Back in 2013, after converting one long book into two shorter sci-fi fantasy novels, knocking out a voodoo potboiler and entertaining myself with a silly romp called “Another Goddamn Novel About The Collapsing Quantum Multiverse,” my most recent Bataan Death March of queries to agents ended after several months with absolutely zero bites.
This time, I decided it was time to take all four novels and publish them as ebooks via Amazon. I established an author page on the site, I got my wife to design some really cool cover designs for the two fantasy novels (the other two I did myself), and then I published a Writer Page on Facebook. At some near the end of the year, I “launched” all this.
I had modest expectations, and utterly failed to meet them.
Here’s what was particularly telling: Even though several hundred of my Facebook friends Liked the author page and its sales pitches, even though I ran ads for my ebooks in vacant ad spaces on another website I was running at the time, my sales were just a fraction of that reach. We’re not talking expensive books, either: “A Madness,” my first novel and the first of a two-book series, was just .99 cents. Less than a cup of gas station coffee.
If I’d been offering the books to an indifferent public, I’d have been more than satisfied with the response rate. But this wasn’t an indifferent public: These were friends. Frankly, I’d hoped for at a few pity purchases. “I can support you in this thing you consider so important for just a buck? Sure. You’re worth a buck.”
Even sadder, some of the people I’d most hoped would read one of my novels — people whom I knew to be avid readers with interests in the genres I’d published — just passed on me entirely. It wasn’t even their money I was hoping for: Unknown ebooks authors need downloads and four-or-five star reviews. And in some cases these no-show friends were writers whose own ebooks I’d purchased and reviewed.
Here’s the truth: I wasn’t even mad at them. I was sad about it, but mostly I was sad because I was learning a really hard lesson I’d avoided to that point. Which is to say that this is a truth I avoided for half a century: If you’re an unpublished novelist in the 21st century, and you’re lucky enough to have some friends, it’s in spite of your writing obsession, not because of it.
Think about it from their perspective. Most people only read a few books a year, if they read books at all, and of that reading subset, the people who read novels are a minority who themselves will tend to read only in narrow genre lanes. For anyone whose interests don’t match up pretty exactly with what you’re doing, your desire for readers must feel like a needy faux pas. It’s a conversation killer. It marks you not as someone who is devoted to an art form, but as someone who just doesn’t get it: You’re 50 years old, man. You haven’t even published a short story in a decade. Buy a clue.
Most creative people choose better mediums. My son, for instance, is a talented musician who can play multiple stringed instruments and turned out to be a good singer, too. He’s adult with a day job and friends and other stuff he likes to do, but any time he pulls out the guitar or the mandolin, he can count on entertaining people.
I have friends who are talented painters and sculptors and quilters: Whether they’re hanging stuff on their own walls or in prestigious galleries and shows, it’s something people can just walk up and enjoy. One friend of mine left painting for film-making. Another is one of America’s most respected woodworking artists. My friends who write popular historical nonfiction don’t have any problem talking about what they do. All of this is more accessible than long-form fiction. Even my friends who publish and perform poetry get the love and feedback of audiences.
Sure, almost nobody buys poetry anymore. But it doesn’t take much of a time investment to indulge your poet friends. Plus there are usually snacks.
But that 55-year-old guy who won’t give up writing novels? Here he comes! Pretend you’re looking in the shop window!
I get it now. It’s awkward. It’s borderline unpleasant for people when the subject even comes up. You know that feeling when you look at someone you rather like and he’s doing something foolish in public? You feel embarrassed for the guy. And it’s awful for everyone.
I’ve been on the receiving end, too. One of my former reporters wrote a couple of quite solid contemporary novels that he self-published, and he came to me and requested a review for one of them. I told him I’d do it, and I started reading. But here’s the problem: When you’re a novelist working another job to pay the bills, you don’t have a lot of time to devote to writing, much less to marketing yourself. Realistically, he needed that review faster than I was ever going to be able to provide it, and as it turned out, what he needed wasn’t just something for the web, but something that was part of a coordinated marketing campaign.
I missed the train. I let him down. That affects a friendship, whether by actual resentment or by its mere projection.
Which is why I stopped talking about writing fiction more or less entirely in 2015.
That’s not to say that I didn’t stop thinking about it, or working on it. I just stopped mentioning it to people. There were plenty of other things to talk about: Soccer, bikes, politics, science, archaeology, travel, beer, gentrification, all the usual categories of stuff that middle-aged white people natter about to pass the time between coffee and lights out.
