Art vs. Commerce

There are two sides to this writing thing: the creative side, and the business side.

This is not news to anybody, right? It’s just that, based entirely on my own experience, I’m pretty sure not everybody knows what it means. sure as hell didn’t understand. Even now I’m only just beginning to see it. And it’s not a matter of missing facts. The facts are out there, and easy to find, and pretty basic, actually. But it’s not the same as living through it.

Two things happened this week that made me start thinking about this. The first was the #WhyIWrite tag that showed up on Twitter a few days back. I didn’t participate. Not because I don’t have an answer to that question — at this point in my life, it’s just a thing I do, like any other lifetime activity.

Not very profound, is it? Especially since there are some days when I’m really at a loss. Some days writing is hard, and uncomfortable, and it feels futile, and couldn’t I find something else to be just a thing I do?

Did you see that word futile in there? That suggests some discrete purpose that the writing is not fulfilling. So what does that mean? What am I not accomplishing that makes the word futile flit through my head? Why do I write? Never mind everything that came before — why do I write now?

It might be easier to ask what’s been making it a struggle. To that, I can only say…publishing is exposing. And yeah, that’s the point. But it’s sort of like rejection, in that I’m not sure it’s a thing anybody really understands until they experience it themselves.

Publishing a book is a commercial act. You’re putting something in front of the public, and hoping they’ll trade money for it (or take it out of the library, love it, and talk it up to their friends, who will then ask their own libraries to order it). You become like any other supplier in the capitalist system: you produce a Thing, which is worth what others are willing to pay for it. How much work you put into the Thing is entirely irrelevant. Markets are both dispassionate and mercurial. Whether the market is kind or not, you — if you want a career in Thing-making — need to create another Thing, and offer it up to the market again.

I did just that when I was in software. There were far more people between me and the market, but it was essentially the same idea: the development team produced software, and somebody on another team sold it. We all hoped it would sell well and demand would remain high, but in the meantime, it didn’t matter: we had to keep writing software, improving on what we’d already done, thinking of new software that would potentially sell, working to specs and schedules.

I’d never suggest that software can’t be art. But it isn’t art like writing is art. Software comes from problems that need solving. It can be elegant, beautiful, efficient, remarkable; but the precise implementation isn’t generally what gets exposed or critiqued.

By necessity, there is so much more of yourself made vulnerable with writing. In one sense, that’s the only thing that can make a story work: that core of personal truth in the center of the fiction. You’re holding up a part of yourself to the world, and saying, “You know?” And you’re hoping that there will be someone out there who reads it and says, “Oh, yes, I know.”

But whether or not you reach that person, you still have to sit down and write the next book. Because if you don’t, it won’t matter who you reach, because your writing career will be done. Whether or not you have that cosmic connection as motivation, you have to produce the next Thing.

And that is the intersection between commerce and art.

The other thing that happened this week was a conversation about query rejections. I remember query rejections, with all of the frustration and self-doubt they brought. My own querying experience was, in retrospect, not at all bad, but it was bad enough at one point for me to seriously consider just hanging it up and never writing again.

Today I can recognize the absurdity of that moment. Would I really have given up on writing if this one book could not find me an agent? Really? After writing all my life, with everything else bouncing around in my head waiting to get on the page? The failure of one manuscript would have killed my desire to do it?

I didn’t hang it up, but I came awfully close. And I suspect there are writers out there who do, indeed, give up.

There’s this myth with writing: that if you’re any good at all, you’ll produce a novel easily, you’ll find representation easily, you’ll sell it easily, it’ll be insanely popular and get only good reviews. Conversely, if it doesn’t work that way, it means you’re hopeless and should give up. It’s the talent means you don’t have to work at it myth. It’s not restricted to writing, and it’s utter bullshit.

Writing is a craft. This isn’t to say there’s no talent involved, but working with words requires thought and practice. It requires experimentation and failure, and it requires sticking with it when it’s not fun. And it’s something at which every writer, no matter how accomplished, can improve.

The talent myth leaves no room for craft, learning, or improvement.

I suspect there are far too many writers out there who gave up, despite what they might have produced in the future, because they were discouraged by the lack of instant success. I’m not talking about the people who cling to the idea that we’re all just too stupid to recognize their genius. (We all know these people, don’t we? They’re in pretty much every industry out there.) I’m talking about the people who take a rejection as more than what it is. Instead of seeing rejection as “I can’t sell this specific book,” they see it as “You will never be good enough, no matter how hard you work.”

Nobody in the business of writing is going to say that to anyone, because they can’t know that. When they reject, they’re not rejecting a body of work, or an entire writer, or that writer’s future. They are rejecting the work that’s offered. They don’t know the path the writer took to write it. They don’t know what the writer might produce tomorrow, or even what’s lurking on the laptop today. They don’t know anything about the writer at all. All they know is “I do not wish to buy this one piece of work.” And that’s it.

There is no one in the business of crushing ambitions. There are only people in the business of selling stuff. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that they fall in love with books just like any other reader. They have to focus on commerce, yes — but for the most part, they want to sell what they love to read. If they don’t love your current thing, they may very well love your next one, or the one after that. You don’t know, and you can’t have a career if you don’t keep writing. Even — especially — when you get rejections.

I always talk about how lucky I’ve been, and it’s true. But I also work hard. I put words on the page. I revise. I kill my darlings (*sob*). I study the edits I’m given and swallow my pride and listen and learn about the story I want to write by working to be open to the ways I’m still getting it wrong.

And do you know, I think that’s #WhyIWrite: to improve. I love the craft of writing. I love reading something that was torturous for me to write, but reads as smoothly as the bits that were easy. I love working out what needs changing, what needs removing, what needs to be added. I love learning how to tell stories I want to tell, and the only way to do that is to keep writing.

So it seems the best way — for me, at least — to do the business of writing is to keep the business part as distant from the actual writing as I can. Hit my deadlines, yes. Know what I’m doing when I agree to new ones, and fulfill all obligations. Answer emails, interact with people, be positive and professional at all times. All of those things, of course. But mostly: write. All the time, write. With or without a contract, or feedback, or even a story goal: write.


Not enough time

Editor Cat died today.

People write on line about losing animals. It always makes me cry. But not like this, not like the reality of it. Empathy is one thing, but as part of your own life—wherever you look, this loss, this absence—no matter how much you cry for strangers, it’s not the same.

This was not a surprise. She was ill. She had cancer, and congestive heart failure, and kidney disease. They did not think we would have as much time as she had. To the surprise of both us and the vet, she remained active and affectionate and very much herself for an entire year after her cancer diagnosis. But a few months ago she became less active, and we increased one of her medications. She did fairly well until about two days ago. And yesterday she stopped eating.

Her name was Seven. She was a lilac-point Siamese, with possibly a bit of mongrel tossed in there. She was the most remarkably good-natured cat I have ever known. She understood apologies if you accidentally stepped on her tail. For the price of a few pets, she provided warmth and purrs for hours. She would wake me in the morning by knocking her nose into my jaw. When we came home she would greet us with meows and rubs and demands to be picked up. She was kind to our daughter, and taught her gentleness and patience. She was a Good Cat.

Grief is a strange thing. It was a few days ago when I first cried, recognizing that no matter what happened she was never going to knock her nose into my jaw again. I cried yesterday, when I realized we needed to take her to the vet, and what the vet would probably tell us. I cried watching my family cry for her. I cried when I petted her on the head and scratched her under the chin for the last time, while I watched her wheeze and force her breath in and out, the exertion of being awake exhausting her. I cried when they brought her to us in a box, the technician, a thick-necked boy who’d be at home on any football team, soft-spoken and empathic and kind.

Grief, initially, is a wave of massive length and amplitude. It hits hard, and harsh, and tumbles you around. When it eases, in the beginning, it doesn’t ease for long before it crashes into you again. But over time, grief becomes quieter. The worst of the crash is not quite so bad. Sometimes the down times last long enough for you to smile, and laugh, and function. And eventually the wave subsides enough so you only notice it when you’re still, when a memory becomes particularly raw.

That eventually can take years. And for some sorrows? It never comes.

I have not, in the grand scheme of things, lost so many animals. I was very young when we lost our first cat. I don’t remember the animal, but I do remember my mother’s grief. The first cat I remember losing was a kitten, perhaps six months old, son of our other cat. He ran into the road in the rain. The man who hit him stopped and brought him to us and was sobbing. That kitten’s mother, years later, disappeared one day and never came back. An ambiguous and uncertain type of grief.

The first time I elected euthanasia for a pet it was not for a cat, but a ferret. I lost three of them in a short period of time, all to adrenal tumors, which tend to plague ferrets bred in captivity. The first cat I had to let go was another beloved ancient Siamese. My father came with me, and I stayed with her throughout it all. And there was the moment, between life and death, when she was first herself, and then she was not.

I found it comforting. Is that strange? I found it comforting that the body that had failed her, that was in horrific agony, no longer contained her. Wherever she was, she was not hurting anymore. I had given her that, if nothing else.

It’s not enough.

They don’t live long enough. We can’t do enough for them. Time is a relentless bastard. Life is grief and loss and pain strung together, never ending. There’s always more ahead.

We are not catless today. We have our other cat, younger and fluffy and irritable and a little confused this evening. She is not sweet natured, but she is tough and animated and occasionally warm and purry. She is loved, and will hopefully be loved for many years to come. And there will be, I suspect, another cat added to the household, when we are not so raw and broken. They do not replace each other, not ever. But we need to love them, so we find them to love.

