FARMINGTON NM–Robert Pritchard’s dream from childhood was to become a writer. He wrote something like ten novels over twenty years, plus dozens of short stories. He submitted them to many publishers and agents, without luck.
“A few short stories were published in obscure venues, for like ten or twenty dollars” he said. “They were all either magazines that were brand new, and so no one more established was submitting to them yet, or ones that were on the verge of going out of business, which they usually did immediately after my story appeared.”
So when he was thirty-three he decided to hang it up. Sick of earning minimum wage in low status jobs, he decided to go back to school. He became a nurse and stopped submitting fiction. But he didn’t completely stop writing.
“I still had a few ideas for novels I wanted to write,” he said. “I figured I’d write them just to get them out of my system, but I had no expectation that they would sell.” In the very hot Las Vegas summer of 2016, before starting work at a psychiatric hospital, he hammered out a historical science fiction novel set across Europe, Asia, and an assortment of fantastical planets. In the subsequent years, he wrote four more novels. “I found that not feeling obliged to submit anything really freed me up,” he said. “I kept getting ideas for more novels, and I was really enjoying writing them, so I kept doing it.”
Guess what happened next? Nothing. Nobody called him. No story of his that had been sitting in somebody’s slush pile for years was suddenly published and won a major award. No Hollywood studio optioned anything. His novels, which he’d self-published on Amazon, didn’t sell a single copy. Five years after deciding to quit writing, his lifetime earnings have remained stubbornly less than $300, most of which came from his single sale to an SFWA “professional” market (which immediately went out of business) over ten years ago.
Pritchard’s story is a particularly dramatic example of a lack of a lucky break, though of course lack of luck had nothing to do with it. Unless he had spent years getting experience honing his craft with his early novels that didn’t sell, he never could have written those later novels which also didn’t sell.
“I thought I was done with the publishing business,” he said, sipping a Coke in his extremely modest rented room in a dirtbag town in northern New Mexico. Adding, “And it turned out I was right.”
Cf. Turning Pages: The Rewards of Persistance https://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/turning-pages-the-rewards-of-perseverance-20190725-p52al8.html. In De Natura Deorum, Cicero recounts an anecdote of Diagoras who, seeing the many testimonials from sailors who being caught in storms, prayed to this or that god and were saved, and asked, “Where are the testimonials from the sailors who prayed and died?” He is alerting us to the problem of silent evidence. The testimonials to the power of prayer seem convincing but are really meaningless unless we can include also those from the prayerful dead, who might have a different view of its power. Likewise, there are many articles published about writers who, after years of struggle, were finally blessed with good fortune. These are articles about something that happened. Many fewer are the articles about nothing happening, though these are essential for understanding.