Being Good vs. Being Lucky and Art as Hard Work

Recently, authors Joe Hill (Twitter) and Myke Cole (Twitter) had posts that struck a chord with me–hence the late post today. I’ve been wrangling with these ideas all morning.

Hill wrote about self-publishing vs. traditional publishing, and Cole wrote about when he “stopped thinking of a novel as a work of art, and started thinking of it as an engine.”

In Hill’s post, this line caught my eye:

Luck comes into it of course… but it’s better to be good than lucky (and ideally you hope to be both). If you’re consistently writing appealing, professionally executed work, eventually an agent will notice, and decide to roll the dice on you; and eventually an editor at a traditional publishing house will follow suite. But in the end, if you’re good enough, that’s what will happen anyway, even if you give your book away for free on the internet. Just ask John Scalzi.

This echoed a sentiment that I like: making your own luck by working hard. By failing, learning why you failed, and failing better the next time. Repeat until you finally succeed. But do my actions reflect that sentiment? Have I adopted the proper mindset?

That’s where Cole’s article comes in to play. In his post, he talks about how he stopped thinking purely in terms of art or inspiration from a muse. Instead, he started thinking of a novel as a piece of machinery–an engine to take apart, study, and rebuild. Accordingly, how he read novels changed. He writes:

That was when I began reading different. I gave up much of the resonance and wonder of the reading experience. [China] Mieville’s prose ceased to transport me as I picked apart its breathy elegy and look at just how he was evoking it. [George R.R.] Martin’s characters lost their luster as I dove deep into how they were constructed, looking for the WHY in their appeal. I began to see where some of my favorite writers interrupted their narratives with unnecessary description, or tripped up a character with clumsy dialouge. I began to spot the places that made me want to put the book down, began to understand why.

I’ve often heard of “reading like a writer,” but I have trouble doing it. When I pick up the latest book by Peter V. Brett, Patrick Rothfuss, or Scott Lynch, I read in a passive way. I sink into the story and lose myself in the world, the characters, and the story. I’m enjoying the book as a reader. I’m not reading the book as a writer. I’m not reading actively (i.e., reading to learn how those authors wrote a high caliber novel).

So I tweeted Myke about how he did it. (Note: Myke replied almost instantly. He has always been great at reaching out to fans–something he deserves quite a bit of praise for) He said “It helps me to take notes. When something makes my heart race, I stop and ask why.” I responded that perhaps I should try reading slower, and take more pleasure from determining why an author made certain decisions.

But it was Myke’s response to this tweet that brought me to a screeching halt:

I’m not interested in finding pleasure in things. I’m interested in accomplishing the mission. That’s a key mindset.

In the future, if ever I need a one-sentence statement that separates fan from professional, that’s it. I just stared at his response for a while. So stark, so clear. It was the jolt to the system, the boot to the ass that I needed to push me out of a rut I had found myself in.

You see, making that jump from fan, to writer, to professional writer is something that has been weighing on my mind. I mean, I’m making progress, but I’m not satisfied with the rate of that progress. So I’m reaching that point where it’s put up or shut up time. During past moments of doubt, I would to look for tips or tricks to make my writing better. But perhaps it’s more about mindset. Get my mind right, and the right actions will follow.

I often hear the advice (in podcasts, blogs, etc.) about “fake it until you make it” or acting like a professional when you attend conventions instead of fanboying or fangirling all over your favorite author/editor/agent. That saying didn’t sit well with me, and I think it was because I was focusing (and misinterpreting) the “acting” bit as something phony. I think that misunderstanding was apparent when I attended the Nebula Awards weekend in DC–unfortunately landed on the fan side of things. Instead, I should have been thinking in terms of training my brain to think from a certain perspective so that other good qualities will follow.

So, time to reorient. Think professionally, and act professionally. Don’t just read, but read to learn. Don’t just write to hit a word count goal, write to learn. Keep improving. And by the time I start getting those professional market sales, it won’t be some be-all, end-all thing. It will simply be external recognition of what I already know about myself.

George R.R. Martin Releases a New Chapter & io9.com’s Best of 2013 List

The end of one year and the beginning of another is usually a time of lists. The best of this, the best of that. Instead of looking back though, io9.com is helping fans of science fiction and fantasy get ready for 2013. They’ve put together a great month-by-month list of all the books coming out this year. You now have no excuse when it comes to what you should read in 2013.

