Hard Work & Opportunity

As with most everything I have to say about art and writing, this is a long and meandering piece. I think it means something though. I think it gets somewhere. We shall see. I am going to use pretentious words like “art” and “artist” and other such muck-a-muck.

If you are one of those TLDR kinda folks, you might want to wander a different direction, though.

Just sayin’.

If I can simplify her commentary a bit, my friend Amy Sterling Casil has written a particularly nice exploration of what it means to be an artist. She couches it in terms of musicians Carlos Santana and Richard Shindell (one of whom I assume you’ve heard of and is likely rich and famous, and one I assume you have not heard of and is likely of rather lesser means). She uses my Saga of the God-Touched Mage series as the spindle she wraps her ideas around, and in the process of doing so says some extremely nice things about it.

In it, she touches on how “unfair” (*) it seems that talented people—people who are artists at heart—get overlooked, or are not as commercially successful as others. It’s a conversation that comes up considerably more often than you might think among writers. Us writer-types can be a catty breed.

* I hate the word “unfair” in general, but it kinda works here

Anyway, her post stirred the pot and dredged up lots of different things from the recesses of my brain. They all combine to make a point, but I’m not sure what order they need to be put in to drive a perfect narrative. So instead, I’ll just do the whole avant-garde thing—let them rip freeform, and see how they look when I’m done. Here are things I know, or things that are at least true to me. They are a shade random, and this is a long list. Sorry about that …

