When I was a wide-eyed baby author, I scoffed at what was known in the business as “the bitter midlister.” The bitter midlister was an established author who had written three or more books but who either wasn’t making a living as a writer, or wasn’t making a very good living, or had seen some success but didn’t feel it was on par with what they deserved (usually this last bit)… and they were very, very, very bitter about it.
We have all met or heard from bitter midlisters. These are the people who publicly rant about how the success of their bestselling peers has nothing to do with quality, but with luck, or favoritism, and how the game is rigged against them. They bloviate on forums and social platforms about how they didn’t get the sort of success they were owed. This is often how you can differentiate the bitter midlister from those simply exhausted by the –isms inherent in publishing. Bitter midlisters feel that they are owed success by virtue of their existence, instead of simply that they understand they need to work harder in a system rigged to favor certain types of books and authors.
They feel owed because they did the work, and it didn’t pay off in the way they expected. They are angry at every new success from some newer author, irate at every million-dollar deal that isn’t theirs. They all insist that it’s not at all the quality of their writing or the fabric of their plots (or lack thereof) that has led to this state. It’s always someone else’s fault. It’s always about someone else “taking” something that they felt was theirs. It’s probably no wonder that many bitter midlisters are from the socio-economic and racial groups that have been privileged in their particular country of origin. When your entire system says you are special, and just need to work hard to succeed, and you do, and you don’t, you get pretty mad.
I get it. I mean, I’m white. I heard that narrative too. I also heard that if a woman “worked hard enough” she could be president.
But I digress.
The bitter midlister tends to write the same sort of book over and over – when they continue writing at all. It never enters their minds that perhaps they need to change their approach, to learn new skills, to write up another lottery ticket in the publishing casino.
Now, there’s a truth to some of these complaints. Publishing is not a meritocracy. Writing great work doesn’t guarantee success. Shitty books, or mediocre books, or a book you personally cannot stand, make many authors a very good living. It may not seem fair that someone was able to change the names in their fan fiction novel and become a mega bestseller, but you know what? They wrote something people clearly wanted to read, and most probably had some big publishing marketing dollars behind them.
Life isn’t fair.
Publishing isn’t fair.
The world isn’t fair.
You aren’t owed anything.
As I creep up here on completing my 7th novel for publication, I’ve increasingly started to notice that bitter midlister voice (BMV™) at the back of my head, tapping away at my confidence.
It’s not fair, the BMV™ moans. It’s not fair that people who wrote one book, or two books, or a single series, are more financially successful than me. It’s not fair that I still have a mortgage payment and a day job and have to take freelancing jobs. It’s not fair that writers who I think are technically less skilled than me are bestsellers. It’s not fair…!
Waaaah waah waaaaah
I sure do sound like Sarah Connelly in Labyrinth, whining about how shitty and not fair it is to be a fucking adult.
But as Sarah learned, unfairness is simply a truth of life. None of us are owed anything, however hard we work, however skilled we become. As adults, all we have control over is the work that we do and how we choose to present that work to the world. This is what I tell the BMV™ over and over again.
I wish a lot of things had turned out differently – in my life, in the world. I wish that God’s War had swept all the awards in 2011 and had become a bestselling classic like The Windup Girl. I wish The Stars are Legion got optioned for a movie I wrote the script for. I wish we were watching a TV series on Netflix about Nyx right now, and I was doing script consulting. I wish The Geek Feminist Revolution had taken off like Bad Feminist did. And on and on.
When you sit around making wishes like that, it makes you realize how futile they all are. Because there are more things I wish on top of that:
I wish I didn’t live in a society plunging into fascism. I wish I didn’t have a chronic illness. I wish I hadn’t ended up in Ohio for the last decade. I wish I had real health insurance. I wish I could visit Mars.
And on and on.
As I come up on middle age, especially in the current economic and social climate, it’s easy to look back at what came before and only see where I’m not, or only see where I could be. This is a ridiculous, but very human thing to do.
When I’m feeling particularly down, I remind myself that there are plenty of (financially successful) legends who just started their careers at the age I’m at now. I’m reminded that at 37 and pushing toward forty, I’m just beginning to come into my powers as an author. Most of us really don’t start to warm up until middle age. Writing is a skill like any other, and it takes decades to hone your craft.
I am just getting started.
When we reach the end of the year, or the middle of our lives, it can be tempting to look back and only see all the things we didn’t do, all the success we didn’t have, instead of be grateful of how far we have come and celebrate the success we did achieve. Worse, when we look at what’s to come, it’s easy to think that all of the adventures and success are behind us instead of ahead of us. It’s easy to think we’ve lost our powers, when in truth, we’re just coming into them.
I have a good many projects on deck, a lot of irons on the fire, and by my own measure at, say, age 24 (before I needed all this goddamn health insurance) I’m doing incredibly well for myself. By aged 24 standards, I could quit my day job and be a writer full time. So shut the fuck up, BMV™.
My greatest realization these last six years as a professional novelist is that no amount of grind is going to get me to where I’m going any faster. Instead, it just takes a big toll on one’s mental and physical health. And in my case, I started to feel… stuck, like I was on this big ugly torture treadmill. That’s no way to live a life where you’re supposedly “doing what you love.” Hell, it’s no way to live any kind of life.
It used to be that when I wrote, I’d be railing against all the outside voices, the supposed gatekeepers, the editors and agents who rejected my work. As I’ve become more skilled, I realize that my greatest enemy isn’t them at all, and never was. My greatest enemy these days is just myself, and the BMV™.
I have a great deal to achieve in this, the second half of my life. The last year of horror had led me to double down on my worst tendencies, to withdraw, to simply endure. But I want the next thirty years of my life to be more than mere endurance. I want to truly thrive. I want to come into my own as a skilled artist, as a novelist. It’s always been my goal to be an exceptionally skilled novelist, the best, and I won’t get there by hiding in my house in Ohio with a pillow over my head and nursing the BMV™.
So today is a new day, and I get up early. I write posts like this one. I crack open the manuscript. I work on my short story outline. I pet my dogs. I count my blessings. I court a new voice, the old voice, the one that got me this far, the one that says:
Just you wait and see what I’ll do next.