Vicki Hinze © 2000-2011
Vicki Hinze © 2001
Recently, a writer wrote to me through the Aids4Writers program, saying that she had been “writing for a good eight years now with no success.” Her goal was to write a romance novel, which she has done, but she has not yet published a romance novel. She’s attended writer’s conferences and “schmoozed and submitted” to editors. The last year or so, she says, “I find myself looking for motivation to write because I feel eight years is a long time to see no rewards for the hard work I’ve put in.” She also cites the lack of romance-writing groups in her local area as problem and asks, “What is your take on this?”
I’m hoping that by sharing my take, other writers won’t fall victim to the mindset this author is battling.
There are a couple of things going on here to explore. Large chunks of anything are hard to stomach. So let’s break this down into smaller bites–much easier to chew on and to digest.
Looking at the first aspect. In this case, the writer has been writing for eight years, she says, with no success and no rewards. Yet she’s finished novels. She set out to write a book, and she wrote it.
Finishing the book is a reward.
Finishing the book is success.
And it deserves its recognition as a success, aside from any aspect of selling.
Now the writer needs to alter her mindset because she’s equating selling a book to being successful. That’s dangerous ground. Yes, we write and we want to sell what we write, but selling is a separate goal. If we forget that, then we delude ourselves into thinking that the writing is secondary to the selling, and there is no more surefire way to destroy the joy in the work, or to damage the creativity in writing. This is a recipe for instilling yourself and your work with fear, doubt, and frustration.
Writing is its own primary purpose. It carries its own success and reward. Respect that for the gift it is, and understand this: some of the most magnificent works ever written were hard to sell. Books that are today considered classics–FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS–were hard to sell, and in today’s market, if they were being submitted, well might not sell. That book was rejected 46 times. A dear friend of mine, who is a New York Times best seller received 27 rejections on a book before selling it.
So selling a novel isn’t an accurate gauge of success. Too many things other than the writing, the book, influence commercial sales. Floods, train wrecks, hurricanes have all damaged or destroyed sales of books that were predicted to be massive successes in the market. Nothing to do with the work, but destroyed/damaged nonetheless.
In this society, we’re programmed to equate success to money. Writers, anyone involved in the arts really, has to redefine society’s definition with their own definition of success. Now, you can redefine your definition and say “Success equals selling a book.” That’s okay. That’s fine. But before you can get to that, you’ve got to write the book so you have something to sell. So writing the book and finishing it is a success and a big deal. Without it, you can’t possible achieve your definition of success.
Now, I know a lot of people–which includes, I’m sorry to say, some writers–who don’t consider anyone a “serious” writer, or any work of value until it is sold. That’s unfortunate and untrue. The rest of us–those who have learned differently–must continue to help them understand that in exercising the gift, not only does the writer grow and sharpen his skills and acquire new ones, but he sharpens insights, too. And those who can benefit from those insights will. That’s where faith comes in.
A lot of writers obsess. First on selling to a publisher. Then on selling to readers. Then on building and selling more and more. That’s pretty human of us. But I don’t believe it’s all of us, or all we’re tasked to do with our gift. I can’t say exactly when it happens, but there comes a point when it dawns on you that those who need the work will find it. One way or another, they will find it.
I’m going to present a situation to you, and I want you to answer honestly. You don’t have to answer me, of course, but do answer yourself.
You’ve written a book.
You’ve submitted it to four agents and four publishers.
You’ve submitted it to two different critique groups.
You’ve entered it in seven contests.
You feel you’ve done the best job you’re capable of doing on writing the book.
All four agents have rejected it. One with a form letter. One with positive comments. One with negative comments–and a polite remark you interpret to
be “don’t send anything to me ever again.” And one with a response that says it’s a good book but he can’t think of a publisher who would currently market
All four publishers have rejected it. One wrote “NO” on your original letter to him. One said she liked the book, but it didn’t fit their list. One said marketing wouldn’t approve it, so she couldn’t buy it. The last said this book didn’t work for her, but please try again with another project.
Now, your two critique group responses gave you comments. Some were good,
some were bad. One critiquer said you’d hit a nerve and made her think. Another said she’d hated the book. Positively hated it. She saw all she wanted to see of these situations in the news. She didn’t need to read it in books–and she’s angry. Angry because you made her care about a character and then killed the character in the book.
In the contests, you got scores all over the board. Some were really high, some really low. Very few were in the middle. Comments ranged from “send this to my editor now!” to “this is nowhere near ready to submit.”
There’s the situation.
You’ve gotten conflicting feedback. You’ve gotten conflicting remarks, scores, and reactions to the book. No one agrees on anything, it seems. And you feel doubt and fear and frustration stealing in.
Now here’s the question:
Was this book worth writing–even though it hasn’t sold?
If your answer is yes, then great. If it was no, then consider a few things:
1. People reacted strongly to the work. Little to no indifference. Loving or hating it is normal. That’s what we all encounter in every aspect of life and in every book we write. But indifference. That’s the worst thing that can happen to a writer. Indifference means you failed to touch the reader. Love or hate is great. Indifference is the saddest response of all. You received few “indifferent” responses to this work. That’s success.
