TRIGGER WARNING: This article may piss you off, raise your anxiety level, or throw you into a depressive spiral. It might also make you a better writer, so there’s that. You’ve been warned!
I don’t want to come across like a jerk or anything, because I know how badly it hurts, getting a bad review. I contemplated suicide after my first novel was trashed, so I can more than relate with the struggles of an aspiring writer. But if your literary ambitions include ending up on the shelf with other well respected authors, you’re going to have to be brutally honest with yourself and admit that maybe, just maybe, your book sucks.
Here’s the problem. In this age of “everything my kid draws is a masterpiece,” all the praise you’re getting from friends and family is more than likely a sham, a lie, and if it’s coming from another writer is what I like to call a “circle jerk.” Your followers may be giving you the thumbs up, but how much effort does it really take to click a button? Instead, ask yourself, how many people are actually buying and reading my book? And more importantly, how many readers will remember what you’ve written a week, a year, or a decade from now?
OK OK, I realize not everyone is in the same boat. Some people publish just to see their name in print, or to share some personal story with friends. To that I say, more power to you! But I’ve met too many indie writers who expect to become the next Stephen King. Independent publishing is a double edged sword, giving a platform to the few who have earned their place on the proverbial shelf—perhaps, if Amazon KDP had been around during John Kennedy Toole’s day, he might have been alive to receive his Pulitzer—but it has also ushered in an age of literary garbage. Now some of you non-writers may be thinking, “Nick, a genuinely good writer should prove himself by getting picked up by TOR or Bantam or Penguin,” but that isn’t always the case. Agents simply do not have the time to rifle through the junk getting shoved daily through their mailboxes. Fifty Shades of Grey, Eragon, Chicken Soup for the Soul, and my friend, Michael Sullivan’s, superb, Riyria Revelations series, were all self-published before hitting the big leagues. But for every author willing to put in the effort, there are a dozen or more hacks, some with beautiful covers and 5-Star reviews, whose story couldn’t pass Creative Writing 101.
I hate having to explain this, but being good at something, good enough so that people will shell out their hard earned cash, good enough so that people will tear their eyes away from the latest Netflix craze, takes work, A LOT OF WORK … often a LIFETIME of work! So when people crap out a novel in a month, having never written anything more than an e-mail, expecting fame and fortune, I get seriously annoyed.
Writing is an art form. Like painting or playing a musical instrument. And to be truly great at it takes time and dedication. How much time? 10,000 hours, if Malcolm Gladwell is correct, and I think he is. What does this mean? It means that the first story you write isn’t going to be very good, and if you can’t write a decent short story, your first novel will be even worse.
Most first-time writers don’t want to hear this, because their first novel might have taken them months, maybe even years, to write. And yet, if you truly want your book to sit on the shelf with Rowling and Martin and King, you will need to do what they did. You will need to shelve that first novel and write another, and then a second, and then a third.
If someone had told me this when I was a teenager, I probably would have rage quit. Since I was a child, I tricked my brain into thinking everything I wrote was worthy of publication, only to discover that my skills improved with each new story. If Amazon KDP had been around when I was a teenager, I would have been guilty of churning out crap novels myself. In that regard, I am lucky.
A little history: When I was fourteen, I queried something called Dynotus Adventures. Despite all my teachers telling me how brilliant and talented I was, the book was atrocious, just a lot of fighting and run-on-sentences. Needless to say, none of the three houses I submitted my manuscript to responded. Three ring-binders later, and I completed my second novel in high school, The Nomad. 90,000 words. That nobody but a few close fans would ever read. I later ran a fan-fiction site, garnering hundreds of fans and winning a few contests. People genuinely enjoyed my writing! Were eager to read it! And one of my professors told me, in front of the class, “I have two students that can write beautifully. You’re one of them.” So, with a BA degree under my belt and plenty of encouragement, I thought, this is the time! So I published my first book through Xlibris, The Dark Age of Enya, which I sold at Barnes & Noble, and for which I received two gushing-with-praise magazine reviews. And guess what?
It was crap.
Fifteen years later, and people are still asking me to buy The Dark Age of Enya, and I refuse to sell it to them, even though I have copies collecting dust in my garage. I would spend another nine years reworking Dark Age into my fourth novel, Ages of Aenya. This one, I think, is pretty damn good. But my current book, The Princess of Aenya, I feel is vastly superior. And I could never have written it, without the lifetime of practice I put into it, and the mountain of crap stories I wrote before it.
But wait. Maybe I am still deluding myself. Maybe The Princess of Aenya sucks too, and that just might be the case, is most certainly the case, for some readers, because art is subjective. Either way, with each new story I write, I push myself to improve. Being good at writing is an ever evolving process, a struggle for mastery, that ends, I believe, when you die.