Fortune’s Wheel

ferris wheel Walt Stoneburner
photo courtesy of Flickr’s Walt Stoneburner

I can’t help but wonder if whoever designed the Ferris wheel (that would be Ferris, I’m assuming) was after a cheap, momentary thrill or if he was inspired by Fortune’s Wheel of the tarot, intentionally trying to create a carnival ride that would encapsulate life’s ups and downs.

For the truth is, we all have them—or will have them if you’re one of the fortunate few who have yet to experience any downward travels. And Fortune’s Wheel is starkly evident in the publishing world. No one is exempt. And truthfully, a person should consider themselves lucky if they don’t get Towered a time or two along the way.

We are all of us on this hairy, exhilarating ride, but, we are all on different points on the wheel. Some are going up, others coming down, and still others hanging in the air for that long, glorious moment when they are on top of the world.

Of course, people are more likely to talk about their ride UP, that thrilling ascent as they are on the rise, cresting when they reach the top and hover—sometimes for minutes, sometimes for seemingly ever.

But eventually the wheel turns. The problem is, most people keep that particular part of their ride private, not wanting to share that long hard descent with anyone. We don’t like to talk about that fall, whether it is a gentle, controlled descent or a rapid, breath-taking plummet.

The important thing to remember is that the wheel may not turn where we can see it. The descent will not necessarily be in a person’s public professional life, or perhaps they spent their early years in one big downward slide, and we will only get to see their upward trajectory. But just because we don’t see it doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. In fact, sometimes we won’t see the downward direction because they adjust course before it becomes apparent to others.

Part of that is the nature of the business. Our success is heavily seeded in the smoke and mirror nature of publishing; the desire to create the illusion that everyone wants/loves your book so that in turn, others will love/want it, too.

But another factor is simply human nature. We don’t like to talk about our failures or mistakes. We are a society that places a huge premium on success and wealth and happiness. The downturn of Life’s Wheel threatens all of those, and so we keep silent. Which in turn only further fosters a shame over the ups and downs of life that often can’t be prevented.

A few brave souls have been speaking out on the downsides of a publishing career, the heartbreak, the rejection, the financial uncertainty, the sheer lack of control authors have, the envy that slips in, even when we don’t want it to. The reality check that provides is a really, really good thing.

In fact, I have come to believe that that is the true value of networking; connecting with enough people and being around them often enough that you get to hear them share their real story, not the marketing hype, but the slog behind the appearance of overnight success, the number of times they had to get back up and start over again, the hugely trumpeted success that never materializes. You get to be there to hear their war stories and share their battle scars. Most writers will tell you that these battle scars are a rite of passage; they are simply part of the writing life.

When my oldest son graduated from college, I asked him what he thought was the most important lesson he got out of his college experience. He thought for a moment, then said: “That everyone has their own sh!t. Everyone has bad stuff they have to deal with, even if you don’t see it.”

I feel the same way about publishing.

The truth is, if we talk with enough people who are honest about their own situations, it becomes apparent that there isn’t nearly as much to envy as we think there is.

How many times have we all heard that we shouldn’t compare ourselves to other writers? Other careers? And yet, I’ve always wondered how you don’t compare, how can you prevent it when all the numbers and markers and metrics are broadcast everywhere, from deal announcements, to sales numbers, to blog and Twitter followers, bestsellers lists and FB fans. How do you NOT see all that stuff?

And then I realized that Don’t Compare is really shorthand for, Don’t let envy erode your own path to success. That is easier for me to get my arms around. The truth is, if we talk with enough people who are honest about their own situations, it becomes apparent that there isn’t nearly as much to envy as we think there is.*

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve met or talked with high profile publishing successes who have lousy sales numbers, who are terrified of not earning out their big advance, who’ve become NYT bestsellers only to find their creative control over their own work evaporate, or dry up with the pressure to make the list again, who are expected to travel, often months on time, leaving small children behind, or who have waited years between sales, or whose second book tanked in a hugely public, painful way.

Once we know that stuff, the behind the scenes of huge successes, we see the painful trade offs that are sometimes made. That in turn gives us a better understanding of what is to be envied in our own situation, whether it is complete and utter creative freedom, low sales expectations and the lack of pressure that accompanies that, the six rabid fans who are always there to rave about our newest project, a handful of supportive indies who hand sell us like crazy, the reviewers who love us, or the opportunity to completely recreate ourselves when we go up in flames.

*(Conversely, neither is there a good reason for gloating. Even if your career appears to be Golden and Charmed, it is best enjoyed with a healthy dollop of humility, fueled by either the knowledge that fortunes’ wheel does have something to do with it, or the idea that that wheel will turn eventually, and your landing will be much softer if you have a cushion of humility on which to land.)


