A Writer’s Lament

I go through periods when I get obsessed with something to the exclusion of everything else. The first one I remember is Star Trek. I bought everything on it I could find. I knew the name of every part on the Enterprise, the various departments, who worked where, ad nauseum. I wrote a Star Trek book (I may even still have it around here somewhere), and followed that with a SF romance. Neither was very original, but I enjoyed writing them. In fact, I lifted my pen name from that space book; Theo Fenraven was the name of the main character. Think Han Solo, only cooler. 😉

After that, it was horses. Then gardening and the back-to-the-earth movement. Astronomy. And more.

When I want to learn something, I dive in and splash around for a while before coming up for breath and the next subject of interest.

Each phase lasted anywhere from a few weeks to several months, except for books, which are and continue to be an obsession.  Role playing on Twitter with AJ lasted a good two or three years, and when that began to wane, I naturally turned back to writing. This coincided with a layoff, so unexpectedly, I had time to give to it.

I was rusty as hell. If you write, you can’t ever stop or you forget a lot and have to learn it all over again. For six months, until I got another job, I wrote several hours every day. It was fanfic, because I wasn’t ready to create original characters yet, and reading some of it today is embarrassing. I wasn’t as good as I thought, not in the early stuff anyway. However, I pumped out a full-length book and lots and lots of short stories that summer and fall.

And I improved and dared to think I could get published. Online publishers were making their presence known, and in a genre I didn’t know existed: m/m. I still remember exactly where I was when I got that first contract. I recall the overwhelming excitement I felt. I couldn’t sit still for hours, I was so high from the validation. I was a writer. But I couldn’t say that out loud and mean it for another couple  of years.

I kept writing. Every spare moment, I sat at the computer and spun my tales. I was on fire in those days. I had no idea what kind of money writers in the genre were making, and a part of me didn’t care. It was enough to see my stories for sale at Amazon.

Four years went by, and I figured out the money thing and realized I wasn’t making much. It started to gnaw at me, knowing a lot of writers were selling more than me. Hell, I’d never made the Amazon top ten in the gay category, and I kept asking myself why. I’d always been highly competitive. More, I was always good at everything I did. No matter what sport or hobby I took up, I aimed to be the best and often was.

But if you judge a person’s success by how much money they make at what they do, by all accounts, I was a failure. It got so every time I released a book, I expected it to fail. That way I wouldn’t be taken by surprise or build up false hope that this would be the one. I could say, “Yeah, expected that. Better luck next time, right?” But I didn’t mean it, because I knew “next time” would be as disappointing.

Then depression set in, and I wouldn’t write for weeks. In fact, I planned to quit several times, but always, an idea lured me back, and I’d spend all my waking hours at the computer again while elsewhere, people were doing things and going places. Falling in and out of love. Getting laid.  Changing jobs and moving to other cities. I admit there were times when I hated my muse because she kept me from participating in “real life.” I still don’t remember what I did before writing took over my life.

Anyone who tells you writing a book is easy is full of shit. Either that, or they are a savant, and it comes easily to them for some reason. I struggle with the words. Getting the sentence right sometimes makes me crazy. Finishing a chapter is always cause for celebration, and typing The End makes me manic with relief and joy that it’s done at last! Another book is ready to go out and meet its readers, however few they might be.

And then I have to start the process all over again… and for what? Writers are masochists. Gluttons for punishment. We should all be locked up to keep the streets safe from raving madmen who mumble about foreshadowing and subplots, and see scenes in their heads instead of the park right in front of their eyes.

The muse began to back off. She became more silent than insistent. When I checked the numbers at Amazon (by far the place where most of my books sell), I was discouraged. Knowing I don’t sell much, I rarely did this. Why give myself grief and wreck the day, yeah?

Only one book I released ever sold more than a hundred copies: Wolf Bound.

Let’s put this into perspective, shall we? There are well over three hundred million people living in America, and way more if you throw in the UK, France, and Canada. Ninety-nine percent of my books sell in these four countries. Let’s say the population totals five hundred million people. Now let’s cut that down to the people who read, who buy books and don’t steal them. Let’s make it a nice round number of twenty million. Hell, we can cut that in half if you want to be fussy. We’re down to ten million people in four big countries who might possibly buy books.

