Setting the Circumstances

Ancient books, ghostly imageMy “Career-In-Potential”:

“Once we turn pro (and even before we do), our Muse has plans for us. Those plans are our career-in-potential. They exist, whether we choose to believe in them or not. And they’re operating upon us, influencing us like the gravitational pull of an enormous invisible star.

If you’re a writer, your career-in-potential is a shelf of books. Your books. Books you’ve written. They exist now, even if you haven’t started Book #1.” ~Steven Pressfield

The above quote is from a post called Thinking a Career, from SP’s fabulous Writing Wednesdays blog series. If you haven’t yet, I highly recommend you not only read this post, but subscribe to the series. I think the piece resonates for me because I felt the “gravitational pull” of my career-in-potential long before I read it. I think I subconsciously felt that pull even as I trudged through the writing of my trilogy, and that was—in part—why I did not stop writing after book one was complete. As I describe in last week’s post, I was self-deluding about the work’s potential, unwilling to allow myself to think too far ahead for fear of freaking myself out (and having my career-in-potential fizzle-in-actuality). But I knew I needed to put my own pieces in place on the board in order to learn the game, let alone the stakes.

Masters of My Domain:

“When the student is ready, the master appears.”  ~Buddhist Proverb

I didn’t start reading Jacqueline Carey until I was nearly done writing the first draft of my trilogy. But after finishing her debut, Kushiel’s Dart, I immediately saw parallels. JC’s epic, character-focused stories and her detailed alternate-historical settings combine to create the kind of submersion for readers I was seeking to craft. And by the time I read Kushiel’s Dart, she already had six fat volumes (two trilogies) on the shelf—a fantasy lover’s treasure-trove. She subsequently added another trilogy set in the same world, as well as two pairs of urban fantasies, with more on the way.

When I started following JC on Facebook in ‘08, she had no author page, but she ‘friended’ her fans, and I was among the first 400 or so. Since then she’s transferred us to an author page, and the page has grown to over 13,000 fans. I admire the catalog she’s built, but I also admire how she has handled her growing fan-base. She interacts with her readers on an almost daily basis, and genuinely shares of herself. In my experience, she responds to every single thing someone puts on her Facebook wall with a ‘like’ or a personal comment. I’ve written her several times, and in each case she has taken the time to respond in a warm and engaged way.

And the reward for her efforts: loyalty! I’ve seen several stories from fans who’ve hand-sold her books to other shoppers in the bookstore. Not only do her fans (including yours truly) recommend her, they buy multiple copies to give and lend to readers they think should be reading her. Heck, there are even scores of fans who tattoo their bodies with images and words from her work (no tattoos here… yet). Talk about a tribute to an author.

Serial Aspirations:  To top it all off, Carey just keeps getting better. After reading her Naamah trilogy, I felt so strongly about her growth that I wrote her to tell her I thought she was at the top of her game. And she never stops trying new things. Fans of her epic historicals (like me) are willing to venture trying her urban fantasy.

I’ve recently discovered Robin Hobb’s Farseer series, and am on my sixth book. I finish one, consider the other books in my TBR list, then download the next Farseer book. So far, I can’t seem to sate my Farseer appetite. Plus I’ve learned a lot about internal versus external plot development, as well as creating micro-tension through constantly rising stakes. She’s another master of the epic historical fantasy domain. I consider writers like Hobb and Carey to be mentors as well as role models. For an epic fantasy writer, they both have careers worthy of aspiration.

Delivering On The First Order: When my wife and I were in the building materials business, we learned a valuable lesson about selling. We knew we weren’t just selling a bunk of lumber. We were selling a service. We sold to lumber retailers, and there were only so many of them in our delivery area. We needed their repeat business—hence, we needed their loyalty. We knew initiating trial was one thing. But once we got that first order, we had to deliver. To get them to commit to us, that first shipment had to be more than satisfactory. It had to be a knockout.

For a writer who aspires to sell a series, the lesson was a powerful one. I think some of my non-writer friends sometimes wonder what the heck is taking me so long (and perhaps even some of my writer friends wonder, as well). Many of them know I have four completed manuscripts, and that I’m on my fifth or sixth major rewrite of book one ( even though it feels like the 15th or 16th). But I know I’ve got to deliver on the first order, or the rest of the series will languish, or worse, never see the light of day.

