Unlikely Influences is a series of weekly blog posts about how science fiction and fantasy writers can learn the tricks of their trade in odd places. Most are from guest authors, but I’ll pop in from time to time too.
In my previous post on this subject, I talked about how twenty years in the martial arts have shaped me as a writer. Some of the benefits are obvious—whenever I write about fighting, I know whereof I speak—but others are unexpected. The unexpected benefit I want to talk about this time around is that grim little demon in you that won’t let you quit when quitting is the only sensible thing to do.
My first sensei had a plaque hanging on the dojo wall, a gift he’d received. It says that of every ten students to take a martial arts class, only one still comes back after the first month. Of every ten who come back, only one is still around after the first year. Of every ten of those, only one ever earns a black belt, and of every ten black belts only one goes on to teach the art to others. That’s the sensei: one in ten thousand. It’s a cool plaque, and a very cool gift, but as a writer I’m not sure 10,000 to 1 odds sound all that bad.
A lot more than 10,000 people are going to submit novels this year in hopes of quitting their day jobs and writing full time. Odds are none of them will make it. Some will get agents, get published, get multi-book deals, but if putting food on the table every week is one of your goals, then you shouldn’t pick writing as your sole source of income. In point of fact, writing is one of those things where they tell you, “Don’t quit your day job.”
Ditto for actors, artists, and musicians. One piece of advice for the newbie might be, “Be realistic.” Take that advice with caution. If you’re realistic, you know this hobby of yours will probably never be more than that: a hobby. Maybe it’ll pay off now and again, but almost everyone who follows this path never makes a dime. Self-publishing has changed that—it’s changed a lot about this game, really—but even if you do rake in a few bucks now and then, in all likelihood they’ll never be enough to quit your day job. That’s the reality.
Reality also says a scrawny guy like me—a guy who never showed a moment’s athletic prowess in his life, who didn’t even start his training until adulthood, who wasn’t known for patience or tolerance or endurance, and in fact was known for exactly the opposite—could never earn a black belt.
The only rational reason I had to keep going was that I liked the people I trained with. They were all badder than me. The guy who got me into training is a graduate of the Rocky Balboa School of Pain Tolerance and the sniper on a SWAT team. I’m a pencil-neck philosophy professor. And I still get on the mat with that guy. There’s no rational reason for that. In fact, there are hundreds of perfectly rational reasons not to do it.
And so it is with writing. No, scratch that. It’s easy to keep on writing; I do it because I like it. But the motivation to keep submitting stories isn’t rational. What keeps me doing it is that grim little demon I seem to have picked up at some point in my martial arts career, the one that tells me quitting is the only thing that makes sense and that I’m not allowed to quit anyway.