I picked up a book recently that was a delightful surprise. It was a nonfiction book, but the author had a Shakespearean gift for word play, and I enjoyed the prose almost more than the content. It was a nice reminder that writing itself is an art form, can be something truly beautiful.
There’s a tremendous amount of pressure on authors these days to produce more books. Some of that pressure is external—readers demanding the next book in a series, publishers wanting to keep authors on tight schedules, etc.—but some of it is internal. We put pressure on ourselves to produce, perhaps out of fear we’ll fade into obscurity if we don’t put new books out constantly, of needing to put out new books on a regular schedule in order to earn a certain income. Or, we see our colleagues put out book after book and feel like we have to write more in order to be competitive.
We can’t do much about the external pressure, but we can be a little introspective about the internal pressure.
Here’s what I mean: I’ve read probably a dozen novels so far this year. They’ve been a nearly 50/50 split of traditional and indie pub. And most of the books have been… fine. Not terrible, but not great either. And, because sometimes it’s hard to turn off the editorial part of my brain, I thought a lot about what kept these books from being great.
Here’s a theory: authors, particularly indie authors, rushing books to market is actually doing these books a disservice because getting the book out matters more than the story.
This manifests itself in a few ways. Some are obvious. An author who cuts corners on editorial will have a book full of typos. An author who skips over research will put out a book full of factual errors. Some are less obvious. An author who rushes through the writing process might put out a book without obvious flaws but that is nevertheless kind of dull or not engaging or ultimately forgettable.
And all of those things can kill a writing career, because a subpar book might persuade readers not to pick up the author’s next book.
What can be done about this?
I argued in my column last month that I thought gatekeepers would make a comeback. One way to get through the gates is to write a better book. And the best way to do that is to slow down and remember what’s important.
Story is important.
I teach a class on revision in which I recommend that, before authors revise, they take a few minutes to write a paragraph about the core of their story. That story core is something that I think gets lost among published authors when we talk about writing. We’re preoccupied with marketing strategies, with sales, with the size of our royalty checks. We think about social media, conferences, deadlines.
However, a really great book will sell itself.
“But I wrote a good book! How do I let readers know about it?” No, slow down. Marketing is important, but story is king. Story sells your book.
A book about nice people falling in love might be a perfectly nice beach read. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to write perfectly nice books. I want to write books that evoke what Sarah Wendell calls “good book noise,” that delighted sigh the reader lets out when she reads something that hits her in the right place. I want to write books readers talk about, pass around between each other, encourage others to read. I want to write books that people are still talking about five years from now. I want to write amazing books.
And, you know, I’d rather sell 10,000 copies of a great book than 1,000 copies each of 10 okay books.
The thing about rushing a book to market is that we overlook the little things, but the little things matter. Words matter. The best books have compelling stories and beautiful writing.
So push aside as much internal pressure as you can. What can you do to make your next book your best yet? Does that mean writing slower? Taking more time to revise? Rethinking the core of the story? Does that mean hiring a better editor or spending a little extra money on an eye-catching cover? Does it mean trying a different publication strategy (indie vs. traditional)? Does that mean stopping the rush to publication and taking the time to get it right?
At the end of the day, I want us all to write better books. Better books makes the genre better as a whole. A rising tide lifts all boats, and we are those boats. Not to mention, more good books in the world give me more good books to read.
So my advice this month is to take a step back and really think about what is more important: your story or your need to get it up for sale? The latter might be good for your short term career, but the latter is what will make your career sustainable. Because great books win over readers and earn us fans for life.♥
Kate McMurray is an award-winning author of gay romance and an unabashed romance fan. When she’s not writing, she works as a nonfiction editor, dabbles in various crafts, and is maybe a tiny bit obsessed with baseball. She has served as President of Rainbow Romance Writers, the LGBT romance chapter of Romance Writers of America; and as Vice President of RWA/NYC. She lives in Brooklyn, NY. Visit her at www.katemcmurray.com.