Fascinating courtly intrigue and bloody power games set on a generation ship full of secrets―Medusa Uploaded is an imaginative, intense mystery about family dramas and ancient technologies whose influence reverberates across the stars. Disturbing, exciting, and frankly kind of mind-blowing.” ―Annalee Newitz, author of Autonomous

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Humility 101

They say that anyone who can be discouraged from becoming a writer, should be discouraged. And though I'm not usually the sort to try to discourage anyone, if you're considering becoming a writer, there's something you need to know right off the bat: writing is a humbling experience.

Let's get our definitions straight. By humbling, I'm not talking about the way you would feel if you received an award and you got behind a podium and said, “I am humbled by this honor.” Because, let's face it, you're the opposite.

And I'm not talking about the way you would feel if you were writing a book about a tragic event, and you did a bunch of interviews with people who survived it, and you said, “I am humbled by their strength and their courage.” Because you're actually impressed, not humbled. Maybe a little shamed, too, because you might wonder if you could rise to the challenge as well as they did.

Nope. I'm talking about the way you feel when someone pisses on you in public and the witnesses all laugh at you. Or the way you feel when you've worked really hard on something, and you're really proud of it, and someone walks by, takes a long look at it, makes a face, and says, “Meh.” (Also in public, because that's one of the main components of humiliation.) And just in case you think these humiliations will go away once you've become established, popular, and successful – forget it. You will be humbled again and again, for as long as you continue writing.

I know what you're thinking. “Sure, Devenport – crummy writers like you get humbled. I bet you get lots of bad reviews, and no one comes to your signings, editors give you the razz, and your own agent probably doesn't even return your phone calls. But I'm talented! I'm [fill in the names of several writers you admire] all rolled into one! Sure, I may get an occasional bad review from a jealous critic, but 99.99% of readers will know talent when they see it. These people are hungry for good books. In fact, they're starving. I know I'm better than most of the bozos on the best-seller list. If people like that mediocre stuff, wait 'till they get a load of the real deal!”

Okay, maybe you would word it a little differently (you are such a backseat driver), but you know you're thinkin' it. And that's the main reason you will be humbled. It's not because of bad reviews by jealous critics. Critics aren't jealous, they're arrogant (a human foible shared by writers). It's not even because sales will often fall short of expectations (make that drastically short) – that's just disappointing and discouraging. Depressing, too.

The main reason why being a writer is such a humbling experience is that your expectations rarely match up with reality, even when you should know better, even when you've been at this for decades and have had your share of ups & downs. Because writing books takes more self-confidence than most people will ever have, and that's only a half-good thing. It's that arrogance I mentioned earlier. You need it so you'll take risks and believe in your work. You need an obsessive-compulsive condition too, an attribute that will goad you into writing more books, long after your common sense has warned you that writing is a crummy way to make a living.

There are a thousand insults and disappointments you will suffer as a writer. This is regardless of your critical and/or financial success. Remember what you just said about those bestsellers you can write better than? (Okay, I said it, but you were thinking it.) Log onto any book site featuring Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Stephanie Meyer, or any other popular writer you can think of, and you will find negative reviews tarnishing all the good ones. Every writer who has ever lived has critics who will pick apart their work. Sure, financial success probably mitigates a lot of that disappointment, but only about the top 5% of writers enjoy real financial success. The rest of us have to take the insults and the injuries. We live, breathe, and dream a book for several months (or years), and then watch it turn into McBook – just one more hamburger out there on the market being perused by consumers who are always at least a little disdainful, and jaded, and ready to dismiss us just as soon as the next thing catches their eye.

All writers, obscure or popular, well paid or broke, share an essential disappointment, a realization that ultimately our work is just smoke and mirrors, an illusion we've tinkered together, a collection of ghosts who can't stand up to the daylight. It doesn't matter what anyone says or thinks about our work now, because eventually no one will say or think anything about it at all. It's like that poem by Shelley about Ozymandius, “Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” Nothing is left of those works but a pedestal.

Shelley's poem will probably survive several more centuries, but even his work will probably fall to dust, eventually.