About Robin LaFevers

Robin LaFevers is the author of fourteen books for young readers, including the Theodosia and Nathaniel Fludd series. Her most recent book, GRAVE MERCY, is a young adult romance about assassin nuns in medieval France. A lifelong introvert, she currently lives on a blissfully quiet hill in Southern California.


  1. CG Blake says

    Thanks for this thoughtful post. I suppose it comes down to a self awareness of one’s talents and limitations and the setting of realistic expectations for success. We all ride that Ferris wheel, though sometimes it feels more like a roller coaster. Thanks again.

  2. says

    Great post, with good advice. Like Robin, I sometimes think our ride as writers is more like a roller coaster than a Ferris wheel, though.
    By the way, the original Ferris wheel was invented by George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr. for the World’s Fair in Chicago, 1893. Try that bit of trivia on your friends.
    Thanks for sharing.

  3. says

    So very true, Robin, and well put.

    When I find myself jealous, longing for what SHE has, or what HE did, I try to remember — the reason I noticed is because my head is up, scanning the horizon, instead of down, working on my own stuff.

    Because honestly, that’s the power that’s going to turn the Ferris Wheel – my stuff.

    Thanks for the reminder

  4. says

    Thanks, Robin. I am on the bottom of the ferris wheel waiting for it move up. I might be moving, but I can’t feel it. Naturally, I get impatient at times, but it’s great to be reminded that there is no shame in where I’m at now and to savor my writing no matter where or how high I wind up!
    Jillian Boston´s last blog post ..To Earwig or Eavesdrop

  5. says

    Robin, how timely—I was just talking to some FB friends about this very thing. I think we need to tell ourselves whatever stories work to see us through, because you’re right that the circle of query and possible rejection is unending in this business.

    I liked to think of my road to publication as an episode of “Touched By an Angel.” (This will sound hokey, I know, but keep in mind that my childhood hero was Pollyanna.) Even assuming a benevolent universe, just because you put your desire to be published out into it does not mean the universe can immediately oblige.

    Traditional publication has always been for the few, and requires that so many variables align—your craft, your platform readiness, the right project, the right agent, the right editor, the right review/blurb champions, the right publishing environment, and the readiness of a readership to embrace your tale among them—even for an all-knowing and all-wise universe, that’s a pretty complicated Rubik’s Cube to solve (keeping in mind, of course, that your fervent prayer is not the only one being considered). That’s one thing Touched by an Angel showed so well, and a story that saw me through.

  6. says

    Well, if you count my wife, I have at least four rabid fans. Woo-hoo! Almost to six! Thanks for making this writer on the slow climb feel like a success today, Robin! My envy has melted away (for the day, at least ;-).

    I love your posts! Thanks for sharing your wisdom here each month.
    Vaughn Roycroft´s last blog post ..Backstory—Fiction’s Foundation

  7. says

    I always get so excited when I see your posts! :)

    Thankfully, I’ve lived too much life to get comfortable in the Golden Times – certainly haven’t had any yet in my writing “career.”

    Thanks for the reminder that all of life comes with ups and downs. Your writing style is beautiful and always a treat to read in the morning. :)
    Sarah E. A. Fusaro´s last blog post ..Writing What You Want to Read: Romance

  8. says

    As an independent author, it can be SO easy to let the fires of envy grow wild in your mind. It is hard NOT to look at all the Twitter followers another author has or at their sales numbers. I think what you said about not letting that envy plant its seed in your mind was so apt and timely. Thank you for your comforting words about the wheel and about the cyclical nature of all our lives. Great encouragement!
    L.M. Sherwin´s last blog post ..Meet C. Elizabeth Vescio, Author of ‘Elegantly Wasted’ // Giveaway Included!

  9. says

    Wonderful post, Robin.

    It is important to avoid the poison of envy, and equally important to enjoy the heady moments at the top of the wheel. I hope you’re enjoying–and Snoopy dancing like crazy– your showing on the New York Times!!!!
    Barbara O’Neal´s last blog post ..An Early Spring Challenge

  10. says

    I was just reading about the first Ferris wheel, it was in Chicago for a World’s Fair or expo or something in the 1890’s. I think.

    Whether he meant it to or not, the comparison with the Wheel or Fortune is very apt. Now that I know enough writers, and they are generous enough to share the ugly side(s) of the business, it’s not all joy and book signings and best-seller lists.

