writing bugbears: professional envy

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I’ve been thinking on and off about professional envy for a couple weeks now.

We all face it, regardless of where we stand on the pro writer ladder, all the way from unpublished up to NYT Bestseller. There’s always someone writing something we wish we’d thought of, or someone whose wordsmithing is just so entirely different, so elegant, so right, that it makes us despair. There’s always someone getting an award, and even if we don’t really care that much about awards, there’s a part of us that kind of goes siiiigh…. There’s always someone who’s made a sale we wish we’d made. Someone whose latest book(s) have sold to the publisher in what Publisher’s Weekly calls a “very nice deal” or better (PW has a breakdown of how they refer to advances– a “very nice deal” means $50,000 – $99,000), someone who’s gotten further up the ladder than we have, someone who’s broken through to bestseller lists…it goes on and on.

And man, even on a good day, sometimes it can drive you nuts. You can spend an awful lot of time trying to figure out what you’re doing wrong, or what they’re doing right, or what the magic combination thereof is, or how you can get that extra little bit of publicity that’ll put you above the fold, or–

It’s obviously a lot more useful to try to deal with this in a constructive manner than it is to dwell on it. For me personally, the best way is to get a firm grip on myself and say, “Look, you couldn’t have written that. Your brain, your writing style, your thought process, just does not work like that. Learn from it, if you can. Set it as a bar, if necessary, as something to strive for. Otherwise, admire what they’ve done and get on with it.”

This is somewhat more successful when I’m agonizing over something that’s totally different from what I write. When it comes to (particularly) urban fantasy, there are moments where I just sort of deflate and go, “…but my stuff is good too. How come it’s not NYT material? What’m I doing wrong? What can I do to fix this? Why aren’t my readers waiting, en masse, to snatch up the next book the moment it comes out? How can I convince them to? Why does Writer X have half a million fans to my few tens of thousands? Why why why?” It’s utterly useless, mind you, and really the only thing to do is go back to work and not worry about it too much, because hey, we’d all be writing NYT bestsellers if we could figure out what the magic trick to it was.

I have writer friends across the spectrum: from unpublished to NYT Bestsellers. *Many* of them are people I met after I started being published myself, but a handful are people I’ve known for well over a decade. One of those is Jim Butcher, who used to go by the moniker “Longshot” online, because becoming a published author was such a long shot. I’ve felt nothing but glee, watching him skyrocket up the bestseller lists: for me, his success is something to try to emulate. Another is one of my very closest friends, and we both kind of thought our careers would rise in tandem. They haven’t, and I honestly just don’t get why.

Then there are people whose first books came out around the same time mine did: my “class”, in a manner of speaking. They’re the ones I find myself getting–for lack of a better word–competitive with. This is a disastrous road for me to take, since the two whom I most clearly define as “my class” (Charles Stross and Elizabeth Bear) are miles ahead of me in awards and bestsellerdom. Or there’s another writer I know whose debut novel got a Publisher’s Weekly “major deal”–half a million dollars or more. She’s a wonderful person and it was a *wonderful* book…but man, don’t I wish I were in her shoes.

Fortunately for my sanity’s sake, I can mostly put all of those situations and people in the “your brain does not work this way, Catie, give it up” category, and just admire them. But it’s absolutely part of the writer life, even if it’s a part I’m not particularly proud of. It’s still a bugbear that’s always going to crop up and bite me from time to time.

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4 comments to writing bugbears: professional envy

  • Catie, I face that too. It’s hard to see friends who started in the mystery field when I did get dropped by pubs, or shoot into the stratosphere. Worse for the fantasy friends because I am there now, trying to make it go. I just admit to the ones heading to the top that I am green with envy. That makes them laugh, and they understand. But it dosen’t make me any less green. It is hard. But it is also so very much fun!

  • Those of us who love your books appreciate that your mind doesn’t work that way. And to be honest, I’ve never heard of Stross or Bear before you mentioned them. I’m also not one to seek out the NYT best sellers; actually, I don’t have an interest in books like Harry Potter because its too over hyped for me. I love reading the really really good, but obscure books. :)

  • It’s great that your mind DOESN’T work that way. The reading world would be very boring if every writer had the same style and technique.

    Oh, and I love Jim Butcher’s books!

  • Catie, what a great post! Thanks for your honesty and for saying what we ALL feel from time to time. I’m currently on submission with my agent (a great agent!), and I keep thinking: Why is it taking so long? Why did that writer’s debut novel get snatched up within 3 weeks, while I’ve been waiting MONTHS?! Whyyyyy??? Heh. :)

    Cheers,
    Kaz