Friday, June 10, 2016

Is that really the question?

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?


  1. It is amazing how much perspective a break can bring! (And how hard that can be to remember!)

    "I think I have over two dozen in various states of undress."

    Also, from now on, I'm going to describe unfinished work the way you did. Or maybe I should focus on the dirty meaning of "finish"...

    Me: I've got to get on the computer. If I work my fingers over this novel for about another half hour, she'll really start screaming and moaning...

  2. I love the tale of your day off together!

    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!

    One thing that I think makes this even more complicated in erotica is the fact that a good-selling item doesn't necessarily draw people to the backlist. As has been discussed here in the past, I think often an erotica item sells well because of topic rather than author, button-pushing alone rather than voice. Those purchasers may be more likely to buy other books on this same fetish theme they love—by whatever author—than other books with other themes by this particular author. This was certainly my experience.

  3. My experience has been that the book I've offered for free on Smashwords for the past 6 years has been downloaded over 1000 times. If even 1% of those folks bought just one of my other books, since the freebie is #3 in a series of 5 so far, I'd make royalties that were actually worth cashing. But alas...some folks only look for free reads. And who knows if they ever even read them? Perhaps someday they'll get around to my freebie and rush to their computer to get the rest of the books in the series, or my entire back list. My wet dream.

    As for your day, it sounds lovely. I have so many friends who are dreading retirement, because as my late mother used to say, it's "Half the money and twice the husband." They don't like their husbands much anymore, and since their men don't have hobbies or friends of their own (one told his wife, "You are my hobby.") they fear for their sanity once he is no longer working. Me, I can't wait! Husband and I have similar interests, and he's independent enough to find things to do when I'm writing. I'm looking forward to all of the places we'll be able to go camping once we don't have to another 10 years or so.

    And time off from writing is sometimes galvanizing. It allows you to experience the panoply of human reality, that is what we all mine for our stories. One can never spend too much time observing others, or enjoying just being alive and in love.

  4. I like the point you make about pointedly not working. Taking a break from what is our typically busy wotk week on purpose is not only liberating, but also can provide fodder for the next writing venture. Great use of a day, Willsin.

  5. This post shows such self-awareness, Willsin. Thank you!

    Alas, financial success as an author appears to have absolutely nothing to do with 1) the quality of your writing; 2) how hard you work; 3) how many books you publish; 4) even the topics you choose to write about. I'm not saying that craft, diligence, productivity and subject-matter aren't important, but you can do everything "right" and still make little or no money. The true challenge at this point is to be noticed at all, by *any* readers. Fiona's point is also worth reiterating: the economics of the ebook business have been driving down prices and making readers expect to get their books for free or nearly so. (Don't know if you read Sarah Madison's blog post about this.

    Your impromptu date with your wife sounds wonderful. This is what keeps us sane.

  6. There's no answer to this question which all of here ask ourselves, which is something like "what's the point?" And you don;t know if the problem is you or the problem is luck or what. There's so many stories of the writer who labors in obscurity and is suddenly discovered in a big way, and there are so many others who never went anywhere. History is a wasteland of genius that never went anywhere.

    The only answer i have is that writers write like fish swim and birds fly. You have to love writing and language and words and stories that grab you and everything else that comes from it is just extra.


  7. Garce said it well, as usual. Willsin, we understand your pain, and we're glad you and your wife took a break. The only comfort I can give as a person who has studied literature is that you just can't predict who will be "discovered" later by a new audience. (The poet John Donne, slightly younger than Shakespeare, had followers in his own time, then his work was out of print for approx. a century before a big Complete Works of Donne was published in early 20th century, just before WW1. He is now required reading for all literary academics. Not to mention Emily Dickinson, who wrote in the American Civil War era and was unknown in her own time.)

    1. Speaking for myself (and with apologies for once again being the voice of existential futility), I would be reluctant to comfort myself with that kind of analogy. I just don't think the "hope to be discovered later" model applies very well to authors like us who are grains of sand in the twenty-first-century digital glut. As I see it, our work is not on record in the meaningful way that the work of published authors, even obscure ones, was in centuries past (because now everything is on record, making the "record" virtually infinite and largely meaningless to anyone who doesn't already know what he or she is looking for), nor would it ever be likely to attract attention the way unknown manuscripts in someone's desk might have in the old days. I mean, sure, anything could happen; but the chances of a writer's being "discovered someday" must be infinitesimal for our generation.


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