Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Artificial Barriers to Entry, Part II: The Inescapable Catass Factor

(Continued from Part I!)

Let me confess something right here: every time the Olympics come on, and the athletes march and the flags fly and the national anthems swell, I catch myself getting misty-eyed.  "My God!" I think.  "This is it: a true meritocracy.  A magical land where prejudice doesn't exist, equality prevails, and everyone is judged solely by their athletic ability."

It's not, of course.  I mean, let's be clear: the athletes work damned hard and deserve every bit of their glory.  But behind just about every one of them is a family who could afford to (or went into debt in order to) have a parent become their kid's full-time coach, hire private lessons, travel around for national competitions, shell out for snow-gliders and polo-vaults and whatever other equipment their sport requires.  At the very least, that's a family who could afford to have a child focus exclusively on their sport, even at the risk of failure or permanent injury.  You can't do that when you need every able body either working a job or training for one.

Not in training for Tokyo 2020

And it's a similar story for writing.  No, the equipment's not massively expensive, and it's not like you're going to be washed up and stove in if you don't make it by the time you're thirty (thank God!)  But in a way, it's a parallel problem: whereas Olympians do their intensive training during childhood and adolescence (when Mom and Dad would be supporting them regardless), writers aren't usually publishable until well after they've become adults, often with jobs and families of their own.   That complicates the learning curve considerably.

And money IS a factor.  We cultivate the Hemingway Mystique of a lone writer banging away at an Underwood under the glare of a single naked lightbulb, armed with nothing but a ream of paper and his genius.  But the reality is that the people who could afford to drop $300 or $500 or $700 on DFWcon last weekend came away from the conference with a hell of an advantage - not only in what they learned about their craft, but in the connections they made with publishing professionals and other writers.  In academia, it's the kids who can afford private tutoring and test prep classes who get ahead.  For the athletes, top-tier coaches and training camps.  No, you can't skip the 10,000-hour time investment - but money is a powerful catalyst that can speed things up considerably.

Well, and so?  Everybody else can still get there, right?  They just have to take longer and work harder, that's all.

But that's just it.  Time itself is a commodity, as anyone raising kids or working double shifts knows excruciatingly well.  In athletics or academics or other arenas where it's death or glory by the age of 12, 18, 25, that permanently excludes people who don't have extra years to put towards their Eye of the Tiger montage.  Even with a gig like writing (where there is no ticking clock or game-over screen), that still means that people we should be hearing from at 25 or 30 or 40 don't make it until they're 50, 65, or indeed ever, because they give up in despair after decades of spinning their wheels.

In online gaming, there is a term - catassing - whose origin is a story in itself, but which basically refers to the act of devoting all your time to the game, steamrolling other players whose jobs and lives and commitments mean that they're simply unable to compete with someone who can play literally 18 hours a day.  The Oatmeal has chronicled this well

So what happens when you catass writing?  Can it even be done?  

Well, Jim C. Hines has done a fantastic survey charting authors' average time to publication, and the factors that seemed to shorten or lengthen their path.  From my limited and anecdotal experience, I've certainly seen some writers improve much more quickly than others.  Maybe Person A can learn in 10,000 hours what Person B will learn in 80,000 hours, and Person C just won't learn ever.  (There is a PERFECT metaphor for this, by the way, but the magic system in Final Fantasy 6 is not nearly the cultural touchstone that I wish it were.)
And oh, how I wish it were!

Still, even if every writer on the planet needed just 10,000 hours flat to get the skill portion down, people who can afford to practice for four or six or eight hours a day would still get there ahead of everybody who's waking up at 5 AM to get in 60 magical minutes of writing before they have to get the kids ready for school.   And whether we're talking college admissions, Olympic glory, or the Great American Novel, these two things - time, and its interchangeable counterpart, money - are the two biggest obstacles to just about any competitive endeavor you can name.  Talent is a big factor, yes.  So is timing and luck.  But whenever there are more willing and baseline-capable applicants than there are places for them, the people who are first to get chairs when the music stops are almost always the ones with the most time to invest in getting them. 

(Touching back on Part I: this is why I don't see Twitter and the rest of social media as a universal equalizer.  It still requires a time investment and a commitment, especially if you're doing it with any degree of effectiveness, and that's still constraining or excluding people who don't have that kind of room in their schedule.  I guarantee I would not be spending 6+ hours on this week's blog series if I were still trying to work a 50-hour-a-week desk job.)

"So, what?" you might ask at this point.  "The people with the most time and money win, and that's that?"

