Letter From The Editor - Issue 68 - April 2019

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  Writing Advice by Mette Ivie Harrison
June 2015

Not Every Book Has to Be a Bestseller

When I first started submitting seriously to publishers, I believed that I was going to be a bestseller. Other authors might not be good enough to make it to the top, but I was confident enough that I would. I was going to work harder, longer hours, writing more pages, and being easy to work with so that I would help along my career as much as I could. And of course, I believed that every story idea I had was a potential bestseller. I was going to make enough money to support my family on my own. I was going to be a household name. More than that, I was going to be one of those authors who make money and are critically acclaimed, who become staples of the field, taught in colleges as examples of good writing and good storytelling.

Ha! I shake my head a little bit over this now.

While I still believe in working hard, putting in your time to learn your craft, and keeping at it despite rejection, I no longer believe that trying to write a bestseller with every book is the best strategy for a writer. Yes, there are times when you can use an existing story idea, tweak it a little, and make it more appealing to a wider audience. Yes, your publishers may encourage you as a writer to make such changes. Yes, they will like you more if your book actually performs better commercially (though if it doesn't, they'll still blame you, not their own bad advice, for the result).

But these days, I tend to ask more questions of my book than if it will be a bestseller. Is this a book that expresses my heart and soul as deeply as I can? Does this book tell a story that is uniquely mine? Will I be embarrassed by this story in ten years' time? Am I following a trend just for the sake of it? Did I change something purely because my editor insisted on it and I didn't feel like I could argue? Is this book the very best I can do right now? Is this a book that shows compassion and a diverse worldview? Is this a book that will be read and reread? Those are the marks of success, and anything after that doesn't matter. If I know I have written something I am proud of myself, then reviews aren't going to hurt me. Neither will low sales figures. It might disappoint my publisher, but I will remain confident that at some point, the book will catch on and sales will pick up. Or I shrug and let it go. The only thing I really have control over is doing my best.

There are some books that I love with a deep and holy passion that were never any success in terms of book sales. Yet the world would be a poorer place for me if those books were not in it. Examples? The brilliant Elizabeth Wein, before she wrote Code Name Verity, wrote a series retelling the King Arthur stories beginning with The Winter Prince. This is one of my favorite fantasy series of all time, starring Arthur's half-brother who is half-black, in his own kingdom in Africa. Yet it sold so badly that I think Wein wondered for years if she would make a book deal again. My Real Children by Jo Walton is another brilliant book by an always brilliant author who has been reviewed well in the sff community, but hasn't necessarily been a bestseller. But this book changed absolutely the way that I think of myself as a mother and a writer. And then there is The Year We Disappeared by Cylin Busby and her father John Busby, a real-life story about when a cop was shot by a local mobster and survived (barely). This expanded my view of what YA could be as a genre, and made me want to do more and be more as a writer and a person. I don't know how many people will ever hear of it, though. And it doesn't matter, because those books mean everything to me.

From the other end, as an author, I think that putting the pressure on myself to be a bestseller, or even to think about how many copies X book will sell, is a bad thing. A very bad thing. Why? Isn't writing a novel entertainment? Isn't the way we measure how good something is purely by numbers? Well, it sure is if you work for Amazon. Or most publishers these days. But as a writer, you actually don't. Or you shouldn't. You don't even work for your readers, though it is their interest in your work that pays your bills. But I believe that you should always work primarily for yourself. Reviewers may make or break your career, but they don't actually matter if you have done what you wanted to do with your book. Readers may hate the ending to your book and may send you angry letters, but that isn't actually the way that you judge whether or not your book was successful.

Focusing outside of yourself as a writer for recognition is a very dangerous thing. Every writer who has published knows this. The thrill of receiving a great review or a nice email from a reader can lead you down the primrose path of believing that this is why you write. You don't even realize how it is changing you until you wake up one morning and are destroyed by a nasty trade review. Or a particularly bad takedown on Goodreads and you find that you can't write. For weeks. Or months. Or when you start to change a brilliant book into a merely good one because you want to please more people. You are scared to use this word or that one because it might offend someone. You decide to take out this scene because it might be too racy. Or too controversial.

