The Definition of a Successful Author

I was chatting with a fellow author this afternoon and she  told me something that was pretty cool. According to her brother in law, who’s a literary fiction author, the incredible sense of camaraderie and accessibility that’s become one of the hallmarks of the thriller writer community is somewhat of an oddity in the publishing world. He told her the literary fiction world is considerably more cutthroat, and that we should be grateful to be in our genre.

I don’t think this is because of our genre. I think the reason for the ongoing buddy comedy that is most of the author friendships I’ve observed and made here at the conference are only made possible because of the ITW (International Thriller Writers). The organization’s founders specifically built mentorship and service into the mission of the ITW. This has resulted in a vibrant, friendly, and empowering support network.

I’ve attended three ThrillerFest conferences so far, and every single one has been a well-oiled machine. I’ve never felt like there was any sort of separation, implied or overt, between the Big Name Authors and those of us who can count our book sales using a child’s abacus.

Last night, I was invited out to have dinner with some of the presenters from the conference and it was a blast. They were welcoming, gracious, and made me feel like one of the group even though I’d only met one of them before. The most important thing I took away from those conversations (which went on until very late last night) was that no one’s career rises in a straight line. You never know which project of yours will take off, which means you just need to keep moving forward and try not to look back too much.

This morning, I attended a panel discussion featuring authors whose book sales can be measured in the millions. The moderator asked, “What is the definition of a successful author?”

The overwhelming consensus is that a successful author is one who gets it done. Writes a book, gets it out, writes another, gets it out, writes another, etc. No one mentioned sales or reviews. It was all about the writing. Each book you write promotes the books you’ve written before, which means the best thing you can do to sell books is, duh. Write more.

It was exactly what I needed to hear.

Man, I love this conference. I’m going to be sad when it’s over. And then I’m going to sleep. You guys, I’m going to sleep so much.

Empty Tubes and Tests for Days

Man, I tell you. Coming back from Santa Barbara was a great, big, freezing cold splash of reality. Wes had to leave on a series of business trips, which is normally the cue for both my kids to get all kinds of peeved about their father’s absence and take it out on me.

They did not disappoint.

Me in my giant scrubs, mere moments before yet another health professional jammed a needle into my poor knee.

Adding to the fun, I did another MRI with contrast to see why my knee continues to be a literal and figurative pain and lo and behold, it wasn’t all in my head (ha?). I have a flap of cartilage that’s collecting edema, and the microfractures I had done a couple years ago healed irregularly, which means things are all kinds of messed up in there.

Before I go in for (yet another) surgery, I’m going to get tested by a rheumatologist to see if it’s possible to determine why the cartilage in my knee is shredding like a nice mozzarella.

As if all that wasn’t enough, I’m currently undergoing testing from an endocrinologist to see whether he can figure out why I keep gaining weight despite healthy eating and exercise habits.

Just think blood tests. Blood tests for days. All the doctors are holding up empty tubes with my name on them.

It’s all stressful, and at times terrible, but I’m keeping my focus firmly on the things that are going right. Things like:

  • Wes is home from his business trips, and will be home for awhile.
  • I have friends and family who care about me and all my suddenly myriad health issues. My best friend, husband, and mother-in-law all collectively spent hours on the phone with me when I found out about my knee, just letting me feel sorry for myself and assuring me things would turn out ok. I’m inclined to believe them.
  • I’m free of deadlines for now and making progress on revisions for Bai Treason (book 3 of the Bai Hsu series). I love it as much now as I did when I wrote the first draft, which is always a good sign of a worthwhile story.
  • There’s a book blog tour of Bai Tide (book 1 of the Bai Hsu series) that’s happening now and the reviews are uniformly positive so far! Like this one, and this one. I’m always particularly gratified when people who don’t normally read my genre enjoy my books. It shows me I wrote a good story, not just a good spy story.
  • I might be getting LASIK soon because you know what? My knee may be FUBAR but damn it, there’s still hope for my eyes.

That just about brings you up to current. Rest assured, if I’m not blogging it’s probably because I’m hiding from my health woes by writing stories. Given all the feelings around here lately? Bai Treason is going to end up being a goooooooood book. Trust me on that one.

Throwing Fellow Writers Under the Bus

I’m reading an interesting book right now called Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction by Benjamin Percy. It’s interesting as it deals with many of the concerns in my genre: Violence (how and when to do it), set pieces, designing suspense, etc. Percy’s writing is fun to read for the most part (though I will admit to getting frustrated while reading the beginning of the book. He waxes long and poetic about his childhood, which has little to do with the purpose of the book).

I read something last night, however, that genuinely surprised me. He was explicating the restraint writers should use when inflicting violence on our readers, and the fine line between authenticity and gory indulgence when he mentioned the writing of both Chuck Palahniuk and Bret Easton Ellis. To wit:

“That’s what the work of Chuck Palahniuk and Bret Easton Ellis occasionally feels like: a special kind of CGI meant to sour your stomach…Their flamboyant style aestheticizes the mayhem, as if the authors love what we are meant to despise. They linger on the violence, wallow in the gore, celebrate it to such a degree that I can almost see them smirking, hear them snickering, and they essentially become that kid we all went to middle school with – Cody: big ears, buzz cut, braces – who would fake a punch, and then, when you startled, would screech, “Two for flinching,” and sock you twice in the shoulder. Don’t be a Cody. Nobody liked him.”

