Tuesday, September 3, 2013

What is a successful writing career? (And a tiny announcement.)

Hello, everybody!

 Don't worry, this won't be a long (long, long, long, LONG) post parsing the various terms and definitions of success, and backing it up with convoluted allegories or metaphors.
I'm not going to beat you over the head with my personal views on what makes a successful writer or how to achieve success (my way or no way, of course). I won't be debating traditional publishing, self publishing, indie publishing, rankings, reviews, writing styles or whether goodreads is stupiculous and should be shut down completely.
Aw, look at the wee ickle puffer fish. She must be lecturing about how her way is best.

Because, frankly, nobody wants to hear it. The world is filled with opinions and we've all had enough of the debates. So, let me just jump to the chase: for me, a successful writing career means that I can read my own books.
 I can hear the head-scratching... But bear with me. (Not a metaphor, I promise!) I heard once that Johnny Depp doesn't watch his own films because as he's sitting there, all he can think is how he should have moved just a bit differently, or inflected a different word, or paused a bit longer. It's torturous for him to watch what's already been set, and wish he could do it just a bit differently. As he matures, he said he's getting better at trusting his craft and being patient with his own work, but it's been a hard road.

 That is success. Not the millions he makes from every movie, but being comfortable in his own skin.

For me, even though I've got four books on the top of the genre lists, I don't feel successful. Don't get me wrong. I'm happy with how everything has gone lately. It's been a super fun experiment and I'd do it all over in a heartbeat. But I can't read my own books. Sure, I can see a funny line or think a plot point worked well, but it's not writing that makes me swoon.
I'm not a jealous person. You have a huge house? (Great!) You are a perfect size 4? (Great!) You love to do physics problems in your head? (What is wrong with you!? Oh, sorry... wrong response.)

 Jealousy isn't one of my main emotions. But when I read Diana Wynne Jones,  Holly Black, Frank McCourt, Franny Billingsley, George MacDonald, Barbara Kingsolver, John Updike, Suzanne Collins, Mary Ann Shaffer, Scott Westerfeld, Neil Gaiman, Maya Angelou, Jeanne Ray, Jonathon Stroud, Laura Whitcomb, Eion Colfer, Nick Hornby, etc., etc., etc.
I turn a bit green.
I want to do what they do.

But how?   There are a hundred competing voices in the writing community, from agents to publishers to bloggers, all yelling for attention. There are a million writing books, writing blogs, and writing groups out there. A thousand different views on voice, structure, and characterization. And if you took a hundred years and read through it all, it still wouldn't be what I need. Because what success means to me, is to be able to trust my craft and be comfortable with my work. I need someone to look at my writing and show me what needs work.

I've taken bad writing advice before. I've cut where I needed to add, I've worked on prose instead of plot, I've bowed to current opinion on what is 'too much' or 'too scary' or 'too honest'. I don't want to sign up for another round of 'let's not offend the reader'. I don't want to write what's already been written, just so it can be marketed while interest is high in Amish or vampires or Downtown Abbey-era England.

So, I need to work hard on my craft, but not lose my creativity. I need someone I can trust, someone I admire. But it's not like you can find brilliant authors just waiting around to teach new writers. Know why? Because they're busy. They're writing, plotting, crafting. They also are not typically teachers. We all know teaching is a calling, a vocation. If you've ever been taught by a teacher who didn't want to teach, you know exactly what I'm saying.
For a long time now I've been playing like a pirate, putting out ebooks and fulfilling contracts to the best of my ability. But I want to work like a captain. I want to be able to sail this ship without being hounded by the suspicion that I'm coasting along the Great Barrier Reef, skimming against the sharp edges of coral and tearing jagged holes in the hull.
It goes against popular wisdom to try and fix what's not broken. I mean, my books are selling hundreds of copies a day! I'm juggling so many projects I don't hardly have time to sleep! But then I read one of those really beautiful books again, find that phrase that speaks so clearly to what I've wanted to say but couldn't find the words, and I know that an Amazon ranking is not success to me. It's the ability to write, and reach, a reader with a story that I know is the very best it can be.
I'd like to spend my days like this... but in the end I would have wasted the precious time I've been given.
So, I'm stepping back and taking a chance. I'm signing up for some serious hard labor. It won't be all fluff and hugs, high points and flashes of brilliance. (Please God, just one flash of brilliance?) It won't be ladybugs riding a perfect dandelion puff to the other side of the garden.
It will be a combination of this...
and this...
and this.
Starting in October, I'll be diving into a four month course with Franny Billingsley, National Book Award Finalist for 'Chime'. You can visit her web page here. I never thought I'd be able to find a writer I admire so much, who actually teaches writing, one on one, to beginning writers. It's an opportunity I can't pass up. It's now or never. If I put it off for some other time, some other year, because my schedule is too packed with churning out books, I will regret it forever.
I remember when I was in college, the more I admired a professor, the harder it was for me to write a paper for him or her. I was controlled by the fear of not being good enough, of what they would think of my very rudimentary ideas on the subject they knew so well. It paralyzed me to the point that I would begin papers just days before they were due. Now that I'm older (and wiser, supposedly) I can see that I was constructing a little escape hatch for my pride. If the paper was bad, it wasn't because I didn't know the subject. It was because I wrote it in five hours.
Fear of failure, fear of success, they're both not worth my energy. I want to write and I want to write well. No matter how many contracts I sign or copies I sell, if I crack open a book and cringe, then I'm not feel 'successful'.
I admit I'm a little nervous. I haven't been in school for 17 years. I've had deadlines and some self-imposed dates, but nothing that came close to homework. I'm committed to learning how to craft a story in a way that makes me proud of my work. It's not magic and I'm not expecting miracles but I'm ready to dive in.

 Wishing you all the best success in the coming months. Whatever it means to you, I hope you get the chance to step away from the rat race for just a bit and commit to creating something uniquely your own.