We’ve all heard the old chestnut “Be careful what you wish for, because you might get it.”
Expectations. In my personal opinion, expectations can kill a career as dead as Ordering to the Net, only quicker. It’s perfectly normal that you start selling stories and think “Now what?” Ok, so you’ve sold a story? Have you qualified for Active in SFWA? Ok, that’s three stories, good. The first two weren’t flukes, that’s nice to know. So. Have you sold a collection? Ok, now you’ve sold a collection? Marvelous! Have you sold a novel? Won a Nebula or Hugo? Been nominated for any darn thing? Sold a Movie Option? Done… well, you get the idea. My friend and mentor Parke Godwin once described this as the “Now the Monkey on My Back Has a New Act” syndrome. This is perfectly normal. What’s not normal is when the monkey, so to speak, thinks the show’s over.
We tend to forget that the sole purpose of a goal is to be a target, but once you hit the mark, its job is done. A goal in its pure essence is a direction, not a destination. One you reach a goal you don’t clear a plot of land on the site, build a split-level with a pool in the back yard and move in. That way lies stagnation. If you don’t want to stagnate, you have to look for the next goal or retire. Those are your choices. Pick one.
That much should be obvious. And yet, to some writers that’s never understood. They thought the goal was the destination. This is the sort of thing that kills a person’s career, as I said, but the irony of it is that the wound is self inflicted. They do it to themselves. They were so heavily invested in doing that One Big Thing which they feared would never happen. Then it does happen. They’ve sold a story professionally, to a top magazine. They’ve sold a novel to a first-rate publisher. They’ve… whatever the mountain top of their choice was, they’ve made it. They’ve reached the pinnacle! Only they don’t like the view. They are confused. It’s a letdown. It’s not what they expected. They ask themselves “Is this all there is?” and don’t understand to the core of their beings that the correct answer is: “Of course not! Never was!” That understanding is beyond their grasp. Being a professional writer wasn’t what they thought it was, and that’s all. They can’t get that feeling of striving back, because in their mind they’ve won, the race is over but the victory is empty, and what’s to strive for now? They’ve taken the brass ring only to discover, well, it’s just a brass ring. The game wasn’t worth the candle.
Any writer who hits this goalpost just this way is very likely to drop from sight and concentrate all their energies on being computer techs or oil drillers or whatever, from then on. The field won’t hear from them again. They tried being a writer. Wasn’t what they thought it was. Ask them what they thought it was, and the answers will be varied, yet vague. Recognition, maybe. Validation. Money. All sorts of things that just didn’t happen. In one way or another, they were expecting that Golden Wonka, thought the whole point was the Golden Wonka, and it turned out to be nothing but painted aluminum foil. No chocolate.
I was totally blown out of the water when The Ogre’s Wife was nominated for the World Fantasy Award back in 2003. But guess what? Come September I still had to work to convince the programming committee that year that I was worthy of a precious World Fantasy Convention programming slot. After being annoyed for about five minutes, I just sighed and got back to work. I’m not bragging, because the ability to do that was an understanding, not a virtue. An understanding that, as the anecdotes pile up, may not be as universal as I once thought.