Sunday, February 17, 2008

In Praise of Brilliant Amateurs

Note: At 2,750 words, this one turned out to be considerably longer than originally planned. If you find this difficult to read as a blog post, let me know, and I'll repost it as a PDF'd Word file.

Forget writing for a minute. Let's talk about — oh, figure skating. Let's say you love figure skating. You love to watch it, love to do it, have some actual talent at it, and deep-down, you have a secret dream: that some day, it will be you up on the podium, with tears of pride in your eyes as the national anthem plays over the P.A. system and the judges hang the Olympic gold medal around your neck.

But you also know The Dream doesn't happen without dedication and hard work, and so you go for it. The early mornings, the late nights; giving short shrift to everything and everyone else in your life and spending every spare dime you can scrape up on ice time, equipment, and professional coaching. And let's say you get good at it; you get really good at it. In fact, you get so good at it that you finally make it to The Big Time.

And that's where you finally realize that, for every one who makes it to the podium, there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of others who are every bit as talented, but who for one reason or another didn't find exactly the right combination of luck, style, timing, execution, and catching the Belorussian judge in a good mood. But still, you've put so much time and energy into chasing The Dream that you've got to do something with all that talent. So you turn professional.

And then one day you come to your senses, and realize you're the third angelfish from the left in the chorus line in "Disney's Finding Nemo On Ice," and suddenly you just want to stop in your tracks, look up at the audience, and scream out at the top of your lungs: "What the Hell happened?"

Some questions have shown up in my inbox in the past few days. If I'm so burned out and embittered by my experience, why do I still do it? (This blog, you mean.) Why didn't Vidad's brilliant entry in last week's Friday Challenge win? What was it really like to work with Vox on Rebel Moon?

I've been thinking a lot about the answers. This is going to be long.

Why Vidad didn't win is easy. Unable to decide, I called for professional help, and the Consulting Judges all came in with roughly the same response. They split the difference between WaterBoy and Henry Vogel, then listened to Vidad's masterpiece and said something like, "You know, you really shouldn't let pros compete head-to-head with amateurs. It's too discouraging."

But Vidad isn't a pro.

"Yeah. Right."

So why do I still do it? This blog, I mean? I may be burned out and embittered by nearly three decades of publishing, but I still love good writing. I really, truly, deeply enjoy a good story, well-told; a good song, well-sung; a good script; well-acted; a good picture, well-drawn. By extension, I’m predisposed to like creative people in general and writers in particular. I may dislike a particular piece of work from time to time, but a creative person really has to work at making me dislike him or her personally.

It can be done. I don't recommend doing it. I have been known to show up for funerals with a mallet and a wooden stake, "just to be sure." I am not making this up.

I like creative people. I hate what the creative arts marketing business does to them. If I won the Powerball lottery, I'd quit my job tomorrow and start a multimedia publishing company, based in part on the seemingly radical principle of treating the creative talent decently and honestly. There must be a better business model than the "buy 'em and burn 'em out" approach.

This blog, then, is largely an expression of my ongoing quest to find that business model.

Strange thing about creative types. You see it most readily with songwriters, but it also happens to screenwriters, fiction writers, and pretty much everyone else. They do all their best work while they're still young, struggling, and on-fire with ideas and passion. Then, if they stick with it and the Fates have a sense of humor, they make it to The Big Time.

Where they get smacked right in the face with The Sophomore Curse. All of those years of struggling go into that brilliant first album, or first novel, or first movie. And it truly is brilliant.

Then they look at that blank canvas, blank sheet of paper, empty viewfinder, or blank computer screen, and say, "Okay, now what?"

And pretty soon they're writing songs about how tough it is to be a rock star living on the road, or scripts about how crazy it is to be a screenwriter living in Hollywood, or novels about how depressing it is to be a novelist living in upstate New York and suffering from writer's block. There is a vast sub-genre of science fiction filled with stories about sci-fi writers making deals with devils, or aliens, or whatever, in exchange for a great new story idea.

Except that the Devil actually appears in the form of an agent, an editor, or a book packager, who says, "C'mon, Bruce. It's just one Star Trek novel. Just a little something to do to tide you over while we're waiting to sell your next real novel."

Peggy Noonan often writes like this. A short paragraph, consisting of two or three sentences, or more likely sentence fragments, at least one of which begins with a conjunction and ends with an ellipsis. And then a line break, and she's off on an entirely disjunctive thought...

