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Thursday, January 03, 2013

The left side of the arc

A number of readers have commented that A THRONE OF BONES is significantly improved, in terms of their perception of its literary quality, over my previous novels.  I myself have the sense that I know what I'm doing now in a way that I simply did not 10 years ago, and that while I feel too jaded and indifferent to be writing what could be described as "angry young man" commentary anymore - hence the column retirement - I feel extraordinarily energetic with regards to the novel writing.  Producing 7,500 words of fiction per week comes relatively easily now, whereas the weekly 750-word columns that used to flow like water had increasingly become difficult.

So, I found Steve Sailer's analysis of PG Wodehouse to be very interesting in this regard, as it seems to indicates that one's forties, fifties, and even sixties are the writer's prime novel-writing season.
The consistency of ratings over time is the most striking fact. But a few temporal patterns can be discerned due to the huge sample sizes of raters. My Man Jeeves at age 37 was a rookie effort, falling 0.13 points below his career mean. Wodehouse hit a long peak from his early 40s into his early 60s with six straight Jeeves novels rated above his career average, but his ratings slip only marginally in his old age....
The peak is probably 1938's (age 56) The Code of the Woosters. The topical political satire of Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascist Blackshirts, as Bertie's nemesis Sir Roderick Spode, leader of the Blackshorts, makes the book stand out. 
The next novel was 1946's (age 64) Jeeves in the Morning (formerly Joy in the Morning), which Wodehouse had a lot of time to work on while he was interned by the Nazis (he was caught at his beach home in France in 1940). It has equally high ratings as Code of the Woosters, although fewer raters. In 1982, Alexander Cockburn designated Code and Morning to be the peaks of the series.
Ring for Jeeves (age 71) is the most obvious dud, but Wodehouse rebounded well. For example, Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves, published when he was about age 81, garnered above average ratings from over 3,000 raters. That's pretty extraordinary.
On the one hand, one could argue that I started writing novels too early.  Or, at least, publishing them too early.  Wasn't it Hemingway who said that everyone had a million worthless words inside them that they had to get out before writing anything decent?  I'm finally past that point now, and it is encouraging to know that I'm likely on the left side of the career arc, and so long as I put in the effort, can anticipate continued improvement over the next twenty years.

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54 Comments:

Anonymous jack January 03, 2013 6:29 AM  

And, at my age, I'm on the right side of the reading arc. Seems sort of unfair that I will probably miss out on your prime time. Oh well....

Anonymous VryeDenker January 03, 2013 6:41 AM  

On a tangentially related note: I decided to brush up on my Roman history after finishing ATOB and I came across a handful of familiar names Circa 400 to 200 BC. Most notably one Marcus Valerius Corvus... Was that intentional on your part, Vox?

Anonymous VD January 03, 2013 6:47 AM  

Was that intentional on your part, Vox?

Was what intentional? There is no Marcus Valerius Corvus in A Throne of Bones. There is a Sextus Valerius Corvus, a Sextus Valerius Corvinus, a Marcus Valerius Magnus and a Marcus Valerius Clericus, but no Marcus Valerius Corvus....

A free copy of The Wardog's Coin - don't get too excited, I'll be giving out free review copies - to whomever can point to the actual historical analogue of Sextus Valerius Corvus in Roman history.

Anonymous Josh January 03, 2013 6:58 AM  

Marius?

Or is it someone more obscure?

Anonymous VryeDenker January 03, 2013 6:59 AM  

Corvus being a nickname (as I understand it). I didn't mean offense. What I was interested in was whether he was a model for one or more of your main characters.

At any rate, I suspect Sextus was modeled after someone living around the time of Julius Caesar.

Anonymous VD January 03, 2013 7:02 AM  

I didn't mean offense. What I was interested in was whether he was a model for one or more of your main characters.

Nor did I take any. No, Marcus Valerius Corvus was not the model for Sextus Valerius Corvus. But there was one, it simply wasn't him....

Anonymous VryeDenker January 03, 2013 7:11 AM  

I'll take a stab after I've read to 0BC.

Anonymous Anonymous January 03, 2013 7:45 AM  

Encouraging. Write on!

Ioweenie

Anonymous Peter Garstig January 03, 2013 7:46 AM  

Marc Aurel?

Anonymous Peter Garstig January 03, 2013 7:48 AM  

Oh, dagger, I thought you meant the model for Marcus Valerius Clericus. Nevermind.

No idea who Sextus Valerius Corvus could be modeled after.

