I did a crap-ton of research before I started writing this blog. I read books, perused dozens of online articles, and spent hours trawling other people’s blogs to get ideas. One of the things I discovered was that you’re not supposed to say what everybody else is saying. You have to say something new. You should talk about what’s never been talked about before. You gotta find a gap in the audience’s knowledge base and fill it in. Be new. Be unique. Be different.
While preparing to write this post, I Googled “writing for the right reasons” and got about 1.3 million hits. I Googled “writing for the wrong reasons” and got about 3.2 million hits. So I guess I’m failing hard at this blogging thing, then, because what I’m about to say has already been said umpteen million times before, by much better writers (such as Jeff Goins and William Zinsser).
But I’m going to go out on a limb here and relate this topic to two things that I’m willing to bet it hasn’t been related to very often. Go on, take a wild guess as to what those two things might be.
That’s right: Stoic philosophy and science fiction.
When I lived in the Mojave Desert of Southern California, one of my hobbies was trapshooting. For those unfamiliar with shooting sports, a trap shooter stands at least 16 yards away from a large mound, under which is a device (basically a vending machine with a throwing arm) which launches clay pigeons in different directions whenever you yell “Pull!” These pigeons (fragile little disk-shaped thingies) wing off into the distance while you sight down the barrel of your shotgun and blow them out of the sky. Trapshooting champion Nora Ross shows us how it’s done:
You’re allowed 25 clay pigeons per game. If you’re decent, you can get at least 15 of them. If you’re good, you can get at least 20. If you’re really good, you can get all 25, every time. I used to go trapshooting with potbellied, mustachioed old men who had patches on their shooting vests that said “250” or “500,” meaning that they’d nailed that number of clay pigeons in a row, without a single miss.
My usual score was somewhere around 22 or 23, maybe 19 if I was having a bad day. Frequently, I got all the way up to 24. I was a good shot, and the gun I was using, a Mossberg 500, felt like an extension of my body. I was hardly aware that I was holding anything in my hands when I drew a bead on a clay bird and pulled the trigger.
But if I managed to get to 24, I would inevitably fail to get to 25. I’d start thinking “Oh boy, if I can just get that last bird, I’ll finally get a perfect score and a patch on my vest and be able to hold my head up alongside all these grizzled trapshooting champions!” I’d get so stoked that I’d over-control the gun, jerk the trigger, or make some other rookie mistake. Then I’d watch despondently as that impudent 25th bird flew off into the sunset, laughing a clayey little laugh.
Time and again, this happened. It was disheartening, but never enough to make me seriously reexamine my frame of mind. I was too young and arrogant to understand that ability is only half of being good at something. The other half is mindset. If your head isn’t in the right place, if you’re doing something for the wrong reasons, if you’re not absolutely clear with yourself about why you’re doing something, you’ll self-sabotage every time. The quality of your work will be negatively affected, and worse, others will be able to tell that your heart really isn’t in it. That’s true whether you’re a politician or a novelist or an athlete. People can spot a corrupt politician a mile away, whereas one with moral clarity is magnetic, persuasive, and charismatic, even to their opponents. Novelists who write to make a buck or get famous or exorcise some sort of Freudian trauma almost always suck. Vainglorious athletes are easy to spot, and are usually in the tabloids every other week.
Too many people confuse their own enthusiasm and eagerness for confidence and determination. Then the going gets rough, the irrational fears close in, and what was once fun becomes a laborious chore. Burnout sets in. I know. I’ve been there.
I didn’t do much research before I embarked on my career as a science fiction writer. One thing I heard from many trustworthy sources was that the only way I would ever get an agent interested in my novels is if I had a strong portfolio of published short fiction. And those short stories couldn’t be published in some bush league sci-fi mag, either. I had to sell them to the top-tier New York magazines: Asimov’s Science Fiction, Analog Science Fiction & Fact, and Fantasy & Science Fiction, to name a few.
Now that self-publishing has become so easy, and there are so many resources out there to help writers do it, matters have changed. All you need to get published nowadays is a manuscript and an Internet connection. (Getting yourself noticed, however, is another matter.) But for many years, for the sake of doing things “the right way,” I labored to build a portfolio of short fiction that I could proudly show to a literary agent. The first few stories I submitted (to Fantasy & Science Fiction, back when Gordon Van Gelder was still the editor and they hadn’t even started accepting electronic submissions yet) were rejected. I’m sure they were very poor quality, but more importantly, I was sending them in for the wrong reasons. I looked upon a short fiction sale as a stepping stone to a book deal. I put almost no effort into writing the stories. I was just phoning it in.
Month after month, year after year, I continued to go off half-cocked. I’d get an idea for a sci-fi story, and without pausing to check whether it was derivative or hackneyed, or even reading the sci-fi magazines I was planning to submit it to and making sure what I’d written was what they wanted, I’d write it and send it off. I’d wait for a few weeks (or months) and then BOOM—along would come the inevitable rejection slip. It crushed me, and made writing the next story all the harder.
I strongly suspect that one of the reasons that I’ve never managed to publish a single sci-fi story, even after ten years of sporadic effort, is that my writing just sucks. I may be good at stringing words together, but I’m no storyteller. My themes are shallow or nonexistent, my characters lacking in motivation or interesting attributes, and my plots far-fetched, of dubious plausibility, or just plain dull.
Why does my writing suck? Because I’ve been trying too hard. Because my head and heart haven’t been in the right places. Because I’ve been writing for the wrong reasons. I’ve been waging a desperate battle against time. I want popularity and notoriety now, not in ten years, not next year, not next week. NOW. And the more time that goes by without that notoriety, the more time I spend as a poor, unaccomplished, unknown, unsuccessful writer, unable to travel or fly or enjoy the good things in life, the more I begin to panic. And the more panicked I get, the harder I battle to write something good and get it published ASAP. And so on and so on and so on.
