Thanks for all the deeply smart and thoughtful comments to yesterday’s question. You lot are awesome.
Youse lot have gotten me thinking muchly on the topic. On the one hand, I am a fan of many writers I’ve never met, like, Denise Mina, Meg Cabot, Geraldine McCaughrean, Walter Mosley, Megan Whalen Turner, Peter Temple and would probably embarrass myself by breathless gushing all over them if we were ever to meet. On the other hand, I’m a working writer who knows a lot of working writers and knows that we’re not particularly different from everyone else. (Well, except for Maureen Johnson . . . )
I put it like this to Holly Black:
It does not surprise me in the slightest that Karen Joy Fowler and Ursula Le Guin are friends. But it surprises me HUGELY that I am making a living as a writer and therefore I have many writer friends. I constantly have to pinch myself. How on Earth did I get here? Please don’t let anyone take it away!
That fear is real: many writers don’t make a living at it for their whole lives. It takes a long time for most of us to get published (took me close to twenty years) and then once you are published there’s no guarantee that your books will keep selling. Styles of writing go out of fashion. So do genres.
Your comments were all so useful, I thought I’d respond in more detail:
Danica’s point is a really good one: “I guess we (meaning non-writers) don’t always think of publishing as an industry and don’t realize that most writers must be connected somehow.”
That’s so true. I remember the first science fiction convention I went to back in 1993. I was astonished to see all these writers and editors I’d heard of in the one place. All of them clearly knew each other and were, in fact, a community. A pretty big community that consisted not only of those whose living was directly tied to the publishing industry (writers, editors, publishers, publicists etc) but also readers and fans and a handful of students and scholars. Long before I sold a single short story I was becoming friends with the likes of Ellen Datlow, Samuel R. Delany, Ellen Kushner, Delia Sherman, and Terri Windling. It was astonishing.
That community—of science fiction people— is the oldest genre community I know of and has roots that go back to the late 1920s. There are also romance communities, crime fiction communities, YA communities etc., and to a lesser extent mainstream lit fic communities (though I suspect that the easy access of fans to pros is not so strong in the lit fic world).
Tole said: “Perhaps it’s not so much that we are surprised that you know each other, as much as amazed at how lucky you are to not only have the talent and perseverance to write a novel, but that you have an amazing set of friends as well.”
I am also amazed by that. I mean, yes, I said above that we’re not that different from everyone else, but my writer friends understand the ins and outs of this weird job we have better than anyone else. No matter what questions I have there’s someone I know who’s been through it before and can help me out. “My book’s been remaindered! Does that mean my career is over?” “Barnes & Noble aren’t stocking my book! Does that mean my career is over?” “How do you write action scenes?” “What’s the best writing software?” and so on and so forth. When I have a success that’s hard to explain to people outside the industry (my book is on the BBYA) my YA writer friends get it and can celebrate with me and vice versa.
Having peers is a wonderful, wonderful thing. And when your peers are as talented and amazing as mine. Well, it’s pinching yourself time.
JS Bangs made two excellent points:
1) People think of authors as solitary geniuses scribbling away and living on water and crusts of bread, without any contact with others of their kind.
2) It feeds people’s fear that the publishing industry is all about who you know.
1) There are writers like that. There are definitely working writers who live a long way from their peers and don’t ever meet them at conferences and convention and so on. But I think they’re getting rarer. The internet has allowed more and more people in the same industry to be in contact with each other and break down that isolation. Is very good thing!
2) Oh, yes, that old bugbear. Pretty much every industry from medicine to the building industry to agriculture has a certain amount of who-you-know going on. The world runs on personal relationships. What most people who are paranoid about the publishing industry don’t get is that an unpublished writer knowing some editors may get them read but guarantees nothing beyond that. I’ve had editor friends since 1993. A decade later I sold my first novel.
I know plenty of writers who started selling before they’d met a single person in the industry.1 Knowing people in the industry means that it’s easier to figure out how it works—you have friends you can ask—but it doesn’t mean anything if you have no talent.
Camille expanded on the solitary point: “I think, too, it’s because you can write from anywhere. With lawyers and professors and the like, generally you have to congregate in a place to get anything done. (Less now, with the Internet, but still, predominantly people go TO work.) You HAVE to physically associate with your colleagues. Writers can live anywhere and yeah, somebody above said we think of writing as being a solitary exercise.”
That’s true. Part of my knowing so many writers has to do with my living in two very big cities: Sydney and NYC. And in both cities the writers in my genre have made an effort to make contact. Because so many of us write alone, I think the need for community is much stronger than those who work with people in their profession every day.
Of course, there are still writers out there who don’t know other writers and aren’t part of any writing communities.
Herenya: “I think it’s because we know who these other writers are. If I started talking about who my friends are, people would look at me blankly because none of my friends have done anything to warrant that sort of recognition (yet!) But you talk about your friends, and I think ‘oh, yes, I know who they are, I was reading one of their books yesterday.’ It’s a bit like the same sense of surprise you get when you find you and a friend / acquaintance ‘know’ someone in common, but with the awe factor involved, because we only know them through their writing and not personally.”
That makes a lot of sense to me and jibes with my own experience. The awe factor is nicely summed up by Bill: “Myself, I’m still so amazed that certain books exist at all (say, Stranger in a Strange Land) I can’t rationally believe that it was typed by hand by a human being named Robert Heinlein. Books, especially books that change your life, are inherently mystical objects to those of us on the receiving end.”
Even though I write books myself, I still feel that way about the books that move me. There is something fundamentally mysterious about the process of creating (no matter what you create). I think that’s why so many writers struggle to explain where they get their ideas.
On that note, I should probably get back to doing some creating of my own.
- Scott Westerfeld and John Scalzi are two that come to mind. [↩]