Monday, February 13, 2012

The Times That Try Writer's Souls

There are two questions writers seem to ask in dark times. I addressed the first one, "Am I Good Enough?" in my Hatchlings and Neo-Pros post.

But lately I've been hearing a note of desperation in the voices of some indie writers that brings us to the other question of Eternal Writer Depression. It's an old note, one that we heard a lot in traditional publishing.

Is it worth it?

Traditional writers eternally thought about this as they chased publication: Is it worth the amount of effort I'm going to have to go through -- the years of blood, sweat and tears -- only to find out ten years from now that I'm never going to make it? Or if I do make it, will I have to compromise and write stuff I don't really like because that's what my editor wants? Is the pay going to be enough? Will the glory make up for lack of pay?

These were valid questions in traditional publishing, but lately I've been hearing similar sentiments among indies. Oh, not nearly as much as I heard it from traditional writers, but indies are still in their first wave of, shall we call it illusionment? Or maybe we'll call it the honeymoon period. And now disillusionment is just beginning to press in.

Right now, sales are slow. Books are maintaining ranking at half the sales as before. And those who have just started in the last year or so may never have had a chance to experience great sales, because their books are just coming "of age" now, during a slump. And we were all told that this should be the best time to sell books -- what with all those people who got new Nooks and Kindles for Christmas.

And writing is hard. No matter how hard you try, you may find that you can't follow Heinlein's advice and refrain from rewriting because you really don't like the way your prose turned out. So it's slow going. And your enthusiasm is dropping because sales are slow and all that social networking is getting you down.

And the marketing! Everybody was so enthusiastic last year as they compared notes and looked for new places to promote their books, or make connections, and now they're burning out. They flogged and flogged, and there was some success, so they jumped in and flogged harder, but the harder they market, the less effect they get for the extra effort. It's exhausting.

(And if you aren't suffering it now, you will a little later, or you already have. It's in every writing career, multiple times.)

So, these are the times that try writer's souls.

And this is the time that the winter soldiers sort themselves out from the summer soldiers. (If you didn't catch the reference in "the times that try men's souls" -- Thomas Paine, written during the bleak first winter of the American Revolution, to remind folks that revolution ain't easy. And hard as that winter seemed, there were harder winters ahead.)

Writing is easier than revolution, but it's no cakewalk.

The thing that got me fretting over this was the subtext of something a young writer said to me the other day. I was advocating the idea of devoting a couple of years to just writing -- no marketing, no business, just getting books done -- so that you'd have 5 or 10 books in hand to launch your career.

The response, to me, was shocking and a little heart-breaking: But what if that first book is a failure? Why waste several years of hard writing work before you even know if the market will like your stories?

The implication -- within context -- was that writing is a waste of time if you're not successful at it NOW. Write one book, then if if flies, write more later. If it doesn't fly, then it's a waste of time to do this writing thing.

If you wanted to be a doctor, would you start out by setting up a clinic during your first year of medical school, and base your decision on whether to become a doctor on how successful your clinic was? Shouldn't you be more interested in finding out whether you enjoy the work, or whether you can handle the workload? Shouldn't you be looking at grades and feedback from instructors to judge whether you're any good at it -- not the dollars you make at it?

Look, if you want to be a writer, you've got to love to write. That's what you will be doing, day in and day out. Writing writing writing. If you want to know if you can weather the hard times in a writing career, and if it's "worth it" you don't start with whether you can reach a bestseller list or win a Pulitzer.

You start with whether you can walk the walk.

The question to ask in these dark times is not "Can I make a living at this?" but rather:

What if I never sell a single book?

That is a terrifying, horrifying, heart-breaking question, but you have to face it. Would you keep writing if you knew you would utterly fail at the publishing end? Would you at least write in your journal? Would you find some sort of satisfaction by blogging stories? Would you close your eyes and keep trying anyway, even though you knew you were doomed?

Every writer has to look into that abyss. It's out there, and there are times when you utterly fail at everything you do no matter how hard you try. And the only thing you can do is give up. And don't be afraid to do that. Just go ahead and quit. Maybe you'll come back and maybe you won't, but whatever you do, you have to face that fear. Those who make it are those who become immune to it.

Your first books will be your worst books. You probably won't sell many of them. But I will guarantee you this:

The only way to never sell a single copy of a book is to never write it and put it on the market in the first place. The only way to kill a career is to stop writing.

You can market if you want to. You can offer your books free, if you want to. If you enjoy following rankings and playing tagging games, that's up to you. You can even sacrifice writing time for them -- we all have other things we like to do.

But when someone says that the secret to writing success is to spend more time writing, and your reaction is not sheer joy ... You should think hard about that reaction.

This ain't a revolution. There is nothing wrong with being a summer soldier.