As a professional writer, I've made some terrible strategic mistakes in my career, but in many respects agreeing to do Rebel Moon was the worst. Sorry, Vox.

I did RM because it was a fun story, and because Vox is a friend, and because he needed the help, and because I felt I owed him a favor, and because I had something to prove about not being merely a "funny" writer. I also did RM because I was suffering from a raging case of hubris.

Headcrash came out in 1995, and it was an instant hit. Three months on the bestseller list, (mostly) great reviews, strong "legs" (meaning ongoing sales were still strong even after it dropped off the Top 10), multiple nominations for the Nebula Award, San Francisco Chronicle Recommended Book of the Year, etc., etc., etc., etc. My U.S. publisher immediately asked for a sequel. My U.K. publisher actually contracted for it. So I got to work, cleared my schedule, quit my day job, and turned "pro."

Without a U.S. contract. Bad move.

Strangest thing. My U.S. publisher kept asking how the book was coming along and kept telling me how much they were looking forward to reading Headcrash 2.0, but also kept producing excuses in lieu of a contract. Meaning there was no advance money. Meanwhile, Inland Revenue had impounded all my U.K. earnings, until I could prove to their satisfaction that I was not a U.K. citizen and therefore not subject to U.K. income taxes, which process ultimately took me about three years. In the meantime, I still needed to eat. And make the house payments. And while "K" had a good job, it wasn't good enough for us to live on her income alone. The credit cards were running up; the savings were bleeding out fast.

And then one blessed day, my U.S. publisher finally came through with the contract for Headcrash 2.0, and it was for slightly over half what they'd paid for Headcrash. And when I, dumbfounded, demanded to know why the sequel to an award-winning, critically acclaimed, and (briefly) best-selling book was worth only half of what they'd paid for the first book, someone on the publisher's side of the negotiations made the mistake of saying:

"Well, duh. It's a sequel. Where else are you gonna sell it?"

I know. I should have just sucked it up, swallowed my pride, taken the offer and finished writing the #@(*&$ book. But by that time I was involved with Vox and Fenris Wolf, and there was talk of Rebel Moon being the first book in a trilogy, and most of all, I was pissed off.

So, determined to prove that I was not solely at the mercy of my U.S. publisher, I took the RM deal. And finishing that book took far more work and far more time than originally planned, and by the time it was finished, the first in a series of tectonic disasters had struck my personal life, making it simply impossible for me to write humor for the next few years.

Writing Rebel Moon was fun. Working with Vox was... fascinating. It was far more work than I'd bargained for, and I was deeply disappointed when the publisher saw the final manuscript, said, "It's too long!," and made us cut it down to 90,000 words. But on the whole, I enjoyed doing it.

What I hadn't reckoned on is that everyone else in the publishing industry would look at that book, see the words, "Based on the Computer Game from Fenris Wolf" on the cover, and say, "Whoops. The Sophomore Curse has struck again. Bethke is reduced to doing books based on computer games." And thereafter, the assumption was that I'd do anything, because I must have been out of ideas and desperate for money. So I got offers for book projects galore, and all of them for properties that I wouldn't have touched with a ten-meter electric cattle prod.

Thank God the deal for Duke Nukem: Balls of Steel, fell through. They really wanted me to sign up to do that one.

Which brings us, in a long and roundabout way, back to Vidad, and his desire to quit his job as a self-proclaimed "hack" advertising writer and become a professional novelist, despite his seeming inability to get past Chapter One and his brilliant entry in last week's Friday Challenge.

The problem with turning pro, Vidad, is that the business is structured so as to guarantee that the vast majority of writers remain hungry and are always dependent on the advance money for their next book. Publishers love to have dependent writers who really need to write whatever book the publisher might imagine it wants next. (I use the pronoun intentionally. Publishers are neither male nor female, nor for that matter, human. They are things. With tentacles.)

Vidad, you may think your job is nothing but mind-numbing, soul-crushing hackwork. You haven't seen soul-crushing until you've done a novelization of a movie script. As I've said many times before, this is my house. See the new roof?

illo: my house

This is how I paid for the roof.

illo: WWWest cover

Any more questions?