The Comfort of the Familiar: I’ve been told by several readers that they enjoyed book two much more than book one. And a few have said that, from book one to my most recent manuscript, the writing only gets stronger. I think this is pretty natural and easily explained by my growth as a writer. But I suspect there is something else at work here. Starting into book two or three of a series is a completely different thing than trying a new author’s first book. You’ve become acquainted with the world, and hopefully fond of the characters. As a series moves along, it’s like visiting old friends. You share a history. You know the backstory. It gives a writer a tremendous amount of freedom. And once you have that comfort and loyalty, it even offers a bit of space to experiment and stretch, as Carey has done with her urban fantasy work.

I was discussing this with my wife the other night, and she said, “Sort of like the hair stylist thing.” I am absolutely positive I looked bewildered, because my expression made her laugh. She went on to explain that if you have a stylist you have been using for a while, you not only grow familiar with them, you start to get comfortable. And from that comfort, you begin to trust them. At some point, after several times delivering the hairstyle you know and like, you are open to their suggestions for experimentation. And after a few successful experiments or variations, if they screw up one of your cuts (or color sessions, etc.), you are more willing to forgive it. You go back (perhaps earlier than usual) because you know they can deliver on the sort of comfort you’ve come to expect. A pretty darn apt analogy. One that I never would’ve come up with on my own.

But you wouldn’t go back to someone who didn’t deliver on the first appointment. A series needs to earn familiarity in order to deliver comfort, and thereby to deserve loyalty. So back to getting it right on the first book.

Visualizing the Voyage:

“If a man does not know to what port he is steering, no wind is favorable to him.” ~Seneca

I have admitted I am not an optimist by nature. My wife handles that for me, thank you. I am not saying that I anticipate having the legions of fans Carey and Hobb have rightfully earned. I know it’s a competitive business. And the vagaries of the ever-changing publishing business paired with the fickle tastes of readers will make it challenging to navigate to any level of success.On board a Sailing Ship, by Caspar David Friedrich

I know I’m lucky. I’m lucky to have wonderful mentors and readers and writerly friends. Lucky to have found Writer Unboxed, and to have been given some wonderful opportunities to serve there. Lucky to have had the business background, the time, and (even though I often feel the opposite) the patience to strive for the right set of circumstances for a successful voyage toward publication.

I’m sure there will be storms to come, but the experience I’ve gained along the way will help me to steer through. Thus far I’ve had mostly favorable winds. But I know to what port I am steering. I believe in my career-in-potential. I can see those books Pressfield refers to on the shelf.

I’m not sure what to expect from my next destination, but I’m comfortable knowing I’ve done everything I could to make the best of it when I arrive.

Do you see your books on the shelf? Whose esteemed career do you aspire to? 

Image credit: <a href=’’>fyletto / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

28 comments on “Setting the Circumstances

  1. Julie Luek says:

    I love Pressfield’s wisdom and inspiration. He has great insight.

    I know some people don’t believe this same way, but I believe my life is part of a greater plan, that I’m not alone in my pursuits. So while I visualize a career and have hopes and dreams, I try not to dictate my anticipations. It’s exciting to discover the next step if I stay where I feel like I’m supposed to be in this step. Being an open conduit requires faith and listening in the moment. I want to be steerable if I’m asked to switch directions!

    You always write such heart-felt and thought-provoking posts. Thank you!


    • Me too, re: Pressfield. One of my original mentors.

      Oh, I love the concept of being steerable. That will serve you well. I feel I’ve sort of been steered to this spot by the winds I started experiencing the day I began. So I too feel there is a greater plan a work. We have to strive as well, of course, but it has made for an interested journey.

      Thank you so much, Julie! I’m glad they get you thinking! 🙂


  2. brindle808 says:

    Great post, Vaughn. I enjoy Pressfield’s posts. I also resonate with your comments about J. Carey on facebook. Sara Douglass was like that with her fan/readership base. There is something truly special when an author connects and responds with their readership. Book One of your trilogy hooked me because of your incredible characters and world-building skills! 😀


    • Although I’ve been meaning to for quite some time, I haven’t read Douglass. But I have witnessed her interaction with her fans, which is exactly what I’m talking about here. It is special. As crazy as this business has gotten since the advent of the online world, there have been genuine benefits for authors and readers alike.

      Aw shucks, Brin! Thank you so much for your kind words about my work. You’ve made my week! 🙂


  3. brindle808 says:

    Reblogged this on Brin Jackson, Fantasy writer & daydreamer and commented:
    I can’t state it enough … Vaughn Roycroft nails it every time!


  4. ddfalvo says:

    Love the idea of the career waiting for us, and the gravitational pull that guides us to it.
    Ahh, I try not to think too far ahead, also. Is it a sidestep to avoid feeling pressure, or avoidance of a future that makes a lie of the gravitational pull? I don’t know, but either way, that same fear is also part of the challenge we rise up to. Some days, the battle is an uphill odyssey; other days we are a seasoned warriors ready for the fight .;)

    Love the Buddhist quote–it’s so true, a statement of well-placed faith and the rightness of giving into the “pull”.

