Career Restlessness

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I attended RavenCon in Richmond, Virginia this past weekend and had a great time.  Saw some old friends and met several new ones, sat in on some interesting panel discussions, and even managed to sell a few books.

We’ve blogged here before about cons, and about the purposes they serve for us professionally, so I won’t go into that again.  Usually, though, I come home from a con feeling one of two ways.  Either I’ll have spent the weekend talking shop with friends and thinking about work in new ways, in which case I’ll come home completely energized, or I’ll have a disappointing con and arrive home somewhat dispirited.  But this weekend I seem to have discovered what for me is a new post-convention emotional dynamic (oh, joy…).

As I say, I had a good con, so I’m certainly not depressed or sapped of energy.  But I don’t feel particularly energized, either.  Instead, I feel restless.

Let me backtrack here.  Most writers have something of a career plan.  Many times they’ll begin with a plan — usually one that envisions the writer winding up on one or more bestseller lists, and having several of his or her books made into movies.  As time goes on, these career plans will, more often than not, require some tweaking….  All kidding aside, any writer who thinks about such things will tell you that career plans really do require careful thought and constant adjustment.  I had a career plan when I started out, and, to be brutally honest, I thought I’d be further along at this stage of my career.  I thought my sales would be better, I hoped that I’d have received more notice in balloting for the big awards — the Nebula, the Hugo, the World Fantasy Award.  I wanted to be a big name.

As it turns out, I’m a midlist author.  I’m not a newbie anymore, and I do pretty well.  But I’m not writing bestsellers, and I’m not showing up on any of Oprah’s must-read lists.  And I have to admit that I’m ready to move up the ladder a bit. 

Don’t get me wrong:  I’m not complaining.  Overall, I’ve been very fortunate in my career.  I’ve had a couple of bad breaks, but I’ve also enjoyed more good luck than I had any right to expect; the balance sheet is definitely in my favor.  I love what I do, and if this is it, if writing epic fantasy from the midlist is all that I have to look forward to for the rest of my career, I can live with that.  This is a pretty good life.

Part of this restlessness I’m feeling, this vague sense of dissatisfaction with where I am right now, is merely “shiny new toy” syndrome — something I wrote about at length in a post a couple of weeks ago.  I’m ready to be working on something new, and having outlined one project and started another, I even know what these new things are.

That said, though, I want more than the shiny new toy.  I still have a career plan.  It’s been tweaked, adjusted for the vagaries of the publishing industry and the stark realities of the current economy.  But it still envisions many of those goals I mentioned earlier but have yet to achieve.  I remain ambitious. 

What was it about RavenCon that brought all of this home to me so powerfully?  I really don’t know.  There were some big names at the con.  There were also some new faces, some rising stars.  And there I was, the embodiment of the midlist, stuck in the middle once again.  Not really a big name; no longer new enough to this business to be considered a rising star.  The strange thing was, I didn’t feel jealous of the big names.  It was the rising stars I envied.  I want to feel that sense of possibility again.  Maybe that’s the allure of my shiny new toys.  They’re my next chance to break out of the midlist.  The Forelands books and the Southlands series are doing fine, but they aren’t going to launch me to that next level.  These next projects might.

For now, of course, I have to find some way to put my restlessness aside and write the book that’s contracted.  Still I refuse to let go of this feeling entirely.  Ambition is a good thing.  It drives us; it challenges; sometimes it even taunts.  But as long as it keeps me moving forward — as long as it makes me strive for more rather than despair of having achieved less — I’ll continue to feed it with hopes of what that next new project might bring.

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13 comments to Career Restlessness

  • Frankly David, I wold be more worried if you didn’t feel a drive be become something more. It is tha trestlessnes as you called it, that caused you to write in the first place. Instead of fighting it, embrace it and use it to propel you forward.

  • L. Jagi Lamplighter

    Okay…I just wrote this really long comment that got eaten by my computer. Sigh. Here’s a shorter version:

    Ah…the restlessness.

    Believe me, I know that feeling. Watching others at the conventions move forward while you are standing, as if stuck in amber, waiting for a future that never seems to arrive.

    And yet…dreams are made to be fought for. The door to the future we desire awaits us — the future where we stand knowing that something we wrote made a difference, touched someone’s soul, changed someone’s life — and that we have received the kudos appropriate for the acheivement. We have merely to find the key!

