Friday, May 20, 2011

And your chicks for free

"I want," said the student sitting across the desk from me, "to write books that will sell. How do I do that?"

Honestly, I was kerflummoxed by the question. (Avoid writing books in which the words kerflummoxed and fisticuffs appear. Make sure your prose is not in shimmering alexandrines.) I read a wide variety of books, in a wide variety of genres, in styles ranging from the transparent to the baroque. Many of them are books I love. All the ones I've finished are books I like, and I try to buy books if at all possible, because, as someone who hopes to receive money from writing books one day, I like to support the people who are writing them now. Which is a long and involved way of saying that my first response wanted to be "All sorts of books sell." (Write a good one.)

But I was pretty sure what I was being asked wasn't "How do I write a book that will cause an agent to agree to represent me, and an editor to buy they book, and then various people, many of whom I have never met, to exchange money for the work of my brain?" (Write. Revise. Don't give up when it's hard.) I was pretty sure I was being asked "How do I write books that are going to become huge bestsellers, causing me to accrue wealth beyond my wildest dreams and to become the subject of the lust of attractive people?" (Elevator pitch: Attractive vampire with a conscience joins Navy SEAL anti-terrorism team. Finds true love.)

Dude. I do not know. Sacrifice a goat at the dark of the moon? Run around your writing desk thrice widdershins, cursing the Oxford comma all the while?

All sorts of books sell, and as far as I can tell, there isn't a magic formula to predict what is going to sell eleventy billion copies and what is going to get quietly remaindered. Harry Potter got double digit rejection letters, guys. No one knows.

And even if there were a magic formula (take three parts peril, mix with two parts romance, add one dash strangeness and stir), even if I knew it, I wouldn't share. Not because I'm selfish, and don't want to see other people succeed. I want everyone who decides to be brave enough to create something to succeed. But because I think a variety of creation is good. I think looking out and seeing shelves full of different stories is amazing.

I don't remember exactly what I said, but I wish it had been this: "Writing is hard, and it's a profession in which there are no guarantees. Write the thing that only you can write, and put enough of yourself in that book to make the writing of it mean something to you, so on the days that are hard you have a reason to keep going, and on the days that go well, you have a reason to celebrate." I don't know if that will be a book that will sell, but it will be a book worth writing.


  1. I wished so badly when you wrote "...even if I knew it, I wouldn't share" that you would've continued that it was because discovering that magic formula is what being a writer is all about.

    I do totally agree though- if your writing is sincere and self reflective, the same people who would enjoy being your friend would enjoy reading you.

    I think in the end, books and mentors can guide you, but yoyr heart will define you; every writer's greatest talent is knowing the exact story that they'd want to hear.

  2. Toni: Thanks

    Mike: I do think that discovering that magic formula is what being a writer is all about. And I think that the magic changes, from story to story. My friend Neil (who I listen to a lot, when it comes to this writing thing) says you never know how to write a novel, you only know how to write that novel. The magic always changes.

  3. "you never know how to write a novel, you only know how to write that novel. The magic always changes."

    Okay, I want that on a pillow. Or on the front of my notebook. I wanted to pop in to say thanks for writing this. Because it made me feel better. Writing isn't math. There's no one correct answer, or secret way to do something. You just do it, and you find what works. I think, every now and then, everyone who writes needs to be reminded of that. ~Ali