Where is the Payoff in Writing?

8 minutes to read · writing · posted at 12:19 PM on 02/14/2017

Somebody asked on Reddit’s /r/AskMen this morning, “Men, how do you keep strong and stay positive when the hard work you put towards something doesn’t pay off?” It was a good question, and it was a shame that either the moderators nuked it or the submitter did, because the submitter made a valuable point:

Individualism in America blames you for your failures, not those forces around you so I can see a lot of mental anguish when one fails.

Being the kind of guy I am, my original comment began with the following:

Individualism in America can kiss my dirty pinko atheist ass.

What Kind of Answer is That?

That’s a rather flippant answer, but I often start with a bit of flippant hyperbole. Sometimes I like to hit the reader upside the head, just to get their attention. I provided a more substantive response, which I’ve reproduced below.

When I set out to do something, I do so with the knowledge that I might fail, or that success might not work out the way I thought it would when I started. Twenty years ago, I started writing sci-fi. I wanted to publish a novel. I knew when I started that a metric shitload of people set out to write novels every year, and most of them never even finish a first draft.

I finished my first draft of my first novel in 2009. It was 289,000 words long, and called Starbreaker. You might have heard of it. That 2009 draft was such a piece of shit that to this day even my own wife hasn’t read it straight through in its entirety — but in Catherine’s defense she did read each chapter as I wrote it.

If Starbreaker Was So Crappy, Then What Was the Point of Writing It?

Was there a payoff for my success in writing Starbreaker? Only in terms of what Scott Barry Kaufman calls “authentic pride”, unless you also count Catherine. We met on a Yahoo! forum for aspiring writers back in 2000, and sharing all my false starts and working on Starbreaker was a huge part of our four-year long-distance courtship leading to her emigrating to the US to marry me in 2004.

(Since today is Valentine’s Day: I still love you, Catherine, and never once regretted choosing you. Never doubt it.)

Even though I never published Starbreaker in its original form as a single long novel, it was the novel I needed to write first. I needed to get the story out of my head, even if only in a rough and profoundly flawed form. Once I got it written, I had proved a few things to myself:

  • I possessed the discipline to write a complete novel.
  • I had the ability to plot out a story from beginning to end.
  • I could manage a large cast of distinct characters.
  • I was capable of creating a believable fictional setting.

These are discoveries that every writer must make for themselves if they hope to progress as authors.

We Did It Before And We’ll Do It Again

Finishing a novel is a bit like climbing a mountain. Once you’ve stuck it in the trunk or stuck out the process of revision, querying, and publication there’s only one thing to do: write another novel.

This presents a new challenge. Many writers lack confidence in themselves, and find themselves paralyzed by the blank sheet of paper before them or the blinking cursor in an empty file. I felt that anxiety too, and struggle with the same negative self-talk that tells me I have no idea what the hell I’m doing and should stick to coding. That inner voice says shit like this:

Sure, you did it once, but you didn’t even have the balls to publish it. What makes you think you can do it a second time, let alone improve on your first effort?

My answer is a little song: “We Did It Before And We’ll Do It Again” from the 1943 Warner Bros. short Fifth Column Mouse.

Fifth Column Mouse: Warner Bros., 1943

And it’s true, by the way. I did do it before, and I did it again. Then I did it a third time, and I’m gearing up for a fourth attempt soon.

So, Do You Have a Trunk Full of Shitty Novels?

Hell no. Without Bloodshed and Silent Clarion might indeed be shitty novels, but most of the reviews suggest otherwise. That’s right; you can buy ‘em on Amazon.

But this is about the payoffs from writing. There wasn’t much payoff for writing my second and third novels aside from pride, though I got more out of these books than I did out of the original Starbreaker.

I succeeded in publishing them, most of the reviews were positive, and I even made some money in the process. Working on them also gave Catherine and I something to talk about and do together. She’s my first reader and my biggest fan.

I Did It My Way

Do I blame myself for not being a bestselling author after publishing two novels through a small press? Individualism in America dictates that I should, but you might recall what I said about that bullshit.

Sure, I probably could have done a better job of marketing Without Bloodshed and Silent Clarion. I probably could have revised each of them a few more times, and polished them further, or made them less weird or more accessible to mainstream readers. If I had gone indie, or maybe published with one of the Big Five through an agent instead.

You can waste a lot of time playing “if only…”, so much that it makes the average hardcore gamer with half a dozen max prestige accounts on their favorite installment of Call of Duty look like a casual scrub playing Angry Birds.

Rather than dwell on my failures, I prefer to focus on my modest successes: I’ve written three novels and published two before my fortieth birthday while working full-time as a software developer, my two published novels have mostly favorable reviews, and I have a small fan base who want more.

Whatever regrets I might carry with me, they have nothing to do with my writing. When my time comes, you know what song I’ll be singing…

"My Way", performed by Frank Sinatra, 1969

Stand Up and Fight

I wasted a lot of time at first. I kept throwing out Starbreaker and starting over after writing the first few chapters. Then I wasted several years by keeping my work to myself rather than putting it out there because I was too chickenshit to deal with the possibility that some random person on the internet might think my work was shit. All that time I lived in fear was time I wasted being miserable. It was time I could have spent creating, publishing, and growing as an author and a person.