  • David,
    I know just how you feel.
    I am in that boat too, in both of my AKAs.
    And I am looking for the dream again.
    Faith

  • This was an inspiring post, David. Even while dealing with midlist frustrations, you’re looking to do new things and keep improving your writing. It seems like the balance between calculated risks and historical sales trends pushes most publishing houses to more conservative guidelines for authors as they advance — “more of the same,” size of print runs, etc.

    It’s also nice to read about your ambition. Many writers whose blogs I read will talk about this in a very narrow sense (their hopes for one book, for instance), but not how it fits their career plan.

  • …this is a totally awesome post which I am far too brain-dead to comment on more than ‘awesome’. I’ll try to do better tomorrow, ’cause it’s worth of some comment.

    *staggers to bed*

    -Catie

  • Careful, David….

    “Shiny New Toy Syndrome” (a wonderful phrase that definitely warrants wider adoption) is one thing, but Ambition can sometimes be harmful, and Contentment is hard to come by.

    Ambition leads to Either Greater Success or Greater Failure (often alternating doses of each), but in all cases it leads away from Contentment.

    I can tell from your posting here and at your other blog that you are normally a very content person. You said yourself that this was a “new post-convention emotional dynamic” for you.

    Feel free to reach for that next rung on the ladder, but don’t lose sight of what is great about where you already are.

    This came out quite heavy, sorry, but I felt it needed to be said. I know a lot of people less successful than me, and QUITE a lot of people more successful than me, but I am not sure if I know anybody Happier than me.

  • Amazing the different ways people react to the word “ambition.” I think that Frank is right — ambition can easily become dissatisfaction. Ambition unfulfilled can turn to resentment, even bitterness. And I should be wary of that. As I say in the last paragraph of my post, as long as my ambition keeps me striving for more and doesn’t have me despairing of having achieved less, I’ll pursue it. Because as Mark points out in the first comment, ambition drives us forward. Striving for more can be a good thing, as long as it doesn’t turn dark.

    Thanks to J.T. and Jagi for their comments and for checking out our blog. Welcome. Please come back often. And thanks as well to Faith and Catie for the support and affirmation. Much appreciated.

  • I’ve always been one to keep my ambitions very close to the vest. Maybe it’s my Scorpio nature. Or it could be related to the way my relatives would tell me I could be anything I wanted as long as I didn’t shoot for the moon. (“You want to be an Episcopal priest? Hmmmm….there’s no guarantee they’ll ever agree to ordain women, so why don’t you get your teaching certificate instead?”) So people often think I’m not ambitious, when it’s just that I’m trying hard not to jinx things.

    I think it’s good to reach for that shiny, new feeling. You may be securely positioned on the midlist, but there are still plenty of opportunities for you to blaze forth. We’ll be watching for them!

  • Edmund

    Gotta agree with Mark, there. I know it’s cliche, but I’m going to say it anyway: Doing the same thing the same way is the surest means to get more of the same. It’s hard to move beyond the comfort zone, but it’s the only place you’re going to find something new.

  • Tiffany

    David-
    I live in Richmond, and the weather was DREARY last weekend… Not blaming your feelings on the weather, but I think what you are feeling is a good thing. Career re-evaluation is a necessary evil everyone goes through, no matter what your job is, and to come out on the other side still wanting to do more, that is fantastic! (as opposed to having a mid-career crisis where you knuckle under the pressure, quit your job, alienate your friends, buy a minivan, you get the idea.) You are still getting to do something you love. A lot of people never even get that chance. Besides, all the up-and-comings probably only have one or two books in em, anyway.

  • Tiffany, Edmund, Misty — thanks very much for the comments. I agree. Ambition is good. Stretching beyond the comfort zone is good. And I suppose this restlessness is good, just as long as it doesn’t leave me wanting to chuck the whole thing and try my hand at professional photography….

  • Bea/Melissa

    To the “Midlist” authors:

    I looked around my bookshelves last night and discovered quite a few books by Mister King, several by Ms. Rowling, and a few dozen more by “Big Name Authors.”

    Then I looked at the books that remain if I excluded all the Top Guns from my collection. The midlist authors. The ones without 6 figure advances. The ones who don’t get mobbed at the grocery store.

    The ones who put their butts in their chairs, pound away at the keyboard, struggle through getting the book done, edited and ready for me to read–all without the benefits of huge paychecks or endless accolades to help motivate them.

    Thank you, midlist authors, for filling my shelves and my head with your wonderful stories. You make me laugh; you make me cry. Sometimes you make me do both at the same time.

    Without you, the world would be a very dull place.

    Thank you,
    B.

  • Thanks, Melissa, on behalf of all of us midlisters. That’s a wonderful comment.