    I think you have exactly the same kind of author/reader relationship with your followers that JC does with hers.

    Lol. Nobody does GMC like Hobbs IMHO. 😀 I burned through all six books and, at times, hated Royal so much I wanted to throw my Kindle against the wall (and I love my Kindle).

    Great point re: the first order needs to be a knock-out.

    Lol, the “hair-sylist” analogy. (Please tell Mo I laughed) But it’s true. It’s part of the writer/reader relationship/investment which feeds into your other point (re:JC).

    Here’s to the winds of fate that ever guide us on a true course, and our light hands on the helm as we faithfully follow. My destination has books on a shelf, but more than that, I aspire to see them held by peeps who really want to read them. 🙂


    • Hey D! I knew you’d be one who feels that gravitational pull. Good points on the avoidance. It even felt dangerous to write about it and to hit the publish button for this post. Certainly don’t want to jinx my career-in-potential.

      It was so amazing how that Buddhist quote fell into my lap. I think I simply googled “learning from a master” and up it came. It was so perfect. Will pass along your agreement and laugh on the hairstylist analogy to Mo. We both laughed about it again when she read the post. It feels just right to me, and the day she said it I came right upstairs to write the idea for this post. 🙂

      Here’s to the winds. I know yours are keeping you true, so don’t ever doubt it, my friend! I know you will have loyal readers some day soon, D!


  5. Love the Buddhist quote. It intertwines with what Pressfield said. It’s already there. You just have to take the journey to the there where it is.

    I chuckled when I read Mo’s reference to a hairdresser. I can so relate. It’s all about trust, and choice.

    Blessed be your journey.


    • Thanks, B! I was taken with what a perfect analogy it is. This entire post was born from her astute observation. Many blessings to you, as well. Looking forward to discovering the shores of success you are sure to land upon, my friend!


  6. Another day that you’re inside my head, Vaughn! There wasn’t one sentence I didn’t resonate with. That includes both JC and Hobb. I’ve said elsewhere that I discovered JC when I was a couple of years into the writing of my trilogy and was so happy to see that what I was trying to do (that skewing the real world and history just a bit) wasn’t so oddball. Since then, I’ve interacted with her and have observed how she connects with her readers. Always gracious, respectful, genuine, and often screamingly funny. She’s definitely a role model for me in terms of how to craft relationships with readers. And, she’s just majorly cool. In the same way, so is Amy Tan. Another gorgeous writer with a connection to her readers and a faboo sense of humor. I’m not sure that I could do the more aloof, arms-length kind of thing. The writer-reader collaboration is what happens when some one reads a book. A connection forms, if the reader is the right reader. A readership is built one person at a time, and being genuine with the readers who take the time to share their experiences is not only necessary, I think, but an honor.


    • I thought of you as soon as I decided I would use JC as my e.g. here, Lisa. I think it’s the first place you and I touched base. Or at least we realized we had both WU and JC in common at some point. And I knew that we both found WU through the JC interview by Juliet. So our Jacqueline has played a large role in both of our journeys, which is very cool.

      Oh how I love your description of the relationship as a collaboration, and you are so right that building those relationships with Right Readers, one at a time, is going to be vital. But more than that, the thing I love the most about your comment, and totally agree with, is that such sharing will be an honor!

      Great comment! There isn’t one word that doesn’t resonate. 😉 Thanks for enhancing the conversation, Lisa! 🙂


  7. For what it’s worth, I don’t see you as slow. I know how much effort goes on behind the scenes to support WU, and it would be harder to have that many interlinked manuscripts to revise. Length adds to complexity, and revisions in one book impact all the others.

    Can I see my books on the shelf? Oy. I believe they will be publishable. Someday. But whether there is a shelf to aspire to, or what route I’ll pursue is unclear to me.

    As for a specific person’s career… I think I’m going to journal about this, because I’m not sure there’s one author who embodies all I’d like to be. (The jounaling would be about discovering if my nebulous desires are mutually contradictory.) I’m not even certain about who my voice would be comparable to, if I wished to parachute into their world. But off the top of my head, I’d like to have Cheryl Strayed’s ability to connect in a full-hearted, optimistic way with her readers, coupled with her chops and ladyballs. If I possessed a quarter of what she can do, I’d consider myself a success.


