(Quick note I discussed briefly before: I’m currently not approving first-time posters to this blog. Sorry if you’re new here and wanted to say something.)
Kristine Kathryn Rusch has been publishing a great series of blog posts recently called How Writers Fail. I almost linked to last week’s post, so check that one out, too, but today I wanted to link to Part 6 of that series, Words.
Go read it. It’s excellent. And written by someone with the experience and sales numbers to be able to stand behind what they’re saying.
I don’t personally talk about this often because even after as many books as I’ve written I feel like some sort of impostor who is just playing at being a novelist.
(I say this as someone who currently has fourteen novel-length works in print under three pen names and has two other novel-length works I chose to unpublish.)
After all this time and all those novels I “only” have 13,814 paid novel sales and 1.8 million page reads on Amazon. (I’m usually wide with my books so there are more sales than that if you bring in the other platforms, but it’s still not a huge number and the bulk of it is Amazon.)
My “low” numbers make me feel like I somehow can’t talk about my process because it’s “bad” and may be the reason I’m not selling more.
(For non-fiction in contrast I have 47,610 paid sales on Amazon so I feel like I have more of a leg to stand on there but my actual process is basically the same.)
In reality those numbers of novels written and of sales are much higher than many people ever reach. So I wanted to share KKR’s post and then throw my own experience out on top of that because at least I have found a way to write books and to sell some of them to people who usually give them decent reviews.
Last month I wrapped up a nine-book cozy mystery series. (Book 1 is here and free.) It’s written in first-person which really helped me get over a particular block I had as a writer.
Which is that critical voice/editor/reviewer voice that sits in the back of many writers’ minds that says, “is that the right word”, “should you say it that way”, “is that the grammatically correct way to say that”, etc.
Writing it in first-person in a contemporary setting I was intimately familiar with and with a protagonist who is very much like me let me look at that critical voice and say, “Yep, that is the right way to say it, because that’s the way I would say it. That’s the way I did say it when I wrote it, thank you very much.”
For example, I learned in school and Word is happy to remind me that you don’t say that something is “more X”, you often say that it is “X-er”. So he’s not more funny, he’s funnier. Here’s a breakdown of that rule. Don’t ask me how correct it is, because I don’t always follow it.
But when I’m talking or writing, I will say that he was more funny than I’d expected. Even if that’s not the way it’s supposed to work.
So there are rules. Many, many, rules. And then there’s “voice” and “character” or whatever you want to call it. There’s the reality of how a person actually communicates.
Having lived and traveled in multiple English-speaking states and countries I can assure you that actual spoken English varies widely. Not just in pronunciation but in sentence structure and word choice. And most of the “rules” that writers are theoretically supposed to follow are based on one very specific way of using English that does not correspond to how most people communicate in English.
Another example of the rules and how they can handicap a story is the insistence on using the appropriate word or phrase. KKR’s post has a good example about a fancy desk, but I also ran into this with the cozies.
I have always referred to the trees in the mountains of Colorado as evergreens. (And aspens, but we’re talking about the year-round green ones here.)
I would have told you until a year ago that was what they were really called. But they’re not. I walked through an arboretum and learned that they are technically a combination of things like spruce trees and pine trees.
But I’m not a tree expert, nor is my main character in that cozy series. So using the precise, technical words, even once I knew what they were, would have been bad characterization.
My character, who had not walked through that arboretum, would still call those trees evergreens.
(I still remember the fantasy novel where someone was on a boat for the first time ever and they used all the technical boat terms to describe things. Threw me right out of the story because that character would not know those terms.)
Those are just two little examples of where the “right” way to do things is actually not right for that particular story and character.
Now, that’s first person and a character who is like me, so it was very easy to dismiss those rules.
But if you write enough books you theoretically have to move away from writing characters just like yourself who live in a world just like yours. So what then?
Here’s where I came out on it.