We have to bring that number down even further to jettison those who wouldn’t buy an m/m book if you paid them, and we’re left with one million people. We could quibble about this statistic, too, because I admittedly made it up to prove a point, and here it is:

Wolf Blood has sold 143 copies to date. I deducted the assholes who bought the book, read it, and returned it for a full refund from Amazon. There were a sizable number of them.

Lately, I’ve begun to wonder if writing is not a compulsion–something I must do–but rather an obsession on the wane. All the others diminished in urgency until they were nothing but a memory. I don’t miss the world of Star Trek. I don’t care if I ever plant another tomato or ride another horse. Been there, done that.

It terrifies me to think I may have reached the same point with writing. And then I think about selling a measly 143 copies of my bestselling book to date, and I realize I may want to give up writing because, after all these years, I’m not making any money at it. Shouldn’t I interpret this to mean the public has spoken? The giveaways, blog hops, guest posts, and interviews made NO DIFFERENCE AT ALL. That, or I’m just not writing books people want to read, so why bother?

Whatever the reason, I’m not having much fun lately at the laptop unless you count the adventure games I’ve been playing to avoid the latest WIP. And the jigsaw puzzle laid out in the spare room. And the scooter in the courtyard that I hop on anytime I need an excuse to not write. If I don’t write, I won’t reach the end. If I don’t reach the end, I don’t have a book to release. If I don’t put something out there, I don’t have to be crushed when it doesn’t sell.

This is the main reason why I’ve decided to switch to mainstream. I can and probably will fail there too, but there’s a larger pool of people buying books, and after four plus years in m/m, I’ve gotten the message. So it’s time to switch genres and fail EVEN BIGGER.

*sigh*

_____________

I almost didn’t post this, but then I thought, “You should know what this author goes through to write and release a book. You should know the self-doubt that eats at my soul and the depression that makes me not want to get up some days. You should know this is a hard road to walk… and I’m pretty sure I’m not alone.”

Why don’t I STOP? Why don’t I give it up and move on to the next obsession? I don’t know. I honestly can’t figure it out. What a strange profession writing is, to inflict such pain on the person wielding the words, and have that person keep coming back for more.

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About Fenraven

Fenraven happily lives in south Florida, where it is really hot most of the year. Find him on Twitter, Google +, and Facebook by searching on 'fenraven'.
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63 Responses to A Writer’s Lament

  1. AJ Rose says:

    The fact that you don’t just stop tells me it’s not like Trek or horses or any of that other stuff. It’s more like the books. Writing is part of you, just like reading. Switching genres (and we’ve discussed my opinion on that so I won’t repeat…and I know how much you hate repetition) could be career evolution. Just like the body evolves to deal with challenges, so is your writing. This could be your brain’s way of rewiring your need to write. But I think one thing is clear: your brain won’t let you quit because you’re not done. You still have stories to tell.

  2. cindyls1969 says:

    Everything you said is true…and yet here I am struggling through yet another WIP. Switching to mainstream isn’t an option for me. Every interaction between and man and a woman I’ve ever written sounds stilted and stupid. So, I’ll keep going as I am because I don’t know what else to do…and to be honest, I still love it to death.

  3. Helena Stone says:

    Phew, what a post. My heart broke for you when I read it.

    The easy response would be to point out the host of artists who were never recognized during their lifetime. I don’t have any authors at hand right now but there are a lot of painters I could mention who never saw a cent while alive and years, decades, centuries later sell for millions. But that really doesn’t help you at all.

    I firmly believe that success as an author is down to pure luck at least as much as it is the result of talent. If there was any justice in the world your books, and books by other good authors I could mention, would sell millions of copies and books like 50 shades of grey wouldn’t even see the light of day. But obviously, that’s not how it works. And pinpointing what exactly will catch the ‘public’s’ imagination is next to impossible as far as I can see.

    I guess I could tell you to put yourself ‘out there’ more. A lot of authors seem to work with and depend on ‘street teams’ and groups of fans to get the word out and their books sold. It is not something I can imagine ever doing (the idea of going to this author meet in London, where I’ll no no one, on my own even scares the shit out of me). And I’ve got the feeling it’s not something that would come naturally to you either.

