system. To believe that, I’d have to be very good at denial. I am very good at denial. Significantly, it is only the fact that I have been very, very lucky, extraordinarily lucky, in that I have been able to live as a writer for so many years, that has permitted me to continue this denial.
Thirty years ago, this fiction was much easier to maintain. Things like publicity and market awareness were much more the responsibility of the publisher, not the writer; it was easy to be contemptuous of “hacks” who wrote to a market–one could pretend, in other words, to be above all the “base material considerations.” I still mostly believe this about my own work, because I am convinced that, if I don’t believe it, my work will suffer. Deliberately writing to please the reader will, I am convinced, result in work I’m unhappy with, and, almost certainly, be disappointing to those who have stayed with me over the years as I’ve pushed and explored and challenged myself as much as I can in order to keep myself entertained. How much am I really, in a part of my backbrain I’m not comfortable acknowledging, “playing for the crowd” in order to keep myself afloat? I don’t know, and I don’t want to.
The trouble with this self-deception mostly comes up when people ask me for advice about publishing, self-promotion, and what sort of stuff will sell. Not only do I not know the answer, but, because of how my own process works, I have to tell them that they ought not to be even thinking about that. It’s a very strange and contradictory position to be in, because I believe what I’m telling them all the way down to my toes, and I simultaneously know it’s wrong. I mean, John Scalzi, if no one else, provides proof that consciously writing to a market is no hindrance to producing high-quality, entertaining work. Neil Gaiman has no trouble promoting his work, and it has clearly not diminished his ability to produce wonderful and amazing stories. A good illustration of how things have changed is provided by Cecelia Tan’s career: she started her own publishing company in order to get her work out there–and this in spite of having had a solid fan base for many years (of course, erotica publishing has its own problems and peculiarities, but I think the point is still valid).
Honesty is important to me. I believe that honesty–in fiction and non-fiction–is a process and a struggle, not a yes-or-no thing. It begins with the decision not to lie, and then becomes difficult. To tell the truth, you must know the truth, and if the truth you’re looking for is easily plucked from the ground, it’s not worth the bother of bending over. But in order to concentrate on that little piece of whatever part of reality has taken my interest, I have to wrap myself in deceit. And when someone puts a question to me that involves those areas where I’m lying to myself, I have the choice of lying to that person, or admitting the truth to myself, and I’m certainly not going to do the latter, because I love doing my work too much to do anything that will threaten my ability to continue.
So if you have questions about marketing, promotion, or making a living as a writer, do us both a favor and ask someone else.
36 thoughts on “Where Would We Be Without Denial, or, Embracing the Contradiction”
And never trouble us with statistics.
A lovely little essay. Maybe I misread, but you seem to imply that Scalzi’s work is of comparable quality to yours. I find Scalzi’s stuff good, but it’s mostly read-once. I can read most of your stuff over and over and it gets better with each re-read.
I’m not personally comfortable with those sorts of comparisons. I’ve read most of John’s books, and enjoyed them a lot. More important, if there are differences in quality between writer A and writer B, I doubt very much they map directly and simply to either writer’s attitude toward art, craft, and markets.
Well said, and, as always, wonderful to get your insight. Perhaps I am just salivating for the next couple days when the new book hits, but is there a delicious irony to have a post that says “why aren’t I making it big?” (understanding the tongue-in-cheek aspect) followed by a post that says “Deliberately writing to please the reader will, I am convinced, result in work I’m unhappy with, and, almost certainly, be disappointing to those who have stayed with me over the years as I’ve pushed and explored and challenged myself as much as I can in order to keep myself entertained.”
Love the books, salivating over getting Hawk this week while traveling. Grats on the new book!
Thanks, Steve. I hope it doesn’t disappoint. (I think, “I hope it doesn’t disappoint” may be the universal writer prayer.)
Damn. Wonderful description of the problem. This is classic. Keep up the good work.
Your view looks rather like Coleridge’s original authorial formulation of his own willing suspension of disbelief, and I perceive the people seeking your marketing advice as the descendants of the person from Porlock who deprived us of Kubla Khan.
Hanging, drawing and quartering them is possibly going a bit too far, but I am very much looking forward to ‘Hawk’…
“To tell the truth, you must know the truth, and if the truth you’re looking for is easily plucked from the ground, it’s not worth the bother of bending over.”
Could you elaborate on what you mean by this? I’ve heard many, many people talk about how their work is true or explains a truth, but I’ve never been able to understand what they mean. I used to assume they meant that their work is true to life, realistic, or internally consistent (like a complete work of fantasy that creates its own rules or logic and follows them), but it’s been made clear to me over the years that this is not what most people mean, at least not the ones I’ve asked about it.
