When You've "Made It"

How do you know when you've gotten your big break?

This will be my last post for Ask an Author. Thanks y’all for sticking with me. It’s been a good year of columns, and I’ve really felt good doing it. I hope you all have gotten some insights out of it!

One question — or sentiment — I see a lot is about getting one’s “big break” in writing. Or how you know when you’ve “made it.”

Weirdly, here are a whole long list of things that don’t mean that. Or at least, they certainly haven’t felt that way after the fact to me or to friends of mine who’ve gotten them — they may be nice milestones, but they haven’t meant it’s suddenly going to be smooth sailing from here on out. Far from it:

  • A book deal

  • A large six-figure multi-book deal

  • Hitting the NYT Bestseller List

  • Getting a bunch of starred reviews

  • Earning enough to quit the day job

  • Regularly hitting best-of anthologies

  • Getting a major award nomination

  • Winning a major award

  • Getting a movie option

  • Having your movie go into production

  • Having been a professional writer for a decade

  • …Etc.

I’m not going to deny that these can be desirable things. Of course they are. But… at this point in my career, I know quite a lot of people who’ve earned a solid handful of these things, including myself.

And it’s still so fucking hard.

It still often feels like we’re only as good as our last success.

Like each small victory is a blip that fades too fast, and we’re hitting exponential decay until our next release. I still know so many people — who have had quite a few successes like these! — playing “advance arithmetic” with their finances, or tiredly trying to keep up with the Amazon algorithms, or looking worriedly at every new update to health insurance legislation.

Maybe there does exist some turning-point event at which point it’s possible to feel like you’ve “made it.” Maybe it’s with the seven-figure deals, or hitting the bestseller list for a year, or the movie that spawns a wildly successful franchise. Who knows? I don’t know enough of those people to say. ;)

But here’s where this post gets more optimistic, as promised in the column before this one.

Because yeah… career and financial security do increase. They do! Just — slowly. And not at all steadily. It very, very, very rarely happens in a single moment, a single huge book deal, a single runaway bestseller. Instead…

Here’s the way I think about it. It’s like pecking one’s way up a mountain. And sometimes having to backtrack. And sometimes slipping down on a load of scree, or taking a tumble into a crevasse and having to find one’s way out. And sometimes having to take a very circuitous route to get only a few meters more of altitude. But slowly, over time, on average… slowly starting to make it higher and higher.

And the good news is, it’s not just the “big” stuff that gets you up another few steps. It’s everything. Every victory, no matter how small. Some might get you a little farther than others, but they’re all accumulating, adding a bit more onto that total.

Even if a success might feel less consequential in the moment, it’ll still give another small boost, another step forward. They may not be the “big break” that means you’ve “made it”, but they give you another meter up that path, or another five, or another ten. Or they may be some rope out of the next crevasse, or some more strength for the next fall. And every one of these victories, from the bigger feathers in one’s cap to the very smallest successes — begins to accumulate, until you look back and you realize you’re a lot higher above ground than you expected.

There’s a word we use in math — “monotonic” — to mean a graph that increases without ever decreasing (i.e., goes steadily upward with no dips down) or, the reverse, that it decreases without ever increasing. I think about this characterization often with regard to writing.

A writing career can almost never be graphed as a monotonically increasing function. It doesn’t only go up without dipping back down now and then along the way.

But it is, more often than not, an increasing graph, if you zoom out far enough. One with bad days, or bad months, or bad years, but if you look at it over a long enough time, you’ll see it going up. Slowly and non-monotonically. As every one of those victories, no matter how small — every short story sale, every event, every reprint request, every subrights sale — as everything builds, and builds, and builds.

So no, I don’t think the big break is something that should be expected, or even really aimed at as an achievable goal. But the small accumulations over time, until you’ve built up and up and up? That’s achievable. That, I think we can all aim for, and not think about it like an unlikely lottery win, but something we can attain. Something we can keep attaining, over time, slowly and in a way that might not look like we expected — but we can.

We can make it.

Thanks for taking this year’s journey of writing columns with me. And here’s to continued, mounting writing victories for all of us.

Writing, Failure, and Time

Failure and time and success in writing.

Time for the last two articles of this column. Warning: lots of meanderings ahead about writing and “success,” ones that I hope will, on the whole, be encouraging and helpful.

Even though the first thing I want to talk about is… failure.

