The rich are not like us

Some people get all the breaks. Like rich people and household-name authors. Sometimes it seems that you have to have money to make money and you have to be successful to succeed. That is, if you have certain advantages, all your efforts are disproportionately rewarded.

It reminds me of the oft repeated lament of authors that only those who don’t need more sales actually sell books at signings.

The rich–in whatever field–really do play by different roles than the rest of us. It’s not fair, and it hardly seems American. The myth of the land of the opportunity dies hard. We’re not all starting from the same place of visibility, contacts, appeal and privilege.

No one hates this more than I do, so for those of you who are getting in touch with resentment, I share your pain.

But given the truth of my post title, there are a couple of lessons that we can take away, and they are doosies.

Lesson #1

When we envision the writing life, we should abandon the fantasies of window displays in bookstores, endcaps at Barnes and Noble, and book tours paid for by publishers. Also vacations in Santorini and movies made from our stories. Chances of this happening to the aspiring writer are about the same as a high school basketball player playing in the NBA. Say one in a quarter million. Or so.

No one hates this more than I do. But let’s move on.

If a summer on a Greek island with a panoramic view of the Aegean is not in our future, what is?

It is a life of workmanlike pleasures in storytelling. The thrill of a book with your name on it, and the feedback from people who swear they’ll “read everything you write.” The company of other striving writers who, like you, must give up Saturday matinees because they’re behind on their page count. The amazing high of writing a scene that zings, a character who is “there” because of your words. The community of authors, agents, editors, and bookstore owners–a community that is close-knit, smart and creative and that you can only access if books are in your blood. Opening an envelope from one’s publisher or agent, and shaking out a check. The high satisfaction of earning a chunk of change for making stuff up and getting the grammar right.

It is enough?

I dunno, but it will have to be. Because the rich aren’t like you and me. It’s just how it is. Isn’t it best to know this in advance? To set aside the fantasy for the real thing–and learn to cherish it?

Lesson #2

Aside from realistic expectations, how else can we learn from the dictum that wildly successful authors are not playing by the same rules as the rest of us? How should this affect our writing?

For one thing, let’s not use the latest novel of a best-selling author as a valid guide to the craft. We do want to learn from what we read, but some books are better examples than others.

I’ve said on this blog before that we should be reading first time novels, especially critically acclaimed first novels. Books like these were picked up by publishers not because of who wrote it (with the exception of celebrity authors) but for the story. Publishers will accept inferior work from big name authors because they know the book will sell well on the strength of the author’s name. This is not the case with you or me.

Therefore when you put down a best-seller in frustration and find yourself thinking, “I can write as well as that,” you may be setting a low bar.

A high bar is actually in place (for you and me.) And for the reading public, the bar is even higher. That is, a publisher may buy a book from you that is actually not that strong, but the public will ignore it. They’re picky how they spend their entertainment dollar.

No one regrets this more than I do. I share your outrage at some of the books that hit the best-seller lists.

But now that we understand that we are playing by different rules, we at least aren’t naive and flailing at windmills. We have moved past the game of “Ain’t it awful,” to the better game of “I will work harder.”

Read it again, Sam

One of the exercises writers must regularly perform is reading. Books are going to be our life, so it won’t do to just learn from movies. We’ve got to know the written stories of our genre.

Once you’ve identified books that are like yours–and not by a star author–and are reading them, find one that is a knock out. Then read it again.

Look at the techniques that writer used, the ones that she was at pains to hide so that you missed it the first time through. Learn from this writer. You don’t need to master all her abilities at once, but reading a fine book without learning anything is a lost opportunity.

One of the books I learned from recently was Hunger Games. I looked carefully at the way Suzanne Collins doled out information on the futuristic world she created. How she delayed telling and wove in the world-building as she went along. Great stuff. I noted how the reader (me) was willing to defer understanding, to wait patiently to learn some things that seemed important to understand immediately, but which the author decided to withhold to produce forward momentum.

Yes, she’s a best-seller. But she’s a new best-seller.

She got something right, and it wasn’t having Collins as a name. She was playing by 99% rules.

The rules you and I follow. Or should.

4 Responses

  1. I think I see the thrust of your post, Kay but writing is about as egalitarian as anything in life is. With the exception of celebrity “writers”, nobody’s name sells their first book. Or their second book, I suspect. Everyone has to break in. Marketing hype will only take you so far. Skill, hard work and luck make success, it seems to me. And that’s about as American as it gets.

  2. Kay Kenyon says:

    But we will have a better chance of breaking in if we understand that we have to write better books than people who are playing by different rules. Just because Tom Clancy can publish predictable rather wooden stories sometimes, doesn’t mean that we should believe it’s good enough for our first few books. It isn’t. The uber-successful do play by different rules.

    But I agree with you, when starting out, we’ll be rewarded by according to our skill and hard work. Absolutely!

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  4. Tom Hopp says:

    Well stated Kay. I can hear a subtext in your message: Don’t envy those with power and position. Overcome them through personal excellence, that’s the thing their money and fame can’t buy!

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