But Eric, I can hear you asking, what about 2014 and beyond? Well, I’ve got you covered there too. George R.R. Martin posted an excerpt of his next book in his A Song of Ice and Fire series, THE WINDS OF WINTER (date of publication is 2014? 2015? 2020?). But, like last time he gave us a sneak peak, I’m avoiding it, so I can’t comment on what you’ll see when you read it. I try to keep this blog spoiler-free, but if you want to get a peek, feel free.

The Eye of the World is Ending

I started reading Robert Jordan’s Eye of the World series in the seventh grade, way back in 1992 (that will make me sound really young or really old to most readers, I’m sure). I’ll admit it: it didn’t hook me right away. I actually put it down, and then a few months later, I picked it up. I got a couple hundred pages into it, and then I was hooked. I started tearing through those doorstop-sized books as quickly as my little hands and mind could handle.

It has been a really interesting journey as a fan. I started when I was 12. I will be 32 when the final book in the series, A MEMORY OF LIGHT, comes out in January. I used to buy all the books in paperback, and they quickly took over a bookshelf’s width of space.

And yes, I whined and complained that the later books weren’t as good as the earlier books. I joked that Jordan was getting paid by the word or that his wife shouldn’t have been his editor. But as Brandon Sanderson (more on him later) pointed out, maybe it was simply that my expectations were so high, and that because I had to wait so long between books, the material couldn’t live up to those expectations, and I soured. Sanderson argued that if you picked up the series now, and read straight through, you wouldn’t see the dip in quality that other fans complained of. I think there may be something to Sanderson’s theory (After all, I can see a similar pattern happening among some fans of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series), but at the same time, I do think it’s fair to say that the plot did slow down a bit during those middle books.

(And if you haven’t started reading it, I highly recommend it. In fact, if anyone is starting the series now, please let me know what you think as you get past book 4 or so. This really is a classic among epic fantasy series. It should be read widely. I’m just curious about other’s reactions to it.)

And yes, I got worried when I realized Jordan may not live to finish his series. I wondered if it would go unfinished or what. Thankfully, Mr. and Mrs. Jordan selected Brandon Sanderson to finish the series with the help of notes and journals Jordan had written. This was an amazing pick, when you think about it. He was relatively unknown at the time. It’s not like Sanderson had a long trail of bestsellers. But what a pick. They picked a superstar. And I’ve been really impressed with Sanderson’s efforts. The last few books have set up one helluva finale.

It’s quite something to realize that this series has been with me for about 2/3 of my life. I have a copy of Eye of the World that is held together with tape, glue, and hope. I have copies of the latest books stored on my Kindle. During these 20 years, the series has survived a transition in authors and a transition in publishing format. It will be bittersweet to see the series go. I’m looking forward to it, and I’ll be sad to see it go. It’s been a part of most of my life.

So what if you’re like me, eager to read A MEMORY OF LIGHT? Well, Tor.com has posted the first chapter, “Eastward the Wind Blew” online for you to read. Just an appetizer to tease you for three months or so until A MEMORY OF LIGHT is released. Enjoy.

UPDATE: THE CHAPTER TEXT DOES CONTAIN SPOILERS FOR THE PROLOGUE OF A MEMORY OF LIGHT.

Worldbuilding–A New Way to Think About It

So I’m not only working on my novel, but also a short story that I need to submit by Friday, so here are some fun things for you to read. First, Litreactor has a great article on worldbuilding. I found this article because it showed a spectrum of worldbuilding, from detailed architects like Tolkien, to shoot-from-the-hip gunslingers like M. John Harrison, to middle-of-the-road gardeners like George R.R. Martin.

As an outliner, I love worldbuilding. And I can get carried away with it–it’s an excellent procrastination tool if you want to delay starting your actual writing. But this article was interesting because it got me thinking–maybe worldbuilding is not as necessary as I thought. Maybe I should focus on some things–like a magical system or a government structure–but other things can slide. Food for thought. And while you’re thinking, check out some fiction by the Gardener-in-Chief, George R.R. Martin: “The Way of Cross and Dragon”, first published in 1979 and put up again in the latest Lightspeed. Enjoy.