Sean Williams on Unpredictability and Luck (Writing for the Long Haul series)

Best-selling science fiction author Sean Williams published his first novel in the mid-90s and has been writing steadily ever since. Today he joins the long haul series to talk about the unpredictability of every new book–and about the role of luck in long-term writing careers.

This year is one of great significance to me. Half a lifetime ago–that is, exactly half my life–I dropped out of university to pursue a career as a writer, not knowing whether I’d fail utterly or succeed beyond my wildest dreams. I dreamed of the latter, hoped for something in the middle, and planned for the former. If I hadn’t sold a book within ten years, I promised myself, I would give up and go back to my studies. (Economics–ugh. That was a massive incentive.)

As I write this, 23 years and 38 published novels later, I’m sitting in London waiting for my new book (Twinmaker) to come out. It’s had great press, marvelous covers and endorsements, publisher support beyond all expectations, but still I’m nervous. This book could easily tank–it’s happened before. It could go ballistic–that’s happened too. I dream of the latter, hope for something in the middle, and plan for the former. Whatever happens, I probably won’t starve.

Mind you, I’ve come close–in the Western, First World sense of having to get a day job to pay the bills. It might sound absurd that anyone would consider this a tragedy, but I spent ten years working shitty part-time jobs in order to build up a career in publishing so I could do nothing but write novels full-time. And when I did go full-time, everything went just as it was supposed to, at first: six-figure income, numerous awards, a Locus recommendation, titles on the New York Times bestseller list, invites to festivals . . . Then came the crash. Suddenly I was writing just as hard as I ever had but earning much, much less, barely enough to service my credit card and tax debts, let alone live the high life. How did that happen? I’m still not sure. The Australian dollar got stronger and US advances didn’t go up to compensate: that was definitely part of it. When most of your income is pinned to the antics of a foreign currency, you’re vulnerable to market forces far beyond your control. But that wasn’t the whole story. I felt that there had to be a reason why things were suddenly so crappy. Something I could fix, and fast–before I developed scurvy or rickets or went insane in some appropriately Gothic way. Or declared the exercise a failure and went back to university.
Eventually, through hard experience (and listening to other writers), I realized that the secret of my sudden lack of success probably wasn’t a bad agent, or a bad publisher, or even bad writing. It was bad luck. Sometimes books tap into the zeitgeist, or they don’t. Sometimes books stand out among a sea of other covers, or they don’t. Sometimes Oprah loves them, or she doesn’t (disclosure: Oprah has never even noticed my books). These aren’t things you can plan for. These are effects you can’t cause.  It’s just plain luck, good and bad.

williams_saturnreturnsIf you look at a graph of my income from 1990 to 2000, it shows an almost perfect hyperbolic curve upwards, then after 2001 a straight line down. I’m still reeling from the shock of that sudden turn. There’s no formula to explain it and no way to prevent it from happening again. There was just an ongoing slog in the hope of creeping back up to where I had once been, praying for the opposite kind of luck to come my way. Eventually it did, after a long, hard slog, and I was able to eat properly again. And now I know to ignore the graph and avoid any kind of complacency.

What’s that old saying? “The harder I work, the luckier I get.” There’s some truth to that–but no one ever tells you that the luck goes both ways. Publish 38 novels in 17 years and some of them are bound to do well, but some of them are bound to do badly as well. There’s no way to avoid it, even if you’re a massive bestseller (which I am not). You might be lucky enough to sell six million copies in one year, then only three million the next. That’s a huge drop. You feel it just as much as if you divide the numbers by a thousand, because luck is a relative thing. Up is up. Down is down.

williams_metalfatigueIn my case it wasn’t the worst possible luck. I was still selling books; I was still being published. The internal devil’s advocate said: So what if I had to work like a slave to earn little more than minimum wage? I remained in a position that most writers dreamed of at the beginning of their careers. What right did I have to complain?

Everyone whose career takes a dive is allowed to complain, I think–although never to readers, since it’s right and proper that they should care little about your suffering so long as the books keep coming. Complaining to other writers might lead you to coping strategies or support networks that will guide you through the tough years, but it won’t change actually anything. It didn’t change anything for me, as I slaved away for years, earning less than I had as a student despite writing three books a year. The only antidote to bad luck is good luck, and the only way to get that is keep rolling the dice.

It’s a natural law that careers go up and down. When I started out, up was the only way my career could go. Now, it could go either way, which is the curse of being even remotely successful. As I type this in London, just days away from rolling the dice for the 39th time, I know it’s entirely out of my hands. All I can do is sit back and watch, and hope, and know that if it doesn’t work this time, maybe it will next time, or the time after, or . . .

#1 New York Times bestselling Sean Williams lives with his family in Adelaide, South Australia. He’s written some books–thirty-nine at last count–including the Philip K. Dick-nominated Saturn Returns, several Star Wars novels and the Troubletwister series with Garth Nix. Twinmaker, the first in a new YA SF series that takes his love affair with the matter transmitter to a whole new level, was released this November, shortly after he wrote this post. You can find some related short stories over at Lightspeed.

Previous Writing for the Long Haul Posts

Deborah J. Ross on writing through crisis
Sharon Shinn on managing time
Marge Pellegrino on feeding the restless yearning to write
Sarah Zettel on embracing ignorance and writing your passions
Uma Krishnaswami on honoring unreasonable exuberance
Jennifer J. Stewart on finding community and support
Sherwood Smith on keeping inspiration alive
Mette Ivie Harrison on defining success
Jeffrey J. Mariotte on why we write
Judith Tarr on reinventing ourselves
Kathi Appelt on the power of story
Cynthia Leitich Smith on balancing business and creativity

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *