Why I Gave Up Writing Fiction Books

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ReadWriteRachel

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I don’t write for money, but I do want readers, very much. I guess I write to connect.

But if I wrote something I hated writing, and a ton of readers loved it, I wouldn’t feel like I was actually making a real connection, I think.

It’s hard to say for sure, because this is such a big hypothetical. I enjoy writing enough different things that might (key word) appeal to people that I have no reason to write something I dislike. I’m not going to run and write dino porn because someone tells me the genre is particularly underserved. I don’t see much point in trying to write something I wouldn’t read myself.

But it could also be that I’m just not very good at writing in a way that sells. Believe me, I’ve considered this. I made a market-related choice to write scary thriller stuff, but I also fill my books with atmospheric descriptions because, for me, those are essential to scariness. Would I sell better if it was all just corpses piling up? Maybe! But I don’t feel capable of writing that way, and I don’t want to. Again, I can’t write what I wouldn’t read.

I love this, and feel exactly the same way. I want to write books that people like, no matter the income -- my goal is just to get my words out there in the world and read. But at the same time, if I was writing something I didn't enjoy, I don't think I could sustain that. One of my professors in college encouraged that, and said if you were making an income from writing you were a success -- he wrote virtually everything under the sun under many different pennames. But that always rang false for me. I want to write stories that I would want to read, not just things that'll earn me a paycheck. And if that wins me readers someday, that's what I'm meant to do. Otherwise, my novels will stay mine.

And I think I'm okay with that.
 

Myrealana

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Wait, so...

You joined a WRITING BOARD in order to tell people that you've given up on writing, and maybe we should too?

That's... interesting.
 

Charles Dawson

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Wait, so...

You joined a WRITING BOARD in order to tell people that you've given up on writing, and maybe we should too?

That's... interesting.

Just wanted to give people a lay of the land from my experience. It helps no one if we just lock ourselves in an echo-chamber with everyone saying the same thing. ;)
 

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I know, personally, a hundred or so novelists (assuming that novels are what you meant by fiction books) who make a living writing and selling fiction. I know many more by reputation or online communities.

All of them are trade published. Self-publishing can be an amazing way to make a living, but self-published writers who are exclusively self-published do better with a specific niche.

And if they write fiction, one or more series.

Now, to be fair, most of them are either retired or from a two-income household, which means the issue of health insurance is much less of a worry.
 
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Sanderson

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Just wanted to give people a lay of the land from my experience. It helps no one if we just lock ourselves in an echo-chamber with everyone saying the same thing. ;)

I sympathise with your experience. I had a dream of making a living from being a full-time writer, but after I did a bit of research and discovered that no, most writers don't make anything near what they should considering the effort they put into it, I dumped that dream and just kept the one where I wrote for the fun of it, and the pleasure of finishing a story.
I am a big reader, but I'm also a bit older. It would be interesting to see the demographics as to who is still buying books. I must admit I only read electronic when it comes to fiction, and electronic books are often a bit cheaper. I have assumed that if a book is cheaper, then more people are likely to take a chance on it. I have certainly gotten used to paying not much for a beginning author. Sometimes I have still regretted even that measly outlay when they book hasn't been well-written. It has become a cultural thing, I agree (expecting to buy books cheaply). But perhaps it's also a supply and demand thing. It's so easy to self-publish these days, there really is a lot of rubbish out there, and the gems get mixed in with them unfortunately. (At the same time I love self-publishing because people are able to self-publish different stuff that a publisher would never look at.)

You're on the right track by doing non-fiction for a living, definitely more likely to make money from that. And I agree with what someone else said - it can take a very long time to become successful in this field.
 

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I agree, Charles Dawson. I feel that way too. It seems like no matter how hard I try, it's never good enough, not interesting enough to get agents interested. I've studied the craft, practiced, revised, got bera readers to point out what wasn't working, revised some more, and it's as if I had done nothing at all. And I agree that only the success stories get to be discussed, no one talks about the losers who get nothing but rejections. :-(
 

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I agree, Charles Dawson. I feel that way too. It seems like no matter how hard I try, it's never good enough, not interesting enough to get agents interested. I've studied the craft, practiced, revised, got bera readers to point out what wasn't working, revised some more, and it's as if I had done nothing at all. And I agree that only the success stories get to be discussed, no one talks about the losers who get nothing but rejections. :-(

I think this is mostly because nobody wants to discourage other writers. It's also because publishing is a weird business, and it's really hard to predict when (or indeed if) a particular writer is going to make a sale. And it's also because success is going to look different to each writer - and sometimes for that writer the meaning of success changes from day to day.