    What I do want you to know is that I would really miss your books if you ever decided to stop writing. My love affair with your words will never make you rich, but I will continue to be one of those buyers for as long as you keep the books coming.

    I want to thank you for this post, much as it saddens me. It does put things in perspective. Until now my only dream was to write something that might be publishable. That will probably continue to be true right up until the moment something with my name on the cover becomes available. I’ve no doubt that I will be looking at sales figures and hoping for a massive following from that moment on as well. But, as I just said to Dermot, after I summarized your post for him, “if my publishing career is your get-rich-quick scheme, you may want to think again”.

    Sorry for the long reply. I didn’t mean to take over your blog but did want to share all the thoughts your post provoked.

    • Thanks for commenting. I didn’t mind the length at all. 😉

      On the one hand, I know I need to put the money thing out of my mind, but that’s difficult when every dollar counts on a day-to-day level. And after writing so much and getting so little, I can’t shake off the feeling of perpetual failure. It’s like touching the stove burner over and over again: “Yup. OUCH. Hurts.” And ten minutes later doing it again: “Still hurts!” Except I can choose to stop touching the hot stove; it’s not easy to decide to stop writing.

      • Helena Stone says:

        The real question of course is whether or not you’d be happier if you could and did stop writing. It is quite possible (might I say likely) you’d just be swapping one form of misery for another. That’s a question only you can answer though.

  4. Angela Misri says:

    Exactly. I agree with AJ, this is something you should do and you need to stop measuring yourself against everyone else. Very few writers actually get to pay their bills with the product of their obsession. I have another job that does that. But that is a JOB and this is a CALLING. Reframe it in your head Sir.

  5. Isa says:

    I love your writing, you are to good to give up even if you only do it because you love it. I’m not sure why your books don’t sell better but I do you think you would do well in something other than romance. I loved Wolf Bound, my one complaint was how could you end it where you did? How does Jon feel being a wolf? When’s the second book? I always seem to want you to dig deeper into the story.

    I think being a writer is harder now with all the books that are being published and you are not the only author that has another job. Before ebooks you went to a bookstore and you were lucky to find three or four new books a month that you wanted to read, now you have access to hundreds of books every day.

    I can’t believe that people actually returned your book. Unless it is a paperback book and it’s a duplicate I have never in my life returned a book no matter what I thought of it and I have bought a lot of books.

    Also you should be very proud of yourself. You’ve done something a lot of people only dream about. You have a book published in your name and not just one but several. (Yes, I am jealous but I am so not a writer.)

    • I am proud of being published, and the first several times were through publishers, which validated my status as a writer good enough for others to read. But you’re correct. The market is flooded with books, and I don’t know what makes a reader choose this one rather than that one. None of us do.I guess my stories got lost along the way.

      Thanks for the encouragement.

  6. Linda Jude says:

    Hi Theo.. I’m sorry this all has you feeling so down. I’m not a writer (besides 2 fan fiction stories) but I always wanted to write one.. just for the feeling of pride and accomplishment of seeing my name in print.. but I can’t seem to stop reading long enough to do it. 🙂
    You have.. and I love your stories! I belong to a few groups on FB for m/m stories and authors are constantly advertising their books with pics, blurbs, and links to buy them. They hype ppl up with upcoming stories with teasers and pics to go with them (I know that got ruined 😢) but it works.. by the time the book is out ppl are rushing to get it. I have one group that’s a m/m book recommend group.. and I’ll gladly link your stories because they’re great and word of mouth is everything! (So if you’re getting tagged in fb land it’s probably me lol)
    I too, am sorry this is long.. and filled with things you already know. Guess I just wanted you to know you DO have fans out here that believe in you and that would miss your stories!

    • I know, and I’m thankful every day for the readers who do buy my books. I just wish there were about a hundred times that many. 😉

      • Linda Jude says:

        Just gotta get your name out there more. 😊 honestly I see authors doing their promo thing in these groups almost every day. They’re big m/m book fans who like all kinds of stories.

