Thursday 1 August 2013

The long breath (the two writing business models) [essays on writing]

There's an expression in German that's best translated as "the long breath" (der lange Atem). It means having stamina and patience and a great many other things that are useful on the "long distance running" part of our lives. For me, it encompasses mental, emotional and physical qualities. "Breath" is more evocative anyway than the abstract qualities of patience or stamina. One seems too etherial, the other too visceral. Breath is both - it's spirit and movement and muscle. The way we control breath, we can control thought (just ask anybody practicing meditation).

Whenever I get petrified (and it happens), I remember a friend's hand between my shoulder blades, warm and steady, and his voice in my ear: "Breathe." When I'm especially frantic, I remember what he said when I balked at the idea: "If you can't breathe in, breathe out. Your body does the rest."

Breath is a really important factor, especially for an artist.

As a child, I had asthma.

When I have an allergic reaction, I develop allergic asthma to this day. If I take aspirin or any of its chemical bastard children, my bronchies close up and I fight for every breath for a few hours. Anybody who's read my work can see how breath often plays a crucial role when characters hit crisis. This is body-writing. This, I take from life.

Just recently, I read some stuff that very nearly took that breath away. Some days, two snide comments and three bad reviews and five people totally not getting what I want to say, and one person being spiteful and nasty is like a hit of aspirin on my creative system. Too bad I can't control what I read on the internet the same way I scrutinise every pill leaflet for acetylsalicylic acid and every cocktail menu for angostura (goodbye, Singapore Slings, I loved you, but you're bad for me).

The bronchies close up.

I gasp like a fish on land.

I can't breathe. I panic. I question every decision I made. I question trusting my readers' intelligence because of one idjit out there. I question whether it was worth writing the book at all. I question why I spent six months of research and countless late nights chasing up one detail that is then pointed out as "breaking suspension of disbelief" because the reader didn't know that X existed or Y was done, and, unlike me, doesn't even do the research to prove their point. I gasp and flail. It's what the body does.

And being an awful patient, I then get upset at my environment. Thank gods, I have a couple sane people to fall back onto when I'm unable to breathe. (That's the thing about a support network - everybody has freak-outs, but usually not at the same time.) Some of them put a hand on my back and say "Breathe out". Usually translates as "Head down, write the next book". I have some people who bitchslap me and shock me out of my flailing. (My partner did a good thing when he forbade me to read reviews until months after the book is out - basically until I don't feel whatever criticism or spitefulness I may encounter. Sometimes, that takes a couple years. Which is fine. The internet doesn't go away. I sometimes still disobey, but it's getting rarer.)

Of all factors (sales, reviews, success, reception, buzz, etc), I can only control one thing: my breath.

And breath in this market is many things and can manifest in many ways, but of all the kinds of breath I can have, I want the long breath.

I've been writing and selling for more than twenty years. I've seen authors come and go. I've seen them self-destruct, and I've seen them leave the business in disgust, or to take up knitting or gardening or oil painting. All valid choices. I know several authors who are much happier as ex-authors. The level I'm writing at is a result of thirty years of practice, nearly twenty years of self-examination, of wrong and right twists and turns, of my way to see the world. A week, a month, a year means very little in the context of a career. For myself, I define career as "my life". I have ideally another thirty years to go.

Long, long breath necessary.

I see a couple writers (outside the genre, too) publish three books and then doubt they'll ever "make it". I've written something like forty books/stories and haven't "made" it. I've published with Random House and have had two agents and haven't "made" it, not by mainstream standards. I still sell most of my day to a company that barely knows what to do with it. There are writers who've written one book and it's not selling like gangbusters. Writers who've written ten and haven't earned a million yet, then doubt themselves and their craft, their passion, their talent, their destiny (because we all live the lives of main characters of our own epic fantasy novel where we are the Chosen One and destined to marry the prince/princess after slaying all the dragons).

What I want to say to them is that one, three, ten books is just a start, certainly in genre fiction (and we can argue that even literary fiction is just a genre like any other).

Long breath.

Essentially, there are two business models in writing: the bestseller model and the pulp model.

The bestseller model is the one we read so much about. Dan Brown outselling everybody else. JK Rowling. Stephen King. Every book a huge hit, and it takes them maybe a year or two to write. Doesn't matter, really, because even if it takes ten years, selling one bagazillion copies is enough to fund the tropical island paradise lifestyle.