The evidence says no!  I mean, Margaret Mitchell made it (a wealthy, pedigreed Southern belle and childless stay-at-home wife who devoted three years to writing Gone With the Wind), but so did Frederick Douglass (who taught himself to read, escaped slavery, and went on to become one of the most accomplished preachers, writers, and political activists in American history).  Hell, so did J.K. Rowling.  So did Octavia Butler.  So did Sherman Alexie.  We have far too many phenomenal hard-scrabble success stories in our canon to believe that the cause is hopeless for anyone who doesn't have a trust fund and an MFA.

But here is what I'm driving at.  It is really, really easy to get discouraged in this business.  It is even easier when it seems like all your writer-buddies are beating you.  Easier still when you keep hearing that "real writers write every day" - that they write amazing books AND do eleven kinds of social media AND read all the latest in their genre AND do boatloads of research AND keep up with all the industry trends AND AND AND. After awhile, it all swirls together in this toxic Martha Stewart soup - you know, the one that makes Harriet Homemaker feel like garbage because she can't keep up with the rich lady making soap molds in her fake TV kitchen.

Well, at least we hope that's soap.
And speaking as one of the Margaret Mitchell types, I guess what I'm trying to express is that

A) a lot of that "real writers _____" business has been propagated by people who are talking out of their silk-lined hats (please listen to Ann Bauer if you have ANY doubt about this), and

B) how quickly you progress compared to your writer-buddies may have VERY little to do with your talent - or theirs.

And although you can't control whether or how successfully anyone else catasses their way to fame and fortune, I sincerely hope you can avoid feeling like an ass yourself.  If it's taking you longer to get there, it doesn't mean you're not talented, not committed, or not trying hard enough.  It doesn't mean you won't make it.  It does mean that you might have a longer, harder row to hoe.  And I really hope you won't give up - because the harder it is to get let in to whatever club you're aiming for, the likelier it is that they are desperately short on people like you.

There is one more thing I want to say, actually - about how all these obstacles and limiting factors affect our industry even after writers show up to the table with well-written, original stories finished in hand.  Let's do that on Friday.  In the meantime, I would be really interested to hear your take on this stuff here.  What would you say have been the biggest limiting factors on your progress as a writer?  Are there others we haven't considered here?

--For one brief moment, victory was within our grasp.
--And then the game started.


  1. Blogging about Final Fantasy? *spits* You better watch yerself, Tex. You're on MY turf now!

    Seriously, though, loving this series. For myself, I'd say the biggest limiting factor is just procrastination/distraction. Yes, I work a desk job like everyone else, and we all have chores to do, gyms to go to, meals to cook. But in the off hours where I could be writing, I fill far too many of them with ... well, Final Fantasy.


      But yeah, man, that's a big one I hadn't even thought about. Like, there's the self-discipline aspect of it (I had to quit my games altogether, cuz I just could not moderate myself at all), but there's also the fact that at some point, your brain really does need to kick back and chill somehow. Have you figured out any strategies for balancing the writing and the vidjagames?

    2. Giving myself daily/weekly writing quests works pretty well. I'm not even kidding.

  2. There is just not enough time in the day. Children suck the life out of me and the desk job drains what is left. But I'm just making excuses because I did manage to get my MFA while working a full time job and leading a Girl Scout troop. Oh and gallivanting all over to talk to people about death. Truth is, I am my own worst enemy. I did manage to write a 100 word short and a Breaking Bad inspired song sung to the tune of "Do You Want to Build a Snowman."

    1. Oh, dudette, now there is a thought - structure. Yes? I mean, that is the one thing school is really REALLY hard to beat at: giving you a specific place to go, a task to do, a goal to achieve, and a deadline for handing it all in. I didn't do the MFA thing myself, but I totally, TOTALLY get why an eager writer would jump at the chance to spend two years being worked and herded into shape by the best border collies in the business. Like what Matt was saying up above, it is just damned hard to tear yourself away from your drug of choice otherwise.

      (I really need the lyrics to that song, by the way. You better show up at workshop tonight and be ready to share.)

    2. I plan on attending if I'm not too pooped.

  3. Luck seems to be a big factor in it all. Hard work is required, but doesn't always seem to be enough. I think we just have to accept that our path is ours and ours alone.

    1. Ain't that the truth! That's what I tell my students, too - like, "your goal is to go to bed the night before the test, knowing that you did everything you reasonably could. After that, you can't worry about it." Luck is a tricky thing, but also kind of comforting, isn't it? Knowing that there are things outside your control, I mean, and that a shortcoming in results doesn't equal a shortcoming in talent or commitment - and that failure today has no correlation with failure tomorrow, next week, or next year.

  4. Great post! That Jim Hines link is a great resource.

    1. Aw, thanks, man! (And I know, right - that guy is Serious Business, in all the best ways!)