Unreliable Narrators

I did something interesting this morning. I read through my diaries from twenty-five years ago. It was fascinating to see what I wrote about versus what I remembered. And it was fascinating too to see what I wrote about and didn’t know I was writing about.

Often in writing we hear about the unreliable narrator. The person who is telling you a story and maybe not telling the whole story or telling the story their way instead of telling the truth. And there’s always this idea that maybe that’s deliberate.

But the funny thing about reading those diary entries was that eighteen-year-old me was telling the truth as I saw it at the time and completely missing some things that were right there on the page. I wasn’t trying to be unreliable. Who tries to be unreliable in their diary? But I was being.

Even more interesting is that I went reading back through those entries because I’d started to wonder if a close friend of mine had maybe been not so close and if I’d just failed to see it at the time. (They ended up dating both someone I’d had a complicated situation with and my best friend which prompted the question all these years later. Coincidence? Or something more?)

And what I realized after doing so is that when you hold memories in your mind and have no record of them when they happened that they grow and shift and take on different forms than they actually had at the time.

Turns out we’re all unreliable narrators. (And more so, whether real or not, the stories we tell ourselves about what happened in the past are more important than what actually happened because the stories we tell ourselves are what we let shape our future.)

You Have to Do the Work

I wrote that on the board across from my desk just now to remind me of the fundamental truth of my life.

My brother and I had lunch on Tuesday and we were talking about work and life and what not and he made the comment that he sometimes wished there would be some rich relative we never knew existed who’d suddenly step out of the woodwork and give us millions of dollars.

Wouldn’t that be nice?

Or winning the lotto. It’s fun to imagine buying some ticket on a whim one day and waking up to find that you’d won $300 million and can now be and do whatever you want to be and do.

My response to my brother was that I long ago resolved myself to the fact that I wasn’t going to be saved by some rich relative, rich spouse, or lucky break. But that what I do have is a work ethic and drive that lets me keep going day after day, week after week, year after year. (He has it, too. We had a good dad.)

That’s something I can rely on. Steady forward progress brought about by my own efforts.

But working from home it’s easy to spend an entire day doing nothing. Check this forum, read that blog post, play that solitaire tournament, rinse, repeat.

Hence the note on my board.

YOU HAVE TO DO THE WORK

I can’t hope for a five-figure release if I don’t actually write and release the book, right? The work comes first (the lead indicator), the riches come second (the lag indicator).

Expectations Can Kill You

I’m reading a very interesting book right now called Late Bloomers by Rich Karlgaard. It essentially makes the argument that not everyone is wired to be immediately successful nor are they wired to be successful following the standard path of high achievement in high school, elite university education, and then wonderful high-powered career.

Ironically, because of my first career and my elite university education I don’t really fall into the “we” he talks about throughout the book. But as someone who stepped off that path the idea behind the book attracted me and I think it’s a good read and will probably recommend it to all of my friends with kids because I’ve been firmly convinced for a couple decades now that expecting your kids to attend college and become a doctor, lawyer, engineer, investment banker, etc. is very unhealthy for kids that don’t fit that path.

While the book is interesting and worth a read I’ve been thinking in broader terms about the argument it’s making and applying that to writing. Because I think we have that same unhealthy mindset in self-publishing. Or at least we did when I started out.

There was this expectation that you’d publish a book and it would just sell as if by magic and then you’d publish a couple more and you’d be killing it and able to quit your job and make six figures no problem. And behind that was this idea that if you failed to do that you were somehow flawed or lesser and just didn’t get it. You didn’t have what it takes to be successful.

There are authors who disprove that theory–Annie Bellet being one of them who has spoken about it publicly. She struggled for years before it finally all clicked and came together and she found tremendous success.

But yet there’s still this expectation hanging around of immediate sales and reviews and praise that makes any author who doesn’t find that kind of success feel like a failure.