  • There is a difference between commercial success and artistic success. Many artistically successful people find that artistic success to be compensated in financial fashions. I think the two correlate, but not perfectly. At least I feel pretty comfortable saying that there are very few big name artists who are just terrible at their art.
  • There is also a difference between an artistic success and a celebrity, though that line may not be as firm as some believe. The act of being a celebrity is, in itself, a form of performance art, and while I often don’t really get it, I admire it when I see it from certain angles. The first person who made me really realize this was Madonna, who I think has done remarkable things in her career. John Lennon was another performance artist. Both of those examples are/were talented at their chosen professions (musicians, in this case) AS WELL AS remarkable performance artists, but …
  • There exist people who are “merely” performance artists. In today’s world, those are the Kim Kardashians and Snookies and whoever. They are artists, just not in the way you may think of when you conceive of the idea of an artist, and perhaps not in a way you appreciate. If you react to them, however, you are, oddly, part of the art.
  • Yoko Ono was a remarkable performance artist on her own, and her art was a deeply participative form that incorporated the audience directly into it. She was, of course, not particularly well-known before she had the audacity to marry a Beatle. I figure this means she was probably not well compensated for her artistry until she had celebrity to her name. Think about that for a little.
  • I figure there’s a correlation between celebrity performance art, visibility, and financial compensation. I think it’s likely that celebrity performance art pays (as a whole) better than raw talent at any other specific form of creation—perhaps because negative reactions to their form of art serve to strengthen the bonds between them and the audience who accepts them. Just throwing that out there. This may become useful later in the conversation. Bear with me.
  • Amy and I have always been on the same wavelength about this writing gig. I met her in person for the first time in LA at our first WotF session, and we immediately started jabbering about things, and it was just one of those moments where you know there’s this bridge there. I mean, I remember that first night sitting at a restaurant dinner table with six or eight other folks and having a really intense talk about what was okay to do as a writer and what was stifling—talking about writing via rules of thumb vs. doing different things. Amy was smart in places I’m not smart, and maybe I was able to contribute thoughts in places she hadn’t been to. Dunno the full reason. As she notes in her post, the flavor of our work is different. She’s a little F&SF, I’m a little Analog. But deep in the heart of what we do, at the core level of how we approach a work as “artists” I think there has always been some kind of alignment between us. I’m sure there are a lot of things we don’t agree on in general—that there are things in general life she cares about that I don’t, and visa versa. But Amy has always understood what I was doing when I threw words on the page, and the same thing I think goes for me.
  • Lisa (my beloved wife and copyeditor, not Lisa the writer) and I talked about this at lunch today. Part of this connection I have with Amy, I think, is that Amy is a person who is always looking for meaning. She’s a person with a sense of interest about story that remains stuck “on.” I think this is important. There are very few people like this—and fewer writers and artists than you might think, really. Amy sorts through ideas for their core meaning in relation to the big things in life. I think I am very much like that, also. For me, there is no other reason to write but to express ideas about the world as a whole.
  • The downside to being like this is that it’s sometimes hard to get people to understand what you mean. Lisa (my wife) “gets” me most of the time because she’s been with me forever. But even she doesn’t really get what I’m doing with the artistic side of my work. Not all the time, at least.
  • I think some of that is because it is very hard for most people to engage in a work of art at the same level as the artist. It takes energy. It takes a commitment. I know the difference in myself, for example, when I’m really engaged in what the artist is trying to do, and when I am not…or maybe I should say I know when I’ve seen enough of someone’s work that I disengage from it. There is a difference.
  • I’ve worked with several other writers, and learned a lot from them. But Lisa Silverthorn (the writer and great friend Lisa, not the beloved wife and copy editor Lisa) is probably the only other writer who I have felt that kind of kinship with, though I think she and I are on the same wavelength in the area of dreams and passions, whereas Amy and I share a link that is more intrinsic to the work itself. I really can’t explain it better than that.
  • By that last bit, I don’t mean to say those other writers are not artists or anything else negative about any other writer.
  • I do, however, think that there’s a change in people when they begin to find their ability to comment on life through their “art” rather than seeing what they do as base entertainment or simply try to tell a good story. Something happens when they get to the point where they open their own souls up and see what they have to say. All of a sudden, that craft stuff they have been working on by rote seems to suddenly make sense, even if they don’t see it themselves. Brigid (my daughter, a new writer on her own) appears to be getting to that point, BTW. Singer had a commentary to it, but was done differently. Her last couple works have shown me new things about her “as an artist” that weren’t always there in the first couple pieces. It’s really fun to watch people change…but I digress from my digression.
  • Maybe I’m just transferring here, tough. All of that is wrong. Maybe that’s just how it was for me.
  • I write a wide array of story types. Hard SF? Cyber punk? Slipstream? Magic Realism? True Fantasy? Yes to it all. Some of what I do I think is pretty danged good, and I think other folks will think so, too. Other stuff I think is good, but I know others will be mixed about. I’m hard to classify because in the end I don’t decide what to write based on what I think will be successful (commercially) or not. I write things I care about at the moment, and I let them free to find whatever place they are going to find.
  • As random fate would have it, I’m listening to a CD by Alvin Youngblood Hart. I’m going to guess most of my readers will not recognize the name—though he’s quite successful, and a remarkable blues musician. If you haven’t heard him, pull up Mr. Google and go buy something. My guess is you’ll like it.
  • Back to the subject again … I’m not as good of a writer as I want to be. Perhaps there are those who would just say I’m not a good writer. I hope they are wrong (grin). Perhaps I would be a better pure writer if I focused on one area, one genre. But I don’t think so. My work says what I want it to say. And, not to be too morbid, I hope to die thinking that I’m not as good of a writer as I want to be. One should always be striving to get better.
  • In my opinion (and what do I know, I’m just the writer), the main thing that’s constant in my work is that I’m always quite clear in my mind what every character in every story is there for. They all mean something to me. I don’t write throw-away stories or throw away characters. At least, not on purpose (grin). This has been true since the minute I started writing, though I’m better at putting it on the page now than I was back then. I hope (grin).

Okay, Ron. What does all that mean?

Well, as far as I’m concerned, it’s like this:

Assuming you’re any good at anything, commercial success is probably about opportunity. But being good at something, and getting proper opportunity is really complicated. You might, after all, have heard someone say that luck is what happens when hard work meets opportunity. I agree with that, but, seriously, what does that mean? Let’s take a moment and really think about it.