You want to write one book every few years and spend most of your time marketing that book? That's fine. As a matter of fact it's great. Indie publishing gives people who do that an opportunity they never had before, and because of that we'll see books in circulation which we never would have seen.

But that kind of writing is avocational -- it's for fun, for a hobby, as a personal calling. Business-wise, it's like playing the daily lottery. You're going to have some nice wins once in a while. Celebrate them. But don't expect to make a living at a hobby.

I'll admit something to you: I have one foot in the hobbyist camp. As I mentioned last week, I have set up my life so I never have to have any success to maintain my writing career. That allows me to concentrate on my writing above all else.

You know what I would do if I were serious about making a full living at this? I would stop writing this freaking blog and get down to writing those novels.

I don't whine about the fact that I don't have the success of writers like, say, Dean Wesley Smith or Joe Konrath, because I know what they have put in to writing. They've earned their place. If you want to get where they are, you have to do like they do (or nearest approximation that fits your skills and talents). If you want to act like a hobbyist, you won't get where they are.

Let's say you don't want to be like DWS or Konrath, let's say you want to be like Margaret Mitchell or Harper Lee: it's still the same thing. They were both hard working writers. They didn't just pull those books out of their hats. They were successful because of what they wrote, not because they marketed their books or followed a 12-Step Plan For Success. They wrote.

And how many single-book authors out there have reached the point of making a living? Compare that to how many super lotto winners are out there. Seriously. Emulating Harper Lee may be a great artistic goal, but it is not a career plan. Your odds are better at the lottery.

Think about this:

If you spend the next two years marketing what you've already written, all you will have given the world is more spam, and all you'll gain is a little more money -- quickly spent -- and maybe the memory of some nice rankings.

If you spend the next two years concentrating on your writing, focusing on your books, you will have something of substance to show for your efforts. You'll have contributed to the culture. You will have brought stories into existence that weren't there before.

So stop counting your sales and analytics and rankings and "likes" and start counting your words. They are the only thing that really means anything.

(NOTE: Angie did a very nice response to this post at Angie's Desk: "Is The Writing Enough?")

See you in the funny papers.

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David Michael said...

Amen. :-)

jnfr said...

What David said!

Mary Lisa said...

Wow, Camille, I needed this today. I've read you blog many times, but this is my first comment, and I just wanted to say thanks! :)

Mary Lisa said...

Oops, I meant 'your blog' (I wasn't talking directly to the blog.) ;)

The Daring Novelist said...

Thanks David and Jnfr!

Mary Lisa: I'm glad this was good for you. (Makes it worth writing.) Thanks for coming out of lurkdom.

a said...

"And the only thing you can do is give up. And don't be afraid to do that. Just go ahead and quit. Maybe you'll come back and maybe you won't, but whatever you do, you have to face that fear."


Fourth life, here. I figure I've got at least 5 to go.

The Daring Novelist said...

Azarimba: yep, it speeds up as you go.

You quit, you get over it, you go after it again -- after a while it gets to be old hat. You can do the whole cycle while having tea and be back to work before the crumpets get cold.

But the first 3 or 4 times are hell.

Lee McAulay said...

This is a lovely and very timely post. I've bookmarked it so I can come back this time next year and see if I need to be reminded of its salient points :-).

P.S. I have a theory about the slow sales, and it's nothing to do with KDP Select:
1. People buy gifts for others at Christmas.
2. Often those gifts are a result of "What will we buy for Auntie Edna?"
3. Auntie Edna unwraps her gift on Christmas morning and goes "An e-reader? How thoughtful..." while thinking I wanted socks & gin.
4. E-reader sits gathering dust in Auntie Edna's house while she is out playing whist with her friends or dancing with young men on cruise ships.

The Daring Novelist said...

Thanks, Lee.

I agree with some of the idea of unwanted gifts. I think there are a bunch of other reasons for a slump right now too. I might do a post for next week on that.

(Speaking of Gin Swilling Aunts, I forgot to post my Aunt Una post today. I guess I'll do that Thursday....)

Jeanette said...

Beautifully said. There is intrinsic value to simply putting something of value into the world.

The Daring Novelist said...

Thanks, Jeanette!

The Daring Novelist said...

Angie did a very nice response to this post at Angie's Desk: "Is The Writing Enough?"

Abigail Fero said...

Loved the article. Very apropos! I'm seeing the same sales slump you mention and I'm new enough that I've certainly never seen anything special (though that could also be a million other things besides a general slump). Great posting!

The Daring Novelist said...

Thanks for dropping by, Abigail.

There are cycles all over the place, small seasonal ones over the course of a year or so, but there are also decades-long cycles that are harder to see at all -- economic climate, industry changes, fashions.

The solution is not to hitch your self-image to things you don't control. You control what you write.