Writer, Writer, Everywhere

With the caveat that i do disagree with Dean Wesley Smith from time to time (particularly about the hows, whys, and wherefores of rewriting), you should go read his blog from last week. I’ll wait for you.

All done? Thanks.

I’ve already seen the first salvos of internet flak being thrown Smith’s way over this post, which some see as condescending, and some see as Smith saying that his way is the only way to be a successful professional writer, et al. However, i think people who are coming away from the post with those things in mind are missing the larger point, which is something Smith has said time and time again and which remains as true now as the first time:

Writers need to write, because writing is the only way to be a writer.

Writing is the only way to figure out what you want to write and how you want to write it. Writing is best possible marketing tool for your writing. Writing is the only way that your writing gets better.

Here’s some context for why i’m firmly onside with Smith’s sense that focusing on the writing is the best way of moving forward in this new world of publishing.

It was October of 2010, give or take, when i decided that i was going to self-publish my fiction. For me, at the time, this was a pretty huge deal. I’ve been a professional writer (in the most important sense of getting paid for it) since 1992, when i nailed my first development and option money for my very first screenplay. Since then, i’ve worked a small number of “real” jobs, mostly in publishing, but have focused my life and work almost exclusively on screenwriting, story editing and script consulting, copy- and technical editing, and freelance RPG editing and design. My last “real job” was in 2000 (layout editor at the Vancouver Sun daily paper). All the time since then, i’ve been able to make a living with my words. I’m good at it, and i get paid pretty well for it, and both those things have long suggested to me that i should be able to write and sell my fiction in additional to all the other things i do.

Except guess what? I couldn’t.

The closest i came to getting a fiction title on the shelves the old-fashioned way was in 2007, when a novel i wrote under contract to Wizards of the Coast became a victim of the cancellation of the newly reminted Ravenloft fiction line. That was annoying, but as i did with every other annoyance getting in the way of my adding “fiction author” to my CV — every short story i got back from magazines, every rejection from an agent or publisher for the novels i had written and was continuing to work on — i just kind of shrugged and plowed onward and accepted that this was the way things work.

Except something happened in the few years between that Ravenloft novel and October of 2010.

I started to second-guess my fiction writing. I started to slow down in the writing i was doing. I started to stall, and at the time, i couldn’t figure out why.

I’m working right now on finishing a novel called We Can Be Heroes, which has been languishing half-finished for more than two years since the last time i worked on it. And a big part of the reason i let that book slip was that even as i was working on it — as much as i knew and understood that it was it a good story told well — my previous experience in trying to get my fiction career off the ground told me that even when i finally finished it, there was no way in hell this book was ever going to sell. It’s a novel about gamers — strike one. It’s told in a cloyingly self-aware, semi-autobiographical first-person-but-with-occasional-film-style-narrative-direction voice — strike two. It’s ostensibly a speculative fiction/action piece — insofar as it involves future tech and a couple of kick-ass air-to-surface chases between hunter-killer attack choppers and an intelligent tank — but the deeper story is a sensitive philosophical coming-of-age piece. Strike three, low and inside. Back to the bench, thanks for playing.

A Prayer for Dead Kings and Other Tales is a book that i’m so immensely proud of and happy with. But though i didn’t realize it at the time, i spent three long years pissing around with its various bits in the most half-enthused manner for exactly the same reason. Everyone who knows anything about publishing knows that single-author short-fiction anthologies don’t sell. Try this yourself: Get an agent. Get a publisher. Get an editor at that publishing house. Then announce that you want to publish a fantasy book consisting of five short stories, a novella, and a short novel. Given the state of the publishing industry, all those folks could probably do with the laugh.

I decided in about October 2010 that i was ready to self-publish. In April of 2011, i hit the switch. The first book i published was a romantic/humorous novella that i put out under a pseudonym (Gary Scott) — One Size Fits All. It was a book that i wrote in the most part-time fashion imaginable over the space of a month, adapting it from a screenplay — a pilot script for a comedy anthology series that got some interest years back but never went anywhere. I published it first simply as a test case — something i could use to check out Amazon KDP and Smashwords, put both systems through their paces, deal with the learning curve and any problems, et al. That was in April.

Last year, between April and December, i published ten titles — One Size Fits All, plus a novel (Clearwater Dawn), an original anthology (A Prayer for Dead Kings and Other Tales), two shorts from PfDK published as promo singles (“A Space Between” and “Stories”), and five individual shorts that will eventually find their way into two new anthologies (“The Moonsign Scar”, “The Twilight Child”, “Shadow to Shadow”, “Daeralf’s Rune”, and “The Voice”).

Now, the thing to understand is that with the exception of Clearwater Dawn (finished in 2004) and “The Moonsign Scar” (written a few years ago), none of that was true backlist — stories sitting around just waiting to be thrown out onto Amazon or wherever. “Shadow to Shadow” and “The Voice” were existing shorts, but both were rewritten from the ground up. “Daeralf’s Rune” and “The Twilight Child” are brand new. Only half of the stories that make up A Prayer for Dead Kings and Other Tales were finished a year ago; the eponymous short novel that anchors the book was outlined but hadn’t even been started yet — because prior to deciding that i was self-publishing PfDK, all my understanding of the wisdom of the publishing industry told me that a deconstructionist epic-fantasy written from the first-person POV of a character losing his mind was never going to sell.

For a lot of years now, my desire to have my fiction read has been shaping my ability to write fiction freely. And now that that’s over and done with, there’s nothing stopping me from doing the writing that i want to do. This, to me, is what Dean Wesley Smith is talking about when he talks about the difference between writers — those who write the stories they want to write, honing their craft and art through experience — and authors, writing only what they believe they’re allowed to write, at the pace that they feel the market sets for them.

For a long, long time, in the context of the world of fiction, i wanted to be an author more than anything. Reading Smith, i realize that without realizing it, i’ve become a writer instead. And i, for one, am never going back.