Don’t fall off the trail

Saturday, Dec 15th, 2007 @ 04:54 pm

donkeys

Yeah, I haven’t blogged in awhile.  Life does get busy, and there are times when I just want to sit and brood.

Lately, I’ve been mulling over how tenuous a writer’s career can be.  You feel like you’re always walking a narrow and dangerous path, and one bad move can send you over the cliff’s edge into oblivion.  That’s why I’m using my donkeys to illustrate this point.  They’re slow and steady and sure-footed creatures.  When you take a ride down the Grand Canyon, the trail companies don’t put you on a horse.  Oh, no.  Horses are easily spooked and known to bolt unexpectedly, which is a disastrous characteristic when you’re on a cliffside trail with a thousand foot drop-off.  Instead, they use mules, which are horse/donkey hybrids.  Horse DNA gives a mule its size and strength.  Donkey DNA gives a mule its steadiness and caution.  If you startle a donkey, it won’t bolt.  It will stand still and think about things before it takes action.  That’s also why donkeys have a reputation for stubbornness.  Before you can make it do anything, the donkey has to think about it and decide, “okay, it looks safe, so I guess I’ll cooperate.”  

A writer’s career is like walking an endlessly scary cliffside trail.  I was reminded of this after corresponding with a very well-known thriller writer, a writer with a long and bestselling past.  About a decade ago, after establishing a reputation for thrillers, this writer wrote a completely different type of book, a book of the heart.  It didn’t sell well.  Ever since then, sales have slumped, even though the quality of the books hasn’t.  And now the editor has told the writer it’s time to go begging for quotes from current “big-name” authors to help sell the next book.  This author used to be a big-name author.   But one little slip, one little miscalculation, and there you go, tumbling off the trail, frantically grabbing for any handhold before you hit bottom.

This is the way a writing career feels these days. 

Most of us become writers because we love to tell stories.  We sell our first book and think our worries are over — we’re published!  but even after you’ve sold your tenth or twentieth novel, there are so many ways to fall off the cliff.  You write a few books that don’t sell well.  Your editor gets fired, or your imprint closes down.  Or – and this is what I’m hearing more and more –

You don’t write fast enough.

I’ve written 20 books in 20 years, and you’d think that’d be fast enough.  But for commercial writers, it turns out that a book a year is no longer fast enough.  In fact, it’s damn slow.  The industry looks at Nora Roberts and James Patterson, who turn out multiple books a year, and whose sales just keep growing.  The secret to success, it now appears, is to write so fast that your name is always on the stands.  So now when writers ask, “How can I boost my career?” the advice they’ll hear from agents and editors is, “write two books a year!  Or three or four or five!” 

Oh yeah, and while you’re at it, make sure they’re all masterpieces. 

It’s gotten to the point where my measly book-a-year schedule feels like a slacker’s pace.   

Early last summer, I had a conversation with a highly honored literary author.  As writers are wont to do, we were both whining about how tough a time we had finishing our most recent books.  “I’m exhausted,” I told him.  “It took me fourteen months to write my last book.  I felt like I would never finish it.  It was the endless project!”

He laughed in disbelief.  “Fourteen months?  That’s all it took you?  It took me five years to write mine!”

And I thought: What? Your editor let you have five years?  If I took five years to write a book, I’d be out of a contract!

Ever since then I’ve been consumed with jealousy that I don’t get five years to write a book.  I don’t get five years to polish and hone every single sentence to perfection.  I’m just trying to meet my deadlines.  Granted, he’s a prize-winning literary novelist, and his last book is selling extremely well.  When his books get published, they are EVENTS, and attention must be paid by every critic under the sun.

Good luck getting that kind of attention as a commercial writer.

But as my husband pointed out, yes the literary writer gets reviewed in every single newspaper in the country.  Yet even if his latest title sold more copies than my latest title, I’ve sold far more books than he ever will.  Because I’ve written more of them.  So whaddya want, my husband says.  Money or respect?

It reminds me that even though I may grouse about lousy reviews or the way commercial fiction is scorned and undervalued by the critics, at least for the moment I’m lucky to still be walking the precarious trail that so many other writers have fallen off of.  I’m still selling books, still earning my living as a writer. 

But I can’t stop worrying about that drop.

