Vicki Hinze © 2003-2011
What follows is a question posed to me in the Aids4Writers program and my response. I hope it will be of interest and assistance to other writers.
The Question: I’ve been writing for seven years. I’ve studied writing books, gone to conferences, workshops, and read books being published. I’ve written for a specific editor at a specific house and made sure my book fit in with his likes and his house’s publishing perimeters. I’ve written three books in seven years and not only have I not sold a book, I don’t think writing one has gotten any easier. So that’s my question. Does this ever get easier?
The short answer: no.
Actually, it gets harder. But don’t throw up your hands in defeat or writhe on the floor and cry uncle–and please don’t shoot the messenger. I think I can offer some insight to help.
You’re experiencing Pure Frustration. It’s a tough road because Pure Frustration is not concerned with fairness or justice or even payback. If there’s any solace in it whatsoever then it rests in knowing you’re not alone. Every writer I have met goes through this and experiences it in some form at some time during their writing career–often, far more than once. (Personally, I’ve quit counting.)
Someone once said that the longer you write the more difficult writing becomes. Think about that a second. When you start writing, you don’t know all the things you’re doing wrong. You don’t think about structure, characterization, or showing versus telling. You have to learn what those things mean. What you do know is that writing is therapeutic. It’s something you look forward to doing, something you dive headlong into and forget the outside world. It’s fun.
Well, it is therapeutic. You write from the gut, and all that raw emotion pours out onto the page. (This is the spark that can’t be taught, by the way.) And you decide, writing is liberating!
Then you start studying the craft and learn all the things you’re doing wrong. And so you study, listen to what other writers have to say on construction and mechanics and novel element topics, and you feel overwhelmed. But you persist. And sooner or later, bit by bit, these craft insights start clicking, making sense. The light comes on.
Yet you don’t write with these tools automatically. You have to really think about them to put them into practice in your work. That annoys you, because you can’t get into the creative flow when you’re having to stop to ponder the merits of putting in a comma or leaving it out. Opening the book here versus there. Telling the reader too much, too little; introducing too many characters at once—making sense! So you keep reading and studying and you keep writing. You persist.
Then one day, it dawns on you that while you’re still confronted with jarring questions on construction, you’re enjoying more time in the creative flow. The questions are popping up less often, and the jar isn’t as strong as it used to be. And your rough drafts are cleaner, requiring less editing. This surprises you. But then you think about it, and decide it really shouldn’t surprise you at all. You’ve read and studied and written and rewritten and edited and studied and read more and more and more. And it dawns on you that construction matters have become second nature—almost automatic. Seasoning, you think. Experience.
And yet, writing isn’t easier. In your mind, the debate over comma placement rages on and you’re still torn between choices. Why is that? You take a hard look and discover. Now that your abilities have expanded, your choices have expanded, too. So you can take on more complex plots, more complex point of view structures. More story and more characters and more situations. More.
You ponder on that with a sense of some satisfaction, and you debate the merits of more. Do you want to write more complex, or do you want to write easier? Easier would be nice. You’ve struggled so long, worked so hard. Coasting for a bit would be a reward for all your efforts. And you’d have less headaches, you think.
So you set out to write a simple story. Your intentions are good. But then something twists unexpectedly and then takes a sharp left, when you’d intended it go right, and twists again. That changes other novel elements, and characters, and then you find out something you didn’t know before that changes everything. And before you know it, your simple story has presented you with a complex and intricate challenge—and you’re struggling to get a grip on it, wondering how in the world you’re going to get everything tied up in a neat package without looking melodramatic or like an idiot—short of calling for divine intervention. Setting out to write simple, you discover, is not making the writing easier. But, you persist.
And so it goes. For every new skill you acquire, every new technique you implement, every insight you gain, there is another one awaiting your discovery. Yet, you persist.
Why? Because you love it. Feel a responsibility to do it. (Just about any emotion will do.) Or maybe you persist because you’ve invested so much of yourself into the writing that you’re not sure exactly where it starts and you stop anymore. Or because you still have things to say you want others to hear. Or because you’re determined to accomplish what you set out to do—write and sell a book. Determination, will, love—those are pretty potent motivators.
In the writing, the simple truth is it does not get easier—and that is a blessing. Before you snap my head off, or consider slitting wrists, let me explain.
Writers are by nature curious, observant, interested people who consider “boring” deadly. The majority of writers are self-motivated, disciplined, and they don’t shy away from challenges because they’re too hard. They’ll dive into the hard stuff, if not confident then hopeful, that what they need will come. That the answers they seek, they’ll find. And, you know, they usually do. Maybe it’s because writers are looking, or paying attention. Or maybe the reason is more mystical than that. Maybe it’s because we’re facilitators and our purpose is to light paths for others.
Regardless, writing can’t be mastered, and that makes it the perfect career choice for curious, observant, self-motivated people who tend to be jacks-of-all-trades, to know a little bit about a lot of things. To be good listeners. To notice the little things.
Because you can’t master writing, it will always provide the mental stimulation you need to hold your interest and attention. And because you choose what to write, it will always give you a venue to ponder whatever arouses your curiosity, what you hear, what you notice. That’s a wonderful thing.