And now comes Virtual Paradise and an entire classroom of students asking you those questions you don’t want to answer :)
L. Raymond: Okay, for example, in Brokedown Palace, I was trying to figure out when and how destruction is necessary to creation, and what are the consequences, and what does or does not justify destruction necessary to creation. I set up characters and situations that allowed me to try to explore those questions, and, by trying as hard as I could to play fairly with the characters and situations (avoiding pushing a character into doing something that felt false, examining consequences as honestly as I could), I felt like I was able to get my teeth into the question. I didn’t come up with any “answers” as such, but the book was the fruit of that exploration, and I feel like I understood things a little better when I was done. Does that help at all?
Miramon: Fortunately, they most ask those questions of PNH; I usually get the kind of questions I love playing with.
That reminds me. I receive Hawk in around 11 hours time: About 13 hours (give or take) than most of your other readers. Sometimes its good to be on the other side of the international date line.
Out of curiosity, you wrote “I hate pragmatism”. In brief, if I may, what is it about pragmatism that you so dislike? (I’m not asking to debate or to decry – I’m simply curious. Specifically, I wonder if how I have been using the term is incorrect. That has been known to happen. Many times.)
I’ve been meaning to read some of Scalzi’s work; his books are well-regarded, he seems like a decent chap, and I’m sure that I’d enjoy them. But you’ve been my favorite (living) author for just past 30 years, because I never know what I’m going to get when I pick up one of your books — except a great book. Sarcastic fantasy assassin, retold fairy tale set in Gormenghast, Paradise Lost, moody vampire book, whatever Cowboy Feng was, historical letters, Dumas,… From one Dragaeran book to the next there’s more similarity but you burnt it all down in Phoenix, and Athyra was a whole ‘nother animal! And the structure of Tiassa was riveting and, again, unexpected and fascinating.
I fear sounding sycophantic, but I’m grateful to the artists that follow their own muses to the exclusion (as much as possible) of reader response. I only like half of my favorite musician’s work because he’s doing his own thing and our tastes only occasionally intersect; but he’s still my favorite. If you were just writing volume Umpteen of the Wheel Of Best-Sellers, I’d probably still enjoy them, but they wouldn’t have the same magic.
So, um, thanks! :-)
Johne Cook: Pragmatism rejects the search for objective truth. “Truth is what works.” I believe very strongly that the search for objective truth is necessary to carry humanity forward.
Charles: Thanks for the kind words; I hope you continue enjoying them. And, for the record, Scalzi is very much *not* writing the same thing over and over again; Old Man’s War has little in common with Red Shirts and still less with Lock In, for example.
Ah, I’m with you. Thanks.
I’m glad to hear it. In truth, I had another author in mind, who’d best remain nameless. I actually really like his books, but each one is exactly the same story, played out in a marginally different setting. They sell well, and they’re well written — I look forward to each new one (he manages 2 or 3 a year) — but I can’t read them too closely to each other or the sameness gets a bit much.
Charles: Yeah, I can’t stand that. Would never read something like that. I remember how annoyed I was when the plot of Destroyer #13 was almost identical to #6. Although #23 had some points of interest, and #22 was just great. But #34 wasn’t as satisfying as #19, and…um….let’s talk about something else.
This may be a radically inappropriate question, given what you’ve just posted, but it’s got some relevance given that Hawk is, apparently, launching within the next 24 hours: Without going into the details that you may not want to go into, do you have a preference for how we get your books? To be clear, I’m concerned about the differences between e-books and hardbacks. Do you have a preference as to how your works are consumed? Does one benefit you more than the other (for those that want to be more supportive of your work)?
(if this *is* too inappropriate, just ignore it; I won’t be offended. :) )
It’s kind of you to ask, but no, I don’t have a preference. Anything you like, including from a library or used book store.
O.M.G. I didn’t remember the Destroyer series at first. I cast about for my own example, remembered a series that I ate up when I was a kid but would never be able to sit through now, flailed about for the series title, and it slowly dawned on me in horror and delight, “Wait, wasn’t that the Destroyer?” A quick Google search confirmed.
Remo Williams and Chiun. Gods, I loved those guys.
John Scalzi must be reading this. He posted a response explaining his pragmatic approach to writing. A good read also. http://whatever.scalzi.com/
Charles: Loved them? They were terrible. Especially #31. Remember that? And #46, too. Yeah. Awful, awful stuff.
*Loved*, gods damn it. Lo. Ved. In fairness, I was a teen and my judgement must be considered suspect. And I think you got further along than I did, I had trouble finding them.
Though it was neither the first nor last time I loved unwisely, so my youth cannot bear all of the blame.
