Some thoughts on success (as a writer)

Some thoughts on success.
If you want a concrete measure of how different this year was from every other year of my career, here’s one:
This was the first time I went to cons and did not worry about how much a burger cost.
I did a lot of cons this year. I went to romance conventions, science fiction cons, writers conferences, BDSM events, and more. And not once did I balk at ordering that overpriced but oh-so-delicious burger from room service, the one that makes my poor introverted, battered soul feel whole again after a day of being “on.” Sometimes it came with fries. Sometimes with sweet potato tater tots. Sometimes with avocado and bacon. It was always, always satisfying. And in that sense it was worth every penny. Maybe food tastes better when it’s not tinged with worry that I can’t afford it.
Perhaps it’s ironic that as I write the above, I’m staring down the barrel of a multi-thousand dollar estimated tax payment which is due on September 15. In my glee at paying down my credit cards, I moved a little too fast, and whoops, the bank account is currently empty and the next cash coming in… won’t be until after that. But two big contracts from two big publishers are supposed to land at any moment. I also just sold audio rights to an older series: that advance alone will cover the tax bill but I doubt it will arrive that fast.
The reflex to stress about this is strong, but so far I’m staying relaxed. I can see the money coming down the pike, so if I do the thing one hates to do–paying a tax bill with a credit card ahhhh!!!!–I know the cash flow problem won’t last too long.
Circe’s tit. I *have* cash flow. “Cash flow problem” is usually a euphemism for “flat broke.” Huh.
So that’s one piece. Money.
Then there’s this odd thing I’ve been trying to define. I always felt I had artistic and creative success. As a writer, I felt my books did what I set out to do. I met my artistic goals. Sometimes I wrote “up” to my highest level and sometimes I wrote “down” to the market’s level: I see both as crucial skills. A gourmet chef with a Michelin star had better know how to make a burger, too, right? And it better be a damn good one. I also always felt great response from my readers, which only bolsters the impression that I achieved my artistic aims. THEY GET IT, I sometimes think while reading Amazon reviews or comments on my Facebook or Tumblr/LJ posts. That’s huge. Validation from readers saying they love, appreciate, are addicted to, etc. my fiction is absolutely HUGE.
But then there’s “critical success.” In layman’s terms, what did professional reviewers and critics think? In the nineties you could say I had mixed reviews. The reviewers from places that had contact with subculture communities (whether fandom/geekdom or alternative sexuality communities) were always raves. The Village Voice, Bay Area Reporter, Libido, Asimov’s Science Fiction, always raves. But the publishing establishment? Let’s see. Publishers Weekly panned Black Feathers (my book with HarperCollins) saying it was “erotica for people who don’t like sex.” Kirkus wasn’t much better. I suspect this reaction was largely driven by the vanilla straight white male establishment who could not understand that the ’70s porno aesthetic of furtive, dirty, secretive, and illicit sex was not, in fact, the only kind of sex that was “hot.” (Or maybe they just couldn’t praise any writing that was not, in fact, for them?)
My how times have changed. I was pretty shocked when my first “real” romance novel, Mind Games, was published by Ravenous Romance in 2008 and all the reviews, from romance bloggers mostly, were raves. Five stars, five champagne flutes, five cherries, five chili peppers, you name it. It made me think, okay, maybe I actually succeeded in doing what I set out to do. I had been uncertain that I could pull off Romance With A Capital R. Apparently my uncertainty was merely my nerves and nothing to do with the actual book.
But still, a nagging voice said, those were bloggers. What about the So-Called Establishment? Well, as the worm has turned, and I’ve begun publishing with a Big Six (er Five) house again, Hachette. And that means attention from… oh. Hey. RT Magazine. It started with a Top Pick gold-star review of Slow Surrender and then just kept getting better from there. Slow Surrender won the RT Reviewers Choice Award in Erotic Romance. The fact that the reviewers for RT are largely female did not escape me. They’re hip to subcultures and fandoms and the fact that consent is sexy, not dull. But, yeah, they convinced me it’s not a fluke. I’m not a fluke. I’m a romance writer, and I guess, a purty darn good one.
So, okay, let’s add critical success to the list.
But a thing has happened that I think has a little of the money and a little of the critical and a little of the… the whatever… Notoriety is not the right word. I already had notoriety. I remember when I first burst onto the science fiction scene with Telepaths Don’t Need Safewords. That was published in March 1992. In the summer of 1993 I was in a hotel elevator in San Francisco for Worldcon, the World Science Fiction Convention. From the back of the elevator came a whisper, but I, and corwin, clearly heard it: “That’s Cecilia Tan!”
This was what prompted me to start telling people I wasn’t rich and famous, but I was at least infamous.
The new thing in the air seems to be… let’s try this word on for size… prestige.
Yeah, that fits. Prestige is odd. It’s not the same thing as respect, though both respect and prestige are conferred by others. Respect implies people know something about you. I have gained respect from many communities: from my peers in alt-sexuality communities for decades of hard work, from fellow writers who’ve worked with me and who have been in the trenches with me, from people in the industry who have followed me for over 20 years. But prestige is more nebulous, and it seems to be coming from quarters unknown and unseen, like fairydust issuing from the cracks between the worlds.
I think I like it, but like fairydust I don’t know that I can trust it; I don’t know that it will last. But perhaps it doesn’t have to: the most important thing to me continues to be creative and artistic success, and it sure is nice that money finally followed from that.
Come to think of it, I don’t know if the money will last, either. But I’ll enjoy all these room service burgers while it does.

P.S. If you’re unaware, this week my latest book, SLOW SATISFACTION, officially launched. It’s the final book in the trilogy that began with SLOW SURRENDER so it’s a pretty big deal to me. I’m doing lots of guest blogs and interviews and such for the next two weeks, so, yeah, that’s why I’m thinking about this kind of thing so much right now!

1 Comment

  1. Very well written exploration of what success is. It rang true on so many levels. I’m so thrilled that you are getting prestige and some money now because your talent and drive has deserved it for so long.

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