I’m taking a slightly lateral view of this week’s topic. Not so much “what should I write next?” as examining the breakdown and fallout within publishing which can come from that very question.
Willsin Rowe, the cover artist, is a moderately successful entity. Willsin Rowe, the author, is not. I’ve been writing published works since early 2006. In that time I really haven’t sold many solo titles at all. Some co-written ones, and some stories in anthologies, have done moderately well, but my Willsin books just don’t sell. I say all that, not as a “woe is me” intro, but just as reference for a later point.
So, as I say, I write things, and not many folks buy them. Since I’m striving to make writing a profession, there is a balance there which I feel needs redressing. That imbalance in turn means my motivation gets impacted. So the question of “what should I write next?” gains a few extra bricks. It becomes heavier with every flop. Should I keep writing the stories my brain sends me? Or should I read the top ten bestsellers in my genre and strive to mimic those? (Or something else entirely?)
This question usually causes me stress, in the same way that any dualistic dilemma does. In this case, it becomes the battle between hoping your art can be discovered and also found palatable, and potentially subjugating it in the hope your skills will be strong enough to write something people buy (but which might not actually be something you write well).
Sitting at my computer every day, the temptation is strong to let that bitch we call “inspiration” take the lead. At any time I, and most other authors I know, tend to have several stories on the go. In my case, I think I have over two dozen in various states of undress. Deciding which one to work on can be a major decision.
But I shouldn’t fool myself… it’s just another form of procrastination. What I should be writing next is the story which will take the least time to finish. It might not be the one with the most words in it (or the one with the fewest words left to write), but heck… choose one and write that sucker!
Here in my dungeon, down with the other writers who toil but don’t sell, it can be extremely tempting to dream of how wonderful it would be to score a top-100 book. Life will be so much easier if I just get that hit. Everyone will know what my writing is like, and they’ll clamor for it. My backlist! My beautiful backlist! Everyone will snap those babies up! And with all that cash rolling in, I’ll be free to just write whatever I want… right?
Well, now. Wouldn’t that be lovely?
My sob story at the beginning about how few books I sell was, as I said, a reference point of sorts. See, the thing is, I know many authors who sell really well. I hasten to add I don’t know their figures, but I know the rough guides for how many books equals what position a book reaches on Amazon. I’m friends with people who sell more books in a week than I’ve sold in my entire ten years.
Why do I bring this up? Well, for street-cred, for one thing! Look at my shiny shoulders, where I’ve rubbed them on winners!
But seriously, I bring it up because you know that beastly, crippling doubt I mentioned that comes from being (let’s face it) unsuccessful? From what I’m told, it’s there for those who have “made it”, too. In my case, the doubt is out there ahead of me. It’s a dark shape lurking around the next corner, or the one after that. It has the patience of a chess grand master, until I’m about to release a book, whereupon it screeches like a banshee while sinking its teeth into my pert posterior.
My friends have passed those corners, and that particular doubt is behind them. Trouble is, it’s fast and it still has those mighty big teeth… and it’s chasing them with every step they take.
“What should I write next?” is just as important for someone who can’t find a hit as it is for someone who’s sold a hundred-thousand books. I might sit and moan, worrying that people don’t buy my books because I suck. Johnny Successpants might sit and moan, worrying that people will suddenly stop buying his books because they’ll realize he’s a fraud. He isn’t—he’s a great writer with a voice people want to read—but that black doubt is riding him so hard he can’t see the truth.
My answer for how to deal with this all came about by accident. And it’s one I’m still working around (after all, I only had the revelation yesterday).
When that big-toothed doubt-creature noms on my bits, I get churlish. In my case, I did a couple of sulky things on Facebook (nothing rude to anybody, just lashing out at myself and my so-called “author” status). When I get that way, I know it means I’m overdoing it, but my continued lack of success means I don’t feel I can stop.
Yesterday, my wife took the day off work. It was something planned for a week or so, but it just happened to coincide with my black depths. And though she knew I had work to do, and she did too, she suggested we take a short break. And I figured, “why not?”
We walked to a coffee shop not far from our house. It’s winter here in Brisbane, but by golly you wouldn’t know it. High 70sF temps, with bright sunshine and a cloudless sky. We walked through areas we know well, but which we usually drive. The difference between walking and driving is almost immeasurable. You can hear your own suburb, and smell it. You can see the details of the houses and the trees, which you don’t see when you’re driving because your main focus is on not killing yourself or anyone else with the ton of metal and flammable liquids you’re controlling.
Anyway, we had coffee and delicious cake-type things, and we reveled in being two adults without kids for a short time.
Walking home, we made sure to take roads we don’t normally drive on. Just for fun. We had every intention of starting work when we arrived home.
Instead, we took a trip in to the city. The event we planned to attend, we couldn’t. There was no parking available. So instead we drove down to our favorite park in all of Brisbane, New Farm Park. It’s right on the river, and it’s gorgeous. But before we got there, we stopped at a delicatessen and grabbed some meats, cheese and salad, and we had a picnic. We sat on a rug, nommed our stuff, let the sun warm us and again, reveled in being two individuals, and a couple. We’ve been married for 22 years, and together for 28, but I swear folks were looking at us as if we were each married to someone else and having a dirty fling with each other. We were touchy-feely, and celebrating how much we’re into each other.
We mixed it up. My wife was away from her job, which was what she needed. And I had my face in all kinds of places which were not my computer screen. (We’re two adults who had the house to ourselves, so you can make of that previous comment whatever you will!)
My point, though, is that we spent the day not working. Pointedly not working.
What I learned (and embarrassingly, not for the first time!) is that sometimes “what should I write next?” needs to be slightly truncated.
And we need to ask ourselves “should I write next?”