(Now, I’m not alleging that I haven’t yet sold a story solely because I don’t have my head on straight. There are other reasons. Thanks to that Internet thingy, and the fact that most major sci-fi mags now accept electronic submissions, I am competing against millions of fellow wannabes. The submission guidelines for every major science fiction magazine clearly warn writers that they experience an extremely high volume of submissions, and can’t reply to, let alone accept, all of them. That’s one reason I haven’t been published yet: I don’t write well enough yet to stand out from the crowd. There’s also the whole futurist vs. escapist thing, which I’m going to talk about in a later post.)
Bottom line: don’t put the horse before the cart. Financial success shouldn’t be one of your primary concerns when you start writing. You should be doing it because you like it. You should be writing, not because you expect to get rich, but because you like telling stories. Because you’ve got a head full of ideas that are drivin’ you insane, as Bob Dylan sang.
Obsessing about marketing your work and turning a profit with it is only going to negatively impact your ability as a raconteur. Therefore, you should write without any expectation of success. I’m serious. Don’t think for a moment that you’re going to publish what you write, or make millions off it. Be like Meghan Rogers, who says that she never once doubted that she would one day be published…but nevertheless became comfortable with the idea that she might never be published. And because of that, she says, she found other reasons to write. The right ones.
I mentioned that I was a Stoic in my first post. I’m going to return to Stoic philosophy frequently in this blog, not because I’m trying to recruit or convert anyone, but because I believe the words of men who’ve been dead 2,000 years still have real bearing on the lives we lead, the mental pitfalls we let ourselves fall into, and the seemingly impossible endeavors we undertake.
There’s a quote by the Stoic philosopher Hecato of Rhodes. I read it first in 2016 and, though I didn’t know it at the time, it changed my life. It’s really stuck with me.
“Cease to hope, and you will cease to fear.”
Hope, as the Architect says in The Matrix Revolutions, is humanity’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness. When I first saw the film, I wasn’t sure what he meant by “weakness.” How could hope be a bad thing? It gets us through rough times. Without hope, all is lost. We despair. We cease to function. We give up. We quit. We fail.
Well, that’s not exactly true. We are going to succeed—or fail—whether we hope to or not. Hoping and wishing for things beyond our control is just going to stress us out. That’s a cornerstone of Stoic philosophy, right there: stop obsessing about things that are beyond your control. Focus only on what is in your control: your mind. Your “reasoned choice,” as it’s called by Ryan Holiday (author of The Daily Stoic, which I read in 2017 and can’t recommend highly enough).
Stop hoping. Stop wishing. Stop being afraid. Just do your best. Make the best choices you can, ones based on reason and rationality rather than feelings or fears. If things work out, great. If they don’t, you can still face them unafraid, because you did your best and you did it because you wanted to, not because you pressured yourself to. All the motivational speakers and bloggers these days admonish us to work smarter, not harder. I say “work funner.” Do what you want, not what you feel you have to.
Happiness is a choice. So is fear. Examine your fears, and I bet you’ll find that all of them are self-inflicted. When people worry, it’s usually about stuff they don’t control: their hopes being dashed, or circumstances not going to plan, or things not working out the way they want them to. Things beyond their control. Pointless things. Did you know that that was my biggest, scariest, most overwhelming fear between the ages of 14 and 30? That I would die full of regrets, not having completed my bucket list? Yeah. What a waste of energy that was.
I’ve abandoned that fear. I have made the conscious decision not to be afraid anymore. I may do everything on my bucket list, or I may not. I’m going to do my darnedest, of course, but I won’t crucify myself if I don’t make it. I’ve given up hope, and now simply focus on what I can do, right now, to bring my dreams closer to fruition. My hopes can’t be dashed if I don’t have any to begin with. When I write now, it’s because I enjoy it. I enjoy playing God and creating universes from nothing. I feel like I have a story to tell and I want to share it with everyone. And even though my writing still sucks, and I still get rejection slips in my inbox every time I send out a sci-fi story to Lightspeed, Escape Pod, Strange Horizons, or Daily Science Fiction, my writing is slowly improving. Every time I finish a new story, I like it a little better than the one I wrote before it. And that feeling is irreplaceable, a joy unto itself.
That’s what you should be doing: finding the joys unto themselves. Small joys. Everyday joys. Life isn’t composed of humongous, towering, rare joys like landing a book deal or making a short fiction sale. It’s composed of little joys. The joy of curling up in front of your laptop on a rainy day with a cup of hot tea (or a glass of beer) and spending an hour with the children of your imagination. The joy of lifting a finger and calling forth secret worlds into tumultuous existence. The joy of laughing your head off at something funny one of your characters said. The joy of writing one true sentence.
Long story short: You shouldn’t be writing because you hope to be published and get famous and make oodles of money. That’s out of your control. You should be writing because you L-O-V-E it. Because you couldn’t imagine yourself doing anything else. Because you’ve decided that’s what’s best for you, heart and soul. Because your head teems with unique characters, all of whom have special problems and something interesting to say, and you have to give them a voice or go nuts.
If you’re a sci-fi writer like me, you write because you yearn to visit other worlds, other times, other dimensions, and want to bring your readers along for the ride. You write because massive fleets of starships duke it out in your dreams, because your workday is haunted by visions of barbarian hordes battling flesh-eating aliens with axes and spears, because you sit down after dinner with a glass of bourbon and imagine you’ve just gotten back from a successful T. rex hunt.
Remember, joy comes first. Fame and fortune come second.