So, this writing thing.
I am, as most writers are, obsessed by it. By the mechanics of it, by the execution of it, by the products of it. What am I writing, who is reading it, what do they think about it? I am of course interested in what other writers are doing and how their work si received, but of course my own work of course is foremost in my mind. Every time you see my staring into space instead of watching what’s going on around me? That’s what I’m thinking about. Here is a little known fact: many writers wear beards to make it less obvious that they are dribbling on themselves. (I can’t explain the funky hats–please don’t ask me.)
My sensei would say I am lacking in zanshin, and he’d be entirely right. But I am not the only warrior lacking this quality.
This constant self-analysis is, of course, anxiety. The way of the writer is a difficult one: even if you can scale the wall of rejection and get something published, you are then subjected to vicious critical attacks. Fear and self-doubt dog your every step.
There is a very small cadre of writers who have achieved magnificent feats, either by skill or by luck or a by rat cunning, and when we measure ourselves them we are always found wanting. We don’t get to compete with them; we fight to keep our place on the undercard. There are hordes of cat-fanciers and coffee shop posers who talk about how, one day, they’re going to be contenders and we are desperately fearful that we are no different from them.
And here’s the thing: the difference between a wannabe and a professional is narrower than you think. I have seen friends and peers catapulted to stardom; I’ve seen some of my idols fall out of favour and lose not only their livelihoods but also their credibility despite the undeniable quality of their prior work.
I thought I would be a professional, full-time writer by the time I was 25. I’ve quit my day job three or four times, but none of them have stuck. I feel as if every year is a better one for me, in terms of writing, but how do I judge this? My bank balance is hardly a good indication. Number of books published? Ha.
I’m a failure if you compare me to Stephen King. Most people are. The same goes for Jonathan Franzen, Neil Gaiman, Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell, William Shakespeare and Homer (the Greek or the Simpson). Few writers will ever have the number of readers that they do. Aim high, of course, but try to have some perspective about it.
In 1999 my goal was to be published. I had a near miss that year, but I sold my first short story in 2001. In 2002 my goal was to sell my first novel. I got close in 2006, with a completely different novel, but it didn’t happen until 2010. In 2006 my goal was to find an artist with whom I could pitch a graphic novel. That didn’t happen until 2008. My goal then was to sell that graphic novel to a specific American publisher, which we did did the following year.
I’ve met most of my goals, including the new ones that popped up along the way. Selling a religious satire comic? Really?
I had hoped that the book would do better than it has. I’d hoped it would open more doors than it has… but those are not things I have a lot of control over. You give it your best but you cannot control or predict the market.
That published work has had a positive effect on my career. So has a psychotic level of persistence. I work hard to make books. You have to work hard to stay in the game.
As for the market… well, the rules change all the time. Publishing has become radically different over the last ten years. I’ve seen it myself: the editors sacked, the failing publishers; the rise of the graphic novel, the triumph of ePublishing. Some of this change has cost me and some of it has benefited me. This kind of upheaval is going to continue–what can a one do but put one’s head down and try to punch way through it? Meet those milestone goals, no matter how long it takes you. Kick and bite and gouge. Use every weapon at your disposal. Fight hard.
The Way of the Dragon is not an easy one, so get the fuck out of that coffee shop. Ditch the hat and put up your dukes. Now pound that keyboard, motherfucker. This ain’t over til I say it is.