Let’s start with the hard work part: Hard work (in this field) is what creates both quality and “product.” When you start, you’re generally not very good, so you pay for quality with hard work. And if you’re lucky, no one reads those early stories because the quality is not good (perhaps you could consider that negative opportunity). But eventually, all that preparatory hard work results in improved craftsmanship and thereby enables better artistic success. Then the hard work of sticking to it results in good “product” to bring to market (love those business terms, eh?).

Then we get to opportunity. Opportunity is much harder to quantify. It is not what you might first think. Or, better, it’s more than you might first think.

Let me take a small step backward for a moment.

As it turns out, Amy’s post has things almost right when it comes to Glamour of the God-Touched (and the whole SGTM series) in that it had a many-twisted path to its birthing. I originally envisioned them years ago as a series of novellas, but I wrote them as novels because that’s what I thought I needed to do to be “commercial.” I wrote on them, and wrote on them, and wrote on them. For years, actually. But they didn’t breathe right, and when I would talk to publishers about them, and the editors or agents would get excited, but then kind of scratch their heads and go other directions. Truthfully, I don’t think that even I liked them in that format. But that’s what I thought they needed to be to “sell.” But, after years of setting the story aside, and then trying it out again, and setting it aside, I finally decided to do it the way I originally envisioned them. Suddenly they spoke to me again. I know what I want to say with them, you know? They pulled at things inside me. And when I put them together the way I originally envisioned them, I knew I was in the right space. I’m proud of them.

That’s a long way of saying that Amy’s commentary about them being “Ron” made me very, very happy, and perhaps stands testimony to what I mean when I say we’re on the same wavelength when it comes to the base art of what we’re each trying to do. It’s really fun to have someone get it.

Against that frame work, we come again to opportunity.

For new writers, opportunity was once thought to start (and end?) with getting someone to publish your work. It is true, of course, that being published is/was a gateway one had to go through, and as Amy noted, the traditional publication route (which I still appreciate and still pursue), is an interesting exercise in itself. I am often published traditionally in short markets. I understand how that gateway can be viewed as opportunity, or at least how the lack of access to the gateway can certainly feel like denied opportunity. But it’s not.

Not really.

The existence of a publishing stream is really just a pathway to opportunity. It’s always been just that. Just like the existence of a concert hall did not give Robert Shindell an opportunity, publishing houses to not provide opportunity. At best, these middle-men provide visibility, which I postulate is different. Perhaps you’ll think I’m parsing things too finely, but the person who gave Robert Shindell an opportunity last Friday (as related in Amy’s post) was Amy. She is the one who went to the show, despite not knowing what to expect. She is the one who “took the chance” on Shindell. The music hall was a gateway to that opportunity, certainly. But it was not the opportunity. The opportunity was Amy and Bruce deciding to give Shidell their attention, and to give it in a full fashion.

Perhaps it’s all the work I’ve been putting into Glamour for the past several months. Perhaps it’s the group of local writers I’ve been working with lately, but this is how I’ve begun to think about things. A publishing company gives a writer visibility. An art gallery gives an artist visibility. The television gives a modern-day celebrity performance artist visibility.

But it is the consumer of the art who provides opportunity. Remember that. It’s the consumer of the art who provides the opportunity. And that makes it tough. That makes it complicated.

For example, when I pitched SGTM as serial fantasy novellas to editors and agents in the traditional markets (which I did), they all just kinda grinned and said “we can’t sell novellas.” Which is marketing speak for “we don’t see sales opportunity out there.” And, for the way they market, they are probably right. Or at least, they can make more money if they spend their capital on art products that will have a better “hit rate” with the reading public.

