Monday, November 6, 2017

The Immortal Lifespan of Your Novel

“I wrote The Egg in an evening but it took years to write The Martian. Sometimes I'm a little sad that The Martian wasn't anywhere near as popular, but I guess it's a niche readership. Hard sci-fi isn't for everyone,” Andy Weir once told Reddit.

I’m usually a Susie-Come-Lately. My to-be reads are often books that have not only hit the height of popularity, but fallen from it. Often decades ago. Recently I’ve been finishing up with young adult books I’d been planning on reading since I was in the demographic—and finding my cynical adulthood problematic in my enjoyment of these things.

So imagine my surprise when I first learned that the writer of The Martian, successful sci-fi novel and movie, was the same guy who wrote “The Egg,” a short story so memorable that I recognized it years later despite having only glossed over it when it was making the rounds.

Andy Weir was one of the reasons (the second being Leigh Bardugo) that caused me to start posting Stories of the Wyrd and realizing how a good, free short story could sell a novel.

Today I found this quote on Andy Weir’s AMA (Ask Me Anything) on Reddit and it covers some interesting bases from all sides.

I’m the first to say that speed of writing has no consistent correlation to quality. Despite what people may say, a quickly written work could potentially be better than an arduous one because it was written quickly, with no censorship, a better sense of flow and continuity. Let’s not lie to ourselves, it can also be a tangent-filled mess while a piece that took a long time could be just as precise and meaningful as you’d want. I’m not advocating writing as fast as you can, but that you can’t judge a book by how fast it wanted to come out.

The second part is more obvious: “I’m a little said that The Martian wasn’t anywhere near as popular.”

He wrote this right after “The Egg” became an internet phenomenon, but before The Martian hit its stride.

If you don’t travel in sci-fi circles, The Martian is a sort of rags-to-riches story, being initially published online for free before he offered it up on Kindle for a buck. From there The Martian became a New York Times bestseller.  The Kindle version sold way more than the free, and an agent got in contact with Weir. Random House quickly bought up the rights, and four days after signing with them, Hollywood called.

Matt Damon starred, and the film was a financial success, making 630 million worldwide.

“I’m a little sad that The Martian wasn’t anywhere near as popular.”

Notice the past tense?

It’s not entirely wrong to consider a book’s debut its lifespan. Typically, the largest percentage of sales happen right at launch; if you’re going to hit the best sellers list, it’ll be early on. Self-publishers agree that having more book will make you more successful than trying to sell one.

But what makes us think a book is dead?

Despite having far more to go with The Dying Breed, a lot more to try, I have long been considering the book “unsuccessful.” Though it receives compliments on its craft and my credibility, and I personally like the book immensely, it has never gotten much enthusiasm, even compared to another, less polished novel I’m working on. I’ve commented on its genre, and how I first started it just before the peak of dystopian novels, finishing the edits once the dystopian thing has become more or less has-been. My plans entail shopping it out a little more, but ultimately I expect to put it aside in favor of more marketable/hooking novels, perhaps self-publishing at a later date. I’ve been distinctly considering going on an “American Tour” of writers conferences perhaps in 2019, and I doubt this will be the book I’m still shopping around.

So this quote hits me hard.

Despite all of the stories about great books not being well received, living in anonymity, or even being outright criticized early on, I’ve sort of developed the unconscious opinion that a book is received how it is received, period. If a novel is written in the forest and no one’s around to read it, can it be any good? Quality is measured by perspective, and I know better than anyone how we don’t always agree on what is great. So why is it that I’ve started to lump everyone together?

But I’ve been doing that a lot lately. I suppose it came from my years of giving people the benefit of the doubt and getting bitten. I’ve been struggling with stereotyping and generalizing, realizing that people really do follow the patterns laid out for them more than I ever thought. When I say that I would take advice from my younger self, not give it, a big part of that would be my yearning for my unflappable belief in diversity and confidence in my perspective.

I’ve sort of had this acceptance that I will continue to work in obscurity, putting things out there and seeing minimal change in reaction. I’m not entirely dismayed to think that. I don’t necessarily want fame and the attention that comes with it, but I do wish that I’d make enough money to survive, and that I could touch a good number of readers like many books have touched me. It’d be nice to make something iconic, something with a costume or name that most people would recognize if referenced. I want a good number of people to care, and I want to be financially free enough and creatively respected enough to do what I want without too much restriction.

Several of Stephen King’s books were written prior to Carrie, published after his debut novel’s success. J.K. Rowling was rejected by 12 publishers until a child happened to read it. One-hundred-and-forty publishers rejected Chicken Soup for the Soul. Twenty-four literary agents turned down The Notebook… but the funniest part of that story was the very first response he got was an acceptance and he sat back thinking others would follow suit. They didn’t.

We can tell these stories time and time again, but it’s pretty easy to put yourself into a box, see what “kind of writer” you are, and call it a day. Same goes for your novels. “I’m a little sad to see it wasn’t successful.”

Things change. Life isn’t as predictable as it seems at times. You can’t judge a book by how long it took to write, you can’t judge it by first reactions. I’m not entirely sure what you can judge it by, but it helps to remember things aren’t set in stone.

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