 

32 Responses to “Don’t fall off the trail”

  1. joe bernstein says:

    one of my favorite literary authors recently received a major award for a novel which definitely not his best by a mile,and martin scorcese got the oscar for best picture for The Departed,a good film,but far from his best effort-there is no accounting for how the powers that be will decide,except that in the case of the author i mentioned a lot of hype by a well known tv personality helped(it’s helping a presidential candidate as we speak)

  2. drosdelnoch says:

    Hi Tess,
    Great to have you back. Quite a lengthy and poignant blog and I thought that I’d throw my tuppence into the ring as it were.

    Whilst some authors can write three plus novels a year the thing that many realise is that its a talent thats rarer than a Pink Elephant. To turn out a book of the quality that fans expect takes time, love and above all commitment. You know how to plan your project, you know whats interested you and you know how long its going to take.

    Does that mean I respect them more than you? No, I enjoy stuff by people like Dan Abnett who is yet another prolific writer but in recent times Ive started to notice the quality declining (that or Im just expecting more than Im getting, lol) and really wonder how much this author cares about the product quality at the end of the day. Yes each author thinks that theyre putting the best into it that they can, but if I was to mention a scene from one of your books, you’d pretty much know where it was.

    Do that to a multi book author and they might have trouble remembering when they wrote it let alone which book it was. Does that make it bad? Not necessarily, just that everyone has thier own method for working in the publishing arena. I love your books, the fans love the books and if you look at it one more way, fans only have a limited budget so who are they more likely to buy in a year, a plethora of one novel authors or a few multiple authors?

    Lets face it, we all like different authors for thier different takes and writing styles but if restricted it will force the book market to stagnate, new talent wont get a shot at breaking through and that can only hurt things in the long run.

    Dont let anything else worry you, they have thier methods, you have yours. Plus youre work is always guaranteed to be top of my reading pile when it lands.

    (Now about that bribe. LOL)

    Finally and perhaps most importantly think about touring. Fans like to meet authors, authors like to tour to meet thier fans, if youre a multiple release author how often are you going to be able to do that (or are you technically chained to your writing medium.)

    Sad to say with no local stops I wont be able to catch up with you so heres hoping for next year and the next successful book.
    (Unless theres a chance for a brief stop over in the area for a tea or two, or you can feel free to stop by, lol)

    All the best,

    Gareth

  3. john lovell says:

    One of those slow-writing literary authors, eh? Here In Maine, I suppose? Either Ford or Russo, right?

  4. Dru says:

    Welcome back Tess.

    Every year I know that I will be reading a book by Tess and that is something I anticipate. You have to write your way and if that is what works for you, which you have proof by your many fans, then that’s the way you should continue. I know that every year, a great novel by Tess Gerritsen will be on the book shelf.

    Keep up the good work and Happy Holidays!

    pps..love the photo, especially the snow.

    Dru

  5. Kyle K. says:

    The first person that came to mind for me was John Irving…

    It’s amazing how much of the business end writers actually have to deal with nowadays. I remember hearing about the good old days when a writer just worried about perfecting her craft… what a dream, right?

    As a reader, I have no problem with writers coming out with a book a year. In fact, the wait gets me anxious for the next book, and it’s like a yearly tradition, to go and buy the new book around the same time every year. As much as I admire people like Nora Roberts and Luanne Rice as a writer (James Patterson doesn’t write all of his books, by the way… If you notice, about 85% of them are co-written, meaning the publishing house is only using his name to sell a book by an unknown author), I think they’re kind of crazy!

    Did you ever consider having a literary project on the side? Something that you can take your time to write, something you can use to take your mind off of the amazing thrillers you write whenever you need a break? I don’t know if it would be something you would publish under Tess, but you could always publish it under Terry! :)

  6. tuttle says:

    “Not fast enough”………

    Wow.

    And here I just spent the last year working on a novel that was semi-autobiographical and only managed to get 100 pages done.

    THEN I decided to get started on my fantasy novel (mostly because fantasy novels sell better than regular literary stories) and I figure I can take a couple of chapters out and sell them as individual stories while I finish the book.

    But if I want to get it into the agent or publishers hands I have to have a first draft done by spring ’08 and then the finished book by ’09-ish…and now I find out that by all other standards….
    I’m not fast enough.

    Everyone should remember that Stephen King is another author that averages (still) at least two books a year, as well as a number of short stories. (And he sure doesnt need to worry about publishing more books in order to have food on the table.)

  7. dustinhood says:

    Tess,

    You just continue to work at your current pace. Would be nice if you could crank out a whole lot of books, but as a writer myself, I have no idea how Nora Roberts and James Patterson crank out so many books. I’m trying to write a novel now and good gosh, if you don’t devote a day to nothing but writing you get nowhere. I’ve been busy with school lately and haven’t had the time to write. And Tess when your books finally come out, I am rushing to the nearest book store to get it, so you just keep doing what your doing. Your true fans will still be there with you!