Years ago, some of my friends in tech were talking about succeeding at founding a startup. For those who don’t know, that’s a very, very unlikely endeavor, like threading the eye of a needle. One of my friends opined on how the most important quality to have was the ability — not only the ability, but the willingness — to fail. And fail. And fail again. And keep failing, and, more importantly, keep going.

I think the same is true of a writing career.

This may sound like a corny inspirational poster. But this isn’t just “try, try again” in different words. Because… I don’t know that it always is the right decision to try again. A lot of people burn out and go to do something that doesn’t suck them so dry emotionally, over and over again. A lot of people decide it isn’t worth the heartbreak and move on to lives that make them happier. To take a sequence of events that is destroying you and opt out of it is… it’s not a failure of character. It’s a personal decision that only needs to make sense to the person making it.

But I do think — and here I think back to something we used to say in movies, another career that is so unlikely and difficult and so few people succeed at — we used to say that the people who succeed in movies are the people who are left.

The people who have managed to last long enough without deciding it just wasn’t worth it.

It doesn’t sound like so much of a badge of character then. Lasting long enough. Success by virtue of still continuing, however tiredly, to throw your hat in.

It was largely true of movies, for me and many of my friends. It’s largely true of so many competitive, difficult, heartbreaking careers.

And not only careers. The idea for this column was prompted, in part, when through Reddit I stumbled across this post, which maps out the user’s various failures throughout grad school. Reading that diary of events, you can well imagine what that kind of journey can feel like from the inside. That everything is going wrong. That everything is turning worse, and worse. Stress. Pain. Grief.

The writer might have quit and gone on to live a very happy life elsewhere. But he didn’t.

He stayed.

In writing, rough times can be so low that every time I’m in a room with a bunch of writers who have been in the industry more than ten years or so, there’s a… jaded-ness to it. Because everyone in that room has seen a hell of a lot of failure.

Recently, on Twitter, someone with access to a database looked up how many books writers generally last in the industry for. Over 80% of published authors quit within 3 books. And that’s published authors — that’s not counting all of the thousands or even millions of aspiring authors out there. Only about 10% of published authors make it to six books. And only 5% make it to twelve.

Considering how hard it is to finish a book and get published at all, those are very low numbers. A friend talked to me recently about how people simply… disappear out of writing, all the time.

And I get it.

It’s hard. I’ve been doing this too long now to judge anyone who decides to stop. I can’t say I’ve never thought about it myself.

But there’s also a perverse sort of encouragement to all this, to me. Because it means… maybe the most important quality to career success (not saying anything about artistic success, but career success) is the mere fact of keeping on.

Which isn’t nearly as easy as it sounds… but it’s also not an impossible lottery win.

This is a little bit of a depressing post, but I promise it’s paired with my last post for this column… which is the other side of the coin, and a little more optimistic.

Should I Use a Pen Name?

An age-old question

I’ve been experiencing some more pandemic-related schedule slippage, but I know I owe y’all three more columns, and the final two are ones I prepared a while ago. So those will come out this week, and thanks for sticking with me this past year!

For today, before wrapping up I wanted to write up another question I see a lot: should you use a pen name?

This is a pretty personal question, and everyone will have to figure out the answer for themselves. But here some common pros and cons people consider in picking whether to use a pseudonym.

Reasons to use a pseudonym:

  • Privacy — Though of course be aware that a pseudonym will only be a small layer of protection. Enough digging would still find out personal information about you… but it makes it a little harder and puts another obstacle up for anyone to doxx you.

  • Google separation — This is a very good reason to use a pen name, even a pen name that might not even be very different from / anonymous from your real name. Especially if you have something like a day job under your real name, academic publications under your real name, personal social accounts under your own name, or anything else you want to keep separately “categorized,” it can be really helpful to have search engine separation. That way, whenever anyone searches your fiction byline, they find your fiction; whereas whenever someone searches, say, your academic byline, they find your academic articles. This is one reason authors who write in vastly different genres sometimes choose to do so under separate pen names, even if the connection isn’t so secret.

  • A hard-to-spell/remember/pronounce name — You certainly don’t have to pick a different name just because you think people will have trouble with yours! After all, rumor has it that when Arnold Schwarzenegger was asked if he ever considered a stage name because people found his hard to pronounce, he said something like, “But they never forget it.” And nobody should ever feel obligated not to go by their own name. But it’s also fine for this to be a reason for a pen, if you’re feeling it.

  • A very common name / one similar to another author’s — Again, you can certainly still use your name if it’s common or easily confused with someone else. After all, it’s your name! But it’s also not a wrong reason to pick a pseudonym, either.