On some level, hiding who I am and what I do was truly a relief. If you mention that you’re working on a book, people feel compelled to ask what it’s about. By not bringing it up, I avoid having to endure watching them cringe through the next steps. I don’t have to change the subject once it becomes painfully clear how much that other person regrets having asked the question in the first place.
The downside, though, is the sense of isolation. Of being closeted.
Writing of any kind is isolating and generally depressive. Writing genre fiction within an elaborately constructed world that’s drawn across huge swaths of deep time is basically solitary confinement.
It isn’t just that you must set aside blocks of time for staring silently at a computer screen: For me, it’s also about understanding that there will be entire months and seasons when I simply have to accept that writing is not possible. Magazine deadlines when my wife needs support around the house. Various planting and preparation seasons when my focus needs to be elsewhere. I can’t dip casually in and out of this. When I’m writing in my fantasy world, I’m living stretched between this world and that one.
Yes, that sounds like overly dramatic bullshit, but I’m not kidding. There’s only so much I can hold in my mind, and once I step away for a day or three, I can’t just return on Day Four and pick up where I left off. Reorienting myself requires days of reading previous chapters and all the notes and reference materials I have to make for myself just to keep things straight. Novel writing requires such an investment of self that I have to manage it carefully so as not to put undue stress on my wife. Or make myself sick.
Hence, I have rules: Once I’ve set the story aside for a while, I won’t pick it up unless I’m entirely sure that I can put in a minimum of 20 hours a week for at least two weeks. When I’m on a writing jag, I have to set aside at least one full day of being available to her. I throttle back distractions. And so on.
So when I do talk to people and they say “What have you been up to?” I generally lie and talk about something else. Because who wants to hear about writing? Great Gawd it’s boring. And, more to the point, I don’t want to talk about it. The topic poses such a buzzkill threat that I’d much rather simply avoid it. Even writing about it, here, on a blog read by probably fewer than ten people, feels like a questionable decision.
This is all on my mind this week because I just endured a frantic writing jag, jamming out about 40,000 words in roughly eight or nine days, and then promptly fell the fuck apart. I’m recovering nicely, thank you. But this is part of that process. Sometimes you just have to whisper things into the ether.
I became the horse that spies the barn. I understood that the end of the book was in range, but I also understood that if I didn’t finish before some other aspect of life intervened, weeks or months might pass before conditions aligned for another attempt. Writing for me is sorta like mountaineering: Even if you’re not as close to the top as you’d like to be, if an unexpected break in the weather shows up, you might just decide to gamble on an all-out assault on the summit.
When you do that, you live within a spell. You’re focused on what the spell allows, but you’re also aware of not wanting to break it. So when we got some last-minute social invitations last week, I had to beg off. Janet was great about it, but it meant I needed to admit the truth: I’m a writer. I take perfectly good chunks of time that I could devote to developing a perfectly acceptable hobby, like welding or open mic stand-up comedy, and I devote it to writing stories about made-up people who live in a world entirely of my own imagining.
That’s why I can’t come to your house for dinner in two hours: Because I won’t be there at the table with you. I’ll be strung out like a collapsing meth addict while I pound down the contents of your liquor cabinet.
My confessions felt both freeing and foolish.
The truth I’ve figured out is that people generally just want to know that you’re alright. They don’t want to hear about your addictions and unrealized dreams. They certainly don’t want to hear you talk about private things they don’t understand.
But then again, if I write the greatest science-fiction/fantasy series of the 21st century and my agent finds somebody who will pay us too much money for the rights to adapt the books into a streaming television series, all that will change. People may not read anymore, but they love obsessing over bingable TV. Americans may be sincerely weirded out by the arrogance and sacrifices required just to take a shot at something big, but we’re all typically comfortable talking about success. It’s something we think we understand. Most of us like to be around it. We like to bathe in reflected light.
But I don’t know that I’ll ever be comfortable with that now.
We have a truly remarkable friend who used to teach a class called “Cosmic Kindergarten.” It changed me in all sorts of ways, but it also helped me learned to deal with how to be a private person writing for a public audience. He said “No one else has a right to your truth.”
Or something like that. Thing was, he just said it. Didn’t write it down. So I can’t be sure if that’s the exact quote.
Then again, If I’d asked him, “So, what have you been up to?” and he’d said “I’ve been writing a book called Cosmic Kindergarten,” I’d have probably smiled and nodded and backed away. What a weirdo. Who does he think he is?
Funny creatures, humans.