2. The publishers varied responses hold insights. Their markets are slanted. Some saw that special something in your work that tugs at them. Some weren’t tugged, they were ticked. Which do you target with your next book? Whose published books do you read and study for content and type? If selling is the goal, then haven’t you gotten a better grip on what they like and sell and what they don’t or can’t sell? Isn’t that gaining something? Isn’t gaining something success?
3. You made a reader think. Even the reader that hated the work–because it tapped a nerve that made her uncomfortable–thought. You touched them. Isn’t that success? Isn’t that why you wrote the book?
You get the idea. Value is perception. If someone needed to hear what you had to say, then the book is of value to them. It isn’t just in sales that we impact lives. That’s so very important to realize. Like with the critique partners or contest judges, we also have the potential to impact editors and agents.
Let me share an example with you. I wrote an unusual (bizarre word for me to use, considering) little book and sent it to my agent. She loved it. She knew she couldn’t sell it. Someone she knew was going through an extremely difficult time and she felt the book would help that person. So she asked me if she could forward a copy to this third person. I said of course. This has happened three or four times. The market won’t welcome this book, but was the book worth writing? Yes, of course it was. If it helped that one person then it was a great investment of my time.
Several others from my critique group have read this same book–and asked if they could share it with someone they know it could maybe help. I always say, sure, of course.
Now this book has never been published. It hasn’t made a dime. Not one dime. But I have heard that it has been helpful to those who’ve read it. In my humble opinion, that work is a success. The lasting kind of success.
The point of all this is to share with you a simple belief. Writing offers its own rewards in its own ways. Sometimes that involves money, and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes what it involves is something of far greater value.
The most important consideration a writer can explore to reach a good decision on what to write that will carry success and rewards is this: Is your heart in it?
If your heart isn’t in it, don’t do it. Writing without heart is an exercise in futility. You just can’t infuse the work–regardless of what kind of work it is–with anything you don’t feel. I’ve read nonfiction essays on subjects that should put me to sleep but instead were engaging and interesting and exciting reading. Why weren’t they dry and boring? The writer cared about his topic, and his enthusiasm shone through in the work. It does matter. Honestly. Write what YOU want to write. What YOU feel driven to write. What YOU feel purpose to write.
Needless to say, I feel strongly about this. Mainly because you must be responsible for yourself, and that includes the choices you make. That carries over from life in general to the specific of writing. Think of it this way: when you’re 80 and you’re looking back over your life, are you going to regret the choices you made on what to write? If so, change them now. Looking back with regret is a wicked task. Do what you can to avoid it.
This sounds dark, but it truly isn’t, and it might help you. Before you select a project, think about it. “This could be the last project I’ll ever write. If it is last, is it the one I want to do?” If yes, go for it. If not, select another project.
I also feel this way–make your own choices–because I spent 18 months after publishing my first novel trying to write what someone else wanted to me to write. It was a huge mistake. The good that came from trudging through that particular mud puddle was that I could write articles like the one on Fear and Doubt and many others because I lived it and wrote about working my way through it. I also gained skills in writing by writing a lot during that time. But the best possible thing that came from the experience was that I came to understand the true importance of writing the books that mean most to you. Writing with purpose. That became crystal clear.
With 20/20 hindsight, I can say that 18 months was one of the best things that has happened to me as a writer. It made me take a stand, make choices, and focus.
You don’t have to trudge through that mud-puddle, too. Not if you grasp the value of making your own choices and following your own heart and path–popular or unpopular with others–without it. This too is rewarding.
Looking at the comment regarding spending a year writing a book and not selling it; that’s a year wasted:
Is that remark really true? Really? Or are you repeating it as truth because you’ve heard it over and over again and the repetition has convinced you it’s true?
Think about it. Please. No writer writes an entire book and fails to gain something–insight, sage wisdom, experience. S/he gains something. Gaining
isn’t waste. Gaining is success. This “wasted” time is a mindset that really warrants an intense re-examination. I say so with all due respect for your position, but also with the understanding that your holding this mindset can be a challenge to you mentally and emotionally and it can dredge up terrible demons that will undermine you in your work.
Time invested in learning and growing and honing skills isn’t wasted time. Some call it paying dues. Some recognize it as a time of exploration and an adventure filled with wonder. However you view it, understand that it is a time during which you are learning and growing and expanding your horizons. I paid six years of dues. I know what wanting to sell feels like. After that first sale, I experienced that want again for those 18 months. Then I finally got it. It wasn’t about writing, it was all about selling. It’s also when I decided if I never sold another book, I’d still write. So I’d write the books that mattered most to me. If they sold fine, if not fine. Realizing the reward of the writing and the difference between writing and
selling–the purpose for writing–was something I needed to grasp before I treated my gift with the respect it deserved. So I finally “got it” and then I started selling. This same pattern has happened to many other writers, too.
This selling/money situation comes up all the time. My advice is to do what you can to remove financial pressure from yourself. Part-time job, or a full-time job, if necessary, to remove money as the ultimate challenge confronting you. Then you’ll be free to focus on the writing. Selling won’t top the “vital” list. Sure, it’ll be on it. But it won’t be essential to the writing. The writing will be essential to the writing. It truly is its own reward.
Lastly, since you’re writing romance novels you could truly benefit from a critique group of romance novel writers. While there are none in your local area, there are several online. Check at www.paintedrock.com. Off line, there’s the Outreach chapter of RWA. They have a critique-by-mail program. Writers helping writers. *