Mortality and the Writer

I just finished a book and went through my usual ritual of cleaning my office while mourning a little for the characters who have been such a large part of my life the last year. Now it’s time to start the next book. In the past, my first consideration would be the market: What book could I write now that I would have the best chance of getting published? What book is most likely to attract readers and earn me the most sales?

But I just hit a milestone birthday, and I realize I no longer think like that. All at once, I am keenly aware I have only a finite number of years left to write books. With time ticking away, I’m starting to think of my career as a legacy rather than a business concern. What do I want to be known for as a writer?

I am proud of my epic historical fantasy, but I’m not ready to return to the world of early Roman Britain. And then there is the fantasy series I dabbled with for three years. I would like to finish it, but my instincts tell me I still don’t have a vision of the story arc that I need to do justice to that tale. My Regency romances have sold the best, but I think as a writer my hallmark has been my dark age and medieval stories. The book I just finished is set in medieval times, and I really love the medieval world. And I have a proposal that’s been whispering to me ever since my trip to Wales last year.

So, I decided to heed that whisper and start writing it. I feel especially good about writing a book that connects to the last one. If there is one mistake I made throughout my career, it was bouncing around in different eras and worlds. This time I’m going to keep going in the same one. I want to finish a solid “series”.

That decision may seem pretty obvious. But in the past, I would probably have switched to a romance sub-genre that is popular now, like the Regency or Victorian eras. Or I would have tried to come up with a mystery since they seem to be selling well, even though I have no solid ideas in my head. In other words, I would have “written to the market”, instead of following my heart.

But I’ve decided it’s too late in my life not to follow my heart. When I first got published in my early 30’s, I was surrounded by authors who saw writing as a career and believed that part of being a professional was to write books that advanced your career. For several years I fought the urge to write what would sell and was indulged by my editor, who allowed me to make a lot of questionable career decisions. Then my career fell apart and I spent the next ten years chasing the elusive dream of recapturing what had been a promising career.

The last few years I’ve finally given up the dream. Not in a bitter, resentful way, but a calm resignation. And I’m in good company. I know few authors who are where they would have hoped to be when they started out, at least if it was ten or more years ago. But we keep writing because it feeds our souls. Because it is who we are.

The gift of age is knowledge and insight. The downside is the lack of time to use that knowledge. For all of you young writers out there, do what you must, but remember that writing time, like every aspect of our lives, is precious. Use it wisely.

Mary Gillgannon
Mary Gillgannon writes romance novels set in the Dark Ages, medieval, and English Regency time periods and fantasy and historical novels with Celtic influences. Her books have been published in Russia, China, the Netherlands, and Germany. Raised in the Midwest, she now lives in Wyoming and works at a public library. She is married and has two grown children. When not working or writing, she enjoys gardening, traveling, and reading, of course! More about Mary on her website.

5 thoughts on “Mortality and the Writer

  1. Mary, your post speaks to the thoughts and concerns I have right now as well…and probably to many elder RMFW members. As I approach my 75th birthday next week, I’m refocusing, rethrinking, and revising my writing priorities. Good luck with your choices!

  2. You have been so generous with your heart, Mary. This is just another example of how freely you share the pride, passion and hopes of your writing journey with us. Huzzah! and may you find sweet joy in your next medieval adventure!

  3. Hi, Mary. I loved your post. 🙂 I’m where you are, and my next milestone birthday is in just a couple of months. Odd how the years add up, and yes we may be wiser, but our longing and passion for what we do as writers never waivers. We’re more experienced now, but the challenges remain.

    I’ve had a similar experience and have come full circle from where I started. The first book I ever wrote was women’s fiction in the vein of Sue Miller and Anne Tyler. It was horrible, but I finished it, even got an agent with it (she didn’t find a publisher for it, which is just as well). Then I started paying attention to the buzz about commercial genre fiction and markets and what’s most likely to sell, and jumped on that wagon. Twenty-five years later, I’m back to writing women’s fiction again and it feels amazing. I don’t regret my genre novels because they got me published, and they taught me how to be a better writer. But now I’m happy going back to exploring what pulled me into being a writer to begin with.

    I can’t wait to see you all in September! \o/

  4. Glad to hear you’ve found what you’re meant to be writing. Looking forward to seeing you in September. It’s been too long. Cheers!

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