Friends, I’m not a very smart guy. Oh, I have a head filled with trivia, which in these low times often passes for smarts. Being able to win your local tavern’s Trivia Tuesday (increasingly difficult, let me tell you, when you’ve been banned from most of the local watering holes due to ridiculous and oppressive “must wear some form of trousers” rules) doesn’t mean you’re intelligent, it just means you absorb a lot of useless information very, very quickly. A skill, to be sure, but not the most useful skill.
Being able to write clear, well-constructed sentences about compelling stories and characters is also a skill I sometimes claim, but it also doesn’t make me smart. A lot of very dumb people make good livings writing words, and I am also very afraid that I am secretly one of them. Any time I start to think I might secretly be smart, all I have to do is gaze upon my works and despair, though. By which I mean any time I start to feel smart, I just look at some of the terrible novels I’ve written when I wrote for anything other than inspiration.
Take This Job and Shove It
The term “working writer” either sounds ominous or exciting to you. If it’s ominous, it’s because you’re smart and you know that the “working” part probably means you’re writing 300 catalog descriptions of sex toys at $1 a pop. If you’re excited, you’re like me and you imagine yourself lazily writing novels when you’re not busy cashing extravagant checks from publishers—not check for anything, just gifts of money they send you in the vain hope that you’ll choose to publish your next book through them.
Anyways, every now and then I get this idea in my head that part of being a Working Writer is trying to write something commercial, in the sense of writing something that will be easy to sell to a publisher because its part of a broad trend or somehow marketable. Don’t get me wrong—I want all my books to sell like hotcakes and I have no snobbery when it comes to genre or category. It’s just that sometimes I think I have to try a little harder to be, I don’t know, mainstream or something. So I’ll work up a story and write a novel not because I’m excited about the idea, but because I think it’s going to be an easy sell.
I am always wrong. And it is always a disaster.
Some writers might be able to pull this off, but whenever I’ve written a book for anything but pure inspiration and excitement, it doesn’t work out so well. Oh, as novels they’re fine. I’m usually fairly happy with the story, the writing, all that jazz. But there’s always something missing, some soul or other ineffable thing that means the novels fail. They look like novels, they tell a story that I like, and yet they fail. Whenever I try to be smart and engineer a book because I think I know something about selling books, the end result is a manuscript everyone reads and shrugs over. Meh, they all say. It’s not bad. But we can’t sell it.
The lesson here is obvious: Writing for anything aside from inspiration doesn’t work for me. The good news is, a lot of the books I write because I want to have sold. So one wonders why I think I need to change up my approach in the first place. Aside from the fact that I am, you know, not smart.