Sharon Lee has been publishing for more than three decades, both on her own and with her collaborator and husband Steve Miller. Today she talks about the dangers of letting others tell us whether or not we have a career — and, perhaps more importantly, of assuming we’re alone when they do.
I’ve wanted to be a writer — specifically, a fiction writer — for as long as I can remember. I don’t know why. Possibly because stories gave me such very great pleasure as a small child. Also, I noticed that my mother was never angry when she was reading me a story; so I might have thought there was some magic involved.
Possibly, it was because, as I grew older, I realized that, in stories at least, things came out as they ought.
Possibly, I was just never really fit for any other kind of work.
Whatever, take it as given: I have always wanted to tell stories.
I started writing for publication in March of 1972. By which I mean that I first submitted a story I had written to a magazine in March of 1972.
My first pro sale — to Amazing Stories — was in November 1979.
In 1980, fellow writer Steve Miller and I married; and in 1983 we began collaborating.
In 1984, we wrote our first novel together; it was published in 1988; and two more quickly after it — later in 1988, and in 1989.
After which, we ascended to publishing nirvana on a rosy cloud of pulp paper, where we’ve dwelt these long years since, breathing the rarefied air of success, sipping milk and honey from a silvered glass. . .
What happened then, having published three mass market originals with Del Rey is that. . .
. . . we were told that our books had not garnered sufficient numbers; and that we had no career.
Now, it would have been bad enough, to only have been cut loose from our publisher for “bad numbers.” But this “no career” business — that really twisted the tail of a discouraging situation.
I stopped writing. I felt like I had cheated, somehow; that I was a pretender, not a writer at all; that my books weren’t — had never been — real.
Like I wasn’t real.
So . . . a period of unrealness ensued; I withdrew from most of my writer-friends — being a pretender, you see — and tried to take up a . . . not-writing life, with a not-writing job, and not-writing . . . hobbies.
Sad truth told; I wasn’t very good at not-writing. Before I knew it, my clerk job at the local newspaper turned into a copy editing gig, and my experience there got me a side job as a reporter for another paper. Even if I was an imposter as a science fiction writer, my skills were in demand for non-fiction. I began to feel. . .a little. . .more real.
So much more real, in fact, that, at home, I started sneaking to the computer — back in those days before the internet — and writing little bits of . . . things. Vignettes. Description. Snatches of dialogue. Proto-stories.
Until, one day, without quite meaning to — I wrote an entire short story.
I didn’t send it out. I mean, I wasn’t crazy; I knew perfectly well that I had no career. Despite which, I wrote another short story . . . and another one.
Then I wrote a mystery novel, and, well . . . I began, quietly, to submit. Little things, you know; small stories that nobody would notice.
I didn’t sell anything. Not under my byline, or under the Lee-and-Miller byline.
By then, though, I’d gotten together the moxie to open a file and start typing a novel in the universe Steve and I had created. I showed it to a friend — one of the two writers I still kept in contact with — and she made some suggestions.
One of her suggestions was that I submit the manuscript for publication.
Which, after a great deal of soul-seaching, I did.
It didn’t sell.
I’d like to say that I didn’t care, but that wouldn’t be true. I did care, a lot. More, I believed in the stories and in our universe; and I knew that they had a readership.
Now hold it right there, you’re saying. I thought the publisher cut you loose because your books hadn’t sold. Suddenly, they had a readership? How did that happen?
Well . . . we became aware of our books’ readership because Steve had started a computer bulletin board, called Circular Logic. And Circular Logic was part of FidoNet (this is all pre-internet, now), and, well, we started to get messages from people in far-flung places, like North Carolina, and Japan, and California, and Finland. . .asking if we were the Steve Miller, the Sharon Lee, who had written Agent of Change/Conflict of Honors/Carpe Diem.
And they wanted to know when the next book was coming out.
So, yeah; I knew we had a readership. It was getting to them that was the problem.
