Finding My Place in the Publishing World

UntitledpI’ve been reading promotional materials (again!) looking for ways to increase book sales, and one of the articles, in a rehash of the idea of positive thinking, said that if you’re not satisfied with the way your writing career is going, don’t ever let it be known but speak and act as if you were a bestselling author.

In other words, don’t ever let people know the truth, and that goes against the spirit of this blog. I suppose it isn’t smart of me to talk about my struggles to find my place in the publishing world because it probably does show me in a negative light. In fact, one friend emailed me and said, “If you want to stop writing and pity yourself because you think you are a failed author, go ahead. That’s your choice.”

Regardless of how I come across, I am not negative or pessimistic. I have every intention of making my living as a writer, and if I thought claiming I were a bestselling author would get me there, I’d do it. Or maybe not. There are so many authors out there claiming to be more than they are that the world doesn’t need another one.

Despite the contention of my friend, I do not consider myself a failed author. In fact, I am a successful author. I’ve written five books that I’m proud of and that many people love. I just haven’t been able to turn them into financial successes yet.

I see myself on a writer’s journey, though I admit I’m going through a crisis of faith, struggling to find reasons to write. (I’m also struggling to find reasons to live, but that doesn’t make me a failed human being.) For some writers, writing is their reason for living, but although that isn’t my reason for living (I am not compelled to write; it’s something I choose to do), I have a hunch that my reason for living is tied up somehow with my reason for writing. (Writing fiction, that is. I do write every day for this blog, partly for the discipline of it and partly to help me figure out my place in the world, the world of grief, and the publishing world.)

I began writing fiction more than a decade ago as a means of bringing my dying life mate/soul mate in close. Someone who is dying drifts away until finally he begins to disconnect himself totally from life, and I couldn’t bear to let the disconnect from me happen sooner than it needed to. For several years, until he drifted too far away, I wrote at night, then read the passages to him in the morning, and he’d let me know if I nailed the scene, usually with a small, impish smile. If I didn’t get a passage quite right, I didn’t get a smile, but I got help figuring out where I went wrong.

That’s why I used to write — to see his smile. And that’s why writing has become such an angst-ridden subject for me. My reason for writing died when he did.

A friend (the same friend mentioned above now that I think of it) once sent me a snippet of a poem:

A voice calls, “Write, write!”
I say, “For whom shall I write.”
And the voice replies,
“For the dead whom thou didst love.”

—John Berryman

Maybe someday writing for the dead whom I didst love will be reason enough to write, but for now, I’m still searching for my place in the world and the publishing world. And if the search — or my angst — comes across as negative, so be it. Besides, when I start acting as if I am a bestselling writer, I want it to be for real.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+

Is it Better to Write for Yourself or to Write for Readers?

For many writers, maybe even most, finding a readership is crucial. They write to entertain, which they cannot do without readers. Or they write to communicate, which they also cannot do without readers. Or they write to sell so they can continue to write, and for that, they need not only readers but customers — readers who are willing to buy books.

The lucky writers are those who write the books they love and the books they love just happen to be the books readers want to read and buy. The rest of us have a conundrum to deal with — do we write the books we need to write, regardless of what readers want, or do we try to write the books we think readers will read?

In discussion after discussion, writers put forth the idea that to get readers, one must write what readers want. And perhaps that is the smart and lucrative way to write, but it’s not the only way.  Besides, if I look at the situation from my point of view as a reader, it seems a cheat. I want a story filtered through the writer’s life/voice, not something the author thinks I would like.

In my case, I have no choice — I can only write the stories that speak to me. Even if I wanted to write solely in the hopes of getting a large readership, I’m not sure I could do it. Readers can tell when they are being pandered to, though there are exceptions to this, most notably a couple of now very wealthy men who write romances for women. For some reason, most women don’t feel the manipulation of those books and so fall in love with the stories, while others, perhaps less interested in the romance genre, hate the feeling of someone trying to tug on their emotions by writing books they think women would like. To a certain extent, all books are manipulation — authors write in such a way to elicit emotional reactions from readers — but sometimes, like with these men, the tugs are quite apparent.

Writers who also read the genre they love know the nuances of the genre (assuming, for example, there are nuances in category romance) and so can more easily write to their readers tastes. But what if you can’t write genre fiction (or, more probably, can’t force yourself to write it)? You end up writing for yourself.

There might not be money to be made by writing for oneself, but there are other advantages. For one thing, you can make your writing as intelligent as you wish without having to worry about losing your audience. For another, there will always be one person who loves your work — you. And there is a third reason, perhaps the most important: We are so much more than we know, and writing is a way of communicating not just with readers, but with the unknown us. If we just write what we know we know, we are the poorer for it. And maybe, just maybe, by writing the book only we can write, we will end up writing something spectacular.

Why is Writing Important?

With such a staggering number of books on the market and more to come, why is writing important? Only a small percentage of writers have ever made a living at writing (and most of those were people who wrote books on how to make a living at writing), and that percentage seems to be shrinking. More than 80% of books sell fewer than 100 copies. Maybe 50% sell only about ten copies or so. So, why write? The wonder of writing fiction is that a story born in one mind grows to full power in another mind. But what if you don’t have readers, or at least not many? And why take the time to learn the craft since some of the books that do sell are poorly written tripe?

If nothing else, this conundrum that writers face today makes us focus on what we get out of the writing process itself.

For me, writing is something that connects the parts of my life, even though I don’t always write. I once quit a job to write a novel, but found I had no intrinsic talent. I was young and didn’t have the wisdom to know that there are two types of talent — the intrinsic kind that’s called talent, and the learned kind that is in itself a kind of talent, the kind that that comes from trial and error. Even if I had known about the second kind, I didn’t have the patience to write the million words it supposedly takes to learn how to write, so when life got in the way, I let it. Other things simply were more important. (Some people believe you have to have a passion for writing, that it has to take precedence over everything else, but writing is not always “life” nor is life always “writing.” If one does not live, one has no reason to write.) Years later when my life had pretty much come to a standstill because of various misfortunes, I took up writing again, but when my life mate died, I lost the desire to write fiction. Perhaps one day the desire will come back along with a different focus and possibly a different talent.

Writing for me is also an emotional outlet and a way of discovering why I feel the way I do. While struggling to deal with the death of my long-time mate, I poured out my heart and my soul and my grief into journal entries, letters to my deceased mate, and blog posts. I don’t know if I could have survived without that outlet. A book compiled of some of the best writings of that time, Grief: The Great Yearning, has now been published, yet when I wrote during this time (except for the blogs, of course), I had no expectation of my words ever being read. I wrote for me.

Reasons for writing are as varied as those who write. For example, in a recent online discussion, horror writer Rob M. Miller said, “I write because I have something to say, and I want it to be heard.” Even if there was a chance he wouldn’t be heard, he would still write because, as he says, “I write to self-explore my mind, to self-medicate, to share my worldview.”

I like those reasons for writing. Too often when I ask writers why they write, they say they only want to entertain, which makes me cringe. If entertaining others is the only reason for writing, then why bother? The “others” can find a lot more entertaining things to do than to slog through someone’s unseasoned prose. But if you’re writing to share your worldview or to explore your mind, then your writing actually has value. Of course we want people to enjoy what we write, but entertainment can’t be the only reason to write, unless it’s for our own entertainment. Writing is a good way of passing the time. It’s better than watching television and it could change someone’s life, perhaps our own.