Decaying Dreams: When Fiction-Writing and Reality Collide

If you’re one of my regular crew, you may have noticed that I’ve been AWOL for the past few weeks. I could, with some measure of truthfulness, attribute it to natural causes like being busy at my Day Job or taking a vacation. But to borrow from Jane Austen, “disguise of every sort is my abhorrence.” I’d rather expose the ugly facts in hopes other writers may benefit from my honesty.

I disappeared for a month because I almost quit on writing.

The crash hit hard, because over the summer my authorial confidence soared. I posted a new blog piece every week and my new story draft seemed to flow effortlessly from my fingers. The crowning accomplishment would be a 80% off sale on my Syzygy omnibus, guaranteed to get my overlooked sophomore story into readers’ hands. I’ve often attributed my tiny readership to poor marketing: people can’t buy my books if they don’t know they exist. So I supported the Syzygy sale with my first proper marketing plan. I overlapped campaigns with several well-reputed book advertising services, paid for promoted tweets, and did my usual grassroots rounds on Kindle-discount message boards. Surely this unprecedented effort would introduce my work to new fans.

Five.

All that investment sold exactly five copies. The outcome devastated me. If I can’t move books for less than a dollar with robust marketing behind them, how will I ever build an audience? And why invest all my precious free time writing books if no one reads them?The Sale Fail shattered away the last bastion of denial I’d been hiding behind for months: the hope of making authorship my paid vocation. Since childhood, I’ve aspired to be an author. But I didn’t account for the world evolving around me. The self-publishing revolution created many positive opportunities, but also made it harder than ever to make a living from books. Most financially viable self-published authors rely on sheer volume, cranking out cheap titles at rates I can’t possibly achieve while working 40+ hours a week.

Traditional publishers, meanwhile, take fewer risks on new works and pay less because of the indie competition. A British author advocacy group recently found that median earnings for professional writers have plunged by 42% since 2005, and the average full-time writer makes less than minimum wage. Unless you’re an established pre-digital name like Stephen King, or an extraordinarily lucky unicorn like Andy Weir, it seems almost impossible to make a living on fiction. The job I’d always sought has essentially ceased to exist. It’s like being born in 16th century England, determined to become an elite longbow archer, but by the time you’re old enough to join a unit, firearms have been invented and suddenly every plowboy in the country can pick up a blunderbuss and shoot your dream through the heart.

Dreams don’t die painlessly. Discouragement gnawed physical pain through my insides for days. I spent August in a fugue, racking up extra hours at my Day Job and avoiding my laptop. Once, when I ventured onto my Twitter feed, an explosion of material about this year’s Hugo Awards ripped the wound open afresh and I almost hurled my phone across the room. Thanks for reminding me of what I’ll never attain. Conflict about my future left me lying awake at night:

If it’s not possible to “write myself free” from corporate servitude and I’m to be stuck in a cubicle for the next three decades, I need to get serious about advancing my career. Maybe I should convert all that unprofitable writing time into study time and get a masters’ degree…but that means no time to write anything but school papers for years.

That thought left me sicker than any decaying dream. A funk may stall my creativity for a few weeks, but I can’t cease writing any more than I can cease breathing. Stories would babble unbidden from my lips. Ink would weep from my eyes in torrents as black and vast as the universe itself. But is it wise to indulge this madness so exclusively when it accomplishes nothing meaningful? Maybe fiction needs to move down my list of priorities in favor of more practical pursuits. It’s a “head or heart” decision, and I’ve always been terrible at those.

“What do I do?” I moaned to my Laddie one night, scrubbing at the afterimage of graduate school pamphlets seared into my retinas. “These programs are all expensive and will eat my life for the next three years. But at least I’ll have accomplished something at the end of it. I can’t say that about my three years of publishing. They’ve gotten me nowhere.”

“Maybe writing is sort of like your 401k,” he offered. “It doesn’t look like much now, but you’re building it up for later. Your books are long-term holds.”

“And what if they’re never worth anything? At what point do I accept that I’ve failed?”

“You only fail if you stop writing.”

Damned if that laconic boy doesn’t always manage to utter something that puts it all in perspective! Between his words and my development of a few contingency plans (nothing spurs my resilience like a good back-up plan), I started functioning again. I still haven’t decided what I’m going to do, but will try to reestablish some normalcy in the meantime. I resumed work on my WIP last week (mostly because I hate leaving projects unfinished) and this post represents my return to biweekly Sunday blogging. Hopefully autumn breezes will cool my cranky summer malaise and nudge me in the right direction.

Fellow writers, have you been through periods like this? How did you cope? Readers, I’d love your insights on how you discover new books and what traits you look for in your favorite fiction. Pile on in the comments, everyone–not because misery loves company, but because I need your help to map this unforgiving territory. Our culture worships people who “never give up on their dreams” and vaunts the rare success stories; perhaps we should also recognize the excruciating courage it takes to accept failures and change course.

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