The Fans in the Bleachers

Lurking on my hard drive (and making occasional belching noises) are two or three very decent ideas for novels. By “ideas” I don’t mean a sentence or two; I mean files with 10,000 or 20,000 words of detailed notes.

What I don’t have is the impetus to sit down and write any of these books. Again and again, the question that rises up and smacks me in the face is, “Why bother?”

Writing a novel is a huge job. Almost anybody can slap together an 85,000-word manuscript, but if you set out to actually tell a good story and write in a polished, professional manner — ah, that’s real work. You may discover a big plot hole when you’re 2/3 of the way through your 2nd draft. When that happens, you may need to go back and restructure the whole thing in some basic way so that the story will make sense.

When we’re young, it’s easier and very natural to be motivated by our fond hopes for the future. We can imagine that Oprah will select our heartwarming novel, or that Stephen King will volunteer, unsolicited, to write a blurb for the front cover. That thought process can keep you going for a few rough years. But as we get older, it gets harder to sustain the fantasy of eventual success. Not just because we won’t have so many years to enjoy it, but because the evidence to the contrary starts to pile up.

Depending on whether you count the Leafstone saga (four volumes, one continuous story) as one novel or four, I’ve written either eight or eleven novels, of which either five or eight have been published. The first two were published (years ago) by actual New York publishing houses; the more recent ones are self-published. The three that are unpublished are, I think, artistic failures, though two of them might conceivably be turned into something good if rewritten from the ground up. There’s also a collection of stories, which I self-published last year. And let’s not forget the four non-fiction books, none of which was self-published. There’s also a book-length instructional PDF that I distribute for free.

I don’t think anybody would accuse me of being inexperienced or a shirker. But by this point in my life (I’m 73), I know what to expect, both of my own writing process and of the results that are likely to accrue upon publication.

In the four years since I brought out the Leafstone story, exactly one person has commented on it. He was the very first person to read it, actually, and he made a comment about the ending that caused me to revise the final scene. One person, in four years, and he’s a voracious reader. I’m sure he read cereal boxes when he was a kid.

It’s been more than a year now since I published While Caesar Sang of Hercules, and I have heard not a single comment from anyone. I don’t know if anyone has even read it. A number of months have passed since I released the story collection and Woven of Death and Starlight. One person has now complimented me on Woven. That was very nice of her, and we’ll tiptoe in silence past the fact that I sent her a copy of the book for free.

To be fair, I have had a few nice comments about The Wall at the Edge of the World, but I wrote that 30 years ago. I’ve also had a few nice comments about the non-fiction. I have received supportive emails from Istanbul, Uruguay, and Kuala Lumpur. (I am not making this up.) Nothing from the U.S., however. I think the most positive response I’ve had, maybe enough to count on the fingers of both hands, was for the free PDF on how to use the Inform 7 programming language to write text adventures. That’s heartwarming, but it’s not a niche in which I plan to dwell over the long haul.

It’s not just the dearth of fan mail, though. Before I published Woven, I queried at least 20 agents on it. I didn’t even get a single nibble of interest. I don’t blame agents for this; I understand the dynamics of their job. I’m just saying, I got no support or encouragement from the big bad publishing industry, and I’ve gotten virtually none from readers.

For the record, I had an agent for my first novel (1985). He sold it to Del Rey. I had a different agent for my second novel (1993). He sold it to Ace. In each case, he was the only agent I contacted. It was not a mass query effort. I’m pretty sure my writing has not gotten worse. The market has changed, that’s all.

Let’s return to my initial question. Is there any reason to bother writing another novel, when the response has consistently shown itself to be so very, very dismal? I’m sure some older writers are just stubbornly optimistic, but I’m not one of them. Others may have a supportive spouse who’s happy to act as a cheering section. I don’t have a spouse. Others may be demons at self-marketing and self-promotion, but attempting anything of that sort would make me physically ill. My idea about writing is, my job is to write. Promotion is someone else’s job. Some people are born salesmen and thrive on it. I’m not one of them.

What would give me the impetus to sit down and write would be some concrete (and sustained) encouragement. We’re primates, and primates are social animals. We all need to have the feeling that we’re part of a group, and that our presence in the group is appreciated.

Just to be clear: I don’t need advice. Giving advice to a writer is easy. You don’t have to have read any of their work. You don’t have to know anything about their publishing history or their personal process. You just pop off a comment or two and then stroll away, congratulating yourself on your wisdom and good intentions. Well, fuck that. If all you have is advice, I don’t want to hear it. Get back to me when you’ve read at least two of my novels and tell me how eagerly you’re awaiting the next one. Get your friends to buy copies too, read them, and send me encouraging emails.

If about twenty people sent me an encouraging email that mentioned my books and said what they liked about them, and then maybe one more every month, that would keep me going for years. I don’t insist on being on the best-seller list. I don’t even insist on a contract with a publisher. Having someone send you a check with a few zeroes to the left of the decimal point is certainly a concrete form of encouragement, but I don’t need the money. What I need is to have the sense that there’s some reason to go on writing.

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