Myself, I tend to get irritable with the Big Names on Twitter who like to say that all you need to do is belive in yourself and persevere. That's patently untrue - but it was true for that writer, and they're sincerely trying to be encouraging. The fact that it can also read like "Oh, you failed? Obviously you're a slacker who didn't want it enough" probably doesn't occur to them. Their own paths were brutal and fraught, but it paid off for them, and they're trying to spread that hope.

On a personal note - I love to write. I've always loved to write. Sharing stories seemed like the natural next step, and now that I've started doing it I suppose I'll keep trying. But I've learned that good stories get missed all the time. Good stories fail to get agents. Good stories get agents and never find a publisher. Good stories get published but don't sell. Art is subjective, and all the markting genius in the world isn't going to compensate for the mercurial nature of personal taste.

This is why for me it always comes back to writing for myself. If that wasn't my core motivation, I'd have quit a hundred times over. Maybe nobody cares about my next story - but I do, and for me that's enough. But it's not enough for everyone, and what works for me is going to be harmful to someone else. We all need to look after ourselves as best we can, and sometimes that means not listening to the cheerleaders who tell us to bleed just a little bit longer.
 

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I think this is mostly because nobody wants to discourage other writers. It's also because publishing is a weird business, and it's really hard to predict when (or indeed if) a particular writer is going to make a sale. And it's also because success is going to look different to each writer - and sometimes for that writer the meaning of success changes from day to day.

Myself, I tend to get irritable with the Big Names on Twitter who like to say that all you need to do is belive in yourself and persevere. That's patently untrue - but it was true for that writer, and they're sincerely trying to be encouraging. The fact that it can also read like "Oh, you failed? Obviously you're a slacker who didn't want it enough" probably doesn't occur to them. Their own paths were brutal and fraught, but it paid off for them, and they're trying to spread that hope.

On a personal note - I love to write. I've always loved to write. Sharing stories seemed like the natural next step, and now that I've started doing it I suppose I'll keep trying. But I've learned that good stories get missed all the time. Good stories fail to get agents. Good stories get agents and never find a publisher. Good stories get published but don't sell. Art is subjective, and all the markting genius in the world isn't going to compensate for the mercurial nature of personal taste.

This is why for me it always comes back to writing for myself. If that wasn't my core motivation, I'd have quit a hundred times over. Maybe nobody cares about my next story - but I do, and for me that's enough. But it's not enough for everyone, and what works for me is going to be harmful to someone else. We all need to look after ourselves as best we can, and sometimes that means not listening to the cheerleaders who tell us to bleed just a little bit longer.

This always seemed strange to me. If you're writing for yourself, why bother quering agents? Why care whether the book sold X copies or not? (I'm just trying to understand this statement :) ). I always write for other people. I used to write for myself. I called this kind of writing "writing a secret diary". And I could have spelling mistakes, the most boring characters ever, and nobody would care. But if I'm trying to make stranges like my stories, I must make them interesting. Otherwise, they won't buy my book.
Thanks for the reply, I'm just so deeply frustrated with failure.
 
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I agree, Charles Dawson. I feel that way too. It seems like no matter how hard I try, it's never good enough, not interesting enough to get agents interested. I've studied the craft, practiced, revised, got bera readers to point out what wasn't working, revised some more, and it's as if I had done nothing at all. And I agree that only the success stories get to be discussed, no one talks about the losers who get nothing but rejections. :-(

Anyone who writes is a writer.

Anyone who manages to complete a ms. is accomplishing something that most people who try, don't manage to do.

You are absolutely not a failure.

That said, you'll find many people on AW and elsewhere cautioning people who decide to write for a living, whether fiction or non-fiction.

Even if you succeed in publication, the financial aspects of writing for a living are complex.
 

lizmonster

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This always seemed strange to me. If you're writing for yourself, why bother quering agents? Why care whether the book sold X copies or not? (I'm just trying to understand this statement :) ). I always write for other people. I used to write for myself. I called this kind of writing "writing a secret diary". And I could have spelling mistakes, the most boring characters ever, and nobody would care. But if I'm trying to make stranges like my stories, I must make them interesting. Otherwise, they won't buy my book.
Thanks for the reply, I'm just so deeply frustrated with failure.

Fundamentally, the answer to your question is that I'm a different person than you are, and my reasons aren't going to be anyone's but my own.