None of the publishers wanted to take on a broken series, which is what we had, at that point. And we didn’t want to start over with a new series. We had things we wanted to say; a vision that we wanted to pursue. We liked the Liaden Universe® just fine.
The clamor for something new from those readers who had found us was reaching a crescendo, so Steve did the only logical thing: He started a small press, SRM Publisher, for the sole purpose of publishing a chapbook containing a couple of our stories that hadn’t sold, and selling them to our readers.
That was supposed to be a one-shot; it wasn’t. For fifteen years, SRM published Liaden short stories, and distributed them to readers by mail.
That was, if not the turning point, then certainly a major intersection in our road as writers. People wanted our work.
We weren’t alone.
After that . . . no, our pumpkin didn’t magically turn into a coach. But we did eventually find a publisher who not only re-published our first three novels, but also the novels I-and-we had written during what amounted to nine years wandering the dark: Four complete novels in our Liaden Universe®, and one more outlined. Seven books at once.
We didn’t feel like imposters anymore; and we worked with that publisher for eight years — eleven novels and an anthology — until events overtook them and they crashed, messily, leaving us once again teetering on the edge of Publishing Death.
This time, though, it was easier for us.
For one thing, we knew that this situation, though of kind of Epic on the Catastrophe Scale, was not our fault. We had a career; we were not false writers; we had been doing very well for the house, and for ourselves, before the crash.
More importantly, this time, we had two things that we had lacked before:
We had readers . . .
. . . and we had a way to reach them — the internet.
Not to put too fine a point on it; this time, we didn’t get depressed.
We got angry.
And we formed a plan.
Far from quitting writing, we decided to write more; to write, in fact, an original novel in our universe and publish it to the internet, for free, one chapter at a time. The only catch was that the next chapter would have to earn $300 in donations before we would released.
Not too long after we began the Fledgling project, our agent sold two books that had been circulating, in proposal, to Baen.
When the web-novel was completed, Baen purchased it, along with its surprise sequel, Saltation; and then offered contract for another novel. And more novels, after that.
As of this writing, Steve and I have done nine novels with Baen; I’ve done three fantasies; and we have a contract for five more titles. Every single novel ever written in the Liaden Universe® is available, in print, as ebooks, and as audiobooks.
. . .
Having now told this story, of having come back from the dead twice, I’m not certain what lessons you — or I — ought to take from it.
That, as Anne McCaffrey told me, many years later, sometimes it takes a book or a series a long time to find its “legs”?
That being proactive is better than being inactive?
Follow your vision, and rewards will follow?
That story will out; no matter what?
That we’re none of us alone?
. . . I think, that last. If I had it to do over again, I hope that I wouldn’t hide from my colleagues when disaster struck. Knowing that you’re not alone; that others have gone through similar rough patches and Epic Disasters, is . . . priceless, really.
Thanks for listening.
Sharon Lee has been married to her first husband for more than half her lifetime; she is a friend to cats, a member of the National Carousel Association, and oversees the dubious investment schemes of an improbable number of stuffed animals. Despite having been born in a year of the dragon, Sharon is an introvert. She lives in Maine because she likes it there. In fact, she likes it so much that she has written five novels set in Maine; mysteries Barnburner and Gunshy, and three contemporary fantasies: Carousel Tides, Carousel Sun, and Carousel Seas (available 2015).
With the aforementioned first husband, Steve Miller, Sharon has written twenty-one novels of science fiction and fantasy — many of them set in the Liaden Universe® — and numerous short stories. She has occasionally worked as an advertising copywriter, a reporter, copy editor, photographer, book reviewer, and secretary. She was for three years Executive Director of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Inc., and was subsequently elected vice president and then president of that organization.
Previous Writing for the Long Haul Posts
– Betty G. Birney on always challenging ourselves
– Nora Raleigh Baskin on making deals with the writing gods
– Sean Williams on unpredictability and luck
– 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