Which authors do you think are egomaniacs? Any bestsellers you’ve got stashed on your shelves? Newer authors you think are already too big for their britches? Anyone spring to mind?
I’ve been thinking about this over the weekend, for a variety of reasons. One is the comment trail here. Another is a private communication. Then there was that email I referenced last post. And the final straw? The comment trail over at my friend Vincent’s blog.
We all know that the average person is prone to thinking the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. How many people do you know who could look you in the eye and say honestly - honestly - that they’re completely happy with their life and career right now? I bet not very many. I certainly don’t know many myself.
As writers, I think we live with the yo-yo of success and failure… or perhaps better put, the yo-yo of confidence and insecurity. I would wager a guess that less than 1% of the writers out there haven’t had a rejection letter at some time or another. We all know what it is not to be wanted.
But I do think it’s easy for us to think that the very successful, that authors like Ken Bruen, Val McDermid, Stuart MacBride, Laura Lippman, Ian Rankin etc. never face insecurity. That they’re completely confident in their career and work and never have a moment’s doubt. Well, okay, it’s not so easy to believe that with Stuart. One needs only to have read his blog posts about Book The Fourth to know differently… And as someone said to me recently if ever Ian should have moments of doubt he only needs to read himself referred to as God* here to feel better, not like the “rest of us mere mortals.”
The thing is, I get people emailing and saying to me they’re nervous or embarrassed to ask me to read their stuff, and I find it rather heartbreaking. Why should anyone be nervous about asking me to read their work? Is it because they’re that insecure, or because they think I’m someone special? Because believe me, if it’s that latter, let me be the first to say that I have a lot to learn myself.
I do know there are some authors who are egotistical jerks, although I’ve encountered precious few. And to be honest, when I do encounter someone who is all “look at me, aren’t I hot shit?” I’m pretty much done with them.
I’ve never really been one to think that way. On a daily basis I doubt my ability to pull off the next book, to make the short story in progress come out just the way I want it to, that anyone will care about what I write, that I’ll find a new publisher. I read books by other people and they get me thinking about all sorts of important things – I’m one of those people who cherishes important books, far more interested in stuff with substance than fluff – and I feel this sense of failure. “I didn’t do that with my first book” or “I could never pull this off.”
I’m never one to rest on my laurels. As far as I’m concerned, anyone who thinks they’ve ‘arrived’ and ‘made it’ is kidding themselves. As one international best-selling, multi-award-winning author said, “You're only as good as your next book, not the book you wrote 20 years ago!"
I know some people might find this hard to believe, but there are a lot of successful authors who feel pretty isolated. The result of achieving some status is often alienation from within the community. People presume the ego into them. I’m terrible for this. I just assume people don’t want to hear from me. I tend to think so-and-so’s very important and I’m nobody so why would they talk to me?
And you know what sucks? I tend to think that even after I’ve met people.
I thought about it a while back, and started a thread about it on Crimespace, about why we don’t encourage each other more. I think some people are afraid showing any vulnerability at all will be interpreted as a sign of weakness, so they keep it bottled up, hidden away. The results? Others often don’t understand that they, too, are human and struggle with their own insecurities. And the author feels that sense of isolation more profoundly than ever and never really gets that reassurance.
Now, I’ve been aware of the ups and downs that come with being in this business and being in the public domain, to a certain degree, for a while. Yes, I’ve been trashed on forums and blogs. Yes, I’ve been trashed via email. There have been a good number of days that I’ve cried. And there are people I’ve never met that I never want to meet because they are malicious and mean, horrendous gossips and have hurt me deeply, despite the fact that I don't even know them. (This is part of the reason I tend to be defensive of friends under attack. In recent months when people have been piling on I've felt alone, and nobody likes to feel that way.)
If asked, I’d put myself on the insecure side of the fence. I think this is both a good and bad thing. The good thing about it is, because I am not so conceited as to think I’m God’s gift to the literary world, I’m always pushing to do better. I’m willing to learn. I dream more of having an editor that will believe in me and invest the effort in me through a few books to build my career than having a six-figure advance. And I know there are a lot of people who wouldn’t like that, who’d think I have it backwards: I don’t. There is nothing more important than the craft. The sales will be what the sales will be, and you’ll get it in an advance or on the back end as royalties, but no amount of money or promotion can change the reality of putting out a sub-par book. And that’s something I never want to do. I look back on my own early efforts (especially short stories – ugh) and my new policy is that I only want to have 2 or 3 stories published per year, and they have to match or exceed the quality of what I’m currently producing. I mean, if I place more, great, but I’m not pushing for that. The point is quality, not quantity.
I don’t really want people saying I’m the richest writer out there. I want people saying I’m a great writer.
And you know what? That’s something you’re always struggling for. Nobody “arrives” and then everything they do is perfection. Every single author I respect pushes themselves to always do better. Their focus is on the quality of the work instead of the sales.
And I would bet money that all those authors I respect have their dark days when they struggle with doubt and feel like the writing isn’t going as well as they’d like. I bet they all have days when they get horrid emails and letters that make them feel lousy. I bet they all have authors they look up to and respect and think they wish they could do what that person’s done with their work.
Wherever you are on your journey, you aren’t alone in how you feel. We all relate to that. The big problem is, most people just can’t, or won’t, admit it. I haven’t got much room in my life for people who’re pretty full of themselves. But I’ve always got time for anyone who needs a shoulder and someone to tell them to keep going.
Just remember when you look at someone who seems successful, who seems to have it all together, who appears to have everything you want, often all you’re seeing is the image. A lot of dark days and less than perfect moments go into every second of success.
(And if you’re linking to my blog, please drop me an email and let me know so that I get your blog added to my links. Yeah, I still haven’t finished updating them…)
* If I was Ian, I'd hate me for it.