I was "writing" before I could read - I had awful insomnia as a child, and my parents (in what was likely a desperate attempt to get some sleep themselves) told me to make up stories. That was my "secret diary" for most of my life: other people and other worlds in my head. I wrote a short for a college class that got some good feedback, so when I graduated I subbed it to one market and got one rejection letter. I figured that was that, and I kept writing for myself (and now and then my friends).

For me, two things made me start to consider publishing: the advent of easy self-publishing via Amazon, and NaNoWriMo, which taught me to finish a novel-length work.

That was 2010. I was 46 years old. I'd been writing since I was 5. And my initial ambition was to self-publish and sell to at least 20 people I didn't know in the real world. I queried only because I didn't want to leave that possibility on the table without giving it a shot. I can't honestly say, if I could go back, that I'd choose not to query, but there are a lot of decisions since then I'd make differently. And it's possible none of those decisions would have brought me a better outcome.

I guess the TL;DR of all of this is: for me, if I wrote for other people, I'd have hung it up a long time ago. For you, it's going to be different, and that's fine. But it's not for me to tell you or any other writer that it's time for them to stop. Be a healthy person. Write if it feeds you, whatever that means for you. When it stops feeding you, stop writing.
 

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This always seemed strange to me. If you're writing for yourself, why bother querying agents? Why care whether the book sold X copies or not?

Same headscratcher for me.

I always write for other people. I used to write for myself. I called this kind of writing "writing a secret diary". And I could have spelling mistakes, the most boring characters ever, and nobody would care. But if I'm trying to make stranges like my stories, I must make them interesting. Otherwise, they won't buy my book.
Thanks for the reply, I'm just so deeply frustrated with failure.

You are not alone.

caw
 

Charles Dawson

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I think this is mostly because nobody wants to discourage other writers. It's also because publishing is a weird business, and it's really hard to predict when (or indeed if) a particular writer is going to make a sale. And it's also because success is going to look different to each writer - and sometimes for that writer the meaning of success changes from day to day.

Myself, I tend to get irritable with the Big Names on Twitter who like to say that all you need to do is belive in yourself and persevere. That's patently untrue - but it was true for that writer, and they're sincerely trying to be encouraging. The fact that it can also read like "Oh, you failed? Obviously you're a slacker who didn't want it enough" probably doesn't occur to them. Their own paths were brutal and fraught, but it paid off for them, and they're trying to spread that hope.

On a personal note - I love to write. I've always loved to write. Sharing stories seemed like the natural next step, and now that I've started doing it I suppose I'll keep trying. But I've learned that good stories get missed all the time. Good stories fail to get agents. Good stories get agents and never find a publisher. Good stories get published but don't sell. Art is subjective, and all the markting genius in the world isn't going to compensate for the mercurial nature of personal taste.

This is why for me it always comes back to writing for myself. If that wasn't my core motivation, I'd have quit a hundred times over. Maybe nobody cares about my next story - but I do, and for me that's enough. But it's not enough for everyone, and what works for me is going to be harmful to someone else. We all need to look after ourselves as best we can, and sometimes that means not listening to the cheerleaders who tell us to bleed just a little bit longer.

I agree. Sometimes we call realistic answers "negative answers" because they don't feed into our hopes and dreams. It's all good though, no one knows until they try. I know I didn't believe it until I tried to be one of the ones that "make it". It's kinda like what they call a just world theory, where bad things happens to good people and hard work and perseverance doesn't *always* pay off. Some less-deserving people get that promotion, some hard-working people lose their job. The world is not a fair, happy place all the time. Maybe someone will be the exception: they will have the skills, story, good timing, and let's face it, sheer luck that it sometimes takes to make it. There are people with not-so-much writing talent that are making it big and others with incredible skills and talent for writing that, for whatever reason, are still working their non-writing day job.
 

lizmonster

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I know I didn't believe it until I tried to be one of the ones that "make it".

I've heard it said that contentment isn't about what you have, it's about being happy with what you have.

If you're dead set on becoming a NYT bestseller, your odds of success are going to be pretty long. If you want a trade deal and a starred review from PW, you've got a better shot. If you want a happy following for your self-published series, depending on genre your odds are pretty good (if you can keep up your output :)).

But there are other measures, too: getting a book cover design that appeals to you, or designing it yourself. Seeing your name on a book for sale at Amazon. Being able to publish that one story that meant so much to your mom. Just being able to finish something, beginning to end, and hold it up to the world to say "See? That thing I said I was going to do? I've done it!" Having one reader say "Thank you, I needed this book."

Big dreams can be motivating. Big dreams to the exclusion of all else can be really self-destructive.

