One of our special skills as humans is comparison. Where are we in the particular pecking order we choose to peck in? This may be a survival urge fomented by the competitive nature of our culture and economy: as a kid I played second base on our church softball team, largely because there was no one else to play it. And we mostly lost: God personally didn’t give a shit, being more concerned with college football.
But I had fun. And I was fortunate in not basing either my career plans or my sense of self-worth on my batting average. My mom’s doing: as long as I ate my oatmeal, I could do no wrong: God loved His stumbly little second baseman. And if He didn’t, Mom still did.
These thoughts spring up in response to a post on a Facebook writers’ group, bewailing the fact that his book, despite his hopes and his friends’ encouragement, bombed. The usual responses to a universal situation: review the phrasing of your query letter, hire an editor, don’t commit suicide. I didn’t respond, largely because I had to clean the cat pan. And because I don’t like to give advice, especially when anyone has a startling realization such as “We’re all going to die.”
But I’ve been thinking. First, “bombed” has any number of meanings. Did it sell? Did it get bad reviews? Did it change the writer’s life? Did it hunker off to a smelly stack on the shelf? I come from a background of writing for the theatre; we’ve had a few prestigious productions and thousands of low-class touring gigs; and we’ve patched together a decent living—this despite the occasional bad review and an utter stinker in the NY Times.
Since moving to prose fiction, it’s been a lonely pursuit. It’s easiest for folks to watch Netflix, more commitment to go to a movie or play, and a long slog to read a novel—I rarely devote the time even to read the work of friends. At the age of 81, I have no compulsion to write a best-seller or make a career. Of course I want my stories read, and a reputation might secure that. Yet I look at the full output of writers who are “known,” and only a handful are known for more than one book. What induced them to go on writing past that one?
On weekdays, we go to the gym for brief workouts. There’s probably “comparison” there, but it’s beside the point. There’s old people and young, men and women, and they seem to be focused—we are at least—on personal benefit, not on who lifts fastest or heaviest. You set your own weight, you have your own practice, and if there’s competition, it’s yourself with yourself.
Any voluntary activity should be the same, IMHO. “Success” is self-defined and accidental, and hopes generated by stories of J.K. Rowling or Stephen King, or even by Herman Melville or the latest self-published hotcake, are as irrelevant as the stakes won in Las Vegas. Quality alone doesn’t sell; it’s a good idea, among many factors affecting sales. But unless someone (agents, publishers, booksellers, Amazon) thinks they’ll make money off your story, it won’t go anywhere. That’s life in the zoo we’re a part of. That’s no critique of the “gatekeepers.” Like us, they have to make a living. That’s just the way it is.
Not easy to accept that. Tons of folks play the Lottery, and it seems as if more are writing novels. The only advice I have: decide what you truly want. If “success” means sales, by all means do what makes it “marketable,” but don’t quit your day job. If it means doing the best you can, then start another draft. I made some decent plays at second base and even got a few hits against truly frightening pitchers, but I never made the world series.