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.

Book Revision, The Extreme Version

This week is the beginning of a new year. And for me, a new book. Except it’s not really a new book. I’m going to re-write a historical romance I wrote, and which was published, nearly fifteen years ago.

I’ve revised and re-released most of my backlist, so this isn’t a new experience for me. Except in this case, revising this book isn’t a matter of tightening and improving my prose and tweaking the story. This time I’m going start from the beginning and re-write the book the way it was meant to be written.

The reason I didn’t write it that way the first time was because this was a book I was coerced into writing by my publisher. They were starting a new erotic romance line, and since my books were fairly steamy, they thought I would be a good fit. My editor found a proposal I’d written for her predecessor (I was on my third editor by then) and suggested I write the story as an erotic romance. I told them no, that even though I wrote hot love scenes, I didn’t put sex in my books just for the sake of writing sex. In fact, I told them no three times. But in the end I gave in. Not for the money, or to revive my flagging career, but because they said if I wrote this book, they’d buy the third book in my Dragon of the Island series. I really wanted to see that book-of-the-heart published, so I agreed to write the other one.

They’d sent me several books to read, to give me an idea of what they had in mind And they came up with an underlying theme for the story and a title. I thought I knew what they wanted, and I did my best to give it to them. The process was intense and agonizing. Normally my stories just happen and I let the characters do what they want. I may have to push them in a certain direction to keep the plot from sagging, or rein them in here and there to give the story coherence, but I don’t force them to follow a certain formula, like having sex every X number of pages. But with this book, I had to do that. And to keep the sexual tension going, I not only had to force them to have sex, I had to keep them in conflict for most of the book. (The title they gave the book was No Surrender.)

The result was a disaster. I don’t know if my editor hated the book, but her boss, the head of the romance line, did. She disliked it so much she pulled it out of the erotic line and published it as a regular historical romance. Which meant it shocked and upset quite a few readers who bought it expecting an R-rated romance and who got an X-rated one. Other readers were turned off by the relentless conflict between the hero and heroine. Despite its flaws, the book actually sold fairly decently, proving it’s true that “sex sells”.

But it was demoralizing experience for me. It shook my confidence in my writing and in my judgment. It tainted, and eventually ruined, my relationship with my agent, who had strongly encouraged me to write the book. I felt as if I’d sold my soul for nothing. Even having the third book in my series published didn’t help. The Dragon Prince sold poorly and ended up being the last book I sold to my publisher. In fact, it would be another ten years before I contracted a book with any publisher.

But one good thing was that I used a pseudonym, so in some ways, it’s like No Surrender never happened. I’m free to start over and write the story the way I originally conceived it. I can take my characters and set them free. At the same time, I don’t have to develop the setting and the historical details and all the things that make up the world of the book. The framework is already there. It should be fun. And even if it’s harder than I expect to be, it will be wonderfully satisfying. My characters get to have their romance, as it was intended. And I get to write the story I envisioned so many years ago.

The Only Writing Advice You Really Need

By Mary Gillgannon

I recently read a blog by a newly published writer about rejection. Her worst one came from an editor who basically suggested she quit writing: “You cannot write, you have no talent, and I prefer not to be bothered anymore.” Ouch.

But the point of the blog was that the writer ignored the total put-down, kept writing and ended up having her book published. As part of her blog tour, she tells her story, the many moments of self-doubt, the sense of defeat, the struggle with depression. She ends with this heartfelt advice: “Listen to me, new writers, and listen carefully. Repeat after me: I will not give up. I can take a break. I can change the genre. I can even go on vacation. But I will not give up! Repeat that to yourself daily.”

Wonderful advice, and not only for “pre-published” writer. Many multi-published writers struggle to keep going as well. You can have several books out and seem to be on your way, and then it all falls to pieces. Once again you face the dreaded specter of failure and futility you thought you’d banished when you got published.

In fact, of the writers I know who have “given up” (at least temporarily) this is the more common scenario. They did well in the beginning, but career reversals and market and editorial changes demoralized them to the point that they put aside their writing for months or even years. When you’re unpublished, you at least have a clear goal to work toward and that can keep you going a long time. But when your career path starts to resemble walking through quicksand, it can be even more difficult to maintain that passion and drive and keep fighting onward.

This was brought home to me last weekend when I got together with a good writer friend who has changed genres and is facing a slump in sales. The result is that she is currently without a contract after thirty-some years of being published. I know that this is temporary and she’ll find her way. And she knows it, too. But I’m pretty sure she’s experienced some moments of self-doubt and occasionally wonders whether it’s all worth it. The one thing on her side is that she’s changed her career direction a few times already, and she knows that there’s only one thing you can do: Find a new pathway and keep slogging forward, i.e., never give up.

But that’s not to say that sometimes it isn’t a good idea to take a break. Pull off to the side on your writing journey and rest a while. That’s what another writer friend is doing. For the last few years she’s faced serious health problems, while still keeping her writing career going. Despite surgeries, doctor appointments and chemo, she’s forced herself to meet deadlines and obligations and even write proposals to get new contracts. But after a long battle on two fronts, she’s finally decided it’s time for a rest. She needs to get the joy of writing back. The thrill of creation and the excitement of having your characters and story come to life. And she’s realized the only way to do that is to stop pushing herself.

But it will only be a vacation, a chance to give herself a little breathing room. To stop worrying about deadlines or how many pages she’s written. For her, the pathway forward right now means staying in the same place and catching her breath. But she won’t stop writing altogether, because long ago she also took those magic words to heart:  Never give up.

The blog post that inspired this one can be found at: http://www.wildwomenauthorsx2.blogspot.com