Humility + Arrogance

by | Jun 2, 2022

Writing about a fantasy world requires structured imagination, but here’s the fun part: As the writer, you get to control all the variables.

Living on Earth in the 21st century requires imagination, too, but we control only a few of the inputs. I grew up in an America governed by “common sense” assumptions and linear formulas (do X, get Y), and watched it fray and fail. Today there are no sure bets, only calculated risks, and the odds of every desirable outcome keep getting longer. “Making a life” used to resemble planning a cross-country road trip. Today it’s more like skiing an avalanche.

Meme-level-wisdom says that we can’t control events, only how we respond to them, and that’s not wrong. But I find that how we think about events — and ourselves — is often a more reliable indicator of future outcomes than our real-time responses to change.

Janet and I were “early adopters” to the news industry’s digital future (do X, get Y) in the 2000s. But because we were arrogant — we’d taken risks on principles in the past, and didn’t want to abandon them for career expediency — we eventually became workplace targets. Anticipated the changes, made the right bets — but lost out anyway.

Not that I’d make different choices if I had a do-over, mind you. Just using myself as an example.

The Simple Life

The covers of the three books in The Goddess Daughter Trilogy

The Goddess Daughter Trilogy

Anyway, we moved to the country about five years ago, and it changed us. Consider this one: I used to resent the half-hour I’d spend cutting the grass with a push mower at our Charleston house. Yesterday I spent more than three hours on a riding mower just keeping up with the portions of this farm that can be thought of as “lawn.” Yet instead of resenting the work, I now find it relaxes me.

Life on the farm sanded smooth many of the sharp edges that used to define my personality. My old career forced me to adopt an extroverted persona. My new life introduced me to the overwhelmed introvert inside me. It’s a quiet, humble, creative life, and it gave me the freedom to write a new series.

But here’s what hasn’t changed. We’re still arrogant… in the sense that we’ve taken risks on principles in the past, and we still don’t want to abandon them.

I didn’t go into journalism because I wanted to write stories that pleased advertisers, politicians and public figures. Likewise, the thought of mimicking the latest commercially successful fiction trends doesn’t inspire me to write novels. This isn’t about skills and tools and talents, or “making good choices.” It’s ultimately about recognizing who you are, and understanding what that means.

So I find myself staring at an odd contradiction this summer: From one perspective, I’m more humble, more relaxed, and more willing to compromise than ever. Yet from another, I must look like pure arrogance.

Data-driven, risk-averse

I don’t want to insult people who write books I don’t like, or the readers who enjoy them. Same with the industry, and the people who work in it. It’s a big world, and we don’t have to agree on everything.

But here’s what I believe, and I don’t think I’m wrong: People in general are reading less. And I think the publishing industry has responded to that contraction by turning to sales data and emphasizing safe bets. That means sticking to established authors, strict genre conventions, backward-looking sales data, fewer titles and less money invested in anything “down-list.”

And that’s a terrible strategy for publishing, at least in the long term.

Data-driven means risk-averse. It’s why Martin Scorsese’s 2019 essay about how comic-book movies are devaluing cinema not only angered Hollywood, but struck a cultural nerve. The film industry wants linear solutions (do X, get Y), and movies from the various comic book “universes” reliably provide them. They cost more ($200 million is a new standard) and their net profits are often relatively low (the current Doctor Strange installment will likely wind up with actual profits roughly equivalent to My Big Fat Greek Wedding, an indie hit that cost $5 million to make in 2002). But they’re catnip to film executives because they never lose money.

The flaw in comparing movies and books is scale. Even low-budget independent films are expensive, long-term, high-risk investments. That’s why the United States produced just 403 of them last year. Meanwhile, self-published books appeared at a rate of 2,700 a day in 2021. Not all are fiction, and most are not good, but if even one in 10,000 winds up creating a genuine new audience, that still almost 100 notable titles a year.

My guess is that’s the publishing industry’s plan. Stick to a low-risk, no-innovation strategy, and let the self-published writers take the risks. Let the outsiders create the new audiences and provide the new templates.

Evolving the genre

My bet is that tens of thousands of readers are ready to fall in love with The Darbas Cycle because it’s an evolution in the fantasy genre. It’s just a question of reaching them, and that’s far more challenging that writing good books.

But who authorized me to say something that sweeping? “An evolution in the fantasy genre?” What awards or degrees or accomplishments back up my legitimacy? Who do I think I am?

Look: I don’t like presenting myself as proud or arrogant or defiant. But I understand that when you look at an entire industry and say “I’m right, and you’re wrong,” that’s how you’re going to be perceived. And like I was saying: Making your way takes imagination, and here in the real world, writers don’t control all the variables. So I don’t know how this story ends.

But no matter how people perceive me, here I am, and this is what I do.

And if that makes me arrogant?

Oh well.