The question I never asked

I had this idea last summer, for a new thing.  It was a cool idea, and I liked it, so I did something about it: I wrote the thing.  Then, when I was done with it, I edited the thing, edited it again, edited it one more time, and then I commissioned a cover and told other people about the thing.  I put it up for pre-ordering, so other people could ask for a copy of the thing, and in December, I published the thing.

The thing was The Spaceship Next Door, and it isn’t really the point of this article.  (But please, don’t let that stop you from checking it out.)  The point of this article is the question I never asked myself in the process of taking Spaceship from an idea in July to a published novel in December.

That question was: Who am I going to send this to?

It wasn’t at all long ago that this was the first question a writer had to ask after finishing a manuscript.home-slide-spaceship-cvr-2

Actually, scratch that.  We had to think about it before even starting, which is just an excellent way to screw up the creative process.

I would love to say that when I sit down to write, I’m listening to my muse, and that creating something is its own reward, and that every other crunchy writer-motivational “I am an artiste!” platitude is totally 100% in play every time, but the truth is it is incredibly difficult to write something when at the back of your mind a voice is saying, what does it matter, nobody’s going to publish this.  Especially when that voice has proven itself correct already.

Confession: I’ve been told that nobody—by which I mean the big publishers—is interested in publishing what I write.  This was relayed to me by an agent who loved what I wrote, (Immortal) said he couldn’t put it down, and couldn’t wait to sell it, right up until he tried selling it.

The same agent later declined to attempt to sell a follow-up book (Fixer) because of the lack of interest in the one he did try and sell.  This is an important distinction, because those are two pretty seriously different books.  What he was saying was, he didn’t think he could sell my writing, regardless of what I wrote.

What do you do when the people in charge of getting your writing to readers say, “Hey, you know what you should try?  You should try being someone else.”

Here’s what the answer should be, according to all of the Be The Best Writer You Can Be motivational speeches: keep on writing anyway.  Because writing is the important thing and you are Making Art and blah blah blah and sure, FINE, it’s just that this is really hard when Who am I going to send this to? is a question that still needs answering.

Authors deeply entrenched in the self-publishing side of the industry tend to dwell on the economic advantages (which are substantial) but the financial component isn’t nearly as important to me as the freedom of it all.

My timeline speaks to this.  I finished both Immortal and Fixer by the end of 2005, along with a draft of Hellenic Immortal.  Sometime in early 2006 I started working on a book I didn’t want to write, because it was the kind of book my (soon-to-be ex-) agent was looking for: literary fiction.

I didn’t get far, for a couple of reasons.  One, I have no profound interest in literary fiction because most of it bores me terribly, and if the first person a writer bores is himself, something’s gone horribly wrong.  Two, I am almost pathologically incapable of writing something without injecting humor into it.

Really.  Here is what I consider a perfectly straightforward locational description, taken from The Spaceship Next Door.

At the western edge of Sorrow Falls, right off of Durgin, was a shopping plaza that had a Super Shopper; a chain pizza place everyone despised and still ate at; a home goods store; and an empty storefront that used to have a steak house, and still had a lot of the signage up for it.

The plaza was kind of typical for the region, which was to say it was a pavement-heavy consumer oasis that made everyone a little sad about capitalism.

In my mind, this is a perfectly good place description, but it is also an unserious one, because I don’t know how to do Serious.

Anyway, I gave up on literary fiction, which is okay, but that wasn’t all.  I gave up on novels altogether.  What I did in that time was become a screenwriter, and while I wouldn’t say I wasted any of that time—I am now a very good screenwriter, and that doesn’t happen overnight—what I was not doing in that time was furthering my career as a novelist.

If what I went through in 2006 had instead happened in 2012, there would have been no four year gap, because by 2012 it was no longer true that I had to become a different writer in order to succeed.  By 2012 I could write what I wanted and take it to market without bothering anybody else.

As Hugh Howey has said on a number of occasions (and I’m paraphrasing) in self-publishing, the best thing you can do to promote a book is to write the next book.  The counterargument to this point has always been but what if you don’t write that quickly?  