        • The problem is, the authors who are out their being pushy turn me off. I don’t want to be one of them. So yeah, you’re not gonna see me tooting my own horn to the point where people roll their eyes and wish I’d shut the hell up. Ain’t gonna happen.

  7. I have talked to many authors and asked them why the MM genre over mainstream and they say it’s because it calls to them. Would it be hard to go there if your mind is set in the M/M world? Maybe it’s not at all. Promo IS key. Sometimes it takes a clean slate. A new pen name a new start. If mainstream doesn’t work out for you and M/M calls you back think about a new approach. It’s worked for people before. I’m not saying don’t be you, I’m saying when going into it never repeat what didn’t work. I wish you luck in anything you do.

  8. A.M.B. says:

    I’m sorry you’ve been feeling this way. I think many of us can identify with these feelings of failure (whether we’re writers or in some other line of work). My hope is that you’ll keep writing and that your books will ultimately develop the level of readership that you deserve. It takes time, and it doesn’t always work out, but even the most famous writers had years of “failure” before they made their mark. Good luck, Theo. 🙂

  9. I agree that it would be a shame if you quit writing. You ARE talented and while 143 sales may be frustrating and depressing, remember that it’s 143 people who have faith in your work. Who enjoy what you write and hope you continue.

    That being said, I certainly understand your struggle. That’s a painful point to be at. In some ways it’s like trying to decide if you should continue to work on a relationship that has problems or break up and attempt to move on. It hurts either way and all you can do is trust your instincts to lead you in the right direction.

    Do I (and plenty of others) hope you’ll continue? Hell yes. But do what’s best for you in the long run and know that there are people cheering you on and hoping whatever decision you make brings you happiness.

  10. Ginny Farnsworth says:

    Not quite sure what to say, I think everyone else has pretty much covered it, except that I have enjoyed all your stories and have read most of them more than once.

    • I just got news my boss in St Paul is fighting prostate cancer and is in horrible pain. Can this day get any worse? 😦

      I’m glad to know you read and enjoy my books. It’s why I write them. Thanks.

  11. Jaycee Edward says:

    You’ve got mail. Go check it.

  12. JadeCrystal says:

    I really appreciate you sharing this. It helped me realize that I’m not the only one who struggles with doubt and depression and all of it. Thanks for making me feel a little less alone.

  13. Scott says:

    Thanks for the warning. Well, IF I ever get published I will remember not to set the expectations too high. As much as we would like to chase a more lucrative, secure path we are writers. We can’t change that. Just like you can’t change if you love men. It’s just the way it is. And not matter how many people beat us up, it won’t change that. Thanks for persevering. It gives me hope!

  14. Carole says:

    Wow! This post. It’s going to be hard to put a few things down that I want to say because I’m better face to face but here it goes.
    You are amazing for even putting this out there. Thank you.
    The courage that you have. First by putting your blood, sweat & tears into your stories & allowing others to see them. More so if it doesn’t bring you huge financial rewards.
    Then to share the hurt & self doubt so openly?!? I just think you are so wonderful & I don’t have an answer for what you should or shouldn’t do. I totally get that working so hard on something & going through the emotional ups & downs of the whole process is beyond tough. Just know that I love your stories & I would miss them terribly.
    And I’m beyond sorry about the news of your boss. I have personal experience w this & there are just no words that will make it better…just shit, I’m so sorry for the pain & fear he is going through & the fear & possible helplessness you might feel. Grab R & Suki & head to the beach & soak in the beauty of the life around you. Big giants monster size hugs!

    • I had second thoughts, as I mentioned. I wondered if I sounded whiny or ungrateful, and that wasn’t the point I was trying to make. I do want the readers who buy my books to know I appreciate them.

  15. Well, I feel this way myself so often it’s as though you’d sneaked a peek at my journal (I mean, seriously, down to the Star Trek and horses, too!) I keep thinking my next story will be the one that ‘breaks out’ and puts my name on the map, but the reality of it is I probably don’t write what most people want to read. I’m gradually coming to terms with that, and have decided that I’m just going to write what I enjoy and hope others enjoy it too–but like you said, when writing becomes more important than anything else–and then ceases to be fun–well, it’s time to rethink what you’re doing and why.

