Writing books of the heart
This past week, Kris Rusch addressed writers burnout on her blog. She had just finished teaching a workshop to professional authors. She said that over and over, they lamented not being able to write what they wanted.
One of the comments I heard the most at this year’s Business Master Class was a bit wistful. And the comment usually came in a discussion about something else.
- I sure would like to get to the place where I can do what you folks do: where I can write what I love.
- As soon as this [insert detail] is over, I might be able to write what I love.
- Writers who write what they love are really lucky. Sure wish I could get there.
Over and over and over again. Those phrases have been going round and round in my head, partly because I have a lot of compassion for the speakers, and partly in conjunction with other things that have happened this past year.
About a year ago, I wrote a blog post on burnout. It, and the subsequent posts, got reprinted in the magazine for the Romance Writers of America, the Romance Writers Report or the RWR. I got a lot of email from the original blog posts and from the RWR reprint. I had hit a nerve.
I was aware of the nerve, but not thinking about it too much, except to realize that so many writers were on the hamster wheel of doom—trying very hard to write more and more and more to make the same amount of money they had made a few years ago. We’re in a mature market now, and the highs aren’t as high (and the lows aren’t as low). Things do change, sometimes daily, in this new world of publishing, but the business models remain the same.
What happened was that people start writing books that sell. And at first, they’re marginally interested in them. Say an author hits it big in contemporary romance. They keep churning out romance because they’ve gotten used to the money. Writing indie is particularly killer, because you’re encouraged to write books and release them as quick as you can–a month apart, ideally. In traditional, you release books a year apart, at minimum.
So here’s this author who has written five to twelve books in a year. They’re getting tired of contemporary romance. An idea has been percolating for a hard sci-fi. But they’re riding the tiger, dependent on that income from the romances. They don’t dare switch genres for fear of alienating their readers and losing that dough.
Kris Rusch calls this the hamster wheel of doom. You run and run until you burn out and take up selling cellphones at a mall kiosk. Anything but writing.
This “writing to sell vs writing what you like” thing is debated constantly in my own writing circles. We’d all like to make a little dough, right? But then we also want to write about space elves fighting space dragons in space. Who in the world would buy that?
Switching gears, here. Last weekend was Blizzcon 2018, where the game developer Blizzard Entertainment courts its fans and investors with sneak peeks of upcoming game stuff.
One of the games they announced was a HD version of Warcraft 3. You know, the old real-time strategy where you command an army of orcs or elves and beat on other armies of such.
The man announcing the game remarked that Warcraft 3 had invented whole new genres. That stuck in my brain, because I saw it happen.
My siblings were big RTS players. And while Warcraft 3 was fun, the map/scenario editor became the hottest thing of all. People invented a game mode where you run around with just your hero character, and maybe a few minions, and beat on other heroes, Diablo-style. This gave rise to the game type called a Multiplayer Online Battle Arena, or MOBA. Games in this new genre include League of Legends, DOTA 2, and Heroes of the Storm. None of these games would have existed without homebrew maps in Warcraft 3.
In the genre arena of books, certain authors invented genres, too, simply by writing books of the heart. John Grisham started the “lawyers in trouble” thriller subgenre. Joe Nobody invented the “prepper thriller” genre. And those are just the ones I know about–there’s lots of others. If they had “written to market” (that is, wrote what everybody else was writing because it was selling), those new genres would never have been invented.
If you write a book that you love but doesn’t sell, what does it hurt? You’ve produced something you love. It’s no worse than writing a fanfic that gets zero hits. And if you keep writing books in your little niche that nobody reads, eventually somebody will read it–as long as you’ve created something of good quality. And you may create a whole new genre by accident. This happens all the time.
As a reader, I can spot a book miles away that the author loved, vs a book the publisher made them write. The sparkle disappears. Just compare the earlier Mitford books (Jan Karon) to later ones. The characters are grouchy and the adventures are awful, compared to the wonderful stories and characters of the early books.
Or try to find anything worth reading on the Kindle free book list. “Shovelware” books, written overnight with no revisions or editing, aren’t worth the electrons it takes to deliver them to your device. Often I’ll download ten different books, and all but one will be badly-written tripe. Sometimes I don’t even get one good one.
Point is, there’s a lot of reasons to write what you want to write. Indie publishing has removed the barriers between you and your audience. Kris has a lot of good advice for people already on the hamster wheel of doom who want off. I hope this gives you courage to write that book that’s been gnawing at you.