Are you a Serious Writer?
“I am not writing for the audience of today. I am writing for readers 200 years from now.”
At my first writing conference, I was rather startled when an author made this declaration. I had enough problems wrestling with my current book. I never had a thought of people two centuries from now. I won’t name this author because I don’t see her name mentioned anymore. This doesn’t mean that her work won’t spring into popularity in a couple of centuries, by the way. The popularity of writers seems to wax and wane with the times.
For instance, do you know who Booth Tarkington was? At one time, about a century ago, he was the most popular writer in the English language. He won many awards, including multiple Pulitzer Prizes, and had several books made into movies. He was once considered as important as Mark Twain. Years later, he was also used as an example of a writer insanely popular in his lifetime who faded to near oblivion after he died.
I would be thrilled to have even a smidgen of Tarkington’s career, but I have no enthusiasm for entertaining thoughts about future readers discovering my novels. Why? Because I take my writing seriously, but I try not to take myself too seriously.
Throughout my life, I have been constantly drawn back to writing. Sometimes I wrote because I needed money and sometimes I wrote because I had stories to tell that I couldn’t keep inside me. I had long periods of not writing, but like any true addict, I was always on the brink of slipping into my addiction.
Like most authors, writing doesn’t come easily to me. Some aspects of writing are no problem, but the entire process has steps that are laborious and time-consuming. Because I was originally trained as a poet, I keep fiddling with words and rhythms. With a fifty-line poem that’s acceptable, but with a novel it can result in a work never getting done. More importantly, detail fiddling with a novel can reach a point where you are no longer improving it. You’re just changing it.
Without a deadline to work against, I can get too involved in a book. I wasn’t satisfied with the pacing of one of my books and rewrote it six times. It wasn’t reviewed any better than any other of my books. On the other hand, the book I wrote when I had a demanding “day job” (heading a department with 600 people and a budget of $220 million), came out fine. To meet my publishing deadline, I forced myself to work every lunch hour and evening until I wrote 1,000 words a day. When I ran out of time for editing and had to submit the book by the deadline, I considered it my weakest book. Fortunately, the critics didn’t agree, and this book got the best reviews of any of my books.
Perhaps there’s a lesson to be learned there.
In any case, I try to remember I am not a literary superstar, but I also remain proud of the things I have accomplished. If you don’t do this (as another writer told me), you will have a career of impossible highs punctuated by petty insults.
I’ll give you some examples. After my first book was published, I was at a publisher’s cocktail party, dutifully wearing my little name tag. Unfortunately, the room was rather dark, and people had trouble reading the names of the authors. A woman came up to me and started scrutinizing my name tag, trying to see who I was. “Don’t bother,” I told her, “I’m a nobody.” “Oh,” she said, “Thanks!” And she wandered to hunt bigger game (or maybe bigger names).
Another time I was booked by my publisher to sign at a big box bookstore in the LA area for Mystery Night. When I looked at the store’s website, I saw there were two Mystery Nights scheduled for the week of my signing. I called the bookstore to confirm which night they wanted me. Without identifying myself, I asked the clerk who answered the phone about the Mystery Night guests. “Well, on Wednesday we are hosting Sue Grafton. She writes those alphabet mysteries. She’s just terrific and we’re all excited about having her here.” The clerk fairly gushed with anticipation. Then I asked who would be the other guest, the clerk said, “Oh, just some guy you’ve never heard of.”
Later, having a chance to meet and talk with the late Sue Grafton, I can see why the clerk was excited. But I think I’m a reasonably entertaining speaker and, at least in the small pond I operate in, there is a chance my name might be known. I’ll give you some examples of this, too.
I was in the Indianapolis Airport after a mystery convention, talking to two other authors while waiting for a plane. As we stood there, someone walked up to us with one of my books and he asked me to sign it. As I signed it, I told the fan “I’ll pay you $50 if you do this in any other airport, assuming fellow writers are nearby to witness it.”
When I visited my publisher in France, I was told my samurai books were best sellers (something I knew from the royalty checks). They proposed a spontaneous contest on their website, asking me to sign my books to give away to the first five people who could identify me. I told the marketing people I didn’t think anyone could recognize me in France, but I was happy to sign the books. They took pictures of me signing and the Internet Marketing Manager went off to post the pictures. In a few minutes, he came back with a big grin on his face. “You were identified in less than ten minutes by about 50 people,” he said. My jaw dropped (and I vowed to behave better in public, at least in France).
This brings me to the point of this blog. I was on the Los Angeles NPR Radio station being interviewed for the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. I finished my little pitch about my mysteries and the next writer was introduced. She said, “I thought this program would involve writers of serious intent. I’m shocked I’m on the same program as a mystery writer. I am a serious writer.” Sensing a potential controversy that might enliven the program, the host came back to me and said, “What do you think of that?” I responded, “Currently 25% of all fiction sold are mysteries. It doesn’t matter how serious you are if no one reads your work. You can’t force people to read your books, no matter how many great ideas or literary merit you think your work has.”
So, remember: Take your writing seriously, but try not to take yourself too seriously.