    Dustin Hood

  8. rjmangahas says:

    Regarding James Patterson: Well, it’s easy to put out several books a year if all you’re doing is putting your name on it so that it well sell.

    Besides, it’s not really cool to compare authors to one another (especially when it’s “Well, so-and-so an author does this much a year.) Each author has their own way of working. I say, as long as you’re meeting the deadlines and can make a living doing what you truly love, more power to you.

  9. BernardL says:

    If an author gets a book all the way through the writing, editing, and publishing process, as far as I’m concerned, it’s literary. I’ve never understood the snooty separation of commercial and literary fiction. I would rather write a book causing readers to curse me for making them stay up late reading it, than a masterpiece used to cure insomnia. :)

  10. Oh yeah, and while you’re at it, make sure they’re all masterpieces.

    Did you see the interview where Matt Lauer confronted JP over not even doing his own writing anymore?

  11. Terry Snipes says:

    What we fail to realize is that writers have a gift. This gift is sound. When we write, we are giving sound. When someone reads our books or blog pages, our genious words are stuck inside of their heads as sound. That someone will recite a passage from it our work, and guess what? You’ve created an opinion and a thought.

    *sighs*

    Because we are able to give this sound, I believe we should give it as much as possible. Try and look at the publishing world like the motion picture world:

    Come out with a series called (for example) Day Walkers. Book one, Lifting the Stone was published in Jan. of 2007. Crossing Over was published in May of 2007. The final book, Redemption will be published in Jan. of 2008.

    You space them out like this, because you can write your first book, start on your second, and have all THOSE MONTHS to work hard and long on your final book.

    With people having to wait a WHOLE EXTRA month to get the last book, they anticipate it a great deal. They want and need it. They’ve invested themselves in the story plot. They need to know how it ends.

    *cut to you on Oct. 2006*

    Typing calmly in your private writing room, making sure each sentence is perfect. Because your publishing company won’t publish your first book for an entire three months, you have all the time in the world to craft your third book. YOUR MASTERPIECE! The first two are those quick BLOCKBUSTERS! But the third is… A… LITERARY BLOCKBUSTER MASTERPIECE!

    I hope this example made sense. Maybe we should do with books what George Lucas did with Star Wars and Indiana Jones! And hell, we need more J.K. Rowlings.

    - Get more web traffic through Trew Life

  12. ec says:

    I get very tired of hearing Nora Roberts described as a “hack” because she a) writes women’s fiction and/or b) writes at an very fast pace.

    First off, NR has an amazing work ethic. She is a high-energy and, apparently, a very focused person. If interviews and bios are any indication, she is extremely disciplined and spends a LOT of time writing. And what she does, she does very well. Writers from other genres–and mainstream writers, as well–could learn a few things from NR about the art of creating sympathetic characters and hooking the reader in the first three pages. Her plots are seldom complex, but her strength–characterization–carries her stories.

    Another observation: there are some writers who secretly welcome favorable comparisons with other writers, but I don’t know any writer who doesn’t wince when someone posts derogatory comments about a colleague on their blogs or message boards. It puts the host author in an awkward position: do you quietly delete the comment and risk offending the poster, do you tactfully request that people not toss casual insults at other writers on your blog/message board, or do you leave the post up and risk giving the impression that you approve and perhaps agree? Tough call. Been there. Not a happy place to be.

  13. Tess says:

    elaine, you’re absolutely right. I”ve been offline all day (this winter storm is turning into a real nasty one) and have just come on to check the comments.

    Okay, folks! How about we not say negative things about other authors here? James Patterson is a really nice guy, by the way. And Nora is just amazing.

    As for the word “hack,” I’ve used that term about myself a few months back. Because I think of “hack” as a word for “a writer who works for money and actually makes a living at it.” More than a few journalists proudly call themselves hacks.

  14. ec says:

    Yup, “hack” is a complicated word.

    to cut or sever with repeated irregular or unskillful blows

    to cut or shape by or as if by crude or ruthless strokes (hacking out new election districts)

    to annoy, vex

    to clear or make by or as if by cutting away vegetation (hacked his way through the brush)

    to manage successfully (just couldn’t hack the new job)

    to tolerate (I can’t hack all this noise)

    to play inexpert golf

    to cough in a short dry manner

    to write computer programs for enjoyment

    to gain access to a computer illegally

    A “hack” is also some sort of horse-drawn carriage.

