The Self-Sabotaging Writer

Death by the pen. Truly mightier than the sword.

When I first started writing violent, feminist-y things, people told me, “Nobody’s going to buy that. People won’t read that. You won’t ever sell a million copies. You’re a niche writer.  You’ll just be a marginalized writer. So long as you know that, it’s cool. Maybe you should write some YA instead.”

And, you know, I accepted that. I accepted it rather blindly, because hey, that’s what it’s like when you write stuff that isn’t mainstream popcorn/established bestseller niche, right? Nobody reads you. Only critics take you seriously, sometimes (and even then, only long after you’re dead).

As I’ve been working off last year’s weight gain by listening to too much Jillian Michaels and watching too many episodes of The Biggest Loser while getting in my 90 minutes of cardio every day, there was this recurring theme on the show, and with the folks Jillian deals with, that really got to me. It was this notion that our internalized version of ourselves that we have soaked up from the world is our real selves. We outwardly express who we perceive others believe us to be.  Anybody who has found themselves confronted by prejudice knows this feeling intimately. As a nerd, a fat kid, a woman, I’ve encountered it many times, and when I felt I couldn’t fight it, when I’d internalized all the external hate so completely that I wanted to beat somebody’s head in, I simply retreated from it.

One of the reasons I’m intensely introverted and live over 2,000 miles away from my family is because I am a mimic. It’s very easy for me to internalize what I believe others think I should be, and express that. Being a mimic is one of the reasons I’m such a great corporate copywriter. Somebody can hand me something I’ve never done – brand standards guide, templated literature sheet, executive summary, email to a specific customer segment – and I can write up something else with a similar feel and tone fairly quickly. In just five minutes with a brand manager or executive and a few bullet points, I can turn out a communication that’s very nearly spot on to what they were asking for– quickly and consistently.

But those things that make me a good mimic – empathy, a good ear, a knack for translating what it is people are trying to say – also make me very good at regurgitating versions of myself that I feel will be best received. It’s why my first relationship in high school was rather abusive, and why I stayed so long. And if I feel wholly inadequate to give people the performance I fear they’re looking for, I simply bow out and avoid people all together. If I don’t, I short circuit. It’s not good.

I have certainly gotten bolder in my old age, with my big boots and loud voice and crazy hair. In fact, for many years I have happily bumped along, not giving a shit about what other people think, and I’ve been pretty happy. But writing fiction for public consumption can make even the boldest loud-mouth totally neurotic. It pulls up a lot of old concerns about what people think, what they infer, what they expect of you.

When God’s War launched, my expectations were pretty low. I figured I’d sell about 5,000 copies. I’d consider 10,000 a pretty substantial success. After all, it was a weird book. It was feminist. There was swearing. Blood. Religion. Weird pacing. Plotting issues. And I was largely unknown.

When I sold 6,400 copies in the first six months after release, I wasn’t sure what to make of that. Nor of the reviews, which were largely positive despite the above weaknesses. When it got shortlisted for an award… well, I’m still processing that.

But it wasn’t until today when I saw the fourth or fifth mention of author guests at a book club on Twitter that I realized I’d gotten stuck in my own narrow view of myself, and my chances of success. Because whenever somebody talks about this particular venue I think of how it’s not exactly known to be the most friendly and welcoming community to women.  I think, “Wow, imagine how harsh that crowd would be. Guess that’s one more place that won’t be overly excited about my fiction.”

And sure, when I went ahead and actually looked at the book club, yeah, there weren’t a lot of female guests, but I saw that there were, in fact, SOME. Like a lot of SF in particular, it’s still mostly guys talking to guys. But not exclusively. I couldn’t pretend that if I never got an invite, it was just because I wrote weird feminist books.

But what shocked me in that moment when I went from “I will always be an outsider” to “oh, uh, well, maybe when I’m uber-famous” was that I was going to let myself sabotage myself. I was just going to say, “Well, that can never be done” instead of just merrily quipping off my usual, “Of course that can be done. I just need to work harder than other people to achieve it.”

I had let all the writer-freak-out-shit get to me.

I’ve talked a little about internalized misogyny, and my lowered expectations as a writer are a good example of it. “Oh, no one will ever read my books because they’re feminist,” is kind of a cop-out. There are plenty of other reasons if, say, my sales suck, or that no one comes to a reading. Is there sexism in the world? Are folks averse to reading really bizarre, uncomfortable fiction? Sure, but there are also people averse to wading through what amounts to a 50 page prologue and reading about morally bankrupt characters who muddle their way through poorly blocked fight scenes.

I found myself hobbled by this mindset at Epic Confusion, too, thinking the whole time, “Well, you know, it’s not like anybody knows who the hell I am. Who’d want to talk to me? Maybe I’ll just nap a lot.” So when some people did want to talk to me, I found it… really odd. I was still struggling with the fact that there were people coming up to me who actually knew I sucked air. I mean, I AM NOT ANYONE, PEOPLE.  I WRITE WEIRD BOOKS THAT NO ONE HAS READ.

This last year has been a transitional one for me. The business end of writing fiction is not an easy place, or a kind one. It’s heart-wrenching sometimes. As somebody with a chronic illness who will always need health insurance, I’ve spent the last five years coming to grips with the fact that I will always have to have a day job. For somebody who grew up wanting to be a full-time fiction writer, the reality of that is pretty brutal. I grew up with this passionate belief that you could do anything you wanted to do, as long as you were willing to work harder than anybody else for it.  But making anything less than Rowling-level dollars, one good cancer diagnosis for me or my spouse will wipe us out pretty completely without insurance (honestly, if we had no insurance now and one of us got cancer, we’d just die, because we couldn’t afford treatment without insurance).

So I had to decide this year if I was going to keep writing despite the bullshit and neuroses. And if I was going to keep writing, how I was going to make it a career that worked in parallel with my day job.

Basically, I needed to shit or get off the pot.

In the end, I made the decision to write, with the goal of a book a year – and a better book every year.  It’s a tall order, and I have to work hard for it. But the alternative, well….

The alternative is to just give up, give in. To just say be happy being a niche feminist writer that surely no one wants to read or talk to because, wow, man – WEIRD.

But you know what? It’s not like Perdido Street Station was run-of-the-mill fare, either.  I mean, WEIRD.

And today, I made the decision to stop trying to sabotage myself. I decided to start expecting more. Expecting better. And believing that what I have to say isn’t necessarily for a certain sort of reader, and that I have to just be content to sell enough to pay off the occasional credit card or take a trip to Florida. There will always be a passionate group of folks I wrote these stories for, and I will always love them best, but believing that I’ll never have more than a hundred true fans sells myself short. It sells my fiction short. And worst of all, it sells all my future endeavors short. It sabotages me before I even get started.

Failure is always easier than success. It’s easy to say that you failed because of some external thing. It’s harder to get up, dust yourself off, and say, “Next time, I’ll do better.” There will always be people around to beat me down, set my expectations, explain “the brutal reality” to me.

But, you know – I don’t need to be one of them.

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