And there’s a certain scorn that gets voiced at times by some of the authors who’ve made it. Like, “Oh, if only they knew…I mean, can’t they see what they’re doing wrong? That cover. And that blurb. And, oh, don’t get me started on the writing. Who doesn’t know the difference between reign and rein?”

Those two attitudes combined make it really hard to push through and persevere for those who don’t hit right away.

Not only are you struggling with your failure to meet your own expectations but then you’re also faced with this niggling feeling that people out there are looking down their noses at your pathetic attempts to make it. And with self-publishing you tend to be failing in public unless you use pen names and don’t tell anyone about them.

So you either toil in darkness and alone or you trip and fall on your face in front of the crowd. Neither option is fun.

The irony is that an author can actually be doing pretty well for where they are. They can be on the right path and headed in the right direction. Maybe they just need more books out there. Or a better understanding of marketing. Or just more realistic expectations.

But the problem is that no one likes to publicly talk about their failures and struggles, so it’s really hard to see that. Which means to succeed if it doesn’t happen immediately you have to have this gut level belief in yourself that basically defies everything everyone around you thinks.

That is not easy.

I’ll give a personal example here.

I had a Bookbub on my YA fantasy novel a few days ago.

It bombed. By Bookbub standards it was horrible. They said to expect 2,200 sales and I had about 1,000. Not even half of the expected average.

It really hurt to have it perform so poorly. Because I should’ve been able to hit the average, right? I mean, come on. At least close? I looked at the book and thought there was something wrong with it. I thought to myself that maybe I just can’t write fantasy even though it’s my first love. Maybe what I want to write just isn’t what people want to read. I had some dark moments of the soul.

But here’s the thing.

That promotion, which cost me $700, is already profitable after four days. I brought in a thousand new readers to that series. I made it into the top 100 authors in teen fantasy on Amazon for two days.

It was actually a really good promotion. If I hadn’t had that stupid average number to set my expectations, I would’ve been thrilled with how it turned out.

So if you get into one of those dark places where you’re wondering what you’re doing and why you suck so much when everyone else is doing so well, step back.

Ask yourself how realistic these expectations you’re trying to meet really are. As the book I’m reading mentions, reframe your situation.

Look at the positive reviews. Look at the sales. Look at the fan mail.

Or look at what you’ve learned. Look at what you now know about your writing or the market. Give yourself a pat on the back for taking one step closer to your goal. And remember that not everyone succeeds the first time out even if that’s what it can look like sometimes.

There’s Still Time…

KKR made a brief comment on her May reading list post that dovetailed nicely with a comment I’d made recently in a writer’s group about releases and that also fits with my current reading list.

Basically, the comment was about how people don’t always read a book when it’s released, they read it when they find out about it.

That can be years after a book was written and published, assuming it’s still available to be read in some way, shape, or form.

For example, I’m currently reading the entire J.D. Robb In Death series. I’m about halfway through. The first book in that series was published decades ago. But for me it’s a new series that I’m racing my way through. My mom happened to mention it for the umpteenth time (she buys the new releases as soon as they come out in hard cover) and I said, “Oh, let me try it. I’ll borrow the first one from you next time I see you.” Twenty-some books later I’m still enjoying it.

I had the same thing happen with Robin Hobb. I didn’t start reading her until she’d published three trilogies in that story world.

Which is why I sometimes find the self-publisher and trade publishing focus on strong launches so interesting. I get it. The odds of having a book that stands the test of time and gets word of mouth referrals are higher the better a book launches, especially with Amazon’s built-in bias for rewarding success with more success.

But there are so many books that have done well later as people started to read them and recommend them to one another.

I always think of Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft as a perfect example of this sort of thing. That series didn’t do well until he submitted it to the SPFBO. One of the fifty best fantasy novels I’ve read, but it was languishing in triple-digit ratings for a couple years before it got its break.

That doesn’t mean every book that doesn’t sell well right away is some work of genius, of course. Odds are more often on the side of a book not being that great. But if you have faith in what you wrote, don’t give up just because you weren’t instantly amazingly successful. Keep working it. You never know.

