I’m not sure who said it, but today on the train, I remembered the truism “hell is other people”, and there’s much to be said for that (as somebody who’s been bullied and comes from a very odd family indeed, I’m the first to subscribe to that world view. Hell IS other people).
But the reverse is also true, and like all sides of a coin, they aren’t that far apart, either. I’ve encountered a fair few authors in my life who suffer like dogs when anybody is more successful than them. Not just envy - gut-churning hatred up to the point where they are almost losing their lunch over somebody’s success. To these, hell is other writers, even the fact that anybody writes stories out there. Or has ever written anything, or will ever write anything - because The Enemy is any piece of work by anybody not themselves.
I’ve lost friends over this. Some people were so envious that I sold a novel or a story or even have what they call “a track record” in print publishing that they couldn’t deal with it. The constant sniping and “but I’m really a better writer than you” not-quite-jokes kinda gave it away.
A few months ago, I met a very lovely lady here in London. She’s also a writer (I tend to do better with other creative types in my social life), and I ended up feedbacking her novel that had suffered damage from some rather inconsiderate input from high-powered people in the business, so she could submit it to a new literary agent. I helped her put the novel back on track, I talked her down from the cliff, I listened to the whole range from self-deprecation to dismay, just listening and offering some ideas. Once the edits were made, I put everything else on hold to proof the novel, because she’s my friend, because the novel’s good, and because I was the right person at the right time. I could help, so I did.
Two weeks later, she’s signed with a prestigious literary agency that, so far, seems to be doing everything right, with everything on track for a series book deal in the mainstream. From zero (previously unpublished), my friend is on track to make a huge splash in a market that actually pays money, supported by people who seem to know what the hell they are doing.
It’s the kind of thing that has never happened to me and quite possibly never will, considering what type material I'm writing. It’s the kind of thing I wanted ten years ago and then weaned myself off of. I’m rather happy being a medium-sized fish in a tiny pond, as my partner calls me, often enough mockingly. I’d have gone on writing what I do and for whom I did happily for many years without even looking across the fence to the mainstream. Because, yeah, the mainstream sucks, getting an agent is near-impossible, I'm a non-native speaker competing with natives, and I write dark and intense stuff. Barbara Cartland I'm not.
Throughout her path, I’ve carefully examined my emotions. Am I actually envious? Logic says I should be, right? It used to be a pattern in my younger years.
But I’m not. My friend is the perfect example of a very talented, extremely hard-writing (meant to say “hard-working”, but I love this Freudian slip), humble and nice person getting a break. I have other friends who got big or biggish in the mainstream, even one literary sensation.
I’m not comparing my fortunes to them – I see how much work it takes to get there. And I’m not competing with them, because what can you possibly compete in? Sales numbers? Royalty payments? At the end of the day, considering the sales numbers and royalties of some really horrendous books out there, that metric is completely meaningless.
The only way to measure success for me is by metrics I’m setting myself. The only person I have to beat and to compete with is myself. And that is pretty much all about trying to grow my sales over time and not publishing one bad book (it’ll happen, but I can try to avoid that as best I can, because what I consider "a solid book" might still be hated by my readers, and I'm experimenting every now and then, and some experiments go badly wrong).
What her success does, though, is one thing. It has reminded me that I have the occasional mainstream-workable idea. It was one of the two things that has led to a re-think in terms of my writing career, the other being the bullying dynamics unleashed by a number of people in November 2011 (I’m starting to thank the gods for that, actually, not for the bullying, but for the response to it - the bullies can still go and fuck themselves until they mend their ways). In the end, I’m emerging from late 2011 a saner, healthier, happier, more productive and more ambitious writer.
I’m emerging as a writer who will give this mainstream thing a shot, as I’ve promised my partner years ago, as I’ve considered for years (now that my English is good enough), and I’ll see if I can hack it. The first books are historicals and I rather suspect that’s where I’m heading overall, but gods know where this will take me. It's an adventure not unlike the one I embarked on when I wrote the first paragraph of "Special Forces", my first long-form English language gay story, committing myself to years of work and putting myself on the map. Or when I wrote "Deliverance", my first commercial English language story. Or when I wrote Scorpion, Counterpunch, Dark Soul - each and every single one a leap forward and a huge risk.
Now writing mainstream fiction, I’m not competing with my friend (I’m working in historicals, she in a totally different genre) - I’m using her as inspiration to dream bigger dreams than I have recently. Nothing is more inspiring than the positive example of other people.