Anonymous Frustrated Author January 03, 2013 7:55 AM  

A question for Vox and others about motivation...

...about writing professionally, but also applicable for wanna-be pro athetes, musicians, entreprenuers, etc.

If everyone sucks in the beginning, how do you stay motivated to get good?

I mean, you can practice. But unless you get real world experiance, you never will make it. Malcom Gladwell says you need at least 10,000 hours of experiance to get good at something professionally.

But as you try to get better, your reputation is still on the line...

Get in as a rookie in the NFL and choke in your first game... publish your first songs/video games/novels/screenplays which bomb ...raise money and have your first company fail...

Then nobody in the market wants you.

My conclusion is 99% of success is pure luck. A writer/athlete gets lucky thir first shot...then rides their initial success for a career. Other guy works hard -- or harder-- blows his shot ...and flips burgers, or wastes away in middle management rest of his life, forever a "wannabe neverwas"

And relying on pure luck is a massive demotivator.

Sour grapes... or am I on to something?

Or... is there any tricks/hacks to game the system beyond "working harder"?

Anonymous Josh January 03, 2013 8:03 AM  

Frustrated author:

You also have to know people.

Anonymous Outlaw X January 03, 2013 8:06 AM  

I hope A Throne of Bones comes out in audio format eventually.

Blogger Nate January 03, 2013 8:09 AM  

Well this makes sense... considering that the Novel is considered the easiest form of literature to create.

Anonymous Frustrated Author January 03, 2013 8:10 AM  

Josh: That's the problem...yes, you need to know people to get success...but the more people you know, the bigger your early failures are amphlified, destroying your reputation and turning your contacts into liabilities. Seems even more like dumb luck... you know the "right" people and strike gold first attempt.

Anonymous VD January 03, 2013 8:12 AM  

Get in as a rookie in the NFL and choke in your first game... publish your first songs/video games/novels/screenplays which bomb ...raise money and have your first company fail... Then nobody in the market wants you.

Where you've gone wrong is that it is only the gatekeepers who know you if you don't have big success. Amazon's Author Central presently has me bouncing around between 350 and 400 in fantasy. In other words, even if you've read my earlier stuff and think I must suck, it doesn't matter because most fantasy readers have no knowledge of me.

Now, it used to be that the gatekeepers would groom talent, now they mostly serve to enforce ideological discipline. The good news is that technology is beginning to allow authors to bypass the gatekeepers; the problem, of course, is the fact that no one knows you or your books. You can't even use a great cover to attract attention at the bookstore, because the books aren't in the bookstores.

Anyhow, if you're doing it with the object of financial success, there are much easier ways to go about it. You shouldn't be doing it unless you're going to do it whether you get paid or not. And that's why the copyright argument is so stupid; people will always create regardless of whether they can make a living at it or not.

Blogger Nate January 03, 2013 8:13 AM  

"I hope A Throne of Bones comes out in audio format eventually." so long as it isn't read by the author...

Blogger Nate January 03, 2013 8:15 AM  

Frustrated Author:

Writing is not a career choice anymore than the NFL is a career choice. Someone should've told you that when you were 9.

Anonymous VD January 03, 2013 8:17 AM  

That's the problem...yes, you need to know people to get success...but the more people you know, the bigger your early failures are amphlified, destroying your reputation and turning your contacts into liabilities.

It depends upon the nature of your earlier failures. Most sophisticated people in the industry can distinguish between "maybe one day" and "ain't never gonna happen nohow" with relative ease. They can't, of course, always anticipate the specific flavor which will appeal to the dreadful lack of taste of the masses, hence EL James and JK Rowling.

Trust me, an awful lot of people who are trying to write should not be. I participated in that online writing workshop and most of those contributing there will never, ever, publish anything professionally. And to give one counterexample, when I was just getting started, several award-winning pro writers commented that despite all the many flaws in my early work, the basic storytelling capability was there.

Anonymous VD January 03, 2013 8:18 AM  

"I hope A Throne of Bones comes out in audio format eventually." so long as it isn't read by the author...

No fear on that score....

Anonymous Frustrated Author January 03, 2013 8:52 AM  

"Trust me, an awful lot of people who are trying to write should not be."

Vox: True...but will they even bother to publish anyway? Most people just want the "dream" -- they won't ever take any active steps to become a professional. The true "wanna-be" doesn't take a risk...so they have nothing to lose.

I'm talking more about the margins...those with already a small amount of early professional success (say 1-2 published books) but no "hits" yet, no market success...so still in the treacherous part of their early careers.

