Don’t Get Too Excited

Every year when the Hugo and Nebula Awards are announced, I see a pattern: A young writing student of mine (or three) will get nominated for a major award, then go completely off the rails.

When I say that they “go off the rails,” I mean that one of several things happen: First off, they tend to get excited thinking that this is their big break, and so they get diverted from their novel in progress—very often for a few months but I’ve also seen authors lose two or three years to this.

Often, something more sinister happens: sometimes sycophants and trolls attack the author. The author becomes so agitated that I’ve seen some authors go into therapy.

It doesn’t just happen with major awards. You can find yourself getting excited when you have a novel getting published. That first novel can be especially traumatic.  I recall that about a month before my first novel hit the shelves, I had a dream one night where reviewer after reviewer was taking turns trying to top each other at denigrating my fledgling efforts. (Fortunately, I got love letters from many of the critics instead.)

But getting a great review or a big publishing launch can also derail your focus. It feeds your ego and sends you chasing the pots of gold rumored to be at the ends of rainbows.

It can happen at every phase of your career. This morning I was waiting for some news on a Hollywood deal and found myself being just a bit too excited to focus on my work. I had to stop and say, “Knock it off, fool!” Remember that your productivity is measured in the number of hours that you stay focused on your writing tasks. Your goal is to stay focused.

You see, most of the time those awards and those big publishing deals come to nothing. And even if you do win an award, or get a big push, or have a movie contract go through, guess what? It just means that you are going to have to work harder.

Suddenly that big push means that the publisher wants your next masterpiece faster, winning a major award means that everyone wants your next short story or novel, and the movie deal turns into a maelstrom as you’re suddenly writing scripts and consulting with costume designers, producers, and directors.

As an author you have to put in “focus hours,” and any success you gain simply means that you lose quality focus hours. For example, let’s say you get a hit novel or a movie. Suddenly you have half a dozen conventions that want you to be a guest in the next year. If you go to just six of them and lose 4 days at each, you spend a month away from work in that year. You will also get fan mail from hundreds or thousands of people in a month. (I’ve gotten more than a hundred emails in a single day, and it takes a couple of minutes to answer each. One hundred emails times 2 minute each—3 hours lost. You’ll get requests to autograph books (ten minutes per request), and you’re inundated by authors who want you to read books and offer cover quotes. (Reading an entire novel and offering cover quotes averages about 20 hours for me, so I only do a couple per year.)

So becoming a hit author requires a lot of extra time for you, time that you desperately need: because once you’re a hit, your publisher will probably want you to turn in more novels more frequently.

Having a hit movie triples your workload. You’ll suddenly begin hearing from multiple producers and gaming companies, and you’ll have to take time studying further contracts and offers. That’s why successful authors have to hire assistants—people to handle mundane matters while they try to keep focus.

So here is what I recommend: If you have a story nominated for an award, don’t listen to any gossip and don’t respond to the trolls that will start calling you out.

If you hear exciting news, don’t tell anyone—not even your spouse in some cases. If your friends and family learn of it, then all of a sudden you find that at every inconvenient instant, people want to get an update. The clerk at the gas station wants to know how the movie deal is coming or when your next book will be released. You waste more time talking about your success than it is worth.

You don’t hear plumbers bragging about how they installed a genuine copper pipe today, do you? So downplay your own wins.

The more time you waste, the further behind you get. Because of this, most people can deal well with mediocre careers but find themselves spinning out of control when faced with success.

And Hollywood? Pffft! I just saw an article that said that Jeff Daniels had moved to Michigan to escape the Hollywood lifestyle. It reminded me of how I spoke to a legendary director on the phone a couple of years ago. He’d moved to the mountains in Montana or Wyoming, and his first question was, “Do you live in Hollywood?” I said no, and he responded, “Good. It’s a shitty place.” He’s right. You walk down Hollywood Boulevard and what do you see? —vomit on the sidewalk, drug addicts crawling out of your path like kicked dogs, and the air is so redolent of cheap dope and grime that you don’t want to breathe. Who’d want to live in Hollywood? Who wants to do business there?

So forget the glamour. Stop chasing the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Get back to work. It’s much more fun and rewarding in the long run.

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