Yesterday I emailed a novel manuscript to a publisher. Of course I’m hoping they like it and want to publish it, but here’s the thing—even if they do take it, we’re talking about a really nicely produced limited edition of, maybe, 500 copies. When it sells out—and it would, sooner or later—I’ll bring out my own ebook edition, where it will continue to sell at some higher or lower level, but we’re clearly not talking NYT or even Locus bestseller list, here. And that’s all right. In fact, it’s sort of the point.
There was a period, early on, when I thought that I wanted to be a full-time writer. I was starting to break in at a time when sf/f novels were regularly hitting the NYT bestseller lists, and sales for any particular title, even at the paperback level, were orders of magnitude greater than they tend to be now. It seemed a perfectly reasonable and attainable goal. There was just this one catch—you had to write novels. What I was discovering, even as I tried my hand at novels, was that what I really wanted to write, and what really clicked for me, were short stories. I still worked on novels, but only now and then, and only when the story just proved to be too long, too complex to contain in the short form. That only happened every few years or so, because in general my brain isn’t wired that way. So mostly I wrote at less than novel length—short stories, novelettes, the occasional novella. Now, in order to make a living writing short stories you have to either 1) Be Howard Waldrop or 2) Be born fifty years earlier than I was, when great magazines called “The Slicks” roamed the land, and paid a living wage. Neither was really an option.
Looking back at it now, it’s hard to believe how clueless I was. I didn’t change my approach, because I couldn’t figure out how, but somehow I still expected to go full-time. Or in the immortal words of Hermione Granger: “What an idiot.” How I expected this to happen, I still don’t know. I was productive, certainly, but that alone was no help since I was usually producing more work than my markets could absorb. More to the point, somewhere along the line I got spoiled. I discovered that I liked writing what I wanted, when I wanted, and going off on any tangent that appealed to me. I used “spoiled” in the sense that what was working for me was not what I thought I needed to do. I beat myself up for that a lot over the years, but hey, turned out I was wrong. What my younger self didn’t get that the older me finally figured out was that I needed that kind of freedom to function at all as a writer. I still do. Maybe I’m not doing what I expected to do. But I’m doing what I need to do.
I’ve sold a couple of novels, and maybe I’ll sell a few more before I’m done. But if I do, it’s just gravy. I’ve finally gotten my expectations in line with my necessities. It only took me thirty years. As I’ve said before—slow learner. But if I live long enough, I get there.