In which the secret to writing success is revealed

My name is Sharon Lee — Hi, Sharon — and I’m a writer. I’ve been writing for a long time – much longer than I’ve been married — and have pursued the craft more doggedly than any other activity, including reading.

How long have I been writing? The first card in my story-box is for “Once there was a man” (that would have been the first line of the story, rather than the actual title; I didn’t bother thinking up titles for my stories for a long time.), completed in March 1972. That was like, before the internet. I’m pretty sure “Once” wasn’t the first “story” I considered that I’d completed, but it is the first one to have a card. I probably read about tracking my work in a card file in a book somewhere. Since there wasn’t an internet ‘way back then, wannabe writers read books to find out about the craft of which they aspired to become practitioners.

So, let’s see. In March of 1972, I would have been 19 years old, just feeling my way into the whole writing thing. A beginner. A rank beginner, may I say, in all senses of “rank.”

At that point in my career, I didn’t have any readers; I – no, let’s back up for a minute. . .

English is a funny language. I say “I didn’t have any readers,” and of course I didn’t, and still don’t. I’m a human being, not a book or a manuscript. People may read me, but not in the sense that I read a written page. Therefore, when I say, “I didn’t have any readers,” of course what I mean to say is, “my work had no readers,” or, possibly, “my work had not found an audience,” or, even, “my work had not yet gathered fans.”

It’s hard to remember, in art – well, really, in anything that requires a great deal of effort and. . .intimacy with the work being created – it’s hard to remember that I am not the work. It’s very hard to remember this, and, as you see above, English doesn’t even cut us a break by imposing a stringent linguistic separation of worker and work.

It’s too easy to say — “I had no readers.” “I got rejected.” “I won an award.” “I have fans.”

We can say, “The novels I write have attracted readers.” “The proposal for the next book was rejected.” “Scout’s Progress won the PRISM Award for best novel.” “The Liaden Universe® stories and novels have gathered a significant fandom, some of whom self-identify as Friends of Liad.” But saying those things requires advertance and determination.

I’m going to try to be precise with the rest of this post — because words matter, and people matter; lives and personal happiness matter.

Where was I?

Right — “Once” had not reached an audience. It’s entirely possible that there was and is no audience for “Once,” and that’s OK. It wasn’t, as I recall it, a great, good, or even passably interesting story. It was practice; it was a necessary step in honing my craft. I didn’t, in my heart of hearts, actually expect to get it right the first time, the twelfth time, or even the hundredth time. All those books I had read suggested that acquiring the skills necessary to become a professional writer might not be easy, and might require of me some significant amount of time, practice, and effort.

I kept on practicing; I kept on reading — more fiction than how-to-write books, because, as frequent readers of this blog will have observed, I am light-minded — and I kept on trying to write better. At some point — in fact, in January 1976, I submitted my first story, not to a magazine, but to a contest. I would have been. . .23 years old. The title of the story was “Era” and it was awarded first prize by the judges of the BaltiCon X Short Story Contest. The prize was forty dollars, a membership to the convention, and a chance to meet Isaac Asimov.

I can’t tell you how long “Era” was — I didn’t start noting the word count on the story cards until 1978 — but, based on my recollection of the length of story I was producing at that time, it probably earned very respectable five cents a word.

“Era’s” success in the contest emboldened me; I typed up a clean copy and submitted it — to Analog, to Galaxy/If, to F&SF, to Amazing, to Weird Book (it says here, but I think it was probably Weird Tales), to Unearth.

It was rejected. Kindly rejected, by several of the editors, but — no is still no.

“Era” had not found readers or fans.

“Era’s” author typed on, moving down the timeline of her life.

In due course, she met a guy. In due course, she got — not great, not godlike, not even consistently good, but she got good enough at this writing thing, and — she sold a story.

That would have been “A Matter of Ceremony” — the nineteenth story with a card in the story-file. Twenty-four hundred words. Sold in November 1979, a couple months after the celebration of my twenty-seventh birthday, published before I saw my twenty-eighth.

I’m not going to drag this out much longer. Let’s just say that the story-box now holds 96 cards; 53 recording the adventures of various long and short works written by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller.

While Steve and I were creating the greater portion of those 53 works, the internet happened.

Now, I don’t know that the internet radically changed how people think about becoming writers. Before the internet, aspiring writers didn’t really get to meet other aspiring writers, unless they were lucky enough to live in a creative hot-spot, or they went out of their way to enroll in Clarion, or other intensive workshop for beginning writers.

I think that there have always been people who want the short cut, the secret handshake, the name and the phone number of The Guy In Charge.

People who insist that putting the cart before the horse will so work just fine.

All the internet has done is make it possible for these people not only to meet each other, but to infect a broader range of wet-eared newbies.

The internet has been a game-changer; the game is changing daily — all the games, everywhere. And, keeping up with the change, it seems like every day there’s a new theory to explain the rules of the changed game.

One of more interesting of these theories is called The Long Tail, which posits, in brief, that an artist whose work has garnered the support of 1,000 True Fans can make a living from their art in the brave new age of the internet.

It’s an interesting theory. Almost, almost it describes an actual reality. Like theories everywhere, it wants tweaking and testing, and adjusting for the personal circumstances of the artist in question, or the work in hand.

But, still, as a starting point, the Long Tail has something going for it.

Steve and I made use of the Long Tail when we wrote Fledgling and Saltation Live! On the Internet! I’m thinking about starting another variation on the theme, some time later this year.

Now, I need you to stop and remember something. I sold my first short story in 1979. Steve and I are working on Collaborative Works 54 and 55 and I type this. Our work has found an audience, readers, fans, and friends.

Unfortunately, there are people who have looked at the Long Tail Theory and have seen not a description of a process, but a short-cut to fame.

They think — “I’ll gather 1000 Friends on Facebook first, then I’ll sell those people my novel. When I write it.”


Really. No. That’s not how it works.

In my so very not humble opinion, the Long Tail is characterized as a tail for a reason. And the reason is that the garnering of True Fans happens after a work, or a body of work, has found its audience, its fans, its friends.

It doesn’t work to put the tail before the mouse, the cart before the horse, or the boom before lighting the fuse.

Do the work, get the attention, reap the reward.

That’s how it works, when it works. It doesn’t always work. More people don’t become writers than say they want to, on the internet.


And, because it bears repeating, and repeating, and repeating:
Do the work, get the attention, reap the reward

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