This fact does not sit well with the grandiose fragment of the writer's personality that drives us to write in the first place, so we feel humbled. Add that to all the other slights and disappointments we suffer as writers, and that humility really starts to pile up.

And that's not a bad thing. I would venture to say it's good for you. But you have to be tough to withstand it. So grow a thick skin.

You're going to need it.


  1. Finally I've gotten around to reading Night Shifters. got distracted along the way. Caught up on some other books and reread The Kronos Condition. It's still a joy to read, Always liked the twist in that book and in Godheads.

    The text is unevenly formatted, but it can be easily corrected. By creating a style/format; when you create the style choose from paragraph then
    line-spacing : single line
    indent : adjust indent marker
    paragraph spacing : set x number of points before paragraph
    Nothing else needs changing. Finally highlight the paragraph then select style/format and click.

    One of the things I found interesting was the City of the Night. I have had dreams where I am somewhere, I know well but parts have changed. In a shopping centre I could go a certain way and I would end up on a walkway over looking the sea. But in real life that shopping centre is a couple of hundred miles from the sea. A nearby park which as you walk across it is a section of grass, path, grass, tennis courts, path and grass. But in another dream once you go passed the tennis courts, there is a large building made of smooth blocks of stone. Walking around it I can see wide steps leading into a courtyard. Like your City of Night the dimensions change. You can walk further into it than the length of the outside. Then there’s an upstairs, which isn’t there from the outside.

    Although I enjoyed the book I do have one criticism and that is that there is no edge. Whenever Hazel is in danger it not too long before she manages to get out of trouble. By the time the Car King had Hazel tied up, I knew it wouldn’t be too long before she was out.

    In a prior blog you mentioned you have other books, what is the situation there eg, % complete.

    I agree with you your work is good, Martha Wells, Holly Lisle, Lois Mcmaster Bujold Julie E. Czerneda are other writers I think are also good, I put you in that company.

    T.S. (asher_wolf)

  2. Wow! Thank you, T.S. -- that's company I'm proud to keep. I'm glad you enjoyed THE NIGHT SHIFTERS. You might like SPIRITS OF GLORY, too. And I just made one of my Maggy Thomas books available in ebook format, BROKEN TIME. I've published it on amazon under my Emily Devenport moniker. It will be published on Smashwords soon (probably by 7/30/11), so it will also be available on Barnes & Noble, Sony, etc.

    One question about the formatting -- what site did you use to buy the book, and what reader format did you select (Kindle, Nook, etc.)? Smashwords has a program called Meatgrinder that renders files into different formats. It's not perfect, but they're working on it. In the meantime, I'll save your advice, in case I have to go in and edit myself (I contract out to a formatter).

    Thank you so much for your feedback. I take it seriously. And your account of your dream is fascinating. So maybe, like me, when you saw INCEPTION you recognized the territory. ; )

  3. I have had the Maggy Thomas book, Broken Time for a few years now. For such a slender book you sure packed a lot in. Also the Lee Hogan books. I don’t have two-three of your early books, that’s because first hard to get then I wondering whether I should wait until they come out in ebook form.

    The formatting: site- Smashwords.com reader format- rtf so read the novel of a word processor program. If I buy an e-reader that may change.
    But as I mentioned before I’ve read reviews on Amazons’ site for the Kindle and readers state that some stories have odd symbols, gaps, poor formatting. There not really much wrong with your books just thought you’d like the feed back.

    Thanks for your time.
    T.S. (shindor_rhone)

    P.S. Forgot to post this last time.
    Have split this in two as the message was over 4,096 characters.

  4. I'm delighted to get your feedback, T.S. I'll be publishing my early books in ebook format too, and won't be charging more than .99 for them. Within the next couple of months I'll be publishing a new novella, PALE LADY, and a YA I co-wrote with my husband, Ernest Hogan, THE TERRIBLE TWELVES.

    If you've got an itouch, or even a phone with a good-sized reading screen, you can download an ereader app and use that as your reading device (that's what I do). But I've heard good things about the various ereaders, like Kindle and Nook. Eventually I'll break down and buy one, but I'm sure the prices will get lower.

