On running out of time

So, a new writer wrote to me on Goodreads, back, I dunno, a month or more ago, perfectly polite, asking how to emulate our success, because he wished, not unreasonably, to rise from selling dozens of books to hundreds, or even thousands. My reply was to give him the Short Forty Year History Of My Career, which I felt was fair, because That’s How We Did It, and he might not *actually* want to emulate our process, because, honestly, it was Pretty Damn Scary sometimes.

I mention this because apparently this fellow is the tip of an iceberg of young-in-age writers who are freaking out because they’re Running Out Of Time! To Publish All The Things! Win All the Awards! Achieve All the Fame AND All the Riches!

There are. . .oh, so Many Problems with this.  Allow me to sum up.

Beyond the fact that living in a State of Constant Freak-Out is No Good At All for your creative flow — a Very Small number of writers ever win any awards, much less the Really Important To Your Career Awards, whichever ones those happen to be this week.  It’s not because the game is fixed; it’s because there are Many Many MANY more writers than awards.  Do the math, and you’ll figure out that not everybody can have one.  Just like not everybody in your office can get Employee of the Year?  And, yes, that’s an apt simile.  Most of us just show up every day and do the job, year after year.  Writing as a job really suffers from the Perceived! Glamour! of the work in a way bookkeeping never will.

In much the same way, no one can Achieve All the Fame.  Steve and I have been showing up every day for forty years or so, and we still meet people at conventions or online, who say, But, Why Have I Never Heard Of You? To which the answer I most often give is, Damned If I Know.  The Real Answer, though, is, There Are A Lot of Books Out There, and A Lot of Authors.  Even if you just stick to one genre (hah!), nobody can keep up.

I’m not even going to address Achieving All The Riches.  If you see being a writer as an Instant Path to Riches — you’re in the wrong business, my child.

Now, the Running Out Of Time thing. . .Yes, it’s very true that no one knows how long their thread is.  We have the time we have, no longer.  Statistically, though, most of us in First World Countries have more than 30 years.  So, you’re not Running Out of Time at 24.  It may feel like it because at 24 you’re still running hot, but honest — statistically, you’ve got time.

People start writing and publishing at many ages.  At the extremes:  Some wait til they retire from the day-job; some start writing in high school.  It’s part of the sickness of our culture that we tend to value the 14-year-old over the 65-year-old debut novelist.

Being a writer is, on a certain level, about being unique, so when you start writing is unique to you.  There is no Have to Have Published To Acclaim by 24.5 Years or You’ll Never Make It Rule.  Really, there’s not.

There’s also no rule about when you Should Quit and Make Room for New Writers.  Ideally, you start writing when you have a story worth telling, and you stop writing the day you put your pen down and say, I’ve Said Everything I Wanted To Say.  That can be at the end of a short story, or at the end of three dozen novels.  That’s unique to you, too.

So, wrapping this up, because I need to go open a story file and get the heck to work for the day —

My name is Sharon Lee.  I published my first short story when I was 26 years old.  I published my first novel at 36.  I will see my thirtieth novel, Neogenesis, and my one hundred fourteenth short story, “Block Party,” published during my 65th year.

Not king yet.  Not done yet, either.

6 thoughts on “On running out of time”

  1. Wonderful blog. Mary Wesley wrote for most of her life yet only had novels successfully published in her 70s.

    Diana Athill’s magnificent memoirs would be impossible to write without the experience of a life well lived.

    Paddy Leigh Fermor took ages to write anything (he was too busy having a life as his letters prove) but his books will live forever.

    My adored Barbara Pym published Sevral well-received novels in her 30s and 40s, went horribly out of fashion for 20 years but found an audience again in her 60s.

    Chasing money and success and obsessing about status is probably the quickest way to dry up the creative springs known to humanity.

    There’s no career path for a writer to follow. Just turn up, apply yourself, and try not to split infinitives. It only ever worked for Gene Roddenberry.

  2. Your words gave me goosebumps simply because, I think, I can recognize truth when I read it. Hopefully they will reach the ones they are intended for. Thank you for writing words I personally love to read (sometimes even when it’s not necessarily something I want to read).

  3. Amen.

    Patrick O’Brian was born in 1914. He wrote a critically-acclaimed book at 12, which no one remembers today. He wrote a few other things over the years, which no one remembers today.

    _Master and Commander_ was published in 1969, the first of 20 glorious treasures in the Aubrey/Maturin series. Thank God Mr. O’Brian paid no attention to Running Out of Time.

  4. Well said. I think it is important for people to hear of your struggle so they understand the importance of grit and passion. I would say ‘faith’ as well, but in my experience, the NEED to create is what drives me, whether there is faith or not.

    One of my therapy clients who is a writer and film maker (I get writers and artists in addition to the children and young people who come to me) in his 40s – single dad – struggles with finding the time to write and worries about how how he’s going to finish his second novel and get published. I remind him about Dave Peoples getting up at 5:30 every morning so he could write before he went to work as a film editor (and Finally got a break doing Blade Runner) and Anne McCaffrey telling me about how she and her children lived on pancakes before she made it.

    Thank you for being and for you and Steve sharing your worlds.

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