Fiction, Opinion, Self discovery

What Was I Thinking: The Writer’s Struggle


I often joke that I’m in the process of writing the greatest novel ever written.  I’m not sure Sun On An Empty Room (http://wp.me/pzutE-2b) is that book but I am sure that it’s a labor of love.  Fiction writer‘s have a decision to make every time they put a pen to paper.  We’d all love to write great literary fiction but are cognizant of the fact that literary fiction success does not ensure financial success. There are less than a dozen really successful fiction writers in the world.  I’m sure this fact comes as some shock to most but its true. Forbes recently named the top earning authors; there were only ten names on the list.  This fact may be easier to accept when you consider why writers write.

When I write, I am writing to give my understanding of the human condition and the relationships we form with those around us.  I’m not necessarily looking to sell anything.  I’m fortunate in that I have found contentment in my writing.  I have loyal readers, I’m growing in my writing, and those who read my stuff, seem to like it.  Am I making a lot of money with my fiction? No.  Most of what I earn comes from affiliate relationships and guest posts.  However, I consider myself a success for those above-named reasons.  Secondly, I write for recognition; not monetary recognition, literary recognition.  Writers enter contests and seek consideration for Pushcart, Man Booker, etc because that level of recognition ensures literary success. There are levels of that type of success, navigated only by the artist.  I’m not as consumed with the idea of being shortlisted by Pulitzer as I am with being featured in 2011’s Best Non-required Reading.  It’s a personal goal.  Most writers have certain goals in mind when they write. Most of those goals, if truly about their art, rarely includes money earning.  And then reality sets in.

Once all the romantic notions of being published are arrested, albeit temporarily, the writer has to be realistic.  If financial success is to be the goal, literary fiction must be abandoned for popular fiction.  Popular fiction or mainstream fiction is considered to be the money-making side of writing. The top ten earning authors all write popular fiction and most of it isn’t of any literary acclaim.  Those who want to earn lots of money as a fiction writer have to become a brand.  Novels have to be thought of as the start of a series.  Most successful literary authors have one genre; you generally see the same character repeated in every novel. They build a brand and if successful that brand ends up being ten books, not one and possibly other things such as movies, licensing deals, and so on.

Herein lies the struggle.  When you start a novel, your focus is on telling your character’s story in your way.  By the time the writer works through the “whys” and the “how am I going to sell this,“the novel becomes something else.  I’m not suggesting that all authors eventually sell out but I am suggesting that the decision to make money at writing will come with a large dose of “killing your babies.” NPR recently featured a story about the length of time it takes to write fiction (http://tinyurl.com/32fva3u). While it doesn’t have to take ten years to write a novel, I believe the mental struggles a writer must endure during the writing process prolongs the process and if not careful, the end product may cause you to question your original reason for writing the novel at all.

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3 thoughts on “What Was I Thinking: The Writer’s Struggle”

  1. Your commitment to your craft is admirable, and the latest post was thought-provoking. For myself, if I were a songwriter, I’d want everybody whistling my tune. Since I’m a novelist, I’d be happy to be known as a writer of “popular fiction” (i.e., books that people actually buy and read) regardless of how critics perceive my work.

    But I don’t see why popular fiction can’t be populated by complex characters, be well-written, and be “about” ideas at the same time it’s about a crime, or love affair, or triumph of the downtrodden, etc. And I don’t see why literary fiction can’t be “popular.” Walter Mosley comes to mind – he mostly writes within the crime genre, and has several series with the same central character. At the same time, his craft is excellent and his novels touch upon many of the social issues of the fifties and sixties that still persist, and in a way that nudges readers instead of beating them over the head with a two-by-four.

    Well, this is much too long. Thanks for directing me to your interesting blog.

    1. Thank you for your comment. For the record, I believe you are completely right. How I wish that literary fiction was considered popular fiction. Rose Tremain, my favorite author writes beautifully but her work has never been considered popular fiction. Your example, Walter Mosley is another fine example. There was a gentleman writer from NPR whose name I forget at this moment who wrote that good fiction may actually be dead; popular fiction is too commercial. While I wouldn’t take it that far, I do believe its hard to get people to read good writing. And fiction, while more alive than ever, seems to cater to “brand” authors and not neccessarily to the literary geniuses as we’ve noted here. Thanks again. Be well.

  2. Well, “good writing” is rather subjective, although I’m sure there are some ways to identify it. That said, there doesn’t really seem to be a huge gap between what one might consider “good writing” and successful writing, meaning writing that gets sales. The most important thing, I would think, is to write something that resonates with readers, and if by chance it resonates with a great number of them, then you get to be a successful writer, too. No? I don’t know. In a lot of ways I don’t care either. I write what I write because I myself think it is fascinating, because I love my characters, and because I love the challenge of crafting something that will touch someone’s heart and soul that same way it touches mine. If it doesn’t sell, it doesn’t matter. I will still write tomorrow and the next day. Being a popular writer or famous writer has almost nothing to do with writing anyway; it has to do with marketing. Meanwhile, I go home and write, and if the writing gods shine down on me, that’s cool. If they don’t, well, no worries.

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