And I'd caution against feeding the "life isn't fair" voices. Yes, less skilled writers are often successful. But they're successful when they tap into something that resonates with an awful lot of people. If a book communicates the right thing well enough, it can transcend style. Command of language isn't always the most important component of a story.

Don't ever, ever assume that you know the path another writer has taken. Jealousy is one thing; assuming they're undeserving or have never suffered - or are currently suffering - for their work is something else. You don't know someone else's story. Don't be resentful of what you don't know.

As for day jobs: Yes, most writers need another source of income. I'll go so far as to say most "known" writers need another source of income. The financial picture for writers is incredibly complicated, and generally precarious - if you're not Stephen King. And most well-known authors are not Stephen King.

(This, btw, is why I wince every time I see someone say something like "I'm writing my novel in grad school, and then it will all be champagne and roses!" Write your novel, absolutely. But maybe also find a day job that'll pay the rent for a while.)

If writing has ceased to be enjoyable, and especially if it's actively hurting you - by all means, stop. There's no moral incentive in this world for any of us to write. Be compassionate with yourself and do what you need to do.

But remember that "making it" likely means something very different to other writers. If you need to let go, let go. If they find the courage to stop doing something that's become painful because you've shared your story, that's good. But we are all different, and we're all going to calculate this differently. And sometimes failure can make us realize that what we thought was important to us about writing actually isn't.
 

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I write for myself with the fervent hope that it’s not just for myself. Is that a mind game? Maybe. I can write for a target audience, but never solely for that audience; I’m always my first target reader, and I have to like it.

I agree that there’s great wisdom in letting go of something that isn’t working, and in acknowledging that persistence can’t always do wonders. I spent many years pursuing an academic career and then trying to get a tenure-track job, which is probably harder in my field than publishing a novel. Eventually my advisor said to me, “Well, even if you can’t make a living at it, you’ll always enjoy doing your research, won’t you?”

And I realized that no, I would not enjoy it. I was actually offended by his suggestion that I should continue in my perilous existence as an adjunct prof just to live the Life of the Mind. I quit, I got a job with benefits, and I’ve never regretted it. I still love reading, but I have zero interest in writing scholarly papers about literature.

Here’s the thing, though: if you asked me the same question about writing fiction, I’d say, “Absolutely, I do that because I love it. Why else have I been writing continuously since I was eight, with no remuneration until I was in my forties?”

There’s nothing especially pure or virtuous about writing as a labor of love. Maybe everyone has things they’d put in that category and things they wouldn’t.
 

mhdragon

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There is two aspects to the business: writing and marketing. Even if your book is good and you really put yourself through the paces, it could be something as silly as writing under a pen name or changing the color of your hair. An author actually did that and had more success at selling her book. I forget who the author is, but I remember my mentor telling me and other students about it during lunch on campus. Likewise, the reverse could also be true, the book may not marketable currently, but you are doing the right things. It could also be that there is nothing wrong with your approach either but people aren't biting. Don't give up! And keep writing. J.K. Rowling was passed over, she only got published because her publisher gave her manuscript to one of their children to read and she wanted more. George R.R. Martin had several commercial failures before A Song of Ice and Fire--and look how long he has been in the business. There is no easy path to getting published. Some writers like Lovecraft have been more successful after their death.

My creative professor at the University of Pittsburgh gave advice on what his mentor and friend told him when he asked about publishing: "Don't quit your day job, kid."
 

DanielSTJ

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Uh, I'm late to the party. Very late, but I have something to say.

The initial post made me very confused. Writers, when they are dedicated, are not doing it for me. It would not hurt-- but they'd do it for nothing. Hell, they'd pay money to acquire the books that enable them to perform their craft in the first place. Also, 3 years? Does any logical human being think that is enough time to get good at ANYTHING? The poster cites the NBA-- did they really only spend three years trying to get in and then give up? Not a good argument.

A writer is a successful one when someone reads something you wrote and likes it. The rest is all topping.
 

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George R.R. Martin had several commercial failures before A Song of Ice and Fire--and look how long he has been in the business.

Not to undermine your larger point, with which I agree, but Martin had been writing for 25 years when A GAME OF THRONES came out in 1996. He'd published 6 novels, countless short stories, and won 7 industry awards (and was nominated for numerous others). He'd also been a writer on a successful television series. I'm not sure I'd label any of those "commercial failures," just "successes not as huge and public as GoT."

