I had no sooner published my last post, “Achieving Stardom,” when my radio came on Sunday morning—as usual set to Krista Tippett’s weekly interview show, On Being. As luck would have it, Krista was interviewing Seth Godin, an Internet pioneer who has not only fascinating ideas on marketing but the sales history to support them. He has turned several books into Amazon.com bestsellers without either traditional publishing props or the contemporary sins of spamming his social network friends or faking reviews. You can find out more about the show, listen to it online, or download the podcast at The Art of Noticing, and then Creating.
I hadn’t initially intended to write a follow-up to last week’s post. But listening to Seth and Krista confirm some of what I had written, it occurred to me that I had not addressed a central question. Yes, it makes sense to trust the process, to accept that it takes longer than most of us might like to get the word out and find loyal readers rather than engage in deceptive or dysfunctional tactics born of desperation. But how do we know our faith is justified? So, in a tip of the hat to Krista, I have titled this post after the original name of her show, Speaking of Faith.
Let me say up front that I have no guru-type answer to my question, which is on the surface a circular one. Success, sooner or later, justifies an author’s faith that success will arrive. But the standards that determine success vary. Beautifully written books may not sell well—or they may win a major award and become bestsellers. Terribly written books may get million-dollar contracts but tank in the market—or not. Some indie books I have read went to print too soon (keep in mind that all such judgments are subjective—these books appear unpolished to me). Others make me wonder what had to go wrong with publishing that an agent and editor didn’t snap them up. So what’s your standard: good, famous, moneymaking? And how do you determine if you’ve met it?
What complicates the question of faith is a truth about writing that is not universally acknowledged, although most writers recognize it at some point in their careers. Good writers, experienced writers—like most expert artists—make the craft of writing look simple. As a result, readers and newbie writers think that anyone can write a novel, just as beginning dancers expect to whip off a triple pirouette after two or three classes. My first novel will see the light of day only if I run out of other stories and decide to rewrite it from scratch. It was terrible, but I had no idea. I sent it to agents and was amazed when they rejected it. Now I know why. Last time I tried to read it, I couldn’t get past chapter 3.
I tell this embarrassing story because it applies to every beginning writer. Some novels need to die. They don’t merit the leap of faith that will keep them in circulation. But that is not the same thing as saying they never deserved to live in the first place. Because the takeaway from this post is: everyone writes bad novels at first. There is no other way to learn the craft. You have to write and read about writing and show your work to other writers and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite. And if the first book is horrible, let it die. Start another, then a third and a fourth until you produce one that works.
And that, I think, is where the issue of faith comes in. It’s not only a question of having faith that a good book will find its market. Even more important is having faith that you, the artist, have the capacity to create a book that deserves a market. Trust that you can write a bad novel, send it out, have it fail, and not give up. Believe that the next novel will be better, and the one after that better still. And one day, even if you never spam your friends or fellow readers and you refuse to fake reviews for yourself or others, you will write a book that other people want to read. A book that people will pay to read and recommend to their friends. Which in the end is what you want, isn’t it?
To end on a lighter note, if you’d like to see the reviews system in all its glorious, untrammeled goofiness, without spamming and without manipulation—other than the input of those reading the reviews—type the words “bic lady pens” into the search box on Amazon.com. I haven’t laughed so hard in years. In their wacky way, the reviews are a triumph of human ingenuity over machine logic. And if you’d like to know what I mean by that, leave a comment.
Thanks to Seth Godin and Krista Tippett for the inspiration.
News Flash: Historical Fictionistas, a group on the Internet book club Goodreads, has chosen The Golden Lynx as its Featured Author Group Read for March 2013. Many, many thanks to the group moderators and all the members who voted for my novel. May you enjoy reading the book at least half as much as I enjoyed writing it!
Image purchased from Clipart.com, no. 21985679.