    • It is nice to hear that others understand the time it takes. And I know you know better than most that WU does indeed take time and effort, but also how very rewarding the work is, and how lucky we are to be a part of something so special.

      I hope the journaling ends up being revealing for you. But for the love of Pete, I think I can see your book shelf better than you! 😉 Although I haven’t actually read her, I love the Strayed comparison. I’ve seen enough of her online presence, plus your list:full-hearted, optimistic, chops and ladyballs (love that the best!) are all things you have in spades. You have such an excellent comedic voice, and in writing that is so difficult to master. There is no sarcasm font, right? I know you’re on your way, Jan! And I’m very happy to be sailing with you, my friend! Thanks for sharing!


  8. Nicole L. Bates says:

    “I’m sure there will be storms to come, but the experience I’ve gained along the way will help me to steer through.” I love this quote most of all and I think it sums up my feeling about this whole “being a writer” thing. 🙂 I’m not sure I see my books on the shelf yet. In fact, the more I learn, the less ready I feel in some ways, but I also realize there’s comes a point when you just have to leap.

    There are a lot of authors whose work I admire. I am especially impressed with science fiction authors whose work is both cerebral and personal. I think it’s a bit more rare to find science fiction that also pulls on the heart strings (I think fantasy authors do this well, in general), so, that’s where the wind is blowing me. Hopefully I see a red sky tonight. 😉


    • Along the Lake Michigan shore, we know about storms blowing through, don’t we? I know what you mean–some days the more I know about writing and publishing, the dumber I feel. But I think it’s wise to have a general idea of where we’re heading and why we want to get there. And, as Lisa Cron pointed out in her reply to my comment on WU today, that’s true both inside a project, and in the overall sense of a career.

      I can already tell your work leans toward the full-hearted aspect (closer to what is typical for fantasy). And I’m glad. But having said that, your ability to convey great SF detail in your world-building and relate it to your character development is really admirable, Nicole! I’m guessing you’re closer to your shelf than you think. I predict that you, and many of us sailing with you, will soon be delighted by the red skies on the western horizon! 🙂


  9. Dee Garretson says:

    I would love to have a long term career like Barbara Mertz, who writes under several pennames (my favorite-Elizabeth Peters) she has not let hersel be forced into writing just one kind of book over the years, and that really speaks to me. I don’t want to write in just one genre. I just hope I have as many years ahead of me as she has. She also said it took her 25 years to realize she should concentrate on writing. That also speaks to me!


    • Hi Dee! Although I’m not familiar Mertz, the reason’s you list are awesome ones. And I can identify as well (particularly the 25 year thing). I think it’s a good thing to aspire, and I know you’re further along on your way than I am. I’ll have to check out Mertz/Peters. Thanks so much for stopping by, reading and weighing in!


  10. Another great post, Vaughn. I completely understand the time factor and the discovery that your writing improves with each draft. It’s all a part of the learning process and everyone must learn, practice, and continually strive to perfect. Too, I appreciate the value that having an optimist/supporter must hold for you. That’s invaluable.


    • Too true! I guess I consider myself a realist rather than a pessimist. But in a business with odds like ours, being a realist can quickly lead to defeatism. I’d be that without her. She believes in me more than I believe in myself. But the other thing I have to constantly remind myself of is how much I gained already. For example, I get to talk to awesome people like you about something we are both so passionate about! That’s pretty special in and of itself, isn’t it, Christina?

      Thank you for your kind words and for being a part of what I’ve already gained. 🙂


  11. Jo Eberhardt says:

    As always, this is thoughtful and touching and funny. (And your lovely wife’s analogy is perfect!)

    That post of Pressfield’s is the first of his I ever read — I think I clicked through to it when you linked it in WU. And, of course, I loved it. So can I see my books on a shelf? Absolutely. It’s not even a question of if, it’s just a question of when. (And if saying so jinxes me… then it’s a good job I believe in hard work more than I believe in jinxes!)

    There are so many authors I admire, it’s hard to pick one that I particularly aspire to.So instead, I give you a list.

    I aspire to J.K. Rowling’s grace and dignity and good-heartedness.
    I aspire to Neil Gaiman’s diversity, writing for so many different audiences and ages and mediums.
    I aspire to Terry Pratchett’s ability to inspire deep feels and moral lessons while writing comedy.
    I aspire to Amanda Palmer’s connection with her audience.
    I aspire to Joss Whedon’s ability to write strong male and female characters (and killer dialogue).
    I aspire to Raymond Chandler’s facility with language.

    But mostly, I aspire to be me.


    • Oh Jo, I LOVE your list! Particularly the last item (which may or may not have made ole’ Major Weeper well up a little). I think your comment is an awesome post by itself!