It seems like you are saying I'm giving too much weight to the "powers that be"...and what you suggest is what every successful person suggests: Keep working hard, and hope and pray you get noticed. Good advice, though it still sucks to hear again. But I do appreciate and value your advice.

Anonymous Rally January 03, 2013 8:54 AM  

Athletes are a different case than musicians and writers, obviously, as you can work at the latter well into middle and old age. To be a great athlete, you need to be great in your youth, otherwise you'll run out of time no matter how many hours you put in.

Gladwell's non-evidence based observation is especially silly in athletics. Bryce Harper certainly did not have anywhere near the amount of practice and training hours that a typical 25 year old AAA player had when he made the cover of SI at age 16. But he was better.

Blogger Kyle In Japan January 03, 2013 9:14 AM  

Well, if I've started writing books at age 24 (currently revising my first book in a series, started working on a new stand-alone novel), then by 35-40 I ought to be capable of writing something seriously good.

Even though I hope to be writing books that dwarf my current writing 10-15 years from now, I'm not just going to concede myself to failure. I'm throwing every last bit of effort into my writing, and I won't care if nobody reads it or if it doesn't make me a dime as long as I make the best book I possibly can at this stage.

I'd like to write fiction full-time someday, but I'm doing it for the love of the art, man. If I'm happy with it, it's a success. I can't imagine creating stuff any other way.

Anonymous scoobius dubious January 03, 2013 9:15 AM  

"Trust me, an awful lot of people who are trying to write should not be."

Flannery O'Connor was once asked if she thought that the methods of the Iowa Writers Workshop were stifling young writers.

Her reply: "Not enough."

Anonymous Stephen J. January 03, 2013 9:18 AM  

I'm glad to see this post, for the reason that it makes my request at least semi-topical: Any word on when the hardcovers for A THRONE OF BONES will be shipping through Amazon? I've ordered mine, but have yet to receive info from Amazon in this regard.

Anonymous Peggy January 03, 2013 9:23 AM  

I noticed there were several books by Madeleine L'Engle on your 2012 reading list. She published a couple of books in her twenties, couldn't get anything at all published in her thirties, and was forty when A Wrinkle in Time was finally accepted.

Anonymous Susan January 03, 2013 9:24 AM  

Maybe friend George C. would be willing to take a stab at reading it. That would be a neat way to get your stuff out to the readers who have never heard of you or read your materials. Have you and SB met his lady friend Stacey yet Vox?

I also believe that writing to please ones self is always easier because you are the sole control-creator and you get to decide the fate of the characters. Rather like a superintelligent being. The column was written for the gatekeepers, not just yourself. A superintelligence would chafe at that.

Anonymous Daniel January 03, 2013 9:53 AM  

Frustrated Author
I'm talking more about the margins...those with already a small amount of early professional success (say 1-2 published books) but no "hits" yet, no market success...so still in the treacherous part of their early careers.

1 to 2 published books isn't even out of the starting blocks: that's practice. There was an old (now dead) book collector and writing mentor who didn't regard 9 published novels as enough for a writer to consider himself "an author."

Get 100 200-page books to press, and I guarantee they'll make you at minimum $500/month, in perpetuity (fluxuating, of course, with market whims).

Don't even bother getting frustrated until you've got 50 in print and still aren't making money. It is a waste of energy. And good luck!

Anonymous Kickass January 03, 2013 10:39 AM  

I once went to a book signing with Lawrence Brock. He is just a fun guy and I wanted to say hello. I was piss poor and in my very early twenties and had just scored a job as Editor with a trade publication mainly on my incredible BS skills. He took questions from the crowd. He was asked how can he come up with stuff all the time and how does he make himself write. I joined Lawrence in a look of puzzlement. Then it was clear, she was not a writer she just wanted to be.

There are naturals at everything, those who succeed are those who have that and work at improving it. You can be a great writer and piss poor. You have to be a great business person as well if you want to financially successful.

If you write for the art of it, who cares about the financials? It is art, it will flux and flow as you do. That is the beauty of a gift.

Vox, you appear to be more interested in the craft of fiction, being a true artisan of the words. To be respected and admired.

I think he took a gift and used it for good, for persuasion and to open minds. I think he spent his time doing that and sees that, like many of us, there is only so much time left and the priorities are not earthly things but things of the eternal. The way to persuade people to that comes as a gift also and it is given to all who believe. A better use of my time I am finding.

However, if you want to make a living as a writer you need to have a product to sell and a buyer willing to take it. As we have all seen, you don't need a superior product, some just need a good jingle.