  • Hiding ethnicity and/or gender — Unfortunately, there’s still systemic prejudice in the publishing industry. Just for example, sexism is still a reason some women choose to go by initials. I hate that this is still a reason.

  • You want something unconnected to other name changes — For example, if you think you might get married and/or divorced, or go through any other name changes, you may want to choose a byline that will be a constant in your professional life and still consistently feel like you.

  • Branding — Maybe you want a name that “sounds” a bit more euphonious with your brand, like something sharper and more abrupt for thrillers or something more fanciful for absurdist fantasy. Sure, why not?

  • Re-branding — And sometimes, if you’re switching genres or trying to recover from a major career setback, re-branding with a new and different name will be what makes sense to do, regardless of whether you used your real name for the first one.

  • Or if you just want to — And if you just want to pick your own byline, that in itself is a fine reason to use a pen name.

And here are common reasons not to use a pen name:

  • You feel a personal connection to your name — After all, it’s your name, and maybe you want to see it in print.

  • Something about your name is important to your identity — For instance, maybe you’ve already switched names later in life because of affirming gender identity, reinventing yourself, or separating from abusive family, among many other important reasons people change names. Or maybe your name is strongly connected to your family or culture. Or maybe you were named after someone in a way that’s important for you to recognize and honor.

  • You started publishing under it and you want to continue building your bibliography — I know some people who have switched after their first few publications, and it’s been fine, but if you decide it makes the most sense to keep going with your real name, that’s cool too.

  • You want your byline to be connected to your non-writing work — This is especially true for people trying to leverage their profiles from other lines of work. For example, a well-known YouTuber who writes a fiction book, or a computer scientist who writes a technothriller, or a lawyer who writes a legal thriller — maybe it would make sense then to keep the same name and cross-pollinate publicity.

  • Contracts are slightly easier when using a legal name — This is not actually too big of a reason, given most of the industry is used to writers having pen names. So it’s not really a reason not to use a pen name, in my experience. But it is true that there’s a little less contract/payment friction when your legal name matches your byline, and when contracts start getting bigger and hairier, this starts to matter more. So even though dealing with contracts and payments under a pen name isn’t too big a deal in almost all circumstances, that still might feel important to some people, especially if you have any other personalized headaches when it comes to contracts and payment (for example, if you’re working from outside the U.S.).

  • You just want to — Nothing wrong with that!

In the end, you’ll have to pick what feels right to you. There’s no wrong answer here. Just try to think through the future scenarios of how you might want to brand/promote/identify yourself and how it will feel. It does get harder to switch your choice the deeper you get into a writing career, but you can always do that, too — I know several people who’ve switched after a lengthy short story catalog or even after releasing some novels. It’s not ideal, and it’s not something you want to do at the drop of a hat — your byline becomes your brand name, after all — but it’s also not impossible, either.

Pick something that feels good to you, whether that’s your everyday name or one you invent only for your writing.

Short Answers: Taxes on Self-Publishing, Holiday Gifts, an Ask An Author Book?

Some bite-sized questions and answers.

As the column draws to a close I’m gathering some last smaller questions into a last question-and-answer column. Most of these I’ve answered through email already, because they were quick and didn’t make a full newsletter, but I’ve been bookmarking the answers to collect publicly.

Here goes:

1. Self-Publishing and Taxes

The Question: [Self-publishing] Taxes! Aaaa! How easy were they to file? Does Amazon make it a challenge to have all your taxes in order? Anything I should watch out for?

The U.S. tax deadline got pushed this year, but it’s still around the right season for this. Don’t worry — self-publishing income gets treated just like any other self-employment income, the same way you’d file any other income from writing. You asked about Amazon specifically; they make it very easy — you can download a 1099 from a secure portal shortly after the end of the year.

Some of the other vendors are a little more complicated — for example, if memory serves Kobo is not a U.S. company and doesn’t issue a 1099. Remember, you have to list all your income whether or not you got a 1099 for it. Check your records to make sure you’re listing all your income, but filing taxes for self-publishing is pretty much the same as filing other writing taxes, since as far as I know we get classified the same by the IRS whether we work with a publisher or not.

For more details on filing writer taxes in general, see this previous column.

2. Holiday Gifts

The Question: I know you did something before on gifting within the industry, but with the holidays coming I could use some advise on the etiquette. I assume general holiday wishes are okay — but are they expected? Are gifts expected? Help!