    So I if misinterpreted the comment about NR and James Patterson, my apologies–odds are, you might have been talking about their golf game….

  15. ec says:

    But back to the post topic, which resonated painfully. It’s something I’m thinking about a lot these days because I’m venturing into other genres, which is not unlike deliberately LEAVING the trail. At midnight. During a thunder storm. With mud slides.

  16. NewMexicanAnn says:

    I would suppose that if you wrote several books per year, the writing would turn out kind of formulary and get boring quickly. I don’t know how some of those writers don’t burn out or keep on the bestseller lists. *shrugs*

    Hugggggggggggs to your donkeys!!!!!

  17. therese says:

    Darling Donkeys!

    I love your posts, I witnessed more than one multi-pubbed author up her output and tighten her deadlines to the expense of her health and happiness. I recommend working at your pace which has been a healthy career for twenty years for you.

    Take advantage of the ‘time travel’ aspect of being a selling author. What you write today, readers won’t get for a year or two but the books will remain and a new reader could find your back-list in five years.

    Crafting a story is a gift and we all have different styles and messages. Nora Roberts was the most notable author who fueled the explosion of romance during the 1980′s and while few can match her pace, or should try, she generated opportunities for many authors. JK Rowling is doing the same and she certainly took her time until the books were ‘right’.

    Tess, go pet your donkey’s and enjoy the holiday season, you’re an awesome author, have an ever expanding collection of readers and probably just have the pre-new-year blues. Take a deep breath and count your blessings instead.

  18. knaster says:

    Hi Tess,

    Great to have you back. We missed you. Dr. Burns (no need to re-introduce him to you), stresses that the pressure of a deadline is to pace yourself moderately and with a final goal in mind. If you find yourself falling behind and panicking, don’t automatically reach for the Xanax, he recommends sucking on an ice cube. Believe it or not, it calms your nerves and nourishes your appetite to continue on your journey. He also suggests snacking on cranberries or pomegranite seeds. The juices in them will help in calming you down and your anxiety will pass. (who knew?)
    As per your picture above, it reminded me of an English professor I once had who was so into himself, that he never got off his high HORSE, never got his ASS in gear, and was always as stubborn as a MULE. I did manage to get an “A” in his class, though. The class title: Short Fiction Story Writing.
    To you and your family, Tess…a very Merry Christmas and a very happy and healthy New Year. We love you!!
    Abe

  19. dsurrett says:

    First of all, congrats to Tess on being on the cover of the February 08 Writers Digest!
    Does James Patterson finish the first draft and then hand it to editors or co-authors to finish? That’s the only way I can imagine how he can have a new book out every two or three months. Either that or he doesn’t sleep.
    As a writer still trying to sell a few short stories, I hope I can someday have enough sales to be forced to wonder how my faithful readers would feel if I changed genres!
    Would I rather have money as someone who has good sales or respect as a literary genius? Show me the money, honey!

  20. Tess,
    This is the first opportunity I’ve had to make a comment on your blog and have to say I SOOO understand what you’re talking about. I’ve been a very prolific author but have had to slow down in the last year just to keep the quality high and my sanity intact. Thanks for being open and honest. I love your blog.

    Denise A. Agnew

  21. Divetatoo says:

    Hey Tess,

    Well, the way you write suits you. The way you write allows you, to give to us, what we want. Falling isn’t that big of a deal if you have a good landing. The fact that you are concerned, shows the passion you have for your craft. I think the passion you have far outwieghs any time lines or quantity of product you produce. I’ve heard an old proverb that says ” a wiseman does not judge himself but what he has obtained, he judges himself in the way has obtained it”. So stay on your course of producing the kind of excellence that only you can produce, in the way and time you produce it. Your books are great. I’m going to start at the beginning of the series now. I have read Mephisto and Bone Garden. I believe I am going to pick up “The Surgeon” next. Take care Tess

  22. joe bernstein says:

    ec-another meaning for “hack”,particularly apropos in rhode Island is a political hanger-on/contributor/sign carrier/camvasser,etc who gets rewarded aith a job they are usually incompetent at-witness our recent snow disaster where schoolkids spent uo to 10 hours on cold buses with no toilet facilities because of the hacks running things here

  23. ec says:

    Joe, I hear you about Rhode Island. In what other state could a strip club rent space in an office building for the Department of Transportation?

