How Writers Fail (Part 2)

From Kristine Kathryn Rus ch:

Because of last summer’s move, we reorganized our books. We are in a smaller space than we were in Oregon, so we got rid of a lot of our books—the ones we didn’t need for research or the ones we liked, but didn’t love.

Now, we’re left with the ones that are actual favorites. It’s rather interesting to both of us to note how our tastes change over time. Dean got rid of works by a writer whom he once loved, but who became a factory, writing with others whom Dean didn’t like as well, and that colored his entire attitude toward that writer.

I got rid of over 100 romance novels because I either couldn’t remember them or they no longer spoke to me. That still left me with a rather large collection. Every time I look at them, I feel inspired, which is why they’re still in my life.

The hardest thing, though, the saddest thing, to me anyway, are the writers whose work just stops. Not because Dean or I got tired of reading them or the writer veered into territory we weren’t interested in. But because something got in the way of the writing.

We discussed one writer recently who was badly—and I mean badly—treated by Bantam Books. That highly acclaimed writer hasn’t written anything that I know of in the past five years or more. They could still sell books traditionally to a smaller company than before. They also have a wide open short story market. But I’m pretty sure that what happened at Bantam, which isn’t something I’m able to discuss, literally broke their spirit.

And, as an older writer, they didn’t feel like they could pivot into a world of publishing that is strange to all of us.

That conversation with Dean, combined with sorting and refiling all the books, and a line in an article I read some time ago about Liz Phair combined into this post.

First, the little passing remark from a reviewer about the musician Liz Phair.

I was reading the July 2021 issue Entertainment Weekly. I turned to an article on Liz Phair’s newest album and realized I hadn’t thought of her for years. She’s not a personal favorite, so I was aware of her work, but not following it.

My sense of Liz Phair, really? was an accurate one, though, because, it turns out the new album, Soberish, is her first in eleven years. She hasn’t been idle. She wrote a book, wrote for television, and did a variety of other things.

But she hadn’t produced an album in quite a while.

In the middle of the article, there’s this analysis:

Phair recorded the new album with Brad Wood, the engineer and producer who helped bring her ’90s albums to life. Their pairing is even more ideal three decades out; they’re not afraid to take chances, like starting a big comeback album on an uncertain note, as Soberish does when Phair asks “Is something wrong?”

The part that struck me is this: they’re not afraid to take chances. And, the reviewer, Maura Johnston, seems to believe this is because they’re not afraid because they’ve been in the business for a long time.

That might be true. It might not.

Because what I see from writers who’ve been in the business for a very, very long time is a lot of fear. 

. . . .

When you get burned the way that the Bantam writer above got burned, the natural human response is to try to prevent that from ever happening again. Some writers prevent that by refusing to work with that company or editor, or these days, by publishing indie.

Others stop writing altogether to prevent that kind of problem.

And then there are the writers who are on the flip side of the badly burned problem. Sure, they’ve had serious and frightening setbacks, but they’ve also had so much success that they’re afraid to mess with it.

The phrase we use in our house is that they’re “protecting their lead.” I learned it from Dean, and he initially used it to talk about tournament golf (which he used to play). A lot of players end up in the lead after 3 days of play because they were playing loose or freely. And then, they wake up on the final morning and become cautious.

They’re protecting their lead, and it often leads to failure, because golf courses, like life sometimes, require a certain style of play. If you change your style of play midstream, you’ll probably tamper with your success.

The writers who protect their lead write the same thing over and over and over again. They read their reviews, know what’s expected of them, and try to deliver it. I just read a book like that from a writer whose work I used to love.

Lately, his work has shown the tendency to write what he’s known for, which is (in some circles) twists and plot surprises. Those things only work when you’re not expecting them, and he’s been putting them into his stories like tinsel on a badly decorated Christmas tree. I hope he gets past it, I do, but I suspect he’s afraid of losing his success, so he’s trying to replicate it, rather than let the stories flow the way they want to.

Link to the rest at Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Here’s a link to Kris Rusch’s books. If you like the thoughts Kris shares, you can show your appreciation by checking out her books.

14 thoughts on “How Writers Fail (Part 2)”

    • Donaldson has never written short narratives. Or simple trilogies. Any publisher would know this. But as he pointed out, the driver isn’t his writing style (which is lean rather than verbose, anyway) but rather the rising production costs, particularly of paper. I doubt he enjoyed cutting out a full novel’s worth (59,000 words) out of the third volume of a trilogy.
      Maybe he’ll take note of what Sanderson pulled off. He is one of the few fantasy authors who can aspire to a successful fractional emulation.