    I’m coming to the conclusion the problem is that I keep hoping the writing will allow me to live the kind of life I want–to exist beyond getting up, going to work, and earning a paycheck, only to never be able to take a vacation or be too exhausted in the evenings to do more than flop down on the couch when I get home.

    I used to envy people that were passionate about something. The people who swam laps before dawn, who rode their horse after work in the dark, who painted, knitted, did *anything* for the sheer joy of mastering it. When I rediscovered my passion for writing, I realized what a blessing and a curse that having a passion really is. I used to jokingly say I needed a 12 step process to kick the writing habit, and I do think that’s still true. It’s a compulsion–so why do I find so many excuses not to write these days? I think because by asking it to rescue me, I’ve taken all the fun out of the thing that used to save me. So my hope is to go back to having fun with it and worry about paying the bills some other way.

    The very fact you’re afraid this is a passion on the wane says it is more than an obsession, Theo. If this is what you’re meant to do, it won’t let you go. Hang in there.

    • Thanks for commenting, Sarah. Writing is the only passion in my life so far that refuses to let go of me. I really want to get the fun back in it, do it because I want to and not because my eye is on how much money it might make me. It seems so mercenary to think of it that way, but the truth is, we live in a culture that values money above all else, and even if one lives as simply as possible, a certain amount is required to get by. It seems wrong to spend so much time doing something that brings so little financial reward. 😦

  16. Nya Rawlyns says:

    Theo-
    I went through all those stages, including a 30 year love affair with horses. I also write M/M but of the transgressive variety so the pool of readers is even more miniscule than “mainstream” homoerotic lit. But every now and then a gay man touches my soul with a fervent thank you for bringing him a story that spoke to his heart, to the way he views his life and the people who matter, to who he is as a person.
    My feeling, the raison d’etre for writing what I do and how I do it, is if I touch just one person, just that one and I make a difference, then I’ve accomplished my goals. It’s never about money or sales or popularity for me. It’s about being the conduit for voices who otherwise would not have a say.
    Wishing you peace and contentment in whatever path you choose to take.

  17. Sara F. says:

    Oh Theo, this makes me so sad. You are very talented, and I hate it that you’ve had such a difficult time. Best of luck on the genre switch- looks like I’ll be purchasing some mainstream stuff in the future. 🙂

  18. ameliabishop says:

    You are not alone, and I think you know that by the responses here and the ones you get daily on facebook and probably other places. I read through some of the comments here and I have to say I agree with Linda who said you would sell more if you promoted more. I know it is sucky, but thinking people will magically find your work is not realistic either. And also I agree (and have said before) you would do well to get out of m/m. Not for sales, but because I think you are stronger at non-Romantic plots. (just my opinion)

    But my point in commenting was to say I can relate to the “obsessions” thing. I have done the same, but with other stuff. And I did the same thing with writing, too. Jumped in, wrote like crazy, learned a lot and improved and kept going. And just like every other thing, there came a point when it wasn’t so fun anymore. It became more serious, like work. And I put more time and money into it, hiring editors and buying cover art and spending tons of time at the keyboard. And the more you put on the line, the more the failures hurt.

    With every other little hobby/obsession I’ve had, this would be the point I’d quit. I’d have all the equipment or tools, all the books, all the knowledge – but when it got serious, make-or-break time, I’d bail. Well, I decided I’m not bailing on this. So the past few months have been harder on me, because I have realized that I have to be better at writing, even though I know I’ve improved a lot in the past year, I can’t settle for this “level”. And I have to do some uncomfortable things (like pimping my books) in order to reach a level of exposure that will help with sales. And I have to take some hits (like shitty reviews) while pretending to be “fine” and smiling on the outside.

    Writing is a shitty way to make money, that’s for sure. All art is, actually. As artists, when sales aren’t what we’d like them to be, or if we aren’t making the money we want to, I think we have two choices: either work harder at promotion, or re-define what “success” means.

    Remember you have a lot of reasons to consider yourself a success, and those reasons have nothing to do with sales figures.

  19. Jinai says:

    Love your writing! Big hugs to you!