This question came in too close to the holidays last year for me to squeeze it in, so I wrote the asker an answer and saved it for the next year. But with the column ending, we’ll do New Year’s in April.

I did do a longer column on gifts, and the advice from that newsletter applies to the holidays: give something if you feel moved to; don’t if you don’t. Gifts to your agent or editor around the end-of-year holidays are neither expected nor required.

Certainly good wishes never go amiss — though of course try not to assume anyone celebrates particular traditions — but don’t stress about it. It’s not unlikely you’ll have enough regular emails happening that some cheerful exchanges of holiday wishes will happen naturally anyway, but if you happen to be in a slow period in December, nobody’s going to be tracking whether you emailed in about the holidays. On the other hand, you can also use the holidays as a nice reason to touch base with people if you’re feeling like you want to check in.

If you feel inclined to send a small holiday gift or card, it’s perfectly within etiquette norms to do so, and I’m sure it will be appreciated. But it’s also completely within etiquette norms not to send anything.

Basically, do what feels natural here and don’t stress about it.

3. Market Submission Prioritization

The Question: Is it okay to not sub to a market because you disagree with them politically?

Short answer: yes, of course.

Longer answer: I promise, you can submit or not submit to any market you want for any reason you want. I’m not sure what you mean by “okay,” but you certainly won’t face any political trouble or professional consequences for quietly leaving a market off your sub list. In fact, nobody’s even going to know unless you say anything about it — it’s not like anyone else is tracking your subs.

Even if you run into an editor at a con and they say, “Hey, send me things!” and you don’t want to, chances are good they’ll never notice. Slush is so big and editors have many more important things to keep track of! But if you run into some strange and rare situation in which an editor is peering in on you and bugging you to submit to them… well, that’s weird and verging into unprofessional. You can demur by saying you have nothing available right now and everything’s out or being held at other markets, and if they keep pushing, it’s them who’s making things awkward, not you.

But that would be a very rare situation. As a general rule, editors really aren’t sitting down and figuring out which short story writers haven’t subbed to them in a while.

Now, if you want to be public about it and about your reasons, that’s a different story. If it’s more than a mere political difference, then there’s certainly value in speaking out about abusive markets or abusive editors, but choosing whether to do so is a dicey question that everyone needs to decide for themselves on a case by case basis, I think. Individuals and organizations like Writer Beware who speak out about poor actors in the industry are vital to the health of our profession and I have intense respect for them — speaking out does have value. But also don’t feel guilty about not being vocal if you don’t want to be.

Your question might mean “okay” in a more private ethical sense, though, rather than thinking about consequences or the danger of anyone finding out. And my answer is still the same: of course it’s okay. I move markets up and down my sub list for all sorts of reasons, some of which amount to nothing more than whimsy. It’s very common for people to pick who to sub to for all sorts of idiosyncratic reasons. Don’t sweat it.

4. An Ask An Author Book

The Question: Is there any value to gathering your columns together in the form of a book? The topics are incredibly informative and the writing style is a pleasure to read.

Nah, no plans for a book. This industry moves so fast that a lot of this is going to go out of date quickly, so a newsletter was really the right format for it. Maybe someday I’ll see if there are enough evergreen articles to compile, but no plans for it right now.

Thanks for the kind words on the column, though!

Diversity Panels at Conventions

Why they're good, and why we need to be careful about them

I just filled out another con programming survey (for a virtual event, in this day and age), one of many I’ve filled out now as an author.

The first few times I did one of these, I said “Yes! Put me on anything! All the things!” I’d seen authors expressing dislike of “diversity” panels, and I didn’t think I would be one of them. After all, I like talking about representation in media. But it turns out that by about three conventions in, I was writing the following: “I’m willing to do ‘diversity’ panels, but please not more than one, and please only if I’m also on other programming.” Because, as it turns out, doing regular panels is fun and energizing for me — whereas doing diversity panels is exhausting. I’m willing to do it because I think it’s important, but I really need some of the fun stuff, too.

That’s not the way everybody feels, of course, but it turns out there are quite a lot of reasons diversity panels can be harder than than most other programming. I want to talk for a minute about why they’re important, but also why they’re hard, and why some extra consideration needs to be taken with putting together these types of panels.

Diversity Panels: Why We Still Need Them

So why even have diversity panels? Panels about female characters, or queer people in SFF, or race-related tropes in fiction? Well, because they’re still needed.

The inequities in publishing are still extreme, and new people are entering the field all the time eager to learn and try to make things better. Diversity panels are a useful way to educate and spread perspectives.