    I do know – at least at this time – that while I do want to find success as a writer, the idea of HAVING to put out 4-6 books a year is not for me. So, my path is and will be different from those who’ve committed to that sort of writing contract/career.

    I’m just happy to have a ticket and be on the ride. :-)
    Beverly Diehl´s last blog post ..Your Lovable Local Library

  11. says

    Everyone has baggage. No one else can carry it for them. Embrace it: success, failure, thrill, and disappointment. As a writer, I’m told to put my characters through many trials. Little did I know the process would be the same for me.
    Mary Jo Burke´s last blog post ..Hello world!

  12. says

    Robin, great post! This line especially stuck with me: Don’t let envy erode your own path to success.

    There is plenty of room for more writers, right? It’s not a competition after all. Your son was wise in his words as well. Everyone does indeed have their baggage that has threatened to weight them down – even if invisible to the public.

    The writing life, I think, is in a way like our life path. Not everyone gets to their goal the same way. For example, most of my friends went right to college after HS, got their degree, got a career, got married, got a house, got a bigger house, had 2.5 kids, etc. etc. in that order and “in the grand succession of things”. I didnt follow that order, but came to realize my winding path diverged with other paths to add unique flavor to my life. And now I wouldn’t have it any other way.

    Same for writers. What path works for one, may not work for another. Often, we can lose sight of that. And we have to find our own unique path that does work for us through defining our own successful writing schedule, writing education, networking, and building relationships. And it’s good to remember that those we see as successful may also have tried and failed many times as well. Don’t most of us? The key is that they didn’t give up. And neither should we. When something isn’t working – re-evaluate and try something new.

    I do think the key foundation to sustaining a positive attitude about writing and publishing is to surround yourself with like-minded peers. We can write alone – but we can’t thrive alone, or get published alone.

    Thanks for the thoughtful reminders today! For if we can just remember each writing path to success is unique, then it really makes no sense to compare ourselves to other writers at all.

  13. says

    Wouldn’t you know–April 7, 2013–New York Times Magazine featured article, Who Made That? Ferris Wheel, couldn’t be more timely. George Ferris called out to a crowd at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893…” “I leave it to you, ladies and gentlemen, to say if the wheel is still in my head,” Robin–thank your for the visual of the wheel with its crisscrossed wires and its streetcarlike cabins similar to the emotions we feel writing our novel. Dare we take the ride? We do. And as you state, “We are all of us on this hairy, exhilarating ride.” We go up, down, sideways. Interesting post to feel the ride. I guess that’s why when I know there’s a movie about a writer I want to see that movie because I just know that character will take me on a mysterious ride.
    Nanette Purcigliotti´s last blog post ..HOW THE MYTH OF CYBER CITY WAS BORN

  14. says

    Great post. Last Saturday at NH Writers’ Day, the keynote speaker, Andre DuBus III wryly commented on the “overnight success” of House of Sand and Fog after 18 years in the writing.

  15. says

    Hi Robin. I like this comparison. I am standing in the queue – yet to board the Ferris Wheel. But it’s an exciting view filled with hope and I can only go up from here. Thanks for this post, I enjoyed it!

  16. says

    Not comparing yourself to others is always good advice, in writing and in life. (It’s not logical or even right to do so, existentially, but I won’t bore you with that aspect.) Bottom line with me is, in terms of my writing, I write what I want to write, and how I want to write it. So if someone else is having more success than I am, that’s great, but I don’t want to write what they’re writing, and/or how they’re writing it. So their success, or lack of it, doesn’t deserve my envy or jealousy, because I wouldn’t write what they’re writing anyway.
    Steven E. Belanger´s last blog post ..Signs You Have Too Many Books

  17. Ray Pace says

    Don’t know if this screws up your metaphor, but when you are on the going up part on a Ferris wheel, part of your rise is backing into it, not really looking forward, just trusting the wheel to take you up.

  18. says

    Beautifully written as always, Robin.
    Thank you for this thoughtful post, and here’s hoping that one of the benefits of being on the wheel for a while means that we’ll have good friends to share both the upside and the downside of the ride with us ;).
    Congrats again on all the *wonderful* news!!
    Marilyn Brant´s last blog post ..A Visit with Samantha Wilde

  19. says

    Wonderful post! I relate very much to what your son said–something I’m still learning. Congrats on making the list!

    I have a couple of writer friends and we get together to drink and vent and give thanks (depending on circumstances) and it’s really helped me understand that all that glitters is not gold.

  20. says

    Wise words, Robin. I have seen envy consume many an author. It’s a shame, since the solution to career disappointments lies not in getting what others have but in doubling down on one’s own writing.