Hence, it was either find very small press, or do it through Skyfox. Ten years ago, that wouldn’t have been an option, but now it is. And so that’s what I’ve done. But publishing—the act of creating a book and making it available—is not visibility, nor is visibility equal to opportunity.

* Aside: whenever I talk to new writers they inevitably want to talk about marketing, which I think is vital, but somewhat boring, and really not quite up there with rocket science. Don’t get me wrong. Marketing is important. Getting your work in front of as many eyeballs as you can is turning out to be a huge value (ultimately, there’s this big eCommerce vibe about indie success that I find interesting). But you can cover what you need to cover in an hour or four, and in the end most new writers need to worry more about finding their voice and their art a lot more than they need to worry about marketing.

Anyway, when you look at things this, opportunity gets really, really complex.

Opportunity is, at its root, about finding and building a core of people who are willing to be open to what you do.

For someone like me, a person who is not a name, and who still jumps categories, it’s also about finding people who will absorb what I do and look at it for what it is. For someone like me, the broad-brush approach can find those readers, but also results in finding “audience” who is not my audience. And that creates dissonance and heartache in some places.

How do you get someone to come to your work with an engaged mind if they don’t know your work to begin with (as Amy came to Robert Shindell’s work)? How can you engage a person who likes your SF work, when you are writing fantasy instead? How do you find new people who are likely to appreciate your work? How do you avoid creating the bad visibility (*) that happens when the “wrong” audience hits your work?

* Example: The first person who reviewed Glamour of the God-Touched said only that they felt “gyped” because the work was too short. Clearly, this person was not the audience for a novella (technically, the first episode is a long novelette, though the rest are all squarely novellas). Admittedly, it’s a little hard to stomach the idea that anyone would find GGT to be of less value than half a Grande Mocha at Starbucks … but I do get it. It’s okay. But again, she wasn’t my audience. She bought my work without looking at the length, and it “cost” me in the form of a two-star review that wasn’t about anything but the length.


That’s the gig. It really is fine. The audience decides what they will focus on, and the audience decides what they care about. That reader is right for that reader. The work was bad because it was short. In my mind, I’ll turn that comment around and say the story was so good she just couldn’t get enough of it, and complained when the story was done. (grin).

Amy said her post is about what people think is good, versus what is really good. And it is. But I’m sitting here thinking, and listening now to Annie Lennox, now. And I’m thinking about what I could have done to improve the experience of that reader who wanted a longer story for the money. I suppose I could have dropped the price. But would that have made a difference? Would it have changed the review to a 5-star? Would it have meant she would have read it and just not said anything? Who can tell? All I can really say is that I had an opportunity to make her happy, and I failed. For her, I was not a good enough writer to overcome what she felt was too great of a price tag.

In the end, I’m thinking the right answer is to go back to work, and make the next thing I write better. That ship has sailed, but there are more ships.

And I’m also thinking about how I engage with other artists.

When I hear music, do I really listen? When I read a story, do I see the work? Really? Am I admiring it properly? Am I seeing what they were trying to do? And can I bring myself to the work in the way they envision it? There are only so many hours in a day, and I get busy like everyone else.

But in the end, I’m sitting here thinking: Do I give the artists of the world the opportunity they deserve? What is the best way to do that? What do I get in return? And if I don’t, who will?

Anyway …

If you’ve made it this far … well, first, if you’ve made it this far, you’re probably crazy bored … but if you’ve made it this far, I would ask you to ask yourself those same questions.

I figure it’s worth thinking about.

If nothing else, maybe Robert Shindell will get a few more folks going to his music halls. (grin)

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  1. Aw Ron … you’re the best! Guess what I think you might have forgotten … we actually met “in person” at the 1996 Worldcon in Los Angeles. I distinctly remember laughing at “Miss Piggy” with you (the young woman with the skirt with pink curlers decorating it) and then going to the Masquerade – I am pretty sure you’d never been to one of those before, and I know I sure hadn’t been. We were laughing in our way, not particularly mean, but then this one lady came on dressed as a Jedi knight. She was “bigger” as many participants are, and I was looking forward to mocking her … but then they showed her face on that big screen. Her face was shining, and it was so much like the best moment of her life. She was up there on that stage dressed in this costume that I now know she must have spent many hours making. I remember looking up at you, then at her and I saw the same thing on your face as mine. The words I can put it in is, I think at that time, we both realized how important this was for her and we would be …

    RILLY RILLY BAD to laugh at her and to not clap and support her.

