The right to disappointment in the face of success

This post might seem a bit outrageous to many and I’d like to state right off the bat that of course I recognise how many people would love to have my problems! But it’s something that’s come up a lot for me recently, and I’ve seen it often enough among my peers, that I thought it was worth writing about. I’m not talking about anything actually controversial here, just the right for someone to be disappointed. Let me explain myself.

Several times over recent months I’ve mentioned something on social media in relation to a less than perfect result in terms of writing and publishing. For example, “Godsdammit! Got rejected today from an anthology I really hoped to get into!” or “Ellen Datlow released her Year’s Best list and I didn’t get a shout out. Must work harder!” And any number of other things. These are the regular laments and complaints of the jobbing writer. We want to be recognised in every endeavour we make. Now I don’t expect to be successful in any of these things but I try my damnedest to make the best work I can in the hope I am successful. I will continue to put in my best effort in an attempt at success. So naturally, I’m always disappointed when something doesn’t land where I want it to. All of that is pretty normal, right?

Here’s the thing, though. Pretty much every time I’ve mentioned anything like this over recent months, someone somewhere has replied with, “Yeah, dude, but you have a three book deal with HarperVoyager!”

And they’re right, I do. And yes, it is awesome. I still pinch myself when I think about it. I still giggle like a fool when I’m in a book shop and I see my name right there on the shelf next to people like Clive Barker or Joe Abercrombie (Baxter has some fine alphabetical company!) I am absolutely blown away by the fact that I’ve attained this level of success in my career.

Also, I get reminded that I sold a short story to The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Absolutely, another high point – that publication is the absolute holy grail of short fiction markets for me and I’m stunned my work will be in those pages. (The story is called The Chart of the Vagrant Mariner, by the way, and it’ll be out in the Jan/Feb 2015 issue as far as I know.)

“But, dude! You sold a trilogy to Harper Collins!”

“But, dude! You sold a story to F&SF!”

Yes. Yes, I did. I’m happy dancing like a fucking lunatic over here, don’t think I’m not. Those things are incredible and I’m solidly grateful and very proud of myself. But that doesn’t reduce the sting of rejection. Every rejection hurts like the first time, at least for me. It’s something I don’t think I’ll ever get used to. And you know what? It’s okay for me to be sad when something doesn’t come through. Sure, I can console myself with the knowledge of other tremendous successes, and I do. But I don’t want to ever lose that desire for success, or the disappointment with failure. I’m going to constantly strive for better results and I will always be disappointed when they don’t come through.

The HarperVoyager deal is amazing, but I still desperately want a US/UK deal for The Alex Caine Series.

Selling a story to F&SF is fantastic, but I still want to sell into other markets. And I want to sell to F&SF again. I’ve done it once, so now the challenge is to do it again, and I’m going to be gutted every time I try only to be rejected. Same with my sale to Beneath Ceaseless Skies. I’m hella proud of that story and that sale, but I’ve since had a couple of stories rejected by them and it burns. I want to be in there again!

I’ve had award shortlistings, but I want award WINS, godsdammit! And when I get award wins (when, not if, because I’m not giving up!) I’ll be striving for more and bigger award wins.

When I get a US and/or UK deal for The Alex Caine Series, I’m going to be striving for foreign language sales, and I’m going to be trying to sell new novels and new series.

And with all of the above, no matter how much of it I manage to make happen, no matter how much success I see, I’m still going to be disappointed every time I get a knockback. Because I have a hunger for a career. I want to make good money writing, I want to win awards, I want signing queues out the fucking door and down the street.

And I want all that not because I want to bask in fame – I could well do without any actual fame! – but because I have stories to tell and I want them to be read. And I want to make a living from people reading my stories so I get to continue writing more. Is that essentially narcissistic? Of course it is! There’s narcissism in every writer, there has to be. Why the holy shit should we expect people to read our stuff? But that, for me, translates into a desire to share stories and entertain and create dialogue and debate about interesting subjects. I want to encourage readers and writers to do more reading and writing even as I do so.

So if I do complain about a knockback, please don’t respond with, “Yeah but you have this amazing success!” It may be true, but at that moment, I’m hurting. I’ve achieved a lot, but I want more. We all want more. Like I said at the start, I’m sure loads of people would kill for my success as a writer, but I’d kill for Clive Barker’s or Neil Gaiman’s. Every writer I know, no matter how successful they are, wants more. That’s what drives us because it’s a hell of a hard road we’re walking.

So please indulge my disappointments. Say, “Sucks, dude!” or “That’s shit, but keep going, mate!” or anything like that. A bit of solidarity, a bit of a shoulder slap and a push on, that’s all I need. That’s all any of us need when we’re smarting from the spiky paddle of rejection across the arse cheeks. Trust me, rejection doesn’t diminish my successes at all, or make me forget them, so don’t think I need reminding. I just need to feel that sting for a while, then it just drives me to work harder.

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7 thoughts on “The right to disappointment in the face of success

  1. An author I know who has been consistently published since the 60s, once told me that awards are nice, but most of them are set up so the popular kids win (she was talking about the US scene a decade ago, but as I’ve heard similar for the UK, and Aus, I assume that’s a fault of the awards as a system) so she chose early on to concentrate her energies on being published with houses she respected, both large and small, work with editors she respected, and collaborate with writers she respected.

    The letters from fans of her writing were a more tangible sign to her that her writing was still hitting the mark. And I suspect that is what you are feeling when you get a rejection now, yes – you’ve had successes, but a career has to be built on, and for that you want your work to be hitting the mark. When it doesn’t hit the mark for a particular person you hoped it would, you are entitled to feel a bit of a sting.Also to look at what did hit the mark for them, and learn.

  2. Every author wants to keep getting published. And in an ever more competitive publishing scene, it continues to get harder. We’re not all Stephen King.

  3. If you ever stop caring about the rejections and failures you are doomed. If you start meeting each rejection with the thought ‘Doesn’t matter, I got a 3 book deal’ your desire to do better will diminish, your work will suffer and in pretty short order you will be ‘that guy who once had a 3 book deal’. Feel the pain and disappointment – it will make you better in the long run.

  4. Loved reading this post Alan. It really struck a nerve with me. I’m a writer working towards publication, and I’m amazed at the amount of people who see ‘publication’ as the shining light at the end of the tunnel, as opposed to what I see as the ultimate goal, writing an amazing novel that people want to read. I totally get the desire for growth, the longing to carve a little niche in the writing world and inhabit it. One day, I hope to be where you are. Even then, I’ll feel my first novel is only the beginning – as its seems you do too.

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