(I say with hope as I have two Bookbubs on two separate series coming up this month…)

 

A Reading List for Writers

I’ve continued to play around with the new Books2Read reading list option and put together this reading list of all of my favorite writing books. These are the books that are physically on a shelf in my office that I really liked. Definitely not all the writing-related books I’ve read over the years, but the ones I really enjoyed and found valuable.

There were a few that I couldn’t link to because they don’t exist in an ebook version, which I find strange in this day and age. But it is what it is.

I went ahead and created a separate account to do this because I have so many of my own books in my main B2R account, which means pretty much anyone could create an account as an “author” and then put together a list like this.

So, check it out if you’re looking for ideas on more writing books to read or if you just want to see how it works.

A Reading List for Writers

 

Ah, Life

I think one of the biggest challenges to this whole writing journey has been managing my ego. It’s one of the awful little side effects of having gone to really great schools (Stanford and Wharton). You’re puttering along in your life doing your thing and suddenly one of your classmates is appointed CEO of Yahoo! or wins a SAG award, an Emmy, and a Golden Globe for their incredible acting. (Both went to Stanford at the same time I did.)

Or another classmate casually mentions that they sold their firm with $10 billion in assets under management and are now taking a sabbatical to travel the world. (A Wharton classmate. And, ironically, that description may be too generic for you to even identify a specific individual.)

Now, I know in my heart of hearts that their paths are not ones that would interest me. I don’t look at them and say “that could’ve been me”. (Although I do think it would be fun to act. That’s one of those paths not taken for me.)

I know I’m not playing the same game they are. But when your peers have net worths in the hundreds of millions it can make it really, really hard to take pride in your own efforts. Especially when you know that you could be much more financially successful doing something other than what you’re doing.

A couple months ago a classmate at Wharton reached out and asked if I’d submit a class note about my writing. I almost said no.

One, because what I’m doing probably makes me the poster child for how not to use your Wharton degree. (You make your millions first, then you take up skydiving and writing novels. You don’t walk away from a good career without having paid off all your student loans to do those things, which is what I did.)

And, two, because as much as I’ve accomplished with my writing, I don’t view it as a success. Most of those class notes are people who’ve done something worth bragging about and for some reason I don’t feel what I’ve done is something to brag about.

Which is somewhat absurd. I have written ten novels and who knows how many non-fiction titles. And I’ve made a profit on them, which is actually saying something.

There was recently a thread on one of the writing forums where people were saying you should never expect to make $5,000 a month from writing. By that standard I’m a raging success.

(I think it’s a horrible mindset those people have when there are authors out there making $100,000 a month, but that’s another post altogether.)

But the problem is, I don’t apply the normal person in the normal world standard to my efforts. I don’t apply the “average writer” standard. Fuck average.

I apply the Stanford/Wharton standard. I look to my “peers” to judge my worth.

(And then I quickly look away, because holy shit.)

But that’s the thing. The people who’ve made it are in the news or in the class notes. No one writes in and says, “Since we all graduated I lost my job, declared bankruptcy, got divorced, and spent three months in a clinic for substance abuse issues. But now I’m living in a halfway house and getting by day-by-day.” Or, “Well, I got married, put all my dreams on hold, quit my six-figure job to raise kids I’m not sure I even like, and am now self-medicating with wine and Facebook while my husband spends inordinate amounts of time with his secretary.”

I have to remind myself that there are probably just as many people like that in my peer group as the superstars. Not that it helps. Because ego. I still think I should do well at whatever I do. Well being top 2%.

So, anyway. I submitted the note. With a good dose of humor included. And now it will forever sit there next to my classmate’s note about his very successful venture. Really, I think that combination pretty much says it all.

Oh, and for any Wharton classmates who find their way here, the skydiving comment was not in fact a joke. This is me doing a sit-fly over Taupo, New Zealand back in the day.

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