Why did this surprise me? It’s not because I disagree. I haven’t been able to stomach Palahniuk’s writing since Survivor for precisely this reason, and I despised American Psycho so much after watching it that I’ve never agreed to watch it again despite many impassioned pleas for me to give it another chance because the violence is symbolic and a commentary and blah blah blah.

No, I was surprised because it’s quite rare for an author to publicly disparage a fellow author in this way. There’s an unspoken code of honor amongst authors that our critics are hard enough on us, so if you can’t say anything nice, keep your mouth shut and change the subject. (With the notable exception of Dan Brown. For some reason, it’s always fine to make fun of his writing, which doesn’t bother him in the slightest as he laughs at all of us plebes from his castle).

In a book like Percy’s, there’s plenty of room to use various authors’ work as an example of what to do, instead of what not to do, and up until now that’s almost exclusively what he’s done. That was why I was so surprised to see these two getting singled out. It’s possible they write their stories in precisely such a way as to elicit this kind of disapproval, in which case this was a smashing success.

I thought I’d open this up to all of you and see what you think. How do you feel about violence and gore in storytelling? Any pressing thoughts on either Chuck Palahniuk or Bret Easton Ellis that you’d like to share? Hit me up in the comments section!

Writer as Multi-Level Marketer?

I was talking to my husband last night about book marketing and he had an insight that set me back on my heels a bit. He said that it seemed to him like a first-time author is a lot like a recent multi-level marketing convert who’s been instructed to hustle up sales from among their friends and family first.

He has a point.

The wonderful thing about having been in the publishing world for a handful of years is that I’ve had a chance to develop some perspective on the appropriate role of friends and family in growing your reader audience. When I first started out, I was rabid for readers. After all, if you get a book published and no one buys it, does it even matter? And I desperately wanted my book to matter.

It wasn’t until Wes stopped me one day and gently told me how incredible it was that any of my friends and family even bought my book in the first place that I stopped thinking of them as potential sales ranking boosters and began gaining my perspective back. It was incredible that any of them bought my book. Even more amazing was that some of them read it, and then went on to tell me they enjoyed it!

I think that was the moment I redefined what success as an author means to me. Every single person who puts a book out, whether it’s self-published or through a publisher, wants it to be a runaway success. Did you know, though, that according to Bowker more than 700,000 books were self-published last year? And well over 300,000 books were traditionally published.

That’s over one million books published. IN ONE YEAR.

I don’t care who you are, that’s depressing. It’s overwhelming! If you believe some of the contradictory figures produces by informal surveys, readership of books is declining. Whether that’s true or not is tricky to find out, but what is true is that book sales figures are down, and look to be in continuing decline.

What this means is that there’s a deluge of new material coming onto the market, and fewer people are buying it.

So what does this mean for authors? Are we peddling wares that will soon be obsolete and irrelevant?  Are we the ice deliverymen and women of our generation?

Maybe. I’m convinced the world will always need compelling and entertaining content, but the form it takes may change. That’s okay. Because I’ve recently decided what success as an author means for me:

I want to entertain people, and encourage developing writers. I’ll keep writing my books for the people who enjoy reading them, but I’m not going to pull my hair out trying to lure a wider audience who isn’t interested in being lured. I’m going to take every opportunity I can to teach, equip, and encourage developing writers, because the world needs quality prose, and because I enjoy teaching.

So that’s it. I’m officially hanging up my MLM desperate-for-sales hat, and putting on my I’m-just-here-to-tell-stories pj’s. And if you’ve bought one (or several) of my books? Thank you, sincerely and heartily, for supporting my dream. You’re a kind and wonderful person and I deeply appreciate you.

Updates and Appearances and Anthologies, Oh My!

I just got back from a quick trip down to CA to visit family with my two children and these are the things I learned:

  • CA gets crazy flooding when there’s a monsoon-style downpour.
  • Dramamine makes my children almost catatonic.
  • In N Out is still delicious and the best thing ever.

I seem to have caught a cold while I was visiting, however, which is kind of a bummer because I’ve been invited back to do a guest lecture for the Writing for Publication class at Northwest University and I have this weird feeling like I’m going to need my voice for that. I’m getting really excited about it.

I had the chance to do this a couple years ago and it was a blast. There’s something invigorating and inspiring about discussing the craft of writing with other people who are as passionate about it as you are, and I fully expect to have a fantastic time (assuming, of course, that I have use of my voice and will not have to conduct the lecture via semaphore).

From one of my favorite Monty Python sketches, Wuthering Heights by Semaphore.

I’ve also recently applied to participate in the LitQuake Festival in San Francisco this fall, so fingers crossed for that, and I’m most likely doing a book singing on Bainbridge Island at the Eagle Harbor Book Company in late July as well. All told, 2017 is shaping up to be a very busy year, which is great because there’s almost nothing more frustrating than trying to get the promotional wheels spinning only to have nothing happen.

Oh! And I almost forgot the coolest thing that happened last week: I got invited by my writing buddy AC Fuller to participate in a thriller anthology that’s coming out in the fall! How cool is that?! Doing an anthology is on my writer bucket list, so I’m delighted the timing worked out for it.

I’m submitting a short story about what happens when Bai goes home to visit his parents after the events of Take the Bai Road. Hint: stuff happens. Lots of stuff.

I had a blast writing the story, and I think it’ll be a fun amuse bouche for those of you looking for something to read in between Take the Bai Road and book number three, which will be called Bai Treason. (Oh, man. Bai Treason is GOOD. I can’t wait to get started on revisions for that one after I finish Take the Bai Road and the anthology short story).

All in all, things are looking busy in a good way. Full steam ahead!