Admittedly, when you’re trapped in Pure Frustration, it doesn’t feel so wonderful. But when you pull it all out into the light and subject it to intense scrutiny, on the “big picture” scale of life, it’s wonderful.
The day writing gets easy is the day the writer has deluded him/herself into believing writing can be mastered. It’s also a sad day for the writer as a human being, because it’s a clear signal that s/he has lost interest. And that interest lost isn’t confined to writing, but in people and in life, because that is what we write about. Our interest fires our enthusiasm that we translate—literally and by infusion—as “the magic” in our work.
Now, your Pure Frustration exists on two levels—writing and selling—and we’ve yet to address the second one. Does selling get easier?
The short answer: no.
Particularly newer writers think that once you sell a book, the door is open and you’re home free for future sales. It doesn’t work that way. Actually, it can be more difficult to sell that second time or that 25th time, if what you’ve written hasn’t sold well or if you’ve changed what you’re writing. And even if you’ve written a dozen similar novels all to the same publisher, that doesn’t mean you’re going to sell number thirteen to that same publisher.
Are your odds better? Only when it comes to having access to the editor. There, the established writer does have an edge, particularly if s/he has worked with that specific editor and they have a history of working well together. But whether or not the editor buys the proposed project depends on whether or not s/he likes it and feels confident s/he can sell it. That brings current marketing considerations into the mix as well as in-house list balance and the project focus.
Being with the same editor a long time and doing a number of projects together can gain you a little latitude on what you write, but that can also restrict what you write. (That comment is of course predicated on your wanting to sell what you write to that editor.)
Example: You’ve written 9 paranormal romances all for the same editor at the same publishing house. Sales have been strong, steadily growing. Now, you submit a proposal to write a straight mystery. Should be a snap, right? I mean, they know you. You’re established.
Prepare to encounter resistance. First of all, you’re writing outside your known sphere and established market. Can you write a mystery? Who knows? Odds are, you’ll have to prove it to your publisher by doing it. But should you do it? The editor isn’t convinced. Your readers expect a paranormal. The support you’ve gained from sales, marketing, publicity, the art department–everyone in-house knows you as a paranormal romance writer. It’ll take work for them to make the mental shift to see you as a mystery writer. Lots of work.
And then there are the book buyers, booksellers, wholesale buyers, distributors–who also have you slotted as a paranormal romance writer. If you write this mystery, then aggressive marketing is going to need to be done to let these industry pros know “this” book is “different.” More and more of lots of work.
And what about your readers? They’re going to have to be prepared for this leap. Will they follow you? Some will, but what about most of them? Will they buy your mystery? If they buy it, will they like it? Or will they feel disappointed? Wait for you to write another paranormal romance? Iffy odds on that, too. And more and more lots of work.
Do you see where I’m going with this? Some believe that once you start selling consistently, you can write whatever you want. But the reality is that your options narrow. You must factor in salability and reader expectation. The way this most often works out: the writer establishes different identities for different types of books (a la Nora Roberts and J.D. Robb) or writes the same type of book.
There are exceptions. Sandra Brown comes to mind. Her early books were romance novels. Her later books are women’s fiction and still contain strong romantic elements. In some, she’s shifted the novel focus to suspense, but she still didn’t leave her romance readers behind.
There is a pinnacle a writer reaches where s/he has more leeway on what to write. Typically, that’s in the form of taking risks within the established type of book, however. To write whatever you want . . . “Get huge and you can write whatever you want,” an editor I respect immensely once said to me. (Huge equals sales, in case you’re not clear on that.) Obviously, I’m still climbing that ladder—and struggling—and yet, I’m certain it too has restrictions. It must. I haven’t seen John Grisham writing majorly successful novels that aren’t legal thrillers. Nor have I see Tom Clancy write novels that aren’t military. Stephen King’s still writing horror. And Mary Higgins Clark is still the queen of suspense. So where is that pinnacle?
The short answer: I don’t know.
To expound: I haven’t yet tagged a writer who has reached it.
I wish I could say that writing and selling does get easier. I wish I could give you that as an aspiration you could reach for as a goal, but I’d be lying to you if I did, and that I won’t do.
Believe it or not, one day, you’ll be grateful for that—that I didn’t lie to you. Because one day, you’ll realize that if it had gotten easier, and you hadn’t gotten knocked to your knees so many times in pursuing your writing goals, then you wouldn’t have developed the strength of character and the will to write that you have developed as a result of your efforts and experiences. You would be a different you.
You know I love sayings. Two come to mind on this that have sustained me through periods of intense, Pure Frustration:
“It takes a lot of heat to temper steel.” A dear friend, Phyllis Rowan said that. And she was right. It does take a lot of heat to temper steel. It takes a lot of heat to temper the writer, too.
The second saying is one I’m sure you’ve have heard many times. There’s insight and so much power in it. It helps me remember that writing is a gift, and when we’re given this gift, we must prove we have the strength and ability to carry the gift and its responsibilities. So that we use the gift wisely and we don’t waste it and become mired in a trap where we see only missed opportunities and feel only loss and regret. The saying?
“To whom much is given, much is asked.”