  5. P.S. Below are a few “boo-boo’s”; there are maybe a few which are just me nit-picking, but they didn’t seem quite right to me so I included them.

    I did an Accountancy course once. We had new work-books, these would have errors as they were first edition. Our lecturer encouraged us to find the errors. When the lecturer had several sheets of errors, they would be sent off. Finding and sending these errors I think stems from that. The fact I’m blaming the lecturer has nothing to do with the fact that in your post “Humility 101” you were at times quite strong in your opinions(scary). I’m not a critic.

    You belong here. Stop fighting and just be here.
    Sentence is in italics, apart from "be"

    Dreams usually have to go somewhere.
    “Somewhere“: "some" is in italics but "where" isn't.

    You belong here. Stop fighting and just be here...
    Sentence is in italics, apart from "be"
    (NOTE; there are two sentences the same, this is the 2nd)

    every bit of trouble I'd had in my whole life - just so I could be there now."They're fighting over you, sweetheart,"
    No space between "now" and "They're"

    I should have been riding off into the sunset (sunrise?)
    "Sunrise" is only half in italics

    I lived in that house by myself, got another job I hated.And now...
    No space between "hated." and "And"

    "If you think I'm going to have anything to do with Nostradamus, you have another think coming."
    Should the second "think" be "thing"

    And even if he did, where did that leave me? With no job, now house, no shoes - and no friends?
    Should be "no house,"

    Then it occurred to be - maybe Serena put her there.
    Should be "me" instead of "be"

    But personally, I didn't miss perfect skin one bit; wrinkles seemed to be a minor sacrifice to get away from the tweens.
    Should it be "teens" instead of "tweens"

    She looked genuinely surprised. "Well that's a snotty attitude."
    The "s" is normal when it should be in italics; part of "that's"

    but lately the challenges had piled up, and I felt like I was falling behind again.She could see that.
    No space between "again" and "She"

    She turned her back on me and surveilled the maze.
    Should it be "surveyed" instead of "surveilled"

    "Its beauty is subtle," she warned. "Not flashy."
    No apostrophe in the word "Its"

    Besides - the people here were Night shifters,
    "shifters" the "s" is in lower case. "Night Shifters" has always been in capitals

    You live there!? Her lip curled with scorn. Only poor people live there.
    Sentence is in italics, apart from "there"

    Well, touch・ Mission accomplished.
    "Touch" should it be "done"; a divider symbol is after touch should it be a comma

    So maybe my ragamuffin appearance was fair punishment for my wretched attitudes and my cheezy taste in entertainment.
    Is the word "cheezy" an American spelling? Or should it be cheesy?

    "Probably the Greeks, originally. Or at least, they're the ones who gave me my formal shape.By the time the Big Three came along, I had a form and consciousness."
    No space between "shape." and "By"

  6. Feets, I prayed, don't fail me now!
    Feet shouldn't need a "s" on the end. Is that a quote?

    We had a nice chat with her. I'm sure you'll run into her later."That was a relief. "Is the Car King mad at me?"
    No space between "later." and "That"

    Yoips. Everyone knew about it. Oh well. "What about Sir John?"
    Should it be "Yipes" instead of "Yoips"

    This time around, the last thing I expected was to actually land. I figured I'd go through freefall for a while, ask myself some penetrating questions, and then - Voila!
    "freefall" should it be "free-fall"
    "Voila" should have an accent on the a; use character map to find the à or number lock on, press alt then enter 0224

    When I woke again, I was lying on a familiar couch, near a window where stars shown in.
    Should it be "shone" instead of "shown"

    Thanks for your time.
    T.S. (shindor_rhone)

    P.S. I am using a library computer so the time allocated is limited and I’m a slow typist. I also have not got the hang of posting on blogs, hence the mess. Sorry, forgot to post this last time, should be it now.

    Regarding ereaders; I have looked at the Kindle, Nook and tablets. But I find the problem is the price of the books, they vary so much still waiting to see what happens. Will keep visiting kindle’s community site.

  7. I'm with you, T.S. (concerning the ereaders). Thanks for your copy-editing input.