  20. Patricia says:

    Theo, keep writing. You really need to, I can see that your soul would shrivel if you didn’t write. And your obsessions with each activity you mastered, reminds me so of my Dad and his marvelous hobbies. Once he’d done all he wanted, he’d move on. (would be 100 this year had he lived a bit longer)

  21. Yvonne says:

    Oh Fen,I’m so sorry you got such terrible news about your boss/friend today. Sending a big hug your way.
    A lot of people on here have said things about your writing a lot better than I can so I won’t try to add to them. I really enjoy your stories though and I’m sad to read you’re struggling.

  22. jaycee edward says:

    I’m swinging by here at the end of the day just to tell you that your words have stuck with me all day. Just like your words always do. And I know I’m not alone. I want you to do whatever makes you happy, Theo. That, to me, is the most important thing because I care about you as a person. But, selfishly, I hope you continue to write and share your words with us. I’ll read them no matter the genre. I know I’m not alone there either.

    • I don’t think it’s possible for me not to write, but I may not push myself so hard in the future. I’ve been writing non-stop for well over four years (honestly? I can’t remember what year that summer was I wrote like a fiend every day), and it’s quite possible I need a longish break to energize. I do want to take time to enjoy my life more. I just moved to Florida and I haven’t seen the ocean yet. That is BAD. I plan to rectify that next week.

      • Jaycee Edward says:

        That IS bad! GO! Take a break. Reboot. Enjoy life – have some fun and just relax. You’ve had a really stressful year. You deserve some down time. Or is that ‘up’ time? Hmmm…whatever it is – grab your camera and GO! (We’ll take care of the internet while you’re gone. You’re not allowed to take it with you.)

        • I’m waiting until next week. In the meantime, Suki and I visited R this afternoon. One minute after I got home, the skies opened up and it’s still pouring. I love watching it from the lanai. 🙂

  23. Lori S says:

    I’ve been thinking about your post all day. I’ve enjoyed your writing so much I find it hard to believe your numbers are so low. Makes you wonder what is wrong with all those other people 🙂 Anyway, I came across this post a little while ago. http://lovebytesreviews.com/2014/07/25/about-artistic-compromise-by-josh-lanyon/ I think you know all this, but you might find it interesting.

  24. kimberly says:

    Hi. Forgive a possibly bad analogy but a struggling actor will always love to act but they will eventually want that big break, whatever it is they strive for, especially the very talented and experienced. It sounds kind of like that. You’ve got everything needed and everything it takes – now for that break that catapults you to what you strive for.

  25. diannegray says:

    The life of a writer can be very depressing, Theo, and I can guarantee you’re certainly not alone in writing this post. I like the way you go through the math, but I’m going to put it another way to put my life into perspective (because this is all about me lol). Of the billions of people who live on this earth the percentage of those who have an education is less than 80%. Of those who are educated, those who can write a readable story would be about 20%. Of those who can write a readable story and who have been picked up by a publisher would be about 4% (if that). Those who can write a readable story and who have been picked up by a publisher and who have reached the pinnacle of the ‘best-seller’ list would be less than 1%. If you look at these stats in a pyramid shape, you’re certainly very close to the top compared to the rest of the world.

    I don’t enjoy writing when I start to think about the money, so I don’t think about the money. This isn’t easy for me because I don’t have a job, but I find if I think about the money my writing suffers. It’s a vicious circle so when I’m feeling like this I go back to the beginning and ask myself why I started writing in the first place.

    Go with mainstream if you want to, but it’s probably more important to write what you’re passionate about (I could imagine your life story would be incredibly interesting) 😉

    • Nice comment. I like your stats. Unfortunately, money is an ever-present factor in my life, and while I don’t depend on royalties to get through life, they sure do help it along. And yes, there’s a part of me that wants to be acknowledged in hard cash. Heh.

      But today, I took out a YA book that is half-finished and started editing it. And it’s good. So I think I will attempt to finish this and put it out there, not expecting to make any money off it. Because you’re right. “Money” takes all the fun out of it.

  26. nikki says:

    Don’t know if you saw this article in the New York Times a few days ago, but I thought of your post when I read it today. Keep up the good work! http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/27/opinion/sunday/failure-is-our-muse.html?module=Search&mabReward=relbias%3Ar%2C%7B%221%22%3A%22RI%3A7%22%7D

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