My books are going to be flawed. They are going to get some things wrong. They will not appeal to all readers. Some may see me as Eurocentric. Some may see me as ableist or some other -ist. Some readers may have very specific technical knowledge that leads them to hate my book because my character wore a fabric that would not have been worn in that type of society with that level of technological innovation. (That’s one I actually heard a prominent editor scoff about at a conference once.)
Those people are not my readers. I will get criticized by those readers for my flaws, but they are not the people I am writing for. I am writing for the people who are so caught up in the story they just want to come along for the ride. And, yes, that means my readers are the ones that are blind to the history of fabric in the Middle Ages and to the current list of terms deemed inappropriate because they’re ableist and who probably never use whom.
And that’s okay.
Not all stories are for all readers. As a writer my job is to write the stories that only I can write and then as a publisher my job is to find the readers who will like them.
This is why I don’t have first readers. Or editors. I may have shared the first cozy with a few readers before I published it. But the later ones? No one saw those books except for me until they were published.
Because my books are me, flaws and all. I can create that over and over again. Whereas if my book is a collaborative effort formed with the help of first readers, editors, and who knows who else that’s a product that changes as my team changes.
Early on, with the first three novels or so, I did have first readers and I did go to critique groups with pages, because I needed to learn how my words landed with readers. And I did learn from that experience.
But after that? After I knew that most of the critiques I was receiving were “I wouldn’t tell this story” or “I wouldn’t tell this story this way” it was time to stop that.
I figured readers were either along for the ride I was offering them or they weren’t. All using first readers or editors was going to do at that point was bring multiple voices into that story.
There’s also another issue that can happen if the first reader/editor process isn’t done well. And that’s an uneven end product.
I can’t remember if I told this story before, but I’m going to tell it again if I have.
In high school I took a pottery class. One of our assignments was to create a chess set. I was going to have one that was jungle-cat-themed. So the lion was going to be the king and the tiger was going to be the rook, etc.
I made one of the pawns first. It was a dorky little cat-like piece. It had pointed ears and a noticeable face and a tail, but the rest of the piece was just a blob of clay. I could’ve made that little guy another dozen times, no problem.
My teacher came by and as she was trying to instruct me on how to better make an animal shape, she whipped up a gorgeous tiger. It was amazing. Beautiful.
It was also about three times the size of my pawn. And putting those two pieces side-by-side you could tell that they were not done by the same artist.
Size-wise the tiger also didn’t belong in the same chess set. If the tiger was that big, how big would the lion have to be? I would’ve ended up with a chess board that was two feet on a side just to accommodate that tiger.
But the tiger was so gorgeous I didn’t want to get rid of it.
Problem is, chess sets are mirrored sets of pieces. There was no way, even having watched her do it, that I could create a duplicate of that tiger.
So even though the tiger was much, much better than my other pieces, I couldn’t use it.
When I think sometimes of having someone who is really good at writing try to edit something I write, I immediately think of those two chess pieces and how they didn’t go together. How it was better to just use the less-perfect pieces I created rather than to try to merge in that beautiful tiger.
Now, I will say that not all editing experiences are like that and I was actually quite pleased with the edits of my short story I had in a collection last year. I did have to let go of a few personal preferences for how to punctuate my writing, but I figured that was part of sanding the edges off to get a unified product and that at that point my story was part of a bigger piece.
And there was definite benefit to being edited. I had confused mantel and mantle in that story, for example. But a simple light copy edit (assuming you find a good copy editor, which in self-pub spaces can be tricky) can easily handle that sort of thing. And that sort of edit should be for technical mistakes like mantle vs. mantel or eye color mix-ups, not rewrites.
Anyway. To wrap this up.
The way for me to be able to keep writing is to accept that I can only write what I can write and to hope that somewhere out there someone is looking for that type of story and will enjoy it. And to accept that some people won’t enjoy it and to remind myself that they are not my reader. And if at the end of the day no one likes what I wrote, well at least I know it was true to me and I didn’t compromise and bend and twist myself out of shape to then still have people not like it.