But notice what this is — education. We often say in SFF that we need to value and compensate people in minority demographics when they educate. Conventions don’t generally compensate their panelists monetarily, but I think the way to think about this is respect. Respect panelists’ choices to do or not do diversity sessions, don’t pigeonhole us into them, and put “diversity” panelists on other panels as well.

I definitely don’t think diversity panels should go away, but I do think they should be thought of a little differently from regular programming, almost as an “extra” the panelists are doing as a service in which they’re compensated by getting other programming.

That’s the tl;dr version of what I think are the best practices here. But why do a lot of people dislike doing them, and why can they be so hard? Here are some things to remember about what makes diversity panels different.

1) We talk about painful things.

It can be upsetting — even traumatic — to dig into some of the stuff we get asked to pry open on diversity panels. Personal experiences, personal pain. A lot of people have very fraught histories with the subject and with the questions that will come up. You’re asking panelists to willingly go to that painful place for an hour and try to make powerful, professional communication out of it. It can be hard and tiring.

2) The moderation can more easily go off the rails.

This can happen in any panel, of course, but with difficult subject matter, there are more possible chances for the conversation to derail into bad places. A good moderator can shut that down, but it’s a distinct worry when the topic is already a painful one.

3) Audience members in the demographic in question expect the panel to be all things to all people in that demographic (with reason!).

I’m definitely not criticizing audience members here. It makes perfect sense that a person in a given demographic who goes to a panel about that demographic wants to see their experience reflected, at least in broad strokes. That’s a reasonable expectation.

But things run into trouble when the panel isn’t diverse enough within the demographic it represents (for example, a panel about women that’s entirely cis, straight, white women). Usually there is nothing the panelists could have done about this, although some panelists are speaking up in such situations—but it’s not even always immediately obvious there’s going to be a perspective missing. I’ve been on some extremely diverse “diversity” panels, in which the con did a great job bringing together people from all different backgrounds—and we still had people upset there were some experiences we didn’t end up addressing. And it’s the panelists who have to navigate this criticism in the moment. More times than not when I’ve done a “diversity” panel, someone in the audience has ended up unhappy with it, and told us so.

And usually, I’m perfectly sympathetic to what they’re saying! But simultaneously, it’s exhausting to try to be all things to all people. In an hour. When we’re not writing the questions being asked or at all in charge of who’s on the panel or what they’re going to say.

It’s just tiring.

There’s no good answer here — the audience’s needs are very understandable, but the limitations of a finite, human panel are also an unfortunate reality. Because demographics aren’t monoliths, and we need enough of us around that only a small handful aren’t being asked to represent everybody.

Unfortunately, we’re not there yet.

4) We don’t want to be pigeonholed.

This might be the most common reason I hear cited by underrepresented writers for why they don’t want to do diversity panels. We don’t only want to be recognized for the color of our skin or our gender identity — we want to be recognized for our prose ability, our business acumen, our knowledge of the field. We don’t want to be only on lists of “Writers of XYZ Identity;” we want to be on lists of writers.

It’s a bad feeling when a con gives you panels that are only about your identity and not your interests or accomplishments. And yeah, it’s happened to me, even after I started putting the explicit statement in my programming surveys that I wasn’t on board with that. (It was a whole other tiring thing to get it fixed.)

And the best part about putting people from underrepresented demographics on lots of different panels — panels that are unrelated to identity — is that we make those panels better. There is such a variety of perspectives when the panel has varying backgrounds. Take, for example, the science and ethics panel I was on that was able to dig deeply into inequities in scientific studies and public health results that are a consequence of prejudice in healthcare. Or take the panel on worldbuilding and names I was on that was half POC and half queer people, in which we had so many different models of family and naming to bring to the table, and it very much enriched the discussion.

So definitely keep making the diversity panels — and put minority authors who are okay with it on them — but also enrich the rest of the con by putting us elsewhere, as well!

Addendum

Again, not all underrepresented writers have these feelings about diversity panels. There are authors who really like doing them, or who otherwise want to be asked. By all means, ask them! The key here is respect — recognize these panels can be in a different category for a lot of people, respect the requests an author makes on their programming survey as per their individual feelings. And in general try to mix things up, so you aren’t giving the minority authors 3 diversity panels each and the majority authors 3 non-diversity panels each. Instead, make sure you’re making the non-diversity content — or at least, the not directly diversity-related content — have fabulously diversified panelists as well, and you’ll be on a solid path.

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