Thursday, March 4, 2010

This Fickle Business called Writing

I'm going to give you a glimpse of the author life, perhaps one you won't often see in collections of blogs by published authors. We're apt to tell you all about the wonderful projects we have in the works, to highlight our novels and convince you to go out and buy. We're not apt to tell you the other stuff, the fact that for most of us, writing isn't a secure business venture.
After all, we're human and bottom line, we need to make a living.
But the writing life is often a roller coaster, riding high when a contract is first signed or the first time we hold a new book in hand. A few weeks ago, I enjoyed the rush of a high: for the first time, I am celebrating the appearance of three new books in one year. Pretty cool.
Well, the high didn't last long. My agent called and told me I was being dropped by my current publisher. My first book with them (a thriller named "Salty Like Blood") had great reviews, but failed to sell. I have a second book coming out in a few months, but rather than waiting to see if that one will "sell out" the advance, they are saying they want to move in a slightly different direction, one that doesn't include me. Bottom line: if you don't make money for a publisher, you're not likely going to be staying around for the long haul.
Everyone has their explanation for a book flop. My agent says my female readers (most of the readers out there are females) were put off by the cover that contained a little girl and drops of blood. The publishing house was undergoing major changes during the production and marketing phase of my novel (house moved physical location to a new city, "restructured,"--people lost jobs etc.) and my novel seemed to fall through the cracks. I'm not sure what happened. It's difficult to predict what is going to sell.
Amish romance and historical is hot. I don't do that. I write suspense with and international flavor and a stripe of medical realism. I've never written "to the market," and I've been in a great place in that I haven't had to make compromises and write something I didn't want to write just to pay the bills. I work as a surgeon and that seems to enable my writing "habit."
So now, I'm in the unique position of holding a new manuscript in my hand and no contract and no idea what the future holds.
Who can predict what will sell? No one could have foreseen the amazing success of the "Left Behind" series by Jerry B. Jenkins. It was written from a Christian world view for Christians, yet it sold fabulously through secular chains. And who would have predicted the success of vampire novels or even the mass-love for stories of a small sect of Christians (The Amish) who would rather stay to themselves?
My friend, James Scott Bell, talks about success in writing in this way: A pyramid. At the bottom is good writing. As you step up the pyramid towards a best seller, you find all the things writers do to promote their product: marketing, blog tours, book-signings etc. At the top is a roulette wheel. It's a spin of a wheel and an unpredictable outcome as to what is going to hit big. All the other steps up the pyramid do not guarantee success; all they do is give you another chance to spin the wheel. I believe that is true.
As Christians, we leave book sales and outcomes to a Sovereign God. If God wants my novel to touch hundreds or thousands, it's up to Him. That said, I don't slack off on efforts to boost sales. But in the end, I have to trust God. He knows what is best and he promises to touch lives in ways we couldn't imagine.
A few years ago when I was bummed about sales of my first novel, a reader wrote a touching letter about how God had used the novel to get her attention. The novel had a storyline about a young woman who compromised her morals to stay in a bad relationship with a powerful man, a Governor candidate named "Redman." As it turned out, she was a young woman and had compromised her values to stay in relationship with a man. His name? Redman! God had her attention and it had nothing to do with me! God can use our writing in ways we never imagined. I had to step back and realize that God has a plan for my writing and be it for many or few, I'm only a channel. Hopefully, I'm channelling love to a hurting world.
I spoke to a high school english class last week. I showed them a picture of a rhinoceros and told them this is what you have to be like as a writer. Thick skin to endure edits and reader critiques and a nose to the grindstone (this rhino was ignoring me and eating grass) to get a novel-length manuscript completed. It was a good reminder. Last week, I needed to have thick skin when my agent called with bad news.
People get romantic ideas about the writer's life. What do they think? I sit around in an easy chair beside the fireplace, stories flowing from my fingers, laptop open, perhaps with a pipe, taking breaks to talk to my agent about Hollywood film rights and making jaunts to the mailbox to collect royalty checks.
I don't know any writers like that. Writing takes discipline, the ability and willingness to spend hours in solitude with your imaginary friends, mostly carving out the time to write around another job that supports you until the roulette wheel lands on the right number. And then, it doesn't really stop. There are always revisions!
I'm not sure what the future holds. In truth, I'm not bummed. God loves me and has a plan for my writing. In the meantime, I'm looking for a new house, a new fit, someone who wants a story based in Africa, contemporary, suspense with romantic elements, broken people touched by grace. Takers?
Thanks for letting me rant.
Harry Lee


  1. I'm sorry to hear your news, Harry, but you're completely correct in that God has the future--and your novels--in His hands.

  2. Interesting stuff. Just spotted an unusual web article on Google, Yahoo etc. titled "Pretrib Rapture Secrecy" which clearly touches on Hollywood at the end. Would love to see some well-thought-out reactions.

  3. Great post, Harry, and so true. This journey is certainly not for the faint at heart and even those of us who are published have our boxes full of those rejections slips.

    And I, for one, love a great story "based in Africa, contemporary, suspense with romantic elements, broken people touched by grace." Keep on writing them!

  4. Harry, thanks for your honest post about the twists and turns in your writing life. I like the pyramid and roulette wheel analogy. I hope you find a new publisher for your book very soon.

  5. Love your books, Harry! I have them all (except Salty Like Blood - must rectify that!)and love each one. Be assured bonnet fiction is certainly not for every woman ;-)

    What you write is just what the Doctor ordered for me and I am often recommending your books to friends and family who are looking more for substance in their reading.

    Bless you for your writing and your medical career.

  6. I'm just an avid reader who knows nothing about the writing side of the industry, but suspected things were much as you described. I recently read Cound I Have This Dance?, loved your writing and plan to read more.

    The publishing industry seems to be unsettled at the moment in light of the growing popularity of eBooks (I love my Kindle!), but there is a market out there for books with the elements you listed. You are a gifted writer and, like you said, God has a plan for your writing which He will reveal in His time. And I will be watching!

  7. I hear your frustration. I don't write to the market either. I do think people need a dose of fictional reality every once in a while. Unfortunately the majority of readers most Christian publishers are targeting are perfectly content to huddle up in their home with the blinds drawn and the front door locked and bolted. To me that's just sad. I'm praying for change.

  8. Great post and great comments, Harry. Such a cliche to say 'been there, done that' but still very true. During the 13 rejections on my first ever novel, my husband kept reminding me God's ways are not our ways, and that His will for that book may be for it to be an avenue God wanted to use to impact even one person - and that could be even an editor who rejected it! The one thing that has kept me persevering through the ups and downs of the past 17 years has been the encouragement in so many different and varied ways God gives that this is what He wants me to do.

  9. Thanks so much for all the comments. I am resting, knowing that God is in control. We make him so small when we are anxious.