Sean Williams is an aussie author of fantasy and sci-fi. I saw him speak once at a friend's book launch, and I follow his blog pretty closely, but I've never actually read any of his books (they're on my list, well and truly).
Early this week, in response to the death of Charles Brown, Sean wrote a post about the best writing advice he had ever received, which happened to come from Charles. Ever since I read it, it's been rattling around in my head, so I thought I would reproduce it here. Thanks to Sean, and many thanks to Charles. Rest in Peace.
Original post can be found here.
The best advice I ever received was from a guy called Charles Brown. He edits a magazine called LOCUS, which all the world's SF& F writers read to find out what's happening in the field. He's a big deal, in other words, and he came to talk to a bunch of new writers who'd won prizes in something called the Writers of the Future Contest.
I was among them. This was over fifteen years ago now, when I'd already decided to try to be a writer, but hadn't written any novels yet, or made much money at all. I was just hammering away at it because there was nothing else I wanted to do badly enough. The thought of spending most of my life doing something I hated, like being a doctor or a lawyer, was just unbearable.
Anyway, Charles sat us down and congratulated us on our success. It was pretty cool, he said; we should be proud of getting this far because not many people do. Of every hundred people who want to write, only one goes on to do something about it, to actually try writing something.
If you take a hundred of those people who actually do something about it, whether it's write a few poems or the beginning of a novel, only one in that hundred actually finishes anything.
And if you take a hundred of those finishers, only one of them will actually sell their work professionally.
If you add up all the zeroes, that means that just one wannabe writer in a million will sell or win an award for their story, poem or novel. So sitting around that table of prize-winners really was something to be proud of.
But that wasn't the end of it. If you take a hundred people who have sold a something they wrote, how many of them are likely to ever make a career out of writing? That is, how many will take that one sale and turn it into a regular income on which they can support themselves indefinitely?
Well, I looked around the table. There were around twenty of us in the room, and we were all high on that the thought that we were real writers now. All our stories were going to win prizes, and all our novels would be bestsellers.
It doesn't work like that, Charlie said. If the odds are one in a hundred, then the chances were that none of us in that room were going to get anywhere. Oh, we might sell a few more stories, here and there. Maybe a novel, if we were lucky. But earn enough to make a living from it? Unlikely.
It would be better, he said, if we gave up right now. Saved ourselves the years of hardship and heartbreak. Put all that wasted energy into a career that would actually make money, and spare our families and loved ones all that frustration and anger when we didn't ultimately get anywhere. How many zeroes are we up to now? For every one hundred million people who dream of being a writer, there's just one who reaps the rewards. What makes you think you're going to be that one?
I listened to him and thought, "He's making perfect sense. Everything he says is true. It makes me feel sick inside to admit it, but I am crazy for thinking I might get anywhere. I know the odds are stacked against me, and only either pride or stupidity--or both--has got me this far. The bubble is bound to pop eventually, as it will for ninety-nine million, nine hundred and ninety-nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety-eight other wannabe writers. And one lucky one will go on, not knowing just how lucky they are. Curse them."
It took me the rest of Charles's speech to realise that, although he was absolutely right, it didn't change a thing. Not one thing. The odds were still awful; I was an idiot for even trying. But if I didn't love it enough to keep doing it anyway, then I would never get anywhere, no matter how much I tried. I would be that one in one hundred million if I had to sweat blood to do it. I would prove Charles Brown absolutely right by doing the exact opposite of what he told me to do.
And I did.