Communion Of Dreams


Get lucky.

“I’d rather be lucky than good.” — Lefty Gomez

* * * * * * *

In a fairly soul-baring piece by Emily Gould about the reality of struggling to be an ostensibly ‘successful’ writer, this should give even the most optimistic person pause:

In 2008 I sold a book-in-progress for $200,000 ($170,000 after commission, to be paid in four installments), which still seems to me like a lot of money. At the time, though, it seemed infinite. The resulting book—a “paperback original,” as they’re called—has sold around 8,000 copies, which is about a fifth of what it needed to sell not to be considered a flop. This essentially guarantees that no one will ever pay me that kind of money to write a book again.

 

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In a discussion over on MetaFilter, successful Science Fiction author Charlie Stross had some thoughts on the above-cited essay. Here’s an excerpt from his comment:

In 2001 I had a gigantic stroke of good luck: I acquired a [good] literary agent and sold my first novel. It was about the tenth novel or novel-shaped-thing I’d written since 1990, on my own time. The advance was, eventually, $15,000 for US rights (a good first book advance in SF/F) and £3500 for UK rights. Note that a new novelist can’t get follow-on book contracts until their first book has proven itself in print — to justify the advance money the new contract will cost the publisher — so I had to keep up the freelance journalism for a few more years.

 

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“A gigantic stroke of good luck.”

But Stross is a good writer, right? I mean, doesn’t he deserve his success and popularity? The meritocracy of the marketplace and all that?

Perhaps. From an NPR story the other day:

Several years ago, Princeton professor Matthew Salganik started thinking about success, specifically about how much of success should be attributed to the inherent qualities of the successful thing itself, and how much was just chance. For some essentially random reason, a group of people decided that the thing in question was really good and their attention attracted more attention until there was a herd of people who believed that it was special mostly because all the other people believed that it was, but the successful thing wasn’t in fact that special.

Salganik came up with a clever experiment, one which allowed a large number of teenagers (30,000) access to several dozen songs by promising but as yet unsigned bands. The way the experiment ran created 9 different iterations of ‘reality’, to see whether the same song would become the most popular one in each test run. They didn’t. In fact, the results were wildly divergent:

“For example, we had this song ‘Lock Down’ by the band 52 Metro,” Salganik says. “In one world this song came in first; in another world it came in 40th out of 48th. And this was exactly the same song. It’s just in these different worlds, history evolved slightly different. There were differences in the beginnings, and then the process of social influence and cumulative advantage sort of magnified those small, random initial differences.”

Now obviously there are many different things that have an impact on success and failure — money, race and a laundry list of other things — and after this work, which one person in the field described as a seminal paper, Salganik went on to do similar studies with parallel worlds that suggest that quality does have at least a limited role. It is hard to make things of very poor quality succeed — though after you meet a basic standard of quality, what becomes a huge hit and what doesn’t is essentially a matter of chance.

 

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Another comment a little after Stross’s in that MeFi discussion offered a different perspective that’s worth considering:

Emily Gould’s example is crucial because she is the primary example of a writer who had succeeded. She did everything she was supposed to do: came to NYC, produced a ton of successful content for a big brand website, then continued on her own to create a huge internet presence, and then branched out into conventional media (the NYT piece) and eventually a six-figure book deal. If you think of the thousands of writers who are racking up credit card debt writing for free or almost on free all those websites we read every day, they are trying to become Emily Gould. Regardless of what they might think of her work itself, that’s the approximate career path they’re trying to follow.

So when people are glibly like, “Oh, she lived in a one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn, there’s your problem,” what they’re saying is: the pinnacle of this career is one in which you will never be able to afford to live on your own, never mind have kids or financial stability or even a regular writing paycheck, the end. And that should really give us pause.

Because, sure, you can say “She should never have come to New York, she should always have kept a full time job in a different profession, etc. etc.” But to work for Gawker, she had to come to New York. To gain the kind of name recognition she has, she had to work full time posting and networking and Tweeting and, basically, working for free. And when her book failed, it didn’t fail because it was “bad” – because she wrote, in the book, the exact same way she wrote online. For better or for worse, that was what people liked. The real, applicable lesson is that the book failed because the people who read her stuff online didn’t care enough to pay for it in print.

 

* * * * * * *

“I’d rather be lucky than good.” — Lefty Gomez

I used to think that this was wrong. In fact I was quite confident that my intelligence, hard work, and focus could overcome any barrier. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with any of those things.

But I’ve seen too much life to still believe that. Yeah, I’d rather be lucky than good.

Back to work.

 

Jim Downey



Ride a painted pony*

“Could you take care of this for me?” I said. “I find myself surprisingly … attached.”