I am not saying that you should never change your book. Believe me, I think that editors are necessary and are actually a way of helping us as authors to see more clearly what we mean to say and what we aren't properly saying in an earlier draft. Editors help us pace our stories better. They help us see what is going to do better service to the story we want to tell. They show scenes that should be taken out and scenes that should be added. But don't ever edit purely for your editor. Don't make a checklist and try purely to make your editor happy. Your editor's notes are a way into a deeper version of the book you want to write, but they are not the be-all and end-all of revision. You are in charge of your book and you cannot abdicate that responsibility, even if you want to.

I've heard too many writers (particularly those who turn to self-publishing) say that editors want to "change" your book into something it isn't and you have to self-publish to maintain integrity. Well, sometimes editors do have an agenda, but usually that agenda is to make a better book. If editors really had a formula that would automatically guarantee a bestselling book if only you would follow it, believe me I would have heard about it by now. They would trot it out every time. But they don't know. They may make guesses about what would or would not offend readers, but you are the ultimate arbiter. And not offending people probably shouldn't be your top priority, mainly because it's like a dog chasing its tail -- never-ending. As a writer, you need to tell your best story all the time regardless of where that leads you. And if that sounds weirdly mystical, well, sometimes it is.

There is nothing wrong with writing a bestseller. Nothing wrong, either, with hoping your book does well. There is nothing wrong with trying to make a living from your writing. But putting too much pressure on yourself or on any one book to perform in a particular way is crippling artistically. Believe me, I know. I spent far too long running in circles, trying to write the next bigger, better YA fantasy. Until I let myself write whatever the hell I wanted and came up with The Bishop's Wife. It isn't a bestseller, either, by the way. But I'm supremely happy with it, artistically.

When you hear authors say you should write "the book of your heart" or you should write the book you think you're not ready to write, what they're really saying is that artistically, you are going to do better by taking the chains off -- and those chains are financial expectation. Writing for other people means looking over your shoulder constantly and second-guessing yourself. It means giving up on ideas you love because you don't think they'll sell. It means letting other people be in charge of your career instead of you, becoming a real "hack" writer by selling your skills to the highest bidder.

I'm not saying you never choose between ideas. Of course you do. Most authors have far too many ideas to ever write them all. But don't choose only ideas you think are most commercial. First of all, you are probably wrong. I read exhaustively in the fields I write in, but I can't predict trends. No one can. Writing what you are passionate about is more likely to create a trend than anything else.

But here is another reason not to write for other people: at the end of the day, are you going to regret it? Are you going to sit around with the books you didn't write for the rest of your life, wishing you had more courage? How will that affect you as a writer? I don't think it ever does anything good. You'll start to think of your work as product rather than expression and art, which is what it really is. If that sounds fatuous to you, well, all I can do is sigh. It probably would have sounded that way to me when I started out, too. Like giving up and settling for something smaller since I couldn't get what I really wanted.

I see authors who keep on writing sequels or prequels or anything related to the one book that was successful that they wrote, and it makes me a little sad. They are doing what their readers and their publishers want -- or think they do. But what books are we as a public missing out on because they're doing what they think we want? What chances aren't they taking that they should take? What revolutionary things might they try that they didn't? What controversial ideas might they make people understand but won't?

I don't have to make money at my writing career, and perhaps that is why I have this perspective rather than another one. Maybe I'm just too Ivory Tower because of my privilege here. But I think being a writer isn't at all like making a better widget. Don't sell yourself short by trying to sell yourself high. Write and invent on a new level. Maybe readers will get it and maybe they won't. But you will unfold a new level of creativity within yourself if you do this, and I don't think you will ever regret that.

Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison

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