I'm a bit sensitive, because Martin was held up to me as an example in a situation where I received some truly bad advice. He wasn't a nobody before HBO picked up Game of Thrones. He was a proven, established industry professional.
 

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I believe something major has been overlooked here - that the publishing world and the writing community is constantly changing. Publishing companies come and go, and even new platforms come and go. The OP's rant about lack of sales should be a signal that the form of publishing you are seeking out is a dying platform. It's not a lack of people reading, but rather an overabundance of writers on that platform. Agents were not a thing when Stephen King first made a name for himself, but they are necessary if you want to traditionally publish.

That said, I also find it worrisome that the OP mentions 'reading all the right books' in regards to learning how to write. I've found a lot of these books will produce cookie-cutter novels or predictable plots because they've followed a step-by-step guide that leaves no room for true creativity. Writing can't be learned. If you've read Stephen King's "On Writing", even he says writers are born and not taught, although any writer with an ounce of skill can always improve. From the sounds of it, the OP has gone at writing from a business perspective, and that's just not how famous authors are born. Sorry :(
 

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It's not a lack of people reading, but rather an overabundance of writers on that platform. Agents were not a thing when Stephen King first made a name for himself, but they are necessary if you want to traditionally publish.

First, agents were absolutely a thing when King first sold Carrie to Doubleday. Agents were a thing when Faulkner published (his agent was Ben Wasson).

King simply didn't realize that having an agent was a good thing. As he says in On Writing about selling the hardcover rights for Carrie to Doubleday:

Twenty-five hundred dollars was a very small advance, even for the early seventies, but I didn’t know that and had no literary agent to know it for me. Before it occurred to me that I might actually need an agent, I had generated well over three million dollars’ worth of income, a good deal of it for the publisher. (The standard Doubleday contract in those days was better than indentured servitude, but not much.)

Agents, good reputable agents are really helpful. Bad agents, like bad publishers, are best avoided.

I'm not convinced that trade publishing is dying; I notice that people have been saying that for a very long time; including in the late '80s and early '90s when I began working in ebooks.

I also know that they were wise to the potential of ebooks, long before Amazon.
 

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I believe something major has been overlooked here - that the publishing world and the writing community is constantly changing. Publishing companies come and go, and even new platforms come and go. The OP's rant about lack of sales should be a signal that the form of publishing you are seeking out is a dying platform.

That's quite a leap. Lack of sales could be due to other things.

It's not a lack of people reading, but rather an overabundance of writers on that platform.

This is true only if you believe that all writers and all books are exactly alike, like widgets on a production line.

Agents were not a thing when Stephen King first made a name for himself,

Yeah, nah. They'd been around for more than a century before Stephen King hit the bestseller list.

but they are necessary if you want to traditionally publish.

Well, you can still be trade published -- and trade published well -- without an agent. But a good agent is an excellent asset and will support your career.

That said, I also find it worrisome that the OP mentions 'reading all the right books' in regards to learning how to write. I've found a lot of these books will produce cookie-cutter novels or predictable plots because they've followed a step-by-step guide that leaves no room for true creativity. Writing can't be learned. If you've read Stephen King's "On Writing", even he says writers are born and not taught, although any writer with an ounce of skill can always improve. From the sounds of it, the OP has gone at writing from a business perspective, and that's just not how famous authors are born. Sorry :(

My emphasis.

Wouldn't that kinda make his book redundant? Of course writing can be learnt.

ETA: Why does being famous = the mark of a good writer?
 
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I'm a bit sensitive, because Martin was held up to me as an example in a situation where I received some truly bad advice. He wasn't a nobody before HBO picked up Game of Thrones. He was a proven, established industry professional.

Martin won a Hugo in 1976 for his novella A Song for Lya. He had a day job for a very very long time before he made enough money from writing, and before he got a job teaching, he made income from chess tournaments, first playing, and later in the '70s directing them, which gave him a paying weekend gig so he could write during the week.

Sandkings (1979) and Nightflyers (1980) (both serialized first in magazines, I think) were when he started making a name for himself among SF / F readers. In the 1980s he moved to SoCal to write for TV, first for the Twilight Zone revival, and later, for Max Headroom.

People seem to think it was instant fame for Martin; it wasn't.

ETA:

Also: I've just been informed that Martin's novels sold through; he earned royalties. That's not anything like "commercial failure." Getting to the point of collecting royalties (you've earned out your advance is absolutely success). Heck getting your book in the hands of happy readers is commercial success; publishers are very careful about numbers. Even if the book doesn't sell through, it's not a failure. For them too, getting to the point of royalty payments is a double win.
 
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