Because we read so much about it, that's the "valid" model. The one that inspires the news crew, the reporter, the interviewer, the masses. It's headline stuff: DEBUT AUTHOR LANDS EIGHT-FIGURE DEAL WITH NYC PUBLISHER! We might moan about how Dan Brown and E L James and Stephenie Meyer can't write, but that's their model. I don't think quality of writing matters in this. Salman Rushdie's likely not hurting for sales, nor was Ian M Banks (his literary works actually outsold his sci-fi).

In our genre, even the absolute bestsellers don't sell a million copies. Some research suggests that 15-20k copies sold is a vast runaway bestseller. The kind of bestseller I wouldn't expect to see more than maybe 1-3 times a year. Hetero romance laughs at those numbers, of course.

The pulp model may sound like a bad thing, but it isn't. We've just come to associate it with bad quality. Dean Wesley Smith killed that "low quality comes from fast writing" thing for me when he ghost-wrote a mainstream genre book for a NYC publisher in ten days, averaging something like 7k a day. His blog series on the topic is almost mandatory reading.

Old pulp writers raked up enormous wordcounts per day, considering writing a thing you just do and fulfilling strict deadlines. Less suffering for art, more telling stories. Considering the small payments of the day, productivity is king. Only a productive writer could make a living at it. Some of these people got very wealthy, others "just" made a living. The key is to write a lot.

This doesn't mean that craft gets thrown out of the window. When a trained writer writes a lot, s/he takes their craft with them. Writing fast doesn't mean you un-learn the tricks of the trade. It also doesn't mean you shouldn't edit, but that's a given. The reason why there's so much schlock out in the market is not speed of writing (or even ease of writing) but lack of editing and lack of training. You can apply high standards to a book you write fast. I've written a couple damn good novels in less than four weeks each.

Sometimes, I read comments where people attack writers because they've said the book came "easy" or "fast". Yes, say some readers/reviewers, you can tell - it's dreadful.

Let's examine that. It's like there's some weird pact that links suffering to quality (oh how very early medieval). Personally, when I was suffering writing, I was fucking miserable more than productive. When I'm fucking miserable, I don't write. I'm too busy being fucking miserable. Some of my best writing was fast. Actually, speed can be fun. It can be a huge rush and the joy actually translates onto the page.

Reading books I wrote "fast" and reading books that took me two years, there's NO difference in the quality of writing. Every book reflects the state I was in and the themes I was working on in my life, and my developmental stage as a writer. That's it. End of story.

Despite the bad press of the pulp model, I'm happy to own it. I'm happy to be a productive writer who aims at 3-5 novels a year and a number of novellas and some short stories (the latter when and if I feel like it, since shorts usually don't sell worth a damn).

Money-wise, it's a different model, too. I accept one basic fact of publishing: You cannot tell what sells. Some books start slow and build, and hold steady for a long, long time (Dark Soul, which is still a good 30% of my royalties every month after two years). Some stories don't sell but get awards and/or critical acclaim (Incursion, Skybound). Some stories are vastly popular, but don't pay my mortgage (Special Forces) in any way. Some stories don't sell enough copies to make a sequel financially viable (Gold Digger).

I could deduce just from that short list that my best work doesn't sell, but that's wrong, because Dark Soul is some of my best work. No rules seem to apply. Gold Digger as a contemporary romance should have out-sold sci-fi and historical and fantasy. It didn't.

A writer drives himself mad with such thoughts.

Long breath.

In the absence of reliable, record-smashing bestsellers every 1-3 years, a writer operating under the pulp model accepts that their readership is limited (aka, less than 10k copies sold in our genre - over the lifetime of the book or author, in my case, thirty or so more years). That's just a couple sales every month.

That said, if every book makes only $25/month (but every month), and you have 40 books out, that begins to look like a living. At 80 books, it is. At 100 books out, every one making a little bit of money, a pulp-model writer is vastly outselling their best-selling peer. Even better: their cashflow doesn't rely on one book or on the ability to replicate the runaway bestseller or even sticking to "author brand" (aka, writing the same godsdamned thing again and again), which, in my mind, is so much more pressure than the Amazon ranking is actually worth.

I admire the hell out of Usain Bolt, but in the absence of a once-in-a-century talent and freakishly long legs, my inspiration are these people. None of them could have lasted on a short breath.

Now, breathe.

If you can't breathe in, breathe out.

Go, write.


  1. Thank you so much for sharing this. It's amazing how insecure we can be despite having the courage to hit 'submit'. Many times, I fret over insecurities and then I see how authors who are far more experienced than me, who have been doing this longer than I have, have the same insecurities, the same heartaches, questions, and uncertainties. There are plenty of long breath moments, but the important thing is to keep going. Keep writing. <3

  2. Aleks,

    At the beginning of this blog I became nervous. Why? Because you sounded so down, sad almost, and I feared at any moment you were going to say goodbye to us, tell us you were retiring or some crazy shit like that! I was happy to 'breathe' again as you moved onto the business models and I realized that you weren't actually saying goodbye.

