Goddess of Victory and Peace

John via Creative Commons

I watched the Hugo Awards and the attendant Puppies drama this year from more or less beginning to end without ever feeling the need to comment or engage. I have my opinions, I’m certain no one else cares about them. Mostly, it was pretty good as far as Internet Dramas go. Entertaining, you know? I follow genre awards primarily in the same way Little Leaguers follow the MLB. It’s aspirational, to a degree; maybe a little bit cautionary.

But, as the post-ceremony furor is fading, Eric Flint posts an essay about the divergence between awards and popularity. Whether I agree with his thesis, methods of analysis, or conclusion is beside the point. It was an interesting read in any case. But it lured me into reflective comment because, as a wannabe author in this space, it made me consider the real shape and form of my goals. The past four years have seen me driving (slowly but consistently) toward an end point. Considering that the previous twelve years were spent putting forth zero concerted effort (generously granting that post-college would have been the proper time to pursue my dreams, despite them being articulated aspirations as far back as 1990—21 years before I got my act together), that’s not insignificant.

However, that actual end point is a little more nebulous than I typically care to think about. There are plenty of ways to wave in the direction of a concrete goal. “I want to be a writer.” Or, “I want to be a published writer.” Or, “I want to make money by writing.” If you don’t stare too hard or add too many qualifying criteria to these nebulous statements, I have achieved all of them. But, honestly, to date that’s as far as my specificity has gone.

And I realized that pursuing dreams is all well and good but you have to put some effort into visualizing what success is going to look like. Otherwise, how will I know when I get there? But then, as I unpack this further, I realize there are steps along the way. In the short term I’d like to qualify for an Active Membership in SFWA (whether or not I actually choose to join) through short fiction sales. That means 10,000 words or more of professional-level pay (six cents a word) across at least three different story sales. Beyond that, getting an agent would be a significant milestone. But how do I really say, “dream achieved?”

Is it when I publish my first novel? When I reach the bestseller list? When I win my first major award? Eric Flint points out that popularity and acclaim don’t always go hand-in-hand, so it’s possible choosing one could mean having to live without the other.

I think the conventional wisdom is that awards are nice to have. Relying on them for a measure of success is, perhaps, a foolish yardstick. Luck is a factor, certainly. But then again, a case could be made that relying on measures of popularity like bestseller status is no good, either. Luck plays a part in that, too. And in both cases it might be chasing the dragon. I won a Nebula! But I’m Hugoless (I’m a failure). I’m on the bestseller list! But only at #25 (I’m a failure). It’s easy to think from my current humble position that anything even in the parking lot of these ballparks would be a triumph, but unless it’s clear where I’m trying to go, there will always be another pinnacle I haven’t reached.

It’s tempting to say, “I’ll keep my expectations low, thereby increasing my chances of success.” But that’s not really a dream, then, is it? It’s more of a to-do item. If I want to merely have a book published, I could quickly polish and self-pub one of my existing manuscripts. Bam. Achievement unlocked.

Upon reflection the distinction between goal, measure of success, and dream is the heart of this matter. The goals are the steps, often linear, necessary for progress. I can set a goal of selling three stories to pro markets. I can set a goal of securing an advance for a novel. And, with hard work, I can achieve those goals. It’s not “no problemo” level stuff, but it’s doable. What those are progressing toward is the measure of success. And that should be a big, hairy, audacious sort of end point. It’s almost indistinguishable from the dream. It might even be close enough. But it has to be within my power, more or less. The dream is the stuff that orbits around that point, the kind of thing I can’t really plan for or depend on to justify my efforts. The goals don’t directly feed the dream, even if they (maybe) enable opportunity for it to come true. Awards are the dream. I mean, yeah, a Hugo with my name on it? I don’t mind wasting some time idly fantasizing about such a thing.

But the thing that drives me, the measure I use to determine if I still need to set goals because I’m not yet where I want to be? That has nothing to do with recognition. That one is simple. I’ll be successful when I can support my family with my writing. That’s it. When I can quit my day job and focus full time on writing without any discernible drop in quality of life, that’s when I move out of achievement mode and into maintenance mode.

From that perspective, given Eric Flint’s theory that popularity—particularly, it seems, long-term popularity—does not track with award-based recognition, I’d rather be popular than acclaimed. I’d even be okay with not being mega-popular as long as I can be just popular enough to devote all my time to what I love. Sure, it would be lovely to have the critical and commercial crossover success (not to mention the multimedia influence) of a John Scalzi or a Neil Gaiman. But that’s dream country. I’ll take the mid-lister’s unsung 35-year career in a hot minute, no regrets.

I won’t get there without the goals. And I won’t accomplish those goals without writing. So for now, that’s what I’m doing. And compared to the guy from twelve years ago who dreamed without measure or goals or effort or any of it? I’m closer to success than ever.

Station Eleven
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Emily St. John Mandel’s novel is about an apocalypse, I guess. Actually, it’s really more about art, and about what truly matters in life, even when life is stripped down to—essentially—bare survival. In that way, Station Eleven ends up being far more hopeful and beautiful than most novels that take place after or during civilization-ending catastrophes.

There are lots of overlapping elements in play, and it’s impressive to see it take shape. This is sort of the novel I read and realize it was something I wanted but never would have been able to describe or guess was an unscratched itch. It helps that Mandel realizes this ground has been trod before and doesn’t necessarily shy away from the obvious comparisons (The Road, The Stand, Hunger Games, etc) and therefore isn’t defined by trying to either mimic or distance from those stories.

I did think the book was a bit slow to get started; the cast is connected by a series of loose coincidences and the book follows a non-linear path so at first it’s hard to reconcile the on-stage death of an actor, the photographer who gets wind of a breaking pandemic, the girl onstage during the heart attack who grows up into a traveling Shakespearean performer after the collapse of society, the actor’s second ex-wife who works endlessly on a personal graphic novel project—and so on—with, well, much of anything. But as the characters are filled in and revealed, as the events or happenstances both big and small that unite them and link them to each other become clear, the pacing starts to make sense. By the halfway point I was all the way into the world of the book, and scarcely put it down from that point until I had finished.

There is nothing, I don’t think, about the progression of the book’s plot that is particularly remarkable. If tracked chronologically, the chapters would tell snippets of stories from various viewpoints about life before, during, and after the end of the world as we know it. The way the book is structured though allows its themes to play off of each other, and allows for Mandel to specifically leave some elements here unresolved in a way that is actually—almost paradoxically—satisfying.

It’s a smart, thoughtful, curiously delightful book that has just the right elements of darkness and triumph and beauty and ugliness. Really wonderful work, and highly recommended.

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