I have found business finding topics that are boring as hell but need coverage and doing them and doing them well. No one cares that you like to write. People care if you are good at writing what they either need to or want to read. That is how the money comes.

Now the art, that is for fun and for soothing the soul.

Anonymous Kickass January 03, 2013 10:41 AM  

And by the way, for any Authors out there, I never got to "meet" Lawrence. He made an announcement after his talk that he would only sign book from those who had purchased them that day. I waited around to have him sign a well worn copy of a book of his on writing that I had taken a chunk of my food money to pay for.

I tell ya, that really pissed me off. I understood from a business perspective. But it sucked from a young writer who admired someone and had a one time chance to tell them they enjoyed their work perspective.

Blogger Latigo January 03, 2013 11:29 AM  

After reading Throne of Bones, I decided to read Summa Elvetica for some back story. I recognized the author yet, I did see a marked improvement in focus and the ability to continue the story. Sorry Vox but part of Summa Elvetica felt like I was reading John Gault's speech in Atlas Shrugged.
As for Steve Sailer's analysis I agree, there are those that may be able to accomplish great things at a young age, then there are those that seem to be "late bloomers". I don't agree with the "late bloomer" thing, what I have found is that sometimes the "angry young man" needs to be tempered by life and later comes something that God can use. While you may not prodice the 10 commandments, Moses was that "angry young man" and spent the nect 40 years tending sheep. I have found that to be true in my life also, the "angry young man" had to be tempered.
Keep writing Vox, it is nice to be on the front end of what is happening in your career.
Chackern

Anonymous VD January 03, 2013 11:53 AM  

After reading Throne of Bones, I decided to read Summa Elvetica for some back story. I recognized the author yet, I did see a marked improvement in focus and the ability to continue the story.

That was certainly part of it, but a more significant aspect was that I simply couldn't pull off what I wanted to do there. Believe it or not, but SE was actually much more ambitious than ATOB. ATOB is essentially the bigger and more retarded version of what SE was conceived to be.

And by the way, for any Authors out there, I never got to "meet" Lawrence. He made an announcement after his talk that he would only sign book from those who had purchased them that day. I waited around to have him sign a well worn copy of a book of his on writing that I had taken a chunk of my food money to pay for.

That's ridiculous. I can't even imagine doing that.

It seems like you are saying I'm giving too much weight to the "powers that be"...and what you suggest is what every successful person suggests: Keep working hard, and hope and pray you get noticed.

Yes to the first part. No to the second. Do it because you love it. Do it for yourself. If success comes, fine, but you should be pleased with it even if no one ever reads it. ATOB was a success and SE was a failure because I deem them to be so, regardless of what anyone else thinks of them.

Note that I haven't even seen ATOB yet myself, but I am quite happy with it. The fact that others think well of it too is merely a bonus. I wanted to write a good epic fantasy story in a year, and I basically did it. Throw in that beautiful cover and I'm fired up for Book Two.

Anonymous jack January 03, 2013 11:53 AM  

@Garstig:
Malcom Gladwell says you need at least 10,000 hours of experiance to get good at something professionally.

Thats interesting: way back in the day, much younger and optimistic, I played backgammon for stakes; sometimes high stakes. I was made aware that to become really good, if you were going to, you had to gamble with backgammon for about 10,000 games. Preferable with the stakes at such a level that it would hurt if you lost.
And it did....

That said, backgammon, using the doubling cube and a few of the international rules [crawford rule most notably] is certainly the best gambling game. It exceeds chess, IMHO, as a war game because it involves strategy, forethought and throws in a large dose of luck. Just like war.

Anonymous VD January 03, 2013 11:54 AM  

Vox, you appear to be more interested in the craft of fiction, being a true artisan of the words. To be respected and admired.

Yeah, not so much the latter. I am determined to succeed on the terms that I define. I have zero interest in being respected and admired by most of the people in the industry because I have little regard for them.

Blogger Bogey January 03, 2013 12:02 PM  

..and really people in the industry have little regard for the ilk either, hence comments like "manstink" as their president calls us.

Anonymous jack January 03, 2013 12:17 PM  

@Bogey:

"manstink"

Never heard that term for the ILK. It sort of grows on ya, like hairy armpits two weeks south of the last shower. Maybe how you smell near the end of an extended fishing expedition or Alaskan hunting trip. A real man's smell...

