3 Surprising Things About Being a Novelist

Blog: What's the Big Idea?

3 Surprising Things About Being a Novelist

Ah, the artistic life. Sleep late. Vacation at will. Stick it to the man. Watch the royalties roll in.

Yeah, um—not so much! It’s more like this:

Wonder whether anyone will ever pay you for the work you just agonized over.

If someone does—be they publisher or potential internet troll—you’d better believe you won’t feel footloose and fancy-free.

So you can’t avoid the low-grade anxiety, even if you do set your own hours.

But, before all that, lose sleep over whether you executed your craft successfully in a field where the only objective measurement is net sales, which are nearly meaningless given the devilish serendipity of competition for cultural attention: A competition that involves not just books but everything in the world that lays claim on a potential reader’s time.

Like this note. *sigh*

The first aspect of creative life is creation. For most of us, creation is a bit like playing obstetrician at the birth of a grizzly cub who’s deeply ambivalent about leaving the womb. In this borderline-insane analogy—which just came to me, perhaps because I saw The Revenant last night—the mother is the rules of nature and the cub is the work of art. And off to the side, anxiously looking on, stands some hairy guy with sharp teeth and a bad attitude just waiting for an excuse to maul you.

I’ll let you decide who the hairy guy is. My editor? Experts on the subject matter? The reading public?

When you’re in a creative trance—a state that doesn’t occur often enough to get you to the finish line, believe me—you can put these critics out of your mind. But when you’re struggling, they’re there in the room, pecking at your ego. (In fact, to a great extent they’re your superego.)

Against all these odds, if you’re diligent, a draft of the work does emerge, leading us to:

Aspect #2: Self-judgment—aka, craft.

All successful writers are good self-editors. When you deliver a bear cub, you know pretty much the moment the light hits whether it’s dead or alive. Not true of a first-draft novel (or any work of art).

The first instinct of any writer is pride at having spit out enough words in sequence to call the thing a novel. Professional writers understand this instinct must be treated like an unwelcome house guest, indulged for a couple of days and then shown the door.

At this point, you roll up your sleeves and try to read something that you’ve lived with for months and years as if you’re reading it cold. It’s a little like trying to evaluate your ugliest kid’s face the way a stranger would. Except that, of course, nature may grow your kid into Prince Charming with scarcely any help from you. Whereas that sheaf of paper, covered with words, weighing on your desk, will only be changed through your intense intervention.

Everything should be up for grabs upon this self-evaluation, but every weakness you spot on re-reading turns into a dagger at the heart, if you let it.

The hardest thing about the creative life for me, however, is Aspect #3: selling the damn thing.

The other day someone asked how I would compare being traditionally published to being independently published or self-published. There are differences I won’t go into here, but what all forms of publishing have in common is that success often hinges on salesmanship more than anything inherent in the work of art.

No matter what your taste, there are a lot of good books out there—as well as a lot of bad ones. A few of each variety reach the bestseller lists while lots more sink without a trace.

The salesmanship aspect remains a mystery to me—perhaps a mystery to most artists, who, let’s face it, didn’t become artists to be salesmen.

This is where I’m glad to have the Picador imprint of Macmillan behind me: A team of people who wake up every day wondering how they can get attention for my book and others on their list.

As you read this, I know that pre-publication promotions of The Prisoner of Hell Gate by Dana I. Wolff (i.e. yours truly) has already resulted in some wonderful Goodreads reviews, driven the e-book to #5 on the Mystery, Thriller & Suspense list of Amazon, and placed it #50 of all books (fiction and non-fiction) in Barnes & Noble’s Nook store!

Now it’s my turn to do the thing I’m worst at, and I’ll do it simply: Please go buy this book! (Amazon | B&N | iBooks | Kobo | Indiebound)

You can start reading the e-book in minutes; the paper version, available for pre-order, will follow in due course.

Buy both. The e-book is priced so cheap this week (and only this week!) that it’s a rounding error on your daily budget—less than that morning latte or a movie ticket. And, if you pre-order the paperback, I’ll sign it when I next see you. Well, Dana I. Wolff will sign it, anyway.

Which reminds me of the least hard aspect of the creative life: hearing your thoughts on The Prisoner of Hell Gate, whether good, bad, or indifferent. After all, it is one of my babies.

Yours in Words,

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