Adieu, sweetie. You were yourself, entirely, and we will love you always.


NYCC (or: I have extroverted, and lived to tell about it)


Taking my life in my hands at NYCC

When I was younger, I went to a fair number of cons. I wasn’t the sort to travel much for it, but Boston was a pretty decent hub for such things, so there would usually be a couple each year I could hit without much trouble. I’d drag a friend or two, and we’d see actors speak and watch TV episodes projected onto big screens, and envy the people with the really good costumes. One year I wore my crocheted Fourth Doctor scarf, which made me bunches of friends.

But my favorite part was always the dealers’ room. Before the days of Amazon, the things you could buy at these cons were often genuine exclusives. I snagged UK editions of books, fan-produced videos, back issues of out-of-print magazines, used and new paperbacks. At its best, it was a big sci-fi flea market. I’d bring all the cash I could scrape together, and spend every last dime of it. I wouldn’t go home until I was broke.

This isn’t a “back in my day” rant. Things have changed, and that’s largely a good thing. Fandom has exploded since those days. I’ve known that, but seeing the crowds at New York Comic Con brought home the true scale of the change. There is so much more to choose from, new and old, and so many more people willing to gather to enjoy it.

And spend money on it. Together. In one place.

Crowds notwithstanding – as a first panel experience, it was unequivocally terrific. I wish, of course, that I had been wittier and smarter and better overall, but beyond petty insecurities, it was really rather fun. The panel was well-organized, the other panelists were interesting (and much wittier than I am), and the facilitator had good questions and made sure we all had a chance to answer.

And the focus was a little different than I’d expected, in a good way. The panel was on worldbuilding, and I spent some time thinking about the history I have in my head of what humans have done in the 1000-1200 years between now and when I’ve set my story. But the questions were much more about character and theme: moral dilemmas; how we live with history; belonging; home. This was stuff I’m much more comfortable talking about–and it was fascinating hearing the others discuss how they addressed the issues in their books. This is everything I love about science fiction and fantasy: using fictional places, fictional technologies, situations that could never exist in the real world to examine the kinds of humans we hope–or fear–we will become.

The experience of being up there was…something. I had horrible stage fright beforehand, which was actually pretty familiar. I learned back when I was singing that I’d be a heart-fluttery basket case, up until I had to open my mouth, and then I’d be too busy to be nervous. This worked the same way. Singing is easier–you know before you get up exactly what you’re going to do, and the performance is only a variation in tone and emphasis–but I found if I kept my ears open and kept my thoughts organized, I didn’t have much of a problem rattling on for a bit.

All in all, I don’t think I embarrassed my novels, which was of course the important thing. 🙂

My husband was in the audience taking pictures, smiling at me and giving me the thumbs-up now and then to keep me steady. My publicist sat with me beforehand and made relaxed and reassuring noises, so I went into the whole thing with a marvelous support system. I could have done this on my own, I suppose, but I would have spent a lot more time tying myself in knots and worrying than kicking back and having fun.

I did. I had fun. I’d do it again.

Afterward there was a brief book signing. (I’m still at the point when I’m surprised people want signed books. Hell, I’m still at the point when I grin like a little kid when I see someone pick it up and look at it.) I went back to the Voyager booth and signed the stock they had there, then took off on my own to wander until I was supposed to meet my husband.

I thought a lot about those old cons while I was shuffling along with the crowds up and down the rows of booths. There was a lot more at NYCC than I ever saw in those other places, but it was all harder to get to, harder to see. And it does get tiring to be constantly bumping into people. At the same time…there were plenty of “excuse me”s and “I’m sorrys” and “Wow that’s cool”s and smiles from strangers sharing the experience.

People don’t always suck.

I met up with my spouse after that, and we left the crowded con to do some wandering around the city. The streets of New York that had felt mobbed the night before now seemed spacious. We were exhausted, but the walking was pleasant, even carrying our heavy haul from the show floor. I had with me a finished copy of my second book (acquired the night before from my editor), and a mounted copy of the cover that my publicist had given me for the panel. I’d survived, and even made a few people laugh, and actually enjoyed myself.

The whole experience made for a wonderful vacation in a lot of ways, despite the fact that it was a business trip. After the push to get out Book 3, I had days when I thought I’d never be able to put another word on the page. Now I’ve got whispers and ideas, and I’m starting to look forward to writing the next book. So despite the energy burn that comes with being an introvert among other humans…it was also revitalizing.

As for acquired stuff? We mostly bought for The Kid. I think the big hit is the Goat Simulator plushie with the magnetic tongue and feet. Maybe not an “exclusive,” but as a souvenir? It will be well-loved.