It sounds like a good point when certain prestige literary novels are taken into consideration.  (The Goldfinch is the obvious example.)  Writing novels fast is depicted as a burden, as well as a sacrifice of quality.

Maybe.  But if you look at my output from 2003-2012 (three novels) compared to 2013-2015 (three novels, eight novellas under three pen names) I think it’s fair to say I could have gotten a lot done in those four years I took off from 2006-2010.

The difference?  I had no answer to the question Who am I going to send this to? back then.

Now, I don’t even need to ask the question.  That’s freedom.

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No Comments

  1. Don Lococo on April 11, 2016 at 9:54 am

    Thanks for your books. I really enjoy them. However I have read them all … a lot faster than you wrote them.

    I’ve written a satirical science-fiction novel that I think is very funny. I am considering going the self publication route. However, my analyst is trying to encourage me to go the conventional route. She has this notion that somehow it’ll be properly judged.

    Reading your blog reinforces my conviction. I have done enough scientific publishing to know that succeeding at the peer review process requires balancing the text on your nose and jumping through hoops simultaneously. You’re likely to miss one or the other or both. I think I will send her the link to your blog so I don’t have to listen to her phony encouragement anymore. Keep em coming.

    • Gene Doucette on April 11, 2016 at 7:11 pm

      Thanks for the comment, Don, and thanks for reading all my books. I’ll get more out to you soon, I promise.

      Best of luck with the publishing as well…!

  2. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt on April 11, 2016 at 7:02 pm

    Freedom. Elusive, real, and full of consequences of its own.

    ‘Who am I going to send this to?’ was a huge question as I got into writing Pride’s Children, which I started in 2000, and published last fall.

    Luckily for me, between then (when I KNEW I could never get an agent interested in such a different book, because they would have no clue how to market it) and about five years ago, as I persisted in writing what turned out to be a mainstream almost-literary (ie, in contests between plot and character and language, plot and character always won, but otherwise literary) love story, self-publishing came in in a big way, there were blogs all over telling you how and why to self-publish, and Amazon made it very easy.

    I HAVE faced the loss of ‘prestige’ that comes from not being accepted and marketed by ‘publishing professionals,’ and that was a biggie for a while. But if I couldn’t even conceive of writing a query letter which would pull an agent in, there was no way that would have been a good use of time, so I didn’t even try.

    I think you did the right thing – and I’m following in your footsteps (a long way back – waves!).

    Only I’m going to make it harder. I want to compete with The Goldfinch. Only I want readers to keep reading until the end.

    • Gene Doucette on April 11, 2016 at 7:10 pm

      On my honor, I read The Goldfinch to the end.

      It wasn’t worth it, but dammit I did it. And when I got to the end I wondered why nobody tried to edit it shorter by a couple of hundred pages.

      • Sue Law on April 11, 2016 at 10:18 pm

        You are obviously made of stern stuff if you finished The Goldfinch. I can’t say the same about myself. (Really, why didn’t that “professional” editor trim out some of the endless, unnecessary descriptive passages in that book?) I kept putting that ebook down in favor of less “wordy” novels and I have to admit that it was the first time I actually felt relieved when my library sent me a message that my loan had expired and removed it remotely from my kindle reader.

        In contrast, your books are fascinating adventures into “what if” territory that remind me of some of the classic sci fi writers I grew up with. No one would have called Asimov’s books particularly “literary” but as a story teller he was unrivaled in my opinion. It is my highest compliment to say that you remind me of him in many ways. Please keep doing what you do best. I appreciate your work so much and have been trying to spread the word about my favorite “new” author.

        • Gene Doucette on April 11, 2016 at 10:24 pm

          You guys are making me feel great about myself lately. Thanks, Sue!

          I think the secret to finishing The Goldfinch is not knowing how long it is. I had it on my kindle, and I somehow managed to turn off the % function so I had no idea how much longer it was supposed to go, so I just kept saying (every night, for a long time) “maybe tonight I’ll reach the ending.” When I did reach the end i found a lessons-learned conclusion that sounded like it came out of an especially dark after school special.

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