Janey on the Brink

Was browsing through old posts at one of my other blogs, and ran across this one from March 25, 2008… about a month before The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms sold to Orbit. Kind of funny to “look back in time” at myself, so to speak, and think, just wait!! You won’t be on the brink for much longer! Just hold on!! Anyway, also partly inspired by this at Justine Larbalestier’s blog, reposting it here, unsanitized and hopefully encouraging to others in the same state.

A writer who’s sold a novel but is still a relative unknown is called a “Joe Blow Neo Pro”. I don’t know who first coined that phrase, but I first heard it used by/for Tobias Buckell, so I’m going to attribute it to him. (You can hear his essays on the subject via the Spoken Alexandria Project, if you’re wondering — good stuff.)

I’m going to coin a new phrase here, or try to, because I’ve never heard a term for this although I know there are other people to whom it applies: “Janey on the Brink”. A “Janey on the Brink” (JotB) is an author who’s got everything but the publishing contract. She’s developed a solid list of writing credentials through short fiction and workshops and whatnot; she’s built up appropriate connections and mentors; she’s got a finished, salable manuscript ready to go; she might even have an agent already. But she hasn’t sold a book.

There are a lot of JotBs out there, I suspect. Tobias Buckell’s survey on how long it takes authors to sell a novel (once they begin cranking them out) was especially illuminating: he found that only 35% of published authors broke in with their first book. The remaining 65% had to write another, or another, or a whole bunch more, before crossing that critical threshold. All of these people were, for at least some fraction of that time, JotBs. (Really kind of emphasizes that whole persistence thing they taught us about at Viable Paradise. Still time to get your application in, BTW!)

So back to the phrase itself: Janey on the Brink. I like this phrase because it sounds to me like a rhythmic match/thematic combo of “Johnny on the Spot” and “Jenny from the Block”, both of which are very fitting analogues. Like a Johnny on the Spot, the “Janey on the Brink” is under pressure to perform. This pressure is the same as that of other unpublished authors in many ways — the usual cycle of submissions and rejections, the struggle to maintain one’s motivation in the face of relentless discouragement, etc. But there’s an extra bit of pressure on a JotB, IMO. The JotB knows she’s good enough to be published. Unlike most up-and-coming authors, who have to believe that they’re good enough, she’s got some kind of tangible proof: juried awards, multiple SFWA-qualifying sales, whatever. This shouldn’t make a difference, if she already believes in herself… but let’s be honest, here. External validation does make a difference to all but the most utterly self-confident. But in a JotB’s case, this knowledge adds more pressure. She’s good enough — got the SFWA card or Tiptree or Years’ Best credit to prove it — so why hasn’t she “made it”? Since it’s no longer a case of skill at writing, it must be something else. But what? This is where the more insidious doubts start to creep up. Maybe she offended some Important Personage with some political stance or blog post. Maybe she’s good at short stories, but not longer works. Maybe she hasn’t schmoozed properly — maybe it really is a who-you-know business. Maybe she’s just good enough to get attention, but not good enough for “prime time”, so to speak.

This is probably where a lot of writers, who otherwise survived the emotional crucible of early writerdom, falter in despair.

And then there’s the “Jenny from the block” factor. She’s as good as the pros, but she’s still a nobody, relatively speaking. When she attends writing events and tries to speak with authority on matters of technique and practice, people give her the “who the heck does she think she is?” look. When she networks with pros, she feels like them, perhaps even thinks like them… but she’s not one of them, and she probably feels this keenly. However, she’s not really an ordinary unpublished author, either. If she complains to her fellow unpublished writers that she hasn’t made as much progress as she wants, they will (rightly) point out that she’s doing better than they are; what the heck is she complaining about? But this reaction on their part, while true and certainly understandable, ends up invalidating her very real fears, and silencing her complaints. She’s in a support limbo, no longer sure who she can count as peers, no longer sure where to turn for advice, critique, etc.

Of course I’m speaking from personal experience here, but it’s not an exact parallel in my case. The support limbo isn’t a problem for me, basically because I’ve spent the past 6 years in writing groups comprised of fellow JotBs (some of whom have upgraded to Joe Blow Neo Pros in the interim). I don’t know what I’d do without them, because when I whine, they understand. (Then they tell me to STFU and get back to writing, which is exactly what I need.) Otherwise, the JotB label fits me to a T. I got an agent waaaaaaaay back in 2005. Lucienne is damn good; that was the whole reason I targeted her when I began my agent search, and I was thrilled that she thought the same of me. I know what I thought on the day she first called me, though: this is it. It’s only a matter of time now before I have a book deal. I’m now a “real” pro author.

Three years later, I’m still thinking these things, yet in that time I’ve had powerful, painful setbacks. My novel — the one that was good enough to get me this agent — has been rejected by nearly 20 publishers. The momentum that I’d built over the years 2004 and 2005, in which I made a slew of short story sales (including my first pro sale) and achieved other major milestones, seems to have plateaued; I sold only four stories last year, and one was a reprint. And yeah, yeah, I know, what the hell do I mean “only” four stories? I can remember when I would’ve regarded someone like me with awe, and probably resentment. “Four stories? I should be so lucky.” I am that lucky. But these successes, while glorious, still aren’t the one specific marker of success that I’ve been waiting my whole life to achieve.

This is not to say I don’t appreciate the successes. My third SFWA pro sale still meant something to me, even if SFWA doesn’t so much. I’ve written two more books in those three years, and I think they’re both really good, which is even better. I’ve moved from Boston to New York, and from one phenomenal writing group to three. I regularly get to schmooze with big name people and it doesn’t send me into anxiety-attack mode anymore (well, not as often, anyway). I have shiny business cards now. =) But I think for me the telling factor is how my work is perceived outside the SF community. When I introduce myself as a writer, the first question I always get is, “Oh? What books do you have out?” When I launch into the “short stories but no books” explanation, it hurts to see eyes glaze over. When I tell my mom I’m a pro writer, she says, “That’s nice.” This is because to her, short stories are nothing — she doesn’t read them, doesn’t understand why anyone else would read them, and doesn’t get why I keep talking about them. Ditto awards, workshops, and all the other markers of success that matter to me. To her, success is having a hardcover on the shelf at Barnes & Noble. And maybe going on Oprah.

So when I’m professional enough to impress my mom, then I’ll feel I’ve made it.

And yeah, I know this will only be the beginning. I know then I’ll graduate from the problems of a Janey on the Brink to those of a Joe Blow Neo Pro, with the added risks of becoming a One-Shot Wonder or a Midlist Murder Victim. But I prefer to face my trials one at a time, thanks.

Note: I mailed my mom an ARC of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms last week.

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