    Generally speaking, it can be difficult to tell where ineptitude leaves off and coruption begins, but in RI, we pretty much don’t care. Standardized tests for middle school kids include critical reasoning questions such as: You are driving down the I-95 when a bullet shatters your rear window. Do you a) try to outrun them, b) return fire, c) pull off on Atwell Avenue and let the retired mafiosos handle matters, or d) all of the above.

    I’m exaggerating. A little. The truth of the matter is, most middle school kids couldn’t read that question.

  24. Tom Young says:

    Tess,
    My GF and I were just talking about how many books a year is good for someone to write. Does the quality of the book suffer when someone spews 4-5 a year out? Comapred with someone who only writes one once every year or even two years. How on earth does someone write that many books a year and still have a life outside of just writing? I find it hard to believe their personal life wouldn’t suffer from that kind of writing.

    I believe even you said not very long ago, that those who have new books more than once a year are looked down upon for not spending the amount of time thought necessary to “properly” write a book.

    Love your books and will read them whenever you have a new one published. 1, 2, or even 5 years

  25. Susan says:

    Tess,

    I think it was Michael Crichton who was unfavorably reviewed by a critic for writing for the “coach class” rather than “first class.” I don’t know about you, but I much rather have the 300 sales in coach class than the 10 in first. :o)

  26. Kristin G says:

    Personally, if I wrote my first draft in long hand, it would most likely take me a year. If you are a writer who can create directly into a Word document, it saves a heck of a lot of time. Maybe that is why the idea of writing more than one book a year seems so daunting, Tess?

    Whatever your method…keep it up. I love your books, and I don’t care if I have to wait a year to read another. You have plenty in your backlist to keep me busy. 20 books, you say? I’ve got to get cracking!

  27. joe bernstein says:

    ec-my daughter taught middle school for 9 years at the two worst schools in providence-i think she’d say ‘return fire” :)

  28. nlparico says:

    Hi Tess,
    I had to write and tell you that I have never been much of a reader. My attention span is very small and usually reserved for articles. That was until I was introduced to one of your books. It was a few years ago and I was on vacation with my family in a part of West Virginia that my parents have a time share. There is really not much to do and I had stopped at the local grocery store and was looking for some magazines (to satisfy my short attention span) and I decided I would try to read a book while I was on vacation. A woman noticed I was looking at some books and she handed me The Surgeon. I read the back and said o.k. I will give this a try. I could not put the book down. I was done it in a couple of days and really needed more. It was like an addiction for me. I was so excited to read! I got home and went to the local book store and bought a couple more, read those in no time and I went back for more. You are an amazing writer. You have kept me so interested in your work that I can’t wait to read more. Your books NEVER disappoint. Thank you for getting me to love reading! Keep up the great work. I wouldn’t want to see you write 3 or 4 books a year if that meant your creativity would suffer. I will gladly wait patiently to get the next page turner! Best Wishes!

  29. Lorra Laven says:

    Tess,

    I’m about three-quarters through with “The Bone Garden” and I’m worried sick about Rose and the baby. For me, a book is well written when I look forward to picking it up every night to find out what happens to people I have come to care about.

    I wish you’d ignore the critics and write more like this. You’ve managed to keep me up past my bedtime and with the ease with which I fall asleep, that’s saying something.

    Merry, Happy to All.

  30. lwidmer says:

    Money OR respect? How about both? What concerns me about the multiple books written all in the same year by the same author is this – are we sacrificing the story for the delivery? Is the quality that of a book that’s allowed to be discovered on a much slower pace?

    I guess I’ll never understand publishing. They want quality. You give them quality. They want more quality. You give them more quality. Then they change the rules – they now want quantity. I’ve seen a few authors (big names) drop the ball in subsequent books, and I can only surmise it’s because they’ve been pressured to get it done yesterday.

  31. JDK says:

    I think it is fine to publish a book a year as long as it is done well and not rushed just to meet a deadline. Believe me, readers will wait for an author’s book.

    I am thinking of a (now) prolific author who used to write a novel every 2-3 years. These books were well-done, well-edited, and meticulously researched.

    Fast forward a few years and this author is now churning out a book a year, horribly overwritten (why use one word when you can use 4? Why use one simile when you can use 200?) and sloppily researched.

    Unlike you, Tess, who mainly writes about what you know, this author writes about far-ranging subjects that probably should be researched for a year before any writing takes place.

    Guess the money in the bank is more important than quality to that author.

  32. CD1 says:

    Harper Leee wrote only one book. But boy was it a doozy.

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