      That’s such a cool coincidence that Thinking A Career was your first exposure to SP. It’s a great introduction to him, as it’s one of my very favorites of his.

      Thanks for your kindness and for sharing your absolutely awesome and inspiring list! I know I’ll revisit in the days to come. Very special stuff, my friend!


  12. Pressfield has a way of really getting to the heart of the matter, doesn’t he? He’s figuratively kicked my tush many, many times (it needed kicking!).

    I have never really compared myself to any author – i.e. to want to emulate their career. I know that I really have no desire to be a J.K. Rowling or a Nora Roberts. Hitting the New York Times Bestseller list is not one of my goals (am I crazy for thinking that way?). I want to write my books, have a loyal fan base, continue to be published, and make a decent living at it for as long as I can.


    • Although I know J. Carey has hit the NYT list (I’m not sure about Hobbs) I know exactly what you mean, Melissa. The reasons I picked them have nothing to do with sales… Well, not exactly. I really don’t aspire to bestseller status.

      What I love about both of them is the way their work evolves, and the way they interact with their fans (particularly Carey on the latter). I think they both put together really solid debuts (although I believe Hobbs is a pseudonym, and she was pretty well published before she started The Farseer series). I know JC wrote a few other books that never saw the light of day, and worked on Kushiel’s Dart for many years before she “instantly appeared on the fantasy scene.”

      If I had a fan-base a fraction the size of either of them, I’d be thrilled. As long as they’re committed. We both write fiction that has (somewhat) limited or niche audiences (I believe, your work is mostly WW2, right? Which is broader than mine, but still). I think it’s good that we focus on the quality of the product and the selection, rather than the money or the recognition. But wouldn’t it be nice to have it contribute to a decent income, as well. Best part would be the self-perpetuation, right? 🙂 Thanks for weighing in, Melissa!


  13. M.L. Swift says:

    Well, I’m only 23 days late to the party.

    Vaughn, I really enjoy your posts, this one included. You include such great links, other author’s insightful tidbits and quotes, as well as your own personal tips and experience.

    The funny thing is, I can relate to your wife’s hair analogy. To look at my hair, it seems to be an easy cut, especially for a short men’s style. Or would that be a men’s short style? Ugh. A man’s haircut!

    But my hair grows in many different directions and can be butchered if not aware of all the erratic turns. Add to that a natural wave mixed with flat seas.

    Out in California, I’d get my haircut at the barber shop…military style, for the most part. But then a friend of a friend cut my hair…for free. I’ve never had a better cut in all my life. He could “read” my head, saw the various directions of growth (he’s the one who clued me into them), worked with them, and voila! It didn’t even need any gunk in it to stay perfect, and I like easy.

    Like I said, that cut was for free. He worked at one of those exclusive California salons—the ones that do celebrities’ hairstyles—and when I went during work hours (the first cut was in someone’s house), I found out the cut would cost $50. $50!? For a short style? But you know what? It was truly the best cut ever…and the salon was like a freaking resort. Wine, cheese, relaxing hot towels over your face while you wait. No wonder women love a day spa.

    So I paid the $50 and I continued going for years, even when the price went up to $65 (I made good money at the time…I hadn’t become a writer yet).

    His expertise brought my patronage…the service cemented my loyalty.

    I’m just now getting back to feeling a little more normal…ready to face the world again. Thanks for a wonderful post.


  14. What a great example. In relation to price, I was thinking when I downloaded the last Robin Hobb book that I paid $11.99 without batting an eye. In fact, if I did think about it at all, I was glad that I could support her by paying full price. I think I paid $4.99 for the first one. But since then, each book has consistently delivered hours and hours of entertainment and thought-provocation.

    There’s so talk about free or 99 cent books. I think it’s misplaced fretting and scrambling. It’s only going to impact a small percentage of readership. And what percentage of those that are attracted to free or .99 going to become those loyal fans I describe above? I think focusing on the book is the way to go. And I know you’re a guy who’s devoted to doing your very best, Mike.

    Thanks for weighing in with a great example. And whenever you arrive, you are always welcome and appreciated! 🙂


    • M.L. Swift says:

      I know…just ordered King’s “On Writing” (I can’t believe it’s taken this long) and another by Elmore Leonard, “10 Rules of Writing.”

      I kept waiting for a notification on my WP navbar that you had responded. Never came. Then I thought, “That little stinker!” Came over and checked. I should have known better. I guess it was sort of treated like a new comment, as opposed to a reply to mine.

      Yes, I strive for excellence,but fall oh-so-short all the time. 🙂


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