      I expect more of this kind of hijinks.

  1. I hope he gets past it, I do, but I suspect he’s afraid of losing his success, so he’s trying to replicate it, rather than let the stories flow the way they want to.

    Perhaps he’s replicating cash flow rather than story flow.

    • I think that is what she means.

      That is just another form of writing to market, squelching creativity in favor of revenue, thinking you can’t have both. Not necessarily true. Especially since fans do get tired of the “same old, same old” and the same publishers who encourage it drop the writer when the revenue begins to drop.

      Rules are different for Indies but the danger of becoming a “one trick pony” impacts everybody. The best/longest careers come from balancing creativity and revenue streams. The need to choose one or the other is the kind of false expectation KKR refers to.

      Examples abound: Tom Clancy had an idea and wrote a book. It sold like crazy. He wasn’t tge best of writers but he was adequate and his stories interesting enough. Massive fanbase. He kept on doing nothing but variations on tbe theme until he got tired/it became more trouble than it was worth to him/whatever. He sold out for big bucks. Good business probably but his writing career as such is more of a footnote. He got while the getting was good and moved on. Not what most people who get into writing are after and something few will ever achieve.

      More imprtantly, it nothing to build expectations around.
      Anybody who gets into writing solely for the money woukd be best served by doing something else.

      A contrast to Clancy is somebody who I mention from time to time: John Ringo, who by all accounts make good money, has created multiple successful series tbat he, yes, exploits doing “variations on a theme”, but that he has no compunction about moving on when he tires of tbe same old. Often before fans are willing to let go. 😀

      Ringo is a writer first, and a money machine second: he has played in a half dozen genres and subgenres as his muse strikes him. His most famous/infamous venture came when he got curious about how distasteful a protagonist he could write that would still “work” in the tough guy action thriller space, a subgenre he had no intentional presence in. When he threw it out it was well received by readers who got the joke. Not quite what he was after so he made the character an even worse, more damaged human. Even more approval. He kept it up until *he* couldn’t stand the character but it still worked. Shrugging, he dialed it back, put the character on a redemptive track and got a 6 book series that was selling enough when he abandoned it that another writer did a volume. He moved on from the PALADIN OF SHADOWS leaving money on tbe table and instead made the same or more off a different series. Writer first.

      Both Clancy and Ringo are both outliers, few can go where tbey’ve been but they do highlight what is doable. Everybody chooses their path but no single road is mandatory. It’s all about the person and tbeir goals and expectations. The trick is finding a path they can actually travel. The danger is unreacheable/self-defeating expectations.

      • BTW, KKR and DWS are both focused on professional writers who want *long* careers writing.
        Decades earning a living writing and *enjoying it*.

        Short term tactics that might nonetheless work (for a while) are not in their mindset.

      • Especially since fans do get tired of the “same old, same old” and the same publishers who encourage it drop the writer when the revenue begins to drop.

        I’m reminded of the 641 Mack Bolan novels. People are dying before they get tired of them. I saw the first one in a barracks full of 18-year-old Boomers over 50 years ago.

        Soap Operas? How many times can they cycle through the same small backstabbing circle of people playing musical beds?

        Law & Order? Crusading public employees catch and convict bad guy in two gripping half hour sequences.

        A river of gold.

        • Are you sure it’s the same guys buying all 641 books?
          Just because they all sell enough to keep the bookmill running doesn’t mean everybody has been along for the full ride. Or for that matter, that book 640 sold as well as book 1. And while the *publisher* stays the same, the writers aren’t.

          Law and Order was cancelled after 29 seasons of *changing casts* and different stories by different writers. The just restarted it with a different cast yet again and a different slant. It effectively soft rebooted every couple of years.

          Comic do the same thing.

          Your argument works for the publisher but not for the authors.
          And as I pointed out, KKR is speaking to authors.

          Just about the only author running a single series, by himself, into multiple dozens is Piers Anthony and he has been known to grumble that he isn’t necessarily enjoying it, even tbough he tries to make each volume different enough to seem different. The formula is pretty hardwired, though. But its the only thing the publisher wants. He used to do other things on tbe side (INCARNATIONS OF IMMORTALITY, BIO OF A SPACE TYRANT) but lately not even that.

          Good money, probably, but not much room to get creative.

