Practical Meerkat’s 52 Bits of Useful Info for Young (and Old) Writers, week 19

by Laura Anne Gilman

One of the interesting observations I’ve made over the years is that there’s a peculiar and particular kind of guilt that afflicts writers at a certain level.

Everyone wants the bestseller, book-a-year-for-life career, the one that means you will never have to work retail again.  Most of us, if we’re very lucky, will instead be scrambling for the rest of our careers, often writing three books a year to make a living, never knowing how long the run will last, or if readers (and publishers) will abandon us overnight.  It’s a hard, emotionally draining, financially irresponsible way to make a living.

And we’re the lucky ones.  We know that.  We got past the initial hurdles to publication, we survived the second book’s almost inevitable sales slump, we gained our publisher’s faith to the point that they bought more books. Even if you’re not making a living off your writing, even if you’re – to your mind – barely scraping along the edges – you still got there, and managed to stay there, at least for now.

But along with the worry and scrambling, keeping company with the joys and triumphs, there’s also a strange, furtive guilt.  Survivor’s guilt, that says you shouldn’t complain on the bad days, that you shouldn’t exult too much about good news.  Because there are writers – often damn good writers, often your friends, people you know from writers’ groups, conventions – who didn’t make it.

Wise and well-meaning people – and maybe even your own brain – will tell you that it’s not your fault, that you didn’t do anything to “steal” a chance from them, that publishing isn’t a zero sum game and one person’s success does not cause someone else’s lack of success.  And yet…

And yet.  You stop, mid-rant, and wonder if you’re being an asshole, if you’re rubbing salt into the wound, or sounding like an ingrate or a braggart.  You feel awkward, uncomfortable, and so you shut up, and shut down.

This is where finding a peer group – two or more people at the roughly same career-point — is essential.  It could be a once-a-month coffeeklatch, or an on-line mailing list, or even a members of your writing group.  They may not be your close friends, they may not be the people you want most to hold your hand on bad days, or toast the good news.  But they’re the ones who understand where you are, the ups and downs… and they can handle hearing your worries, because they’re in the same place.

This isn’t an indulgence, and you’re not dissing or abandoning your friends by talking to your peer group about things you don’t feel comfortable mentioning to anyone else.  It’s a question of maintaining your mental balance, of sounding out problems and figuring out what’s real, what’s a legitimate problem, and what’s just a bad day.

And knowing the difference can be what gets you through.  Without guilt.

Coming up in Week 20:  The Good, the Bad, and the Copyedit

Laura Anne Gilman is a former editor with Penguin/Putnam, and the author of more than a dozen novels, most recently the urban fantasy PACK OF LIES, and WEIGHT OF STONE, Book 2 of the Nebula-nominated Vineart War trilogy.  Her SF collection, DRAGON VIRUS, which SF Signal called “amazingly evocative….a potent ride through a changing future”, will be published by  Fairwood Press in June 2011.  For more info check her website, her BookView Cafe bookshelf, or follow her on Twitter (@LAGilman)  And yes, her nickname really is meerkat.

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About Laura Anne Gilman

Laura Anne is a recovering editor-turned-novelist, with an Endeavor Award, a Nebula nomination, another Endeavor award nomination and a Washington State Book Award nomination under her belt. Her most recent series is the award-winning "Devil's West" trilogy, starting with SILVER ON THE ROAD, and her same-universe story collection, WEST WINDS' FOOL, AND OTHER STORIES OF THE DEVIL'S WEST. The novella GABRIEL'S ROAD was published by Book View Cafe on April 30th, 2019. Her Patreon, featuring original fiction, writing advice, and original Rants, is at https://www.patreon.com/LAGilman Learn more at www.lauraannegilman.net, where you can sign up for her quarterly newsletter.

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Practical Meerkat’s 52 Bits of Useful Info for Young (and Old) Writers, week 19 — 9 Comments

  1. The number of illusions about a writing career that abound in the Wide World are also astonishing. The people who believe that, now that your first novel is out, you are going to retire to a villa in the south of France for the rest of your life. The people who assume that if you dedicate a book to somebody, that person is going to get a steady income stream. (At least these folks are balanced by the ones on the other side who ask you how much you had to pay Random House to publish your book.)

  2. Excellent and right on the money. The temptation to keep success to yourself, especially around other writers, is intense.

  3. This was interesting. I’m glad you wrote because I didn’t know that writers felt “survivor’s guilt”.

  4. And if you keep your success to yourself you eliminate all that shameless self promotion we are expected to do and that begins the downward spiral of failure and no more survivor guilt, failure guilt.

    It’s an awkward balance to maintain, remaining humble and grateful for the chance to sell your books while shouting to the world that you have a book to sell…

  5. Phyl – ah, but shouting it to strangers is less tacky than telling friends. Or…was it the other way around? This self-promotion thing, it is confusing…. Much easier to simply tackle people in a bookstore/carrying an e-reader. At least that way you know they might be in dire need of a book to buy and hey, might as well be yours….

  6. That is so true laura, sometimes it’s hard to say things to friends as they don’t know how it feels, knowing you have to bite your tongue. They are still your friends but Blurting out how you really feel to those who understand is essential I think.

  7. Hmmm . . . I never feel writer survivor guilt. Is there something wrong with me? Did I do something bad? Am I a dreadful person? Uh oh–I’m feeling writer survivor guilt survivor guilt!

  8. Steven — I know for a fact that you were trained with the concept of a peer group from the start, so you always had a ‘safe place’ to vent/kvell.

    Also, you’re a Very Bad Man. Tsk.

  9. I felt guilty for years that I sold the first book I wrote. Like sooner of later the Gods of Publishing were going to figure out that I’d pulled a fast one and smite me mightily. This was complicated by the fact that I started out writing historical romance and felt guilty because I wasn’t writing, like, infinitely jaded modern novels.

    Truth be told, I am such an easy subject for guilt that it’s almost no fun for the Gods of Publishing at all.