Although it defies every fiber of my being, I’m entering the new year with fewer plans than ever.
On one hand, it’s invigorating; on the other, terrifying.
When I was a fledgling fiction writer, I saw a clear and admittedly linear path ahead: write nothing but sword-and-sorcery fantasy novels for a traditional publishing company. To make a long story short (pun intended), reality intervened.
Eventually, I took my literary destiny in my own hands by creating an indie publishing company and becoming a so-called authorpreneur. At the same time, I stepped away from my first love—the world of Altaerra with its Knights and Renegades—and expanded my horizons narratively, exploring other genres as well as new story formats.
2018 was my first official Year of Yes, and I didn’t look back. Even as I sought out additional opportunities to put my words out into the world, I’ve kept my productivity levels up, releasing book after book.
In 2021, I crossed an accomplishment off my bucket list when I produced a weekly webcomic. Last year saw the realization of a second lifelong goal: I contributed my talents to a video game. I’ve also been writing and editing tabletop roleplaying games (TTRPGs) for a prominent publisher of the medium.
So why have I been feeling so frustrated?!
I’ve always considered myself ambitious when it comes to my fiction. But even as I’ve adjusted my rigid approach to writing and fostered an appreciation for variety, I’ve never stopped chasing the same big objective: my dream of making a living solely from my fiction.
Or maybe it’s been hunting me.
Every one of my steps forward has been overshadowed by a finish line that never seems any closer. The celebration of a book release is inevitably sullied by less-than-stellar sales. The catharsis of new creative works is compromised by the accompanying hours and hours spent strategizing, marketing, experimenting, and experiencing disappointment when the outcomes don’t meet my high expectations.
Meanwhile, other authors have accomplished what I’ve been aiming at for decades. Why can’t I replicate their results?
The answer to that question came to me while I was reading a (poorly written) book about how to make money by churning out at least four mid-sized novels in the same genre and ideally the same series, annually. Above all, the book advised, always give the reader exactly what they want and stay on their radar with copious marketing communications. Do not deviate.
Linear, consistent, all-encompassing—ironically, this approach probably would have suited my younger self quite well. But I can’t think of anything less satisfying today.
So where does that leave me?
Reflections and resolutions
While plodding through this self-help book for the millions of people who want to make a living at writing, I experienced an epiphany: if this is what it takes for an author to thrive commercially, it’s not worth it.
Admitting this was a critical blow to my ego. I’m competitive by nature. Worse, “author” is a key component of my identity. If I couldn’t adopt the proven formula for successful authorhood, what does that mean for me as a human being? Was the past decade spent building a platform and producing fiction as an indie author and, later, an indie publisher a big waste of time?
And just what the hell am I supposed to do now?
Step 1: take a deep breath. Step 2: reevaluate. Step 3: resist every instinct to overcommit myself to a wide variety of projects in 2023 in hopes of a lightning strike.
Working harder isn’t the answer. I’ve learned that time and time again. On more than one occasion—and on my website’s homepage, in fact—I’ve dubbed myself a progress junky, and it’s true I get a kind of high by releasing my creations into the world. I daresay most artists do. But temporary boosts to self-esteem aren’t sustainable—not when the moments in between are rife with so much self-doubt and dissatisfaction with my current situation as it compares to my idealization of what it means to be a thriving author.
Creative writing will likely always be a compulsion for me, but it doesn’t have to be a harmful addiction. My wife and I like to tell our screen-savvy son that life isn’t what happens in between video games. The same goes for my fiction-writing career. When every spare thought and moment is devoted to an admittedly selfish pursuit, suffering is inevitable.
For the sake of my sanity and my relationships with real-life loved ones, I must cease my relentless—and reckless—pursuit of a dream-turning-nightmare.
Frankly, I just want writing and its related efforts to be fun again.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve had a lot of fun these past few years. The actual creating will always nurture my soul. Career, hobby, something in between—wherever I land and whichever phase of life I find myself, I expect there’ll be a story on my fingertips.
Yet many of the decisions I’ve been making are more strategic than stimulating. When I’m doing what I think I need to do to make the most of what I’ve written or to open the door to future writing, it means I’m not writing. So much of 2022 was spent completing related tasks, not composing new stories. Yes, I need to edit what I write. Yes, publishing is part of the process. But casting my nets wide has meant fewer minutes devoted to my true passion.
So even though I currently have twenty ideas I could commit to—not to mention potential freelance opportunities competing for my attention—I am entering 2023 with a single personal goal: write a novel.
One book. Maybe two drafts. Perhaps I’ll publish it, too, but if I don’t, it’s not the end of the world.
I suspect my next novel will be Magic’s Disciples, the much-thought-about-but-little-done-about sequel to 2020’s Magic’s Daughter. This trajectory appeals to me for several reasons. For one thing, it will allow me to finish a story I tried telling in 2006. For another, it brings me back to the fantasy world that propelled me down my current path.
Back when writing was just for fun.
Silver linings and sunny skies
I’ll also take this opportunity to remind myself that none of my past endeavors were for nothing. I love each and every story I’ve penned and published. And I’m awfully proud of the professional pioneering I’ve done through One Million Words and other outfits.
Much of the hard work I did in 2022 will see the light of day in 2023:
- Remember that TTRPG I’ve been yapping about for a year and a half—a playful, spoofy adventure called The Curse of Er’Mah’Gerd? The layout phase has taken longer than anticipated, but I’m thrilled to report that Good Company’s next quest is looking great. We’re a month or so away from launch!
- The Specter Chronicles: Episode 1 – The False Prophet, the aforementioned video game, is in beta! I’m excited to play it and look forward to announcing its official release in a couple of months.
- My short story “Darlings” is bound for a dreampunk anthology (the spiritual successor of Mirrormaze), which was originally slated for December 2022. The publication date may have changed, but that only means I’ll be looking forward to its debut a little while longer.
- Late last year I wrote an adventure for Goodman Games’ Fifth Edition Fantasy line. It doesn’t have a scheduled publication date yet. Worst case scenario, it won’t see the light of day until early 2024. That’s a full year to bask in anticipation!
Never say never
Even as I close a number of competing mental doors, I will not shut myself off to metaphorical secret passages. My prior Years of Yes taught me that venturing outside my comfort zone can be incredibly rewarding. 2023 will be more about managing expectations than eschewing possibilities.
For example, I’ve already agreed to contribute to an upcoming Goodman Games book. Additionally, I’ll be assisting a fellow author with self-publishing his first three novels over the course of the next year and a half. Helping a friend—that’s not something I could’ve squeezed into my usual cramped, self-centric calendar.
The phantom of future success has haunted me for far too long. I look forward to returning to a healthier, more focused, and more fun approach to my fiction.
More deep breaths. Less stress.
Enough is, in fact, enough.
When the mood strikes, I would love a book about Noel. But only if writing it is fun 🙂
Congrats on a healthier 2023!
Not gonna lie. Noel is one of my favorite characters I ever created. If my next novel is, in fact, Magic’s Disciples, there’s a very good chance the meddlesome midge will barge his way into the plot!
You posted this the same day I (again) woke up feeling like a publishing failure who can’t tap into childhood creativity. And it sounds very similar to a post recently by a different author. Maybe we’re all having normal