* * * * * * *

Just a couple pages into Communion of Dreams, there’s this passage:

He picked up a meal at the airport and ate in the car on the way over to his office, relaxing and watching the city roll by around him.

Early in the second chapter there’s this one:

The car he was in threaded through the old suburban streets, past still vacant houses and the occasional empty lot. Following the great death of the fire-flu, many homes had simply been abandoned.

The opening paragraph of Chapter 3:

‘What was it?’ he wondered as the car wound through the streets, stopping before the USSA building. He got out, standing there in the plaza, looking up at the golden plasteel supports and the draping glass fabric.

As a writer, particularly of science fiction, you have to know what to explain and what to just assume. By this I mean you have to explain certain things to the reader, enough to give them a grasp on important story elements, but that you can assume they will fill in the background with other less important elements on their own.

Nowhere in Communion of Dreams do I state that cars are largely self-driving. There’s really no need to. Most readers are used enough to the tropes of science fiction that they can read the above passages, and fill in that detail on their own. It’s a little trick which helps anchor the reality of the book in the mind of the reader quickly.

* * * * * * *

And, honestly, the notion of a self-driving car is only barely science fiction at this point. I mean, one of the primary issues right now is having our legal system play catch-up with the technological changes in this field. From a discussion on the Diane Rehm Show yesterday:

GJELTEN: So the — I guess what — driverless cars have been in development for many years. But the big news this week is this law that passed in California allowing some driving of self-driving cars. Tell us what’s in this law exactly.

LEVANDOWSKI: Well, this law is called SB 1298, and it sets forth the framework for the DMV to set up the guidelines that vehicles will need to adhere to in order to, in the future, be able to drive themselves with or without people inside them. It outlines the type of technical standards, the types of insurance requirements. Everything that you would expect a person to go through when they get their driver’s license, you would expect a vehicle that doesn’t have a driver in it to be able to have.

* * * * * * *

“I do feel that I’m a very lucky, lucky person, in all sorts of ways. And one of the ways in which I’m fortunate is Harry Potter set me free to write whatever I want to write. I don’t — you know, we’re not living hand-to-mouth — I, clearly I can afford to pay all of my bills and now my writing life is a great experience. I can really do whatever I want to do. So I’m a fortunate person — I’m a fortunate writer.”

From JK Rowling’s interview on “Morning Edition” today.

* * * * * * *

“Could you take care of this for me?” I said. “I find myself surprisingly … attached.”

“Sure,” said my wife.

Attached?

Yeah, to my car.

Which is a surprise. Because I don’t usually become attached to things. Oh, I keep some things for sentimental value, because they are somehow connected to an important person or event in my life.  But otherwise I tend to be very pragmatic about material things.

I got the car new 20 years ago. A Subaru wagon, which served me well. The last five or six years when it needed work I would weigh the pros and cons of getting the work done — was it worth it? Could I afford it? Could I afford not to?

See, I don’t *really* need a car. I work at home. For a while now when I needed to drive any distance, I took my wife’s car anyway, since it is a few years newer and in substantially better shape.

This past spring it developed some exhaust problems. The work it needed was more than the car was worth. I decided the time had come to just sell it and be done. Consolidating down to one car for the household would be a minor annoyance, but made the most sense.

Well, I made the intellectual decision. The emotional one, I found, wasn’t quite as easy.

Why?

I owned, and drove, that car for more than half the time I’ve had a driver’s license. There was simple ‘time in harness’ associated with it.

But there was more. Specifically, status.

I don’t worry a lot about status. As in, conventional measures of “success” in our society. When you don’t make a lot of money, you learn to not put so much store in such things, or it’ll drive you completely nuts. And as I noted earlier this year, I don’t make a lot of money.

But confronting the hard truth that I can not afford to buy a new car was a bit more than I really wanted to face. And selling my car meant exactly that. Because in our society, if you sell your car, you’re supposed to get another one. Preferably a new one. At the very least, a newer one. To not do so means you’re not successful.

And you should never, ever, under no circumstances, admit that you’re not successful.

So, yeah, the emotional truth was harder to come to terms with. Which would mean that I would be piss-poor at selling my car — at advertising it, at negotiating a sale, all that stuff.

But I’ve come to realize that there are other approaches to defining success, other strategies which can change how you accomplish things. My Kickstarter project is one such, stepping in to crowd-fund what a conventional publishing contract would previously do.

So I asked my wife to take care of it. She didn’t have the same emotional baggage to contend with. And she took care of it in her usual competent & efficient manner: last night the car drove away from our driveway for the last time.

Who knows? Maybe next year, after St. Cybi’s Well is done and available, it’ll be enough of a hit that I’ll be able to afford a new car. One which can partially drive itself. Stranger things have happened. Just ask JK Rowling.

 

Jim Downey

*Well, it seemed appropriate.