Am not sure I’ll ever be a Very Important Writer

Hello friends. I’ve been feeling a disinclination lately to read books, probably because I’m deep inside another novel project. Amazon sends me emails literally every other day telling me too make sure the file is in order for immediate delivery on May 6th to those who’ve preordered the Cynical Writer’s Guide to the Publishing Industry. Makes me kind of anxious! I think it’s looking pretty good, but who knows? Excited for it to be out!

I’ve finally given in and admitted to myself that I just enjoy thinking about, gossiping about, and giving advice about the publishing industry. For a long time, I felt like this was vaguely disreputable: I ought to only care about the books themselves, not about the industry! But it’s just so much fun! It’s gotten to the point where even the ridiculous things the industry does–its prejudices and indignities–just seem vaguely comical.

I know that quality isn’t entirely divorced from publishing industry success. There is some level of correlation. The better a book is, the more likely it is to succeed. But the correlation is so weak that from the individual author’s standpoint it might as well not exist, and it’s better to think of performance as being almost entirely a result of factors besides the artistic quality of the text.

Ironically, this makes it a lot easier to exist within the system. When people succeed, it’s less a cause for envy and more of a matter of interest: how did this happen? How did the sausage get made?

This is true of myself too! My books are uniformly excellent of course, but for each of them I can point to the specific factors that attracted publishers to them, and none of it had to do with my writing or storytelling.

I don’t know. For many writers, this business is a matter of extremely high stakes: either literal or figurative life and death. They need to succeed, either for financial reasons or because their entire self-worth is based upon succeeding. That’s no longer true for me.

In fact, I have so much fun thinking about and writing about the publishing industry that sometimes I even wonder if I want to keep writing novels. The work I do with my cynical guides seems so much more incisive and necessary to me than my novels–its a place where I can see my voice is really needed–and afterwards going back to writing a novel, about a bunch of fictional people, seems sort of minor.

When writing fiction, one has to constantly return one’s focus to what’s most important. What is the core of this book’s appeal? Why am I writing this? What need or longing does it fulfill? That, even more than questions of craft, is the most essential part of the process. Without that, you might produce a salable work, but to what end?

In my fiction, I think the core of my interest has always been this idea of heroism in the real world. Given that most people seem rather conservative and set in their ways, what prompts someone to stand out? What makes someone act differently? Of course these ideas are deeply submerged in my writing, and I don’t think I’ve yet written a book that expresses them in the way I want, but they’re one reason I keep writing.

At the same time, I’ve grown more interested over time in just telling a good story. I used to think all you needed in a book was to have a compelling voice, full of barely-suppressed longing, and that would be enough to carry the reader through the book. And it is, more or less, but very few books pair that voice with a story that’s really firing on all cylinders. Over the last four or five years, I’ve gotten very interested in how voice, character, plot, and theme can all support each other, so the end product has a unitary quality. To me, that’s a substantial component of what I’d call the ‘beauty’ of a novel. It’s not necessarily the thing that makes a novel timeless, but it does make the novel a pleasure to read, and it helps the novel say whatever it has to say.

But is any of this really that urgent or intense? Are these the motivations that would keep someone writing late at night, on an empty stomach, even as they cough blood into a handkerchief? No, probably not. It would be very nice to feel that terrible urgency! I mean I definitely felt it when I wrote my first published novel Enter Title Here and when I wrote the book before that, which got me my first agent. In both of those cases, I felt like I had a responsibility to myself to put this perspective out into the world. And for a long time after selling my first book I was stymied by the feeling that writing wasn’t worthwhile unless it was urgent in that way.

But you can’t manufacture that feeling. You can’t will it into being. It’s a result of everything going on in your life. I’ll never again be unpublished, with something to prove. I’ll never be twenty-seven again (the age when I wrote the first draft of Enter Title Here).

When I was younger, I was so certain I’d be a leading literary light someday–that I’d be an Important Writer. That’s still something I’d dearly love to be, and it’s not the most unlikely prospect in the world (I’m still working steadily on my literary novel in the background). I’ve lately felt much more confident in my style–in the line-level writing itself, which, although not ornate, is rhythmic and dense. But the title also means less to me. I mean it’s all written in the wind anyway. Very excited though to be sharing my cynical guide with you soon! Preorder now to get it on the 6th!

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