Friday, April 20, 2007

Seven Deadly Sins and Writing: Envy

There was a period when I couldn’t read science fiction novels.

I’d finished my second novel (actually, what became my first in print, Archangel Protocol) and it was being shopped around by my agent. I was still actively writing – I’d started a third novel and was trying to perfect the art of short story writing. I was in four writers’ critique groups, attending SF conventions, a member of the National Writers’ Union, and generally doing a whole lot of science fiction and writing-related work.

My partner is an avid reader, so we’d often end up at bookstores, and I found I was actually kind of mildly irritated just walking past the aisles labeled science fiction/fantasy. After the fourth or fifth time it happened, I started to examine my reaction.

I realized I was jealous.

Because of the way most bookstores shelves their novels, the publisher’s logos were prominently displayed in row after row after row that I passed. Just seeing those familiar icons made me inwardly seethe; I wanted one of those next to my name, damn it.

Beyond that initial gut reaction, I also had trouble reading science fiction because my life had become consumed by critiquing it. If I actually got through the green haze of my jealousy and picked up one of those books on the shelf, I couldn’t read it without starting the critiquing process.

And believe you me, no one – not even the genre masters/mistresses – passed my muster in those days. Everyone sucked. I was always at LEAST a good a writer as Ms.-Tor-Published-Her-And-Not-Me.

I couldn’t enjoy reading science fiction.

I can’t not read (just as I can’t not write), so I turned to other genres. I read a lot of romances and mysteries. I also discovered that SF short fiction bothered me less than long form (probably because though I was writing short stories and sending them out to market, I knew I wasn’t very good at the shorter forms.) Although I still had plenty of times when I threw Asimov’s across the room and shouted, “WTF? How did that crap get published when I didn’t?”

When my first book published, I relaxed. I could read SF/F again, and I did, copiously. But jealousy and envy continue to haunt me. There are some writers in my field that I’ve refused to read out of spite because in my mind, “they’re famous enough.” (Keep in mind that I’m generally deranged this way. If a movie becomes really popular, I won’t go see it….just because. I’m probably the only person on the planet who hasn’t seen Titanic.)

I don’t think that writers can successfully avoid being jealous and envious of one another. It’s a competitive business, after all, and most of us entered it to win.

Jealousy can be a motivating force, if you let it. I find it fuels my ambition, for instance, and I try to embrace that side of it when I can. I determinedly rose from the ashes of my career partly out of spite and a keen desire not to let the bastards get me down.

I don’t always deal with it very well, though, hence my years of avoiding my own, beloved genre. What about you? Who/what are you jealous of? Have you found good ways of dealing with it?

9 comments:

Douglas Hulick said...

1) I haven't seen Titanic either.

2) You suck for being published. :p

(Seriously, when I have more time, I will respond properly.)

Sean M. Murphy said...

I remember being a little surprised at another writer's jealous reaction when I sold "Gaydar". I was surprised because that writer is well and truly published--short stories and novels both--and I remember thinking "But hey, come on, how can I be a threat to you?

I don't agree with Lyda on this one. I'm not here to win, because I don't see this as a winner take all race. And other writers doing well, particularly those that I'm associated with, will only help build the reader base and expand the genre--both good things, and both good for my likelihood of success. I am honestly thrilled when my compatriots get something new published, because I'm happy for them. They've worked hard, and it's hard enough to get published in this industry without me adding any grief to it.

I should also note that I have precisely the same aversion to popularity that Lyda has. I had to wait until the furor over Titanic died down--about six years after it came out--before I saw it. I think, in my case, that this has more to do with not wanting to be identified with the mob reaction or react in an environment innundated by the immense social pressure to drink the Koolaid than it has to do with jealousy.

Muneraven said...

Envy in regard to other writers getting published isn't a problem for me. After all, nobody can write my stories but me. And I have zero control over whether some editor likes my books or not. So all I can really do is be myself and write the very best that I can and act professionally. The rest is a total crap shoot. My best effort can only put me in the running. It isn't a foot race that I can clearly win, it's more like figure skating: I have to perform well and then sit and figit while the judges score my performance.

I DO feel jealous of other writers sometimes but it is usually when I read something great and I slam the book shut and think "Crap I will never write something that good in my entire life." That doesn't happen all that often because I am a critical reader. When it does it is bittersweet. I love good writing; I just wish I could produce MORE of it, lol.

I don't think Lyda is at all bad for being envious or jealous. I think we are all just naturally competitive to varying degrees and I imagine Lyda can use those feelings as motivation. Unless she goes after another writer's kneecap with a crowbar, I think it's fine. :-O

Douglas Hulick said...

I'm a little more in Lyda's camp, but in different ways.

Way back when, I remember picking up and starting a book by a "celebrated new author" at the time who was getting talked up all over the place. I never finished that book. It was crap (and I don't use the word lightly in this context).

I wasn't so much jealous as disgusted. Here was someone getting a multi-book, multi-series deal, and I *knew* I could write better than her. And that motivated me. I mean, if this stuff can make it into print, anything can, right?

Ha-ha. And thus began a long education....

But beyond the occasional recurrence of "you've got to be kidding me", I don't realy get jealous of other autor's finished works (except for cases like muneraven cites, where the book is impossibly good). They did the work, they finished it, they sold it. Who am I to bitch about them? (I do still get motivated by bad fiction, though.)

What I do find I sometimes get jealous of as a writer is other people's writing life. Kelly's large amount of available writing time; Naomi's work ethic; Lyda's determination; Bill's gorgeous prose; and so on for many other writers as well. I don't begrudge them any of that, just as I don't begrudge them their successes. They are not me, and my life is not theirs. As others have said, this isn't a race. And yet, there's a part of me (the same part that likes to hit people with swords) that keeps saying "It isn't?"

It's not.

But do I sometimes wish I could snag an aspect here or there, now and again? Well, yeah, sometimes....

Kelly McCullough said...

No Titanic for me either. Not for the same reasons though. The people I knew who saw it were uniformly not impressed, so we skipped it.

On the envy thing, it's very hard to sort out. I've never had a problem even in my darkest writing days with seeing something brilliant that's been published. That's always just simply made me happy that I've got something new to read. But the not so good stuff...there have been times when I found that very frustrating to see on the shelves. There's some envy there, but it's also mixed with the way that becoming a writer changes how you interact with reading and makes it hard to read anything that's not really well done.

Anonymous said...

I don't get jealous of writers, 'cos so far no one's gotten to write the movie for my favorite book. (fingers crossed)

But I can get insanely jealous of people who managed to figure out they wanted to make movies when they were 20 and made all the right moves instead of messing around with other careers. And those who made space in their busy lives to just make an independent movie, however bad.

I see jealousy as a kick in the butt - a wake-up call to change my priorities and make the necessary sacrifices already. With jealousy of people getting published that doesn't work so well, though...

-CJD

Kelly Swails said...

muneraven and I are on the exact same page here.

Stephanie Zvan said...

No Titanic here either. It wasn't a quality or popularity issue. That kind of story just isn't why I see a movie. I might read it as a book, but I don't want to watch it.

The books that get to me are the ones that are really good, but I can't figure out why. I envy the writer the tools and understanding I'm missing. I don't begrudge the success. I just want to be behind that door, where all the cool kids are.

In case it isn't obvious, I still haven't learned to turn the critic off while I read. I am learning to read with two sets of eyes, though, so new books are becoming fun again. For a while, I could only read fiction I'd already read. The joy of discovery as the story unfolded was missing. Luckily I enjoy critique.

Anonymous said...

I get crazy jealous. I always try, very hard to hide it, especially from other writers. That what rants in personal journals are for.