Friday, April 20, 2012

Now That You've Published a Story or Three . . .


A while back, I was chatting with an agent and he said, "You have no idea how lucky you are to have published so many books."

"Oh?" I said.

"Most writers get three novels, tops.  If they haven't hit the best-seller lists by then, they become unpublishable."  And he proceeded to give me some very depressing examples.

So today, I thought I would offer the best piece of advice I have for new writers.  This advice doesn't apply to gonnabe writers, mind you.  Only to those who have already proved that they can get published in Asimov's or F&SF or another of the major science fiction and fantasy markets.  If you're not published yet, continue doing what you're doing.  It feels like you're thrashing about in random desperation but what you're actually doing is learning and it's important.


If you're already published and you're pretty confident that you can go on selling your stories, then it's time for you to get more serious.  You've only got so much time in your life and the realities of publishing are such that you might be frozen out of the market before then.  So you need to be ambitious.

Here's my advice:  Write the most difficult story you can imagine.   Not difficult to the reader, mind you -- to you.  Write the story that you were hoping you'd be a better writer before tackling.  Because you might not get that chance.

Start it today.

Above:  The azalea is in bloom!  Can the roses be far behind?



DGGrace said...

Wow, Michael, that's one clever (and, I think, original) addition to the Famous Authors' Success canon. You know the canon I mean, right? It probably dates back to cuneiform and includes Philip Sidney rhythmically advising himself to "Look into your heart and write" and Eudora Welty telling us that The Key to Writing Success is writing 4 hours every day--no excuses short of paralysis or death. Stephen King emends (uh, well, actually refutes) Welty's axiom with the claim that "real" writers have no choice in the matter--they have to write. Hemingway (in A Movable Feast) tells us that his every story begins with him writing "the truest sentence he can." Whatever the hell that means.

So, now, in the 21st Century you've added your notion of a tipping point at which upwardly mobile authors should "Write the most difficult story [they] can imagine." Well, it's appropriately existentially cool; I'll grant you that.

So, I guess mine would open with a sentence like, "This novel no verbs." (Apologies to Douglas Hofstadter.)

Seriously, though, your advice brings one question to mind: is this something you did, yourself? If so, which story?


Michael Swanwick said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
DGGrace said...

I meant no offense, Michael. Clever can mean "inventive" and "to the point." it needn't mean "facile." Okay, I admit I've always been amused that so many successful writers seem to feel compelled to express the whole corpus of their writing strategies in pithy little aphorisms like the series I cited earlier. It was unfair to imply a classification of your suggestion with that bizarre canon.

In fact, I was intrigued and interested in hearing more about your strategem. Thus my question. So, please forgive my clever (facile) clustering of your clever (wily) technique with the dross. I've been trying to apply something similar, myself. I've not had your success, but I keep plugging.

And thanks for the response and the examples.


Michael Swanwick said...

My original reply here was so rambling that it came across as hostile, which is not how it was meant. So I've deleted it and will now attempt a more condensed version.

Yes, I do this all the time. I don’t always have an idea for something as difficult as “Radiant Doors,” and that’s when I write the lighter stories. But I always work on the most difficult story I have on tap, simply because that’s where the greatest artistic payoff is.

I’ve seen writers who never really challenged themselves fade away to nothing. And I’ve seen writers who tackled stories they could barely bring themselves to write (when Octavia Butler accepted the Nebula for “Blood Child,” she said that all her life she’d been afraid of “little wormy things”) push through into greatness.

And that’s what I want: stories that achieve greatness. It hardly matters if they come from me or somebody else.