Blogger Tzufloyguner January 03, 2013 12:19 PM  

See also Scott Taylor's post at Black Gate titled Art of the Genre: The Age of Perfect Creation

http://www.blackgate.com/2012/01/25/art-of-the-genre-the-age-of-perfect-creation/

There he discusses prime age to write novels and uses many authors to prove his point.

Blogger Latigo January 03, 2013 12:36 PM  

"That was certainly part of it, but a more significant aspect was that I simply couldn't pull off what I wanted to do there. Believe it or not, but SE was actually much more ambitious than ATOB. ATOB is essentially the bigger and more retarded version of what SE was conceived to be."

Kind of like nobody remembers the overall ambitions of Xerxes (especially the bridge at the Hellespont) but, everybody remembers Thermopylae.

Chackern

Anonymous RedJack January 03, 2013 12:48 PM  

Yes to the first part. No to the second. Do it because you love it. Do it for yourself. If success comes, fine, but you should be pleased with it even if no one ever reads it. ATOB was a success and SE was a failure because I deem them to be so, regardless of what anyone else thinks of them.


Which is art. There are things that I do, and do decent, that I consider failures because they don't meet my goals.

For instance I do toy with writing. I will not be someone who can do it for a living, and will probably never even try to publish, but I do it because I have a story in my head, and I want to see where it goes.

Anonymous scoobius dubious January 03, 2013 12:51 PM  

"And by the way, for any Authors out there, I never got to "meet" Lawrence. He made an announcement after his talk that he would only sign book from those who had purchased them that day.
That's ridiculous."

I think it's a fairly standard practice: the appearance is after all promotional and the talk is for free, and presumably you came because you like the author, so it seems common courtesy to buy the book if you want his autograph. It's probably not an iron rule, but it doesn't seem unreasonable to me.

Once when I was a college kid I was walking down the street past a book store, and I saw a sign that a popular author was inside doing a signing. I didn't like the guy that much but I was curious to get a look at him and see how he conducted himself. I decided to try and get him to sign the book I was reading at the time, which was "The Interpretation of Dreams." He obligingly signed it.

When I got home I looked to see what he had written: it said, "All the best, Sigmund Freud".


Anonymous Jack Amok January 03, 2013 1:19 PM  

For the last few days, my getting-to-sleep ritual has been reading ATOB until my eyes get tired, then switching to Livy on audiobook until I fall asleep. I haven't gotten to the Civil War yet in Livy, but it does make for a good accompaniment.

Interesting about Woodehouse. I didn't realize he was 37 when the first Jeeves and Wooster novel came out, but it makes sense. I don't think a younger man could possibly have made the observations about human nature he did in those books.

Gladwell's 10,000 hours? Perhaps a reasonable guess for your average guild member doing semi-rote work. That's 5 years of 40-hour weeks. But my experience with work that requires intellectual skill is that after two years, a man is either competent or not, and no further practice is going to get the incompetent over that hurdle.

Anonymous Jack Amok January 03, 2013 2:25 PM  

A free copy of The Wardog's Coin - don't get too excited, I'll be giving out free review copies - to whomever can point to the actual historical analogue of Sextus Valerius Corvus in Roman history

Oh, Sulla. One of the more interesting Romans.

Anonymous Kickass January 03, 2013 3:08 PM  

Not by the industry. By other writers and your readers.

Anonymous Ferd January 03, 2013 6:07 PM  

I haven't read any of VD's novels. Which might you suggest for a virgin read?

Anonymous VD January 03, 2013 6:55 PM  

No, not Sulla. Here's a hint... the name is in the glossary.

Which might you suggest for a virgin read?

Start with A MAGIC BROKEN. Then A THRONE OF BONES. Then SUMMA ELVETICA.

Anonymous Ferd January 03, 2013 9:37 PM  

Thank you!

Anonymous Jack Amok January 03, 2013 10:21 PM  

in the glossary? But that's Patr... eh? Did you model two characters after the same man? I may have to get farther into the book before I can unravell this.

Blogger Foster January 03, 2013 11:06 PM  

Lucius Porcius Cato seems a likely match to Corvus in your novel, Vox.

Blogger Foster January 03, 2013 11:08 PM  

Lucius Porcius Cato seems a likely match to Corvus in your novel, Vox.

Blogger Foster January 03, 2013 11:08 PM  

Lucius Porcius Cato seems a likely match to Corvus in your novel, Vox.

Blogger Foster January 03, 2013 11:08 PM  

Lucius Porcius Cato seems a likely match to Corvus in your novel, Vox.

Anonymous Koanic January 11, 2013 1:53 PM  

That is a good reason to stop the column.

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