Vicki Hinze © 2003-2011
In the Aids4Writers program, I occasionally get a question that is universal to writers in that, at some time or another, during their writing career, most writers ask themselves or someone else that question.
Often a great deal of angst and anxiety surround that question, which makes it important not only for the rest of us to understand the dynamics at work in it, but in guiding us at facing it. We need to know that this challenge is universal to writers and not happening just to us. We need to see how we can address this challenge constructively.
It is this challenge, and ones like it, that drive so many writers to alcohol or other destructive behavior. That makes it vital that we bring the challenge out of the proverbial closet and take a cold, hard look at it. Hopefully, you’ll find some guidance in my response.
The Question: I’ve been working at writing a long time. I’ve had some success,
published nearly a dozen books. But I’m not getting anywhere in my career. I’ve started over four times in three different types of books—so far, and it looks as though I might have to again. My sales aren’t stellar; they aren’t even good. If I had worked flipping burgers I would be more financially stable than I am now. What am I doing wrong?
This is a question so many writers are asking themselves. And it is a difficult one, if not an impossible one, to answer. You didn’t say why or when you’d started over four times, and that’s an important key you need to examine that could give you some insight. For example, if you were writing romance novels in the 1980s, likely you would have enjoyed higher sales and a more rapid rise on the career ladder than writing them today, when competition is stiffer and the entire publishing industry is redefining itself as our society redefines the way it buys books.
There are some cold, hard facts about writing for a living that must be faced by every writer.
• Income is never stable. You might make a small fortune this year, and suffer a drought next year. The types of books that enjoy high sales runs in cycles, as do most things in life. Count on the money in your hand—and if it’s advance, count it only after the novel has been accepted for publication.
• Money isn’t enough. Writing demands discipline, effort, and sacrifices from the writer that no amount of money can justify. There’s only one reason to do it. Write because you love it.
I’m not saying that it’s wrong to write to sell, I’m saying that selling alone isn’t enough. Without the love, the costs aren’t worth the price you’ll pay. And you will pay it.
Overnight successes in this business typically have worked at the craft for over ten years. That’s ten years of strife and struggling to find the right door. Ten years of crawling through the valley, looking for a foothold that will lead you to the peak.
• Obviously you can write, or you wouldn’t have sold nearly a dozen books.
The question that comes to my mind is: Are you writing ONLY books you love, or are you trying to write to whatever market is “hot” at that time?
Some writers are extremely versatile and can switch genres with ease. Some can write publishable books in many genres. But down deep, I believe, every
writer has a type of book they love, and it is in that type of book where their work surpasses publishable and becomes magnificent. This is where the
writer truly shines. And where s/he should focus energy.
1.• An ambitious writer needs to chart a course and stay on it to become commercially successful. With each genre change, the writer diffuses momentum. Too many diffusions, and the momentum halts.
That doesn’t mean a writer’s charted course can’t change. It is dynamic. But the course isn’t so much selecting a genre as it is the writer recognizing his/her strengths, and then staying true to his/her personal author theme.
Every author has a theme. One thread that remains true in each of his books that is as evident as his voice. Recognizing your theme requires you to slow down and really look at your works. Collectively and singularly. What is your theme?
Let me give you an example. And I’ll use my own work here so I don’t have to get permission from anyone else and because I’m most familiar with my own. We can get to the point more quickly.
My first published book was Mind Reader. In it, a psychic empath had to overcome making a mistake that cost a woman her life.
Next came Maybe This Time, a reincarnation theme where both a woman and a man had to revisit lifetimes to learn lessons they hadn’t learned in their
Festival, a weird mix of time-travel, or not, with dual plot lines nine-hundred years apart, in which both protagonists had to work past emotional trials and bias to unearth a mystery that would help them resolve current issues. But to get to the truth, they have to be strong enough to reevaluate their perceptions, to test their convictions and ideals.
The Seascape books: Beyond the Misty Shore, Upon a Mystic Tide, Beside a Dreamswept Sea—all deal with the protagonists—men, women, and
children—facing the demon “abuse” (spiritual, emotional, or physical), putting it in its rightful place and letting love back into their lives. The military and political novels: Shades of Gray, Duplicity, Acts of Honor, All Due Respect, Lady Liberty, and soon, Lady Justice all deal with individuals reaching deep inside to discover the depth of their convictions; tests of courage, honor, dignity and self-respect. And all of the characters have specific reasons not to feel courageous about the challenges facing them.
What do all of these books have in common? They’re healing books. Even my anthologies are healing books. Every book—not just those published but every proposal I’ve ever done—all deal with the issue of healing. On some level, it’s there. That’s my theme.
Some other writers have protector themes, some oppression, some faith. The possibilities of themes are limited only by the emotion of the human heart and the perspective of the writer. So investigate, pinpoint your theme, and then write within in. It will be natural to you, and you’ve likely done it already, but focusing on it, you’re emphasizing your strength. That will do more to help you than anything else I can imagine.
• If you need to take a part-time job to diffuse some of the financial pressure on yourself, then do it. But don’t fall into the trap of judging the worth of your writing, or its value, by the amount of money you receive on it. That’s not a philosophy worthy of the gift. Too much in the acquisition, marketing, and sales of books is totally out of the writer’s control. Your energy is better spent on what you can control. The writing.
I’ll tell you a secret that helps me when financial disappointment really stings. (And it does, regardless of what level you are in your career.) I read fan letters. Ones where people wrote and said that I’d written the story of their lives. That until they’d read my book, they had been without hope. Couldn’t see a way out. No light at the end of the tunnel. But the characters had found a way out, so the reader knew a way out did exist. And if the characters could find it, then the reader could, too.
Many of those type letters came on the Seascape novels. And I could relate many similar letters on the other books to you. But likely you have your own. Regardless, when you need something to hold on to about this zany writing life, hold on to this: Books affect lives. They have the opportunity to offer insight and to outstretch a hand to someone in need. They can open doors in minds that were previously closed. They can be a catalyst, and help people heal, protect, or take a leap of faith. Now that matters.
Pause, evaluate, and define your writing mission. Write what you love—your theme will be there—and give every book your very best. Promote your work and yourself as best you can. And then turn the rest over to fate, trusting that those who need what you have written, will find and read it. And they’ll tell others, who will tell others, and the rippling effect will begin.
It might take time, there will be setbacks—always, there are setbacks testing our conviction—but rewards will come, and they’ll come in many forms.*