          • I have no idea what subset of consumers buy the books. But, I’d say it’s safe to surmise that the repetitive theme taps into something seated deep down in the limbic cortex. I read my first Mack Bolan when I was one of those 18-ear-olds in the barracks. I forgot all about them until I recently saw a reference. So I bought a new one. It’s the same book fifty-five years later. I loved it.

            Around the same time, my total experience with romances made it all the way to page 25 in a layover crossing the Pacific, I suspect the same thing is at work.

            And what works for publishers works for anyone. It’s a function of market, and persistent demand. Joseph Campbell’s “hero with a thousand faces.” Tap into that, and the actor doesn’t matter. Who’s the author whose mysteries run through the alphabet? Dick Francis wrote 40 books in a racetrack.

            Note the wanna-bees clamoring for the demise of copyright so they can jump on characters created by someone else and make a buck. (Looks like one of those guardians of our common cultural legacy just made Winnie-The -Pooh a serial killer.)

            Find the enduring and persistent human drives, cater to them, and cash in.

  2. Having Donaldson ordered to cut 100k from his latest book by editorial fiat is insane.

    David Wingrove, and his still incomplete Chung Kuo series, is another example.

    He wrote eight books in the 90s, with the last ones butchered by editorial fiat. Then he had another go at the series doing major rewrites from the start, the new publisher put out eight beautiful trade paper books in a possible twenty book series, then that stumbled to a stop.

    Looking now, I find that the series is continuing under somebody else and are up to book 12, so maybe I will finally be able to read all twenty books.

    As I mentioned over on Kris’ blog:

    – Success to me is writing the books and publishing them, period

    Instead of doing their own books, they are holding themselves hostage to someone else’s whim, using the wrong definition of “success”.

    Another timely version of this is:

    Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song – Official Trailer (2022) Leonard Cohen

    • There is a tendency among the tradpubbed to equate their success with the publisher’s success.

      In the olden days that was mostly true: the only way to get published was to sell the manuscript to a publisher and they would only buy more if tbe last one sold. And with the herd mentality of the Manhattan Mafia one bomb killed your career with all of them.

      (C.f. George R.R. Martin and his two careers in books. His first ended with one overly ambitious book and after that he was a leper to them. He moved to Hollywood and was successful enough to survive until the NYC crowd aged out and one of the new guys bothered to read his work. Others survived by switching genres, say from SF&F to historical fiction.)

      Nowadays it doesn’t have to be.
      There’s as many definitions of success as there are writers and not all require somebody else telling you what you can or can’t do.

      That is progress.
      For authors, anyway.

      • I remembered an article that discussed publishing from 1997, that made sense at the time. Of course this article came out just before the collapse of the distribution network and that collapsed so many careers, but I digress,

        Jump-Starting a Stalled (Or Dead) Career

        This book is from 1996. It was brilliant when it came out, insightful, and gave a solid view of what the industry was like, then the collapse happened soon after. Maass has written many great books showing the industry that existed just before each book came out. They are well worth tracking down and reading.

        The Career Novelist: A Literary Agent Offers Strategies For Success – pdf

        The article and book show the world that Trad published people still think exists. That was nearly 30 years ago, yet this is what they still believe. Yikes!

        • In tbe tech world, it is called paradigm lag.
          The idea being that while leading researchers are working on the newest developments, the establishment lives in the previous model and the general public is two paradigms behind.

          If you look at how book publishing is rendered in movies and TV they’re still living in the world of the little shop and small publishers with editors intimately involved in each book (especially the protagonist), ignoring the consolidation that has been going on for two generations, the rise and fall of the chains, the online revolution, the used book revolution, the ebook mainstreaming, and the rise of Indie, inc.

          Established legacy authors might be vaguely aware of those changes but internally they still live in the Sue Grafton paradigm of “focus on your craft and trust the universe to take care of you”. Yeah, right, like the universe took care of Chuck Palahniuk.

          There’s a cruel old joke in the physics world:
          “Q: How do you teach an old physicist new tricks?”
          “A: You don’t. You take him out back, shoot him, and hire a new physicist.”

          Ageist, but all too often true.

          The publishing equivalent being Scalzi’s sniffy reaction to Sanderson’s coup.
          Instead of being supportive of a pioneer showing the way to the future he sought to minimize the significance.

          Best approach to those folk is what I call the “Ian Fleming solution”: LIVE AND LET DIE. The future will arrive whether they beleve it or not.

          (Good links, BTW. Both authors credible sources…in their time. Unfortunateky, this isn’t their time anymore. Reminds me, its been a while since we heard from Shatzkin…Or B&N.)

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