Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Surviving the Publishing Industry

Yeah, yeah, so it's been quiet around here again. Not only because I've been working on The Labyrinth of Flame, but because my husband and I are singing in two Colorado Music Festival performances of Ernest Bloch's Sacred Service at the end of this week.  If you've never heard Bloch's Sacred Service, it's not an easy piece to sing.  Some parts are hauntingly beautiful (like the a cappella Silent Devotion and Response). Other parts...as my husband muttered to me during one rehearsal, "Why don't we just bang tin cans together and wail random notes instead?"

But even though singing with the CMF this year requires a lot of practice time (we've got about a zillion rehearsals this week alone), which is hard for two busy parents like us to fit in - it's worth it, to spend time together doing something that's wholly unrelated to our day jobs, parenthood, or even our usual outdoor hobbies.  Or in my case, writing.  I've talked before about how it can be so, so tempting for an author with limited free time to try and spend every spare second working on their novel-in-progress - and why that's a truly terrible idea.

But it's hard not to feel guilty, you know?  You hear so much so-called wisdom about publishing.  You've got to put out a book a year, preferably more.  And don't forget the marketing - your books are sure to sink without a trace unless you get off your ass and plaster yourself all over the internet.  You see other authors seemingly following those guidelines to great success - putting out multiple books a year, guest-posting & schmoozing up a storm, their readership steadily climbing.

But if you're like me, struggling to balance writing with other responsibilities (day job, family, etc), you'll have to step back and ask yourself: how much of my life am I willing to let the publishing industry consume?

I read a great article yesterday by Harvard computer scientist Radhika Nagpal on how she avoided misery and burnout during her tenure-track years - an article that applies equally well to writers struggling to navigate the craziness of publishing (thanks to fellow author Kameron Hurley for tweeting about it).  I want to quote one part of the article that particularly struck me:

We (myself included) admire the obsessively dedicated. At work we hail the person for whom science and teaching is above all else, who forgets to eat and drink while working feverously on getting the right answer, who is always there to have dinner and discussion with eager undergrads. At home we admire the parent who sacrificed everything for the sake of a better life for their children, even at great personal expense. The best scientists. The best parents. Anything less is not giving it your best.
And then I had an even more depressing epiphany. That in such a world I was destined to suck at both.
Needless to say it took a lot of time, and a lot of tears, for me to dig myself out of that hole. And when I finally did, it came in the form of another epiphany. That what I can do, is try to be the best whole person that I can be. And that is *not* a compromise. That *is* me giving it my very best. I’m pretty sure that the best scientists by the above definition are not in the running for most dedicated parent or most supportive spouse, and vice versa. And I’m not interested in either of those one-sided lives. I am obsessively dedicated to being the best whole person I can be. It is possible that my best whole is not good enough for Harvard, or for my marriage; I have to accept that both may choose to find someone else who is a better fit. But even if I don’t rank amongst the best junior faculty list, or the best spouses list, I am sure there is a place in the world where I can bring value.
 This is so true.  The hardest part of setting boundaries in your life is that there ARE costs.  You can't have it all.  If you choose not to dedicate your every spare second to your career, then yes, you may fall behind those who do.  But when it comes to the game of chasing material success, my own private conviction is that the only way to win is not to play.  For me, I want to focus on the things that bring me joy.  One of those things is certainly writing: not only the heady excitement of creating characters and worlds, but the quiet satisfaction of completing a book you've worked your ass off to make awesome.  But if I focus solely on that joy, I'll miss out on a whole lot of others, and both my life and my writing will be the poorer for it.  Like Dr. Nagpal, I would rather strive to be a better whole person.  Not just a better author.        


  1. Love that passage of Bloch's. And now I know where the Alathians' magic comes from. :-)

    About being the best at one thing above all others - that fits some personalities, but one shouldn't have to be forced, as Yeats said, between "perfection of the life, or of the work." Phil Mickelson showed up late for the US Open 'cause he wanted to attend his daughter's 8th grade graduation. If you don't have such a close family behind you, it means so much less when you win the British Open a month later.

    In the same way, the other day I read this from author Joe Haldeman: "I think the creation of any art, even mediocre art, helps balance a person; helps him or her understand and enjoy life. I fool around with music and painting in this spirit. I'll never find fame or fortune with guitar or brush, but don't expect to. Both activities are vital to my life nevertheless."

    I'm always amazed at how much you fit into your life, on so many fronts, and I think your life is one of your best creations.

    1. That's a great quote from Joe Haldeman. (I totally agree with him. I will never be a professional singer, but I sure have fun making music.)

      And on life as a creation: I always think of the Screwtape Letters quote about the devil liking nothing more than to have a man say upon his death, "I now see that I spent most of my life in doing neither what I ought nor what I liked." I often wish I could get better about doing what I should, but at the very least I'm determined to say I didn't miss out on doing what I liked.

      On Alathian magic: yep. :) Haha, there was even a scene in my original pre-book-deal draft of The Tainted City in which Marten dragged Dev & Kiran to a formal concert put on by the Arcanum's mages (it was supposed to be the "team introduction" scene). Kiran was blown away (he'd never before heard complex choral music); Dev was heartily unimpressed. ("Give me a good drumming circle any day, with rhythms so strong a man's feet can't help but move, and bone flutes shrilling wild enough to shiver his heart from his chest.")

    2. Never thought I'd say this, but in this particular case I'd much rather go to a concert with a blood mage than a rock climber. :-)

  2. Oh man, an absolutely perfect post that piggybacks EXACTLY on the excellent advice you just gave me on my blog. Truly. I will just mental note to come to you any time I feel like having a mental breakdown from here on out.

    P.S.- I'm going to pay it forward by reposting everyone's advice in a new post later this afternoon. Hopefully your advice will go viral... :)

    1. Lisa, totally feel free to email me if any mental breakdowns should threaten. :) I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have survived this last year or so with my sanity intact if not for the awesome author-friends I've met along the way. Really, REALLY helps to have people you can talk to privately via email when times are hard - because one of the weird things about being a pro author (as opposed to unpublished writer) is that it's often ill-advised to share your woes publicly. For one thing, you don't want to discuss private business matters in public. Similarly, you don't want to react to reviews, editorial letters, etc, in an unprofessional manner. But more than that, there can be this weird sense of guilt...you've achieved a goal that many people are still struggling to attain. How dare you be unhappy when plenty of other writers would LOVE to have your problems?

      So you email your author-friends, and vent your frustrations in private, and they totally get it because they're right there in that same trench with you. And you all help each other remember what's really important: how much you love the story you're trying to tell, and how fun it will be to share it.