When I finally decided that I was good enough, I still got reviews like this one:

Could not get into the story. Too many characters to keep track. Very disappointing.

And this one:

To many suspensions of disbelief to make this work. Story wandered in and out of focus. Character development weak and one dimensional. Trying to hard to be currently hip and relevant.

Do these reviews mean a bad writer? Maybe, but I don’t think so. Not when the positive reviews my work has gotten outweigh the negative.

It doesn’t really matter, though, because even if everybody who took time to review my work hated it, I would still find a way to publish. Why? Because fuck the haters. I’d say I do it for the fans, even if they don’t speak up, but that’s a lie. I do it for me.

If I give up now, all my work will have been in vain. My pride forbids it, and demands instead that I stand up and fight.

"Stand Up And Fight" by Turisas, 2011

Sanity is Vastly Overrated

Why would I keep writing Starbreaker novels if the ones I’ve already written don’t sell well enough to let me quit my day job? Aren’t I basically doing the same thing I did before and expecting a different result? Isn’t that the definition of insanity?

What’s so great about sanity, anyway? Notwithstanding her characterization in other media or her extremely problematic relationship with the Joker, Harley Quinn in the 2016 Suicide Squad film probably has a hell of a lot more fun than Harleen Quinzel ever did.

Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad

Besides, is Harley Quinn really crazy? Or is she just crazy like a fox? What if crazy means never having to say you’re sorry?

Because I’m not sorry for any of it. Not that I need to justify myself, but it’s not like I’m spending my time writing new editions of Without Bloodshed or Silent Clarion. (Though I’d love to later on, once the Starbreaker series is complete.)

Instead, I’m gonna write new novels and continue the Starbreaker saga. Maybe Blackened Phoenix, Dead Man’s Hand, Proscribed Constructs, Nightmare Sequencer will be my breakthrough novel. Maybe the last mainline Starbreaker book I intend to write, A Tyranny of Angels, will be my breakthrough.

But what if Starbreaker is too niche? What if I don’t make my breakthrough until after I’ve finished writing Starbreaker stories and moved on to something with more mainstream appeal that didn’t start out as a pastiche of JRPGs like Final Fantasy and Shin Megami Tensei; John Carpenter sci-fi movies; comics like Sandman, Watchmen, The Authority, and The Crow; 70s & 80s metal lyrics; and the Cthulhu Mythos — among all sorts of other shit I can’t be bothered to mention here.

What If You Never Make It Big?

But the big question lingers: “What if the breakthrough never happens at all, and you die in obscurity?”

It’s OK. I’ve got an answer, and it’s metal. It goes like this: “SO MOTHERFUCKIN’ WHAT, MOTHERFUCKER?!”

Don’t get me wrong. I would love it if my books sold so well I could quit my day job. And if we’re gonna chow down on pie in the sky…

I would love to see one of my books nominated for the Nebula or the World Fantasy Award. I’d even take a Hugo; especially if nominating me makes the Puppies all butthurt. I don’t see why it would, though, since I write about a world where government officials who even talk about levying taxes find themselves up against the wall and listening to a Miranda warning the same day.

If Michiko Kakutani or N. K. Jemison reviewed one of my novels for the New York Times, I’d probably be over the moon even if they called my novel an aesthetic atrocity and demanded in print that I be dragged in chains to The Hague to stand trial for crimes against humanity — and exiled to Antarctica to feed the shoggoths upon my conviction. Hell, if I got a negative review that colorful I’d probably send the author a goddamn thank-you card.

I’m certainly not going to pick a fight with Ms. Kakutani, which would prove me superior to the likes of Norman Mailer, Salman Rushdie, and Jonathan Franzen in wisdom if not literary merit.

Getting a little closer to Earth: if a major Hollywood studio offered a reasonable deal for the adaptation rights, I’d probably take it as long as the merchandising plans include Starbreaker: the Flamethrower. Oh, come on. You should have known that joke was coming.

"Where the real money is made."
Spaceballs (1987): directed by Mel Brooks

A Netflix series in the vein of Stranger Things would work, too, if anybody from Netflix is reading this. Hell, if Lin-Manuel Miranda or Andrew Lloyd Webber wanted to adapt Starbreaker for the stage, I would make only two requests:

  1. They should cast Idina Menzel as Naomi Bradleigh, if she wants the role.
  2. I want two front-row center seats on opening night so I can take my wife to see Starbreaker: the Rock Opera.

I don’t think either of those are unreasonable, do you?

What If None of That Ever Happens?

All of the stuff I mentioned before would be awesome, but I don’t expect any of it to happen. I know better, and I knew what I was getting into when I started.

Even if I never make the big time, I’ll still have a hell of a lot of fun writing weird fucking books about all-too-human androids and swashbuckling soprano catgirls exposing government corruption and fighting demons from outer space. Maybe I’ll make just enough money off my books to take my wife out to dinner once in a while, and make a few friends at SF/fantasy conventions that I might not otherwise meet.

That doesn’t seem like such a terrible life to me, and since it’s my life my opinion is the only one that actually matters. :)