  2. The last year or so, I’ve been trying to come up with a Grand Unified Theory of Media Consumption. I have my experience with writing and editing, I’m now working in video, I have tons of friends trying to break into the music business, I’ve looked at how successful webcomic artists have grown from rough scribbles to 6-figure audiences, and I’ve even examined the world of computer game “let’s plays” where people have turned playing games into full-time careers.

    A lot of it is in the mechanics. Keep doing something on a regular schedule, build the audience steadily over time, with occasional signal boosts from outside sources that create new plateaus, and if you’re “lucky”, you eventually hit enough critical mass for it to become self-sustaining. In this context, finding sources of signal boost is where marketing mostly fits in, and generally involves gatekeepers which as you point out, has expanded beyond media publishers to things like reviews, blogs, and a host of other non-traditional.

    But then I saw when 3 different music friends appeared on The Voice, one of them getting to semi-finalist status, that even with a signal boost reaching into millions of people, the long-term effect was negligible. Even winners of that show have a poor record of achieving commercial success.

    Then it dawned on me that the *primary* product of a media presentation is not Entertainment, but Identity. In the case of The Voice, the strength of the show is that when each season starts and there are 48 contestants thrown at the audience, the viewers still have an Identity hook with the Judges, being on Team Blake or Team Adam means they’ll keep coming back until the field narrows and they can learn to love (or hate) the contestants on a more intimate basis. But it’s also the show’s weakness, because while some viewers will follow the artists after they leave the show, the vast majority are into the competition, not the art. Take the singers out of that context and the same kind of excitement and drama isn’t there.

    It really hit home when I went to the first local show of our semi-finalist (Lindsey Pavao from season 2). Small bar with a really intimate stage where the front row is standing 2 feet from the performers. When her set started, a large group of “fans” rushed to be up front, but when she opened with 4 or 5 of her original songs performed with her acoustic guitar, almost all of them turned to their friends and started talking, even the ones *right in front* of Lindsey. Then when she started singing the covers from the show with backup from the opening band, they started wooping and hollering like they were at an arena concert with 10,000 instead of standing within reach. They were there to see “Lindsey Pavao Of The Voice”, not Lindsey Pavao.

    The Watercooler Factor. What I realized is that what was important to these people was being able to go to work the next day and tell their coworkers they had seen a celebrity perform. I’m willing to bet most of them described Lindsey as “that local girl from The Voice”.

    Similarly, we have a local summer series of concerts in a downtown park that typically draws a crowd of 6000 each Friday evening for strictly local bands. But friends’ bands that perform there rarely see much of a boost in club attendance after playing there, and I suspect it’s for the same reason. The Identity boost at the watercooler on Monday comes from saying “I was at the park concert drinking beer and partying!” instead of saying, “Autumn Sky was a really great singer, you should check her out!”

    In other words, the Identity hooks for both of these overall presentations mostly exists for the event itself, with much less of it transferring to the artists. It’s a signal boost, but without the impact that most people expect. Another example was Oprah’s book club. When I was at Borders, I’d have people come in to buy the book without knowing the first thing about it (I guess they didn’t even pay attention to what Oprah was saying). One example had the customer buy it after I told her it was a mystery and she replied, “Oh, I HATE mysteries!” What mattered had nothing to do with even reading the book, but the fact that she could tell her friends she had purchased it. Still, with the enormous numbers Oprah brought to the table, even a 1% retention rate of fans sticking with the author on subsequent books could have a major impact on their career.