On the other hand, if you do succeed at becoming one of the blessed one in a thousand whose novels make money, the pressure is always on to forget new ideas and simply reiterate your success. Mystery and fantasy writers seem to thrive on writing the same novel over and over again and merely working out melismatic variations on a theme. Science fiction is different in that it’s supposed to be the literature of new ideas, but if we're all so crazy about new ideas, why do the publishers keeps recycling the same old tropes?

I just finished reading Ringworld's Children, by Larry Niven. What a waste of innocent trees. His original 1970 Ringworld was brilliant. The Ringworld Engineers was even better. Now, thirty-plus years later, this series has turned into Niven's Dune. What's next? Real Estate Agents of Ringworld?

Ian Fleming tried to retire James Bond. Edgar Rice Burroughs got tired of writing about Tarzan and John Carter of Mars. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle even went so far as to kill Sherlock Holmes in "The Adventure of the Final Problem," only to cave in to fan and publisher demand and resurrect him a decade later. If you go pro, and if you're lucky, you become a thrall to your success.

John Sladek had a wonderful bit of business in Roderick about a famous bestselling writer whose personal computer is tied directly into all the bookstore chain sales computers. Every word he types is instantly analyzed for commercial value at the moment he types it, with the result being that he is condemned to spend the rest of his life constantly retyping his one great commercial hit. And he was one of the lucky ones.

If you're unlucky, there are always movie novelizations and TV series tie-ins.

This can't last. The publishing industry as it's currently structured is based on economic insanities and prodigious waste — of materials, logistics, but most of all, of people and talent. It can't last.

But what's going to succeed it? I don't know, just yet. I only know that it will be something that's not so good for the John Grishams and Danielle Steeles of this world, but much better for the talented amateurs: the putterers, the people doing it for the sheer love of doing it; the ones willing to put years into their craft without worrying too much about the return.

But all the same, they need some return. Because even writers need to eat.

On a business trip, I once had the very peculiar luck to get booked into a hotel that was hosting a standup comedians' convention. You would think this would be wonderful, no? Every time you step into an elevator, or go to the hotel restaurant, or walk through the lobby, it'd be nothing but terrific comedy 24x7, right?

Wrong. When they were offstage and together with their peers, all those comedians did was kvetch ceaselessly about money, contracts, clubs, and agents. It was three days in Business-Class Hell.

I had the good fortune to have a long phone conversation last weekend with Chris Muir, the terrific author/artist who writes and draws the always entertaining and intermittently brilliant comic strip, "Day by Day" ( As always happens when pro writers get together, did we talk about truth, beauty, and creativity?

Nah. We kvetched about money, contracts, publishers, and agents.

Chris isn't making much, not yet. He has a daily audience of 30,000 readers. Between the banner ads, the Café Press tschottskes, and the P.O.D. books, he's making enough to keep the strip above water, but only just barely.

Still, he soldiers on, because like me, he is convinced that we're almost there. He believes with a passion that the Internet has almost evolved to the point where it's possible for a creative talent to make a living — not a great living, but a living — peddling and publishing his creative work on the web. All it will require is just one more breakthrough.

What that breakthrough is, Chris doesn't know yet. But he's working on it. As am I. As are tens of thousands of other talented amateurs and semi-pros, out there laboring away in dorm rooms, spare bedrooms, basements, and coffee shops. Someone is bound to figure it out soon, and more likely it will be a small army of someones, and a multiplicity of methods.

For example, my medium is the written word. But Vidad, based on what you did last week, you should stop worrying about getting past Chapter One and forget that novel. Your forté is clearly the performed word, in the context of the five-minute comedy sketch. Ever hear of the Firesign Theater? I don't know about anyone else, but I would gladly pay a modest fee to hear a new one like "New Science Now Today" every week — as my sizable collection of old Firesign Theater records attests.

Yeah, I know: "modest" doesn't put shoes on the kids' feet. But put together ten thousand modests, and pretty soon we're talking useful income. Not enough to buy that private tropical island you've always dreamed of, true, but maybe, if you’re lucky, enough to make you not quite so dependent on that day job.

So now is as good a time as any to ask yourself: why am I doing this? Is it for love, or the money? Am I going for the gold medal, or "Finding Nemo On Ice"? Am I a proud and talented amateur, or a filthy stinkin' shameless pro?

Because actually, when you think about it, it is a lot like figure skating.

Or sex.