    Much of what you said, I cover in one of the writing panels I speak on at conventions. It boils down to thick skin and writing because you want, need, or love to because being an author isn't a get rich quick deal!

    All too often, we get reviews that are just stars or a few words (I am guilty as hell at doing the few words bit) but those are focused on the book. We rarely are reviewed for who we are (not that we should be).

    That being said though, I wanted to let you know that your work inspires me. When I feel like I am writing crap, I grab SF or DS and start reading. Many times I don't even finish them again. But I read to be reminded of what I want to accomplish with my own writing. I read to be reminded what it feels like to be pulled so deeply into a story that the characters are real. I read to FEEL the emotions. I become inspired and reminded of how I want to write; how I want my readers to feel when they are reading my own books.

    Thank you for inspiring me and letting me learn from your work.


    P.S. I mentioned you a few times in another radio interview I did a few weeks ago. I hope you will check it out and (if you do) think of it the next time you get one of those reviews that forces you to breathe.
    Here is the link -

  3. Thanks for this, Aleks. It was exactly what I needed to hear today.

  4. Aleks,

    I have thought about what you have written for a day, before putting my own 2 cents' worth in. I also don't want to use your page unnecessarily for my own tub-thumping.

    HOWEVER...regarding literary criticism, I have always found it profoundly odd and unbalanced that, should a politician or sportsman be publicly criticised for their 'performance, then it is assumed that they have a public 'right of reply'. For creative artists, for whatever reason, this has never been historically acceptable.

    Writers, visual artists, musicians are supposed to take whatever criticism is deemed appropriate by whomever feels that they are qualified to 'take a crack'. This includes critique by anonymous writers, or those who hide behind a pseudonym. (After all, many followers on Facebook pages could be anyone).

    If a writer, visual artist or performer were to stand up and reply to unfair creative assassination, we would be liable to be labelled 'whingers' or at the best 'poor sports'. It is an assumption that this particular group of people should 'stand up and take it on the chin'.

    I have seen appalling critiques of written works and musical performances that simply did not merit the devastation that was heaped upon the artist. Despite the admonitions not to read reviews, it is often those reviews that advance the profile and the development of the creative artist; therefore they can be helpful.

    I feel your pain, my friend.

    Anfangen ist leicht, beharren eine Kunst


  5. Charlie - I like to pretend that "pros" or "old hands" don't feel that way. But they do. I don't think it ever goes away. I have a suspicion it's part of being a writer. In my personal observation, some of the best writers are crippled by doubts half the time - the courage it takes to overcome your worst fears and still put stuff out there is huge. Creatives are some of the most courageous people I know - as measured by the size of our demons alone. Keep breathing. Run your race.

    Brenda - That's me being introspective more than sad. There's a bittersweetness about it all, but when I'm really down, I'm not blogging. I'm lying in bed wanting to die and unable to speak or write. Thankfully, that hasn't happened in years now. :) And inspiring others is a huge gift, and I'm grateful I sometimes do.

    Thanks for the link - just listening to it. :)

    Cat - You're welcome. :)

    Garrick - Oh, I wouldn't want to spend my day defending my work, it seems exhausting and can easily get really really toxic. Sometimes I need to go on an internet/opinion "detox" to flush some stuff out of my system. That said, some authors go totally nuclear when they "defend" their work and get nasty and unpleasant to readers, which I think is a no-no.

    That said, sometimes I would want to have a conversation with a reviewer about what they mention, but I can only do that if the review is positive or when they ask specific questions like "Does this have a sequel?" I'd sometimes like to explain something or explain why I did certain things. Not to change the rating, just to maybe provide some information that isn't otherwise available or would take serious digging to find.

    That said, I do have to think of every book just as one step of a marathon. Once it's taken, I must focus on the ones ahead and never look back. Maybe that makes things easier.


  6. Thanks a lot for the insight Aleks. I found it strangely liberating that you sometimes feel uncertain about your writings too. And to realize that you actually get bad reviews (although, what the hell was the reader thinking? How can they give YOU a bad review. Do they grasp how beautiful YOUR writing is? Anyway, I digress...), it just fills me with the desire to keep writing. At the moment, I have a series that has been percolating in my mind for 16 months. Time for me to start researching and writing. The boys have to tell their story, and you my friend are an inspiration. Thank you. #hugs.