    I’m still working out on what exactly all this means for what a media creator should *do* to work this Identity angle. But there are a few potential insights.

    First is that if we are the sum of our experiences, we have to recognize that everybody has enormous portions of their Identity tied into the media they consume. This applies in the negative sense just as strongly as the positive sense. When somebody says, “I don’t watch TV,” or “I hate sports,” they are very loudly taking a stand that who they are has a direct relation to the world of media out there.

    Second is that sharing our love of media content is a *selfish* act. We only ever overcome the barrier of exposing ourselves to what we do and don’t like because we think it’s going to help our status with whoever it is were talking to. I think this is why calls to spread the word of good works on altruistic grounds are ultimately doomed to failure. This is a huge problem with local music. It only takes a few times of talking about a local band you saw last night with blank responses of “who???” to nip that habit in the bud. But if you say you went to the Bruce Springsteen concert everybody around the watercooler is going to “oooh” and “ahhh” even if they aren’t particularly fans. In a way, this makes talking about things that are already popular a learned response.

    Third is that Identity can attach in unexpected and unwanted ways. One big example in publishing is how sometimes a writer’s series becomes the ONLY thing the readers want from them. How many mystery writers tank whenever they trying to put out a book without their primary detective? J.K. Rowling probably has enough people who are personal fans that anything she writes will be successful, but that would still be dwarved by anything Harry Potter she’d write. This gets into the celebrity issues you brought up above. Being famous gets a person a lot of opportunities, but we’ve seen over and over that it doesn’t mean a guarantee of success in other fields.

    Fourth is that Identity explains a lot of how genre works. It’s an Identity shortcut. Take a look at how just about every musical genre has a corresponding fashion — people literally wear their favorite music on their sleeves even when it’s not a specific band’s t-shirt.

    So what about the art? I still think this means we have to create a *compelling* work. Because absent pre-existent awareness, the best way to get that watercooler conversation started is to MAKE the person want to share, even if they are unsure of the response. Just as we have to make the person who picks up a random book in the store turn to the next page without even thinking about it.

    But in terms of the mechanics of the career I talked about above, using awareness of Identity means that when we get a signal boost, we are prepared to snag those new people into our own sphere, and not just assume they’re going to stick just because they now know our name.

    This means a steady stream of content. This means being accessible and approachable as a person and engaging your audience (or at least appearing that way when it becomes impractical to keep up with the flow, but by that time, critical mass generally creates its own growth).

    A lot of this overlaps with the general idea that what an artist is creating is a personal brand. This is particularly important in media forms where it’s increasingly difficult to directly sell the product, like music. Sell tickets to live shows and t-shirts instead. Heck, webcomic artist Jeph Jacques started making a living off his comic *years* before he printed any books because he had built a ready audience of people who would buy t-shirt designs from him that had nothing at all to do with the comic. And now we have services like Patreon where fans can literally just say “keep doing what you’re doing” without any direct compensation in terms of tangible products.

    It is a new world, and I think it takes a new way of thinking about what we’re doing in order to have a measure of control over the outcome rather than just creating stuff and hoping everything turns out.

    So that’s my 924 cents on the subject.

  3. Wow, Jim. This is a fantastic response. Your use of Identity feels like is plays directly with my idea that the consumer is the driver of opportunity. You can lead a person to the water cooler, but you can’t make them read. 🙂

    The Voice is an interesting example, too. And, for that matter, all the talent/singing shows. I watch those shows more for the overall feel of the learning and business things they carry. But one of the things I leave those shows with is how ubiquitous talent is. (Aside, I think it’s interesting to hear you talk about the way viewers tune in for the Team aspect of the voice. I agree with that completely. And it’s accentuated by the way the coaches talk to the singers after the battle rounds–after which point, there is almost never a critical word spoken.

    You’ve given me a ton to think about here.

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