“I didn’t come up with any ‘answers’ as such, but the book was the fruit of that exploration, and I feel like I understood things a little better when I was done. Does that help at all?”
I’d say what you described here is unquestionably an example of writing honestly – you didn’t have your answer, and you explored your options within the logic of the story and came up with a solution that worked within your story’s logic and saved the norska and everything.
But writing honestly isn’t the same as telling the truth. What throws me is when people conflate truth with honesty, as it seems to me you did when you moved from “Honesty is important to me….” to “To tell the truth, you must know the truth…”. Or people say things like this, from your quotables page: “To become whole, human beings require the truth about the world, and about themselves, that art offers.” (David Walsh). I assume you agree with this, so I hope you don’t mind being asked to explain someone else’s words.
I am happy as long as your books continue to be as entertaining and as enjoyable as the rest of your books are.
L. Raymond: Truth, as I said above, is a process. Like any process, we don’t achieve perfection at it, save in trivialities, but that doesn’t relieve us of the responsibility of trying, yes? And we have tools for this effort: our senses, our minds, our integrity. Honesty is one of the tools we use in our effort to discover truth.
L. Raymond & Steve: My take on writing truth– Write honestly, process hard things. If you arrive at a hard and fast truth, you didn’t explore anything, which means you didn’t ask a good question when you sat down at the word machine. To put it another way, if you want a simple truth, you don’t need a novel to tell it. So I think skzb’s talking about Truth rather than truth (and he can yell at me later about joining the Society for Excitable Capital Letters without consulting him first).
“Truth, as I said above, is a process. Like any process, we don’t achieve perfection at it, save in trivialities, but that doesn’t relieve us of the responsibility of trying, yes? And we have tools for this effort: our senses, our minds, our integrity. Honesty is one of the tools we use in our effort to discover truth.”
Of course I agree about honesty, but I don’t see how this applies to Walsh’s quote, which is saying the artwork somehow conveys a truth about life you can’t get anywhere else. But this is an esoteric point and there’s no reason to hammer it to death, so I’ll wish you a good trip and don’t forget: The Texas Renaissance Festival will be in full swing when you’re in the area.
jenphalian: “So I think skzb’s talking about Truth rather than truth (and he can yell at me later about joining the Society for Excitable Capital Letters without consulting him first).”
I always hear the capital T when talking to people who say art=truth, which is why I wonder what, exactly, they mean by it.
I think it’s pretty clear what he means–that art provides a means of understanding life in the form of images, and understanding based on emotion; that art contributes to our growing understanding of truth by helping us generalize experience. And, yes, I certainly agree.
Thanks for the good wishes.
And, hey, we might hit TRF while we’re there.
“And, hey, we might hit TRF while we’re there.”
Argh, I wasn’t going to give tourist advice, but…
Most people don’t know central Texas was settled by Germans and Czechs, and their descendents ALL celebrate Octoberfest. Fredricksburg is close enough to Austin to make a nice day trip and no doubt Ms. White knows of a few little towns in the area with good beer, bratwurst and BBQ.
Yep, they do. And I’ve been to TRF a couple of times, and, yeah, I know about the Germans and the Czechs, and even have some pretty cool stories about Texas German and Czech settlers that I’ll tell you if we ever happen to meet.
We all find some odd combination of ‘A Few Good Men,’ ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ and the ‘Little Man In My Head‘ (by the Dead Milkmen) that works for us – whether we’re particularly aware of it or not. The man behind the curtain and the truths we’re unwilling to consciously admit affect most everything we do to get by – not just writing books.
If there’s such a thing as ‘enlightenment’ it may be nothing more than recognizing the various ‘There Be Dragons’ areas that exist in out own internal maps detailing the places we’re afraid to venture into.
Charles, ” it was neither the first nor last time I loved unwisely, so my youth cannot bear all of the blame.”
That is a keeper. Great quote.
“I know about the Germans and the Czechs, and even have some pretty cool stories about Texas German and Czech settlers that I’ll tell you if we ever happen to meet”
If any of the stories involve the year 1848, I know, I know. But if you want to swap stories, maybe whenever you visit TRF. I tell people I’m in Houston because no one’s heard of where I really do live, which is only 20 miles from Todd Mission (site of the Ren Fair).
“I…have some pretty cool stories about Texas German and Czech settlers that I’ll tell you if we ever happen to meet.”
If the stories in any way involve the year 1848, I know, I know. *smile* But as for story swapping, if you guys feel like flopping somewhere after visiting TRF, maybe we can arrange something. I say I live in Houston, but that’s because no one has ever heard of where I really live, which is just 20 miles (and only three turns) from Todd Mission, TRF’s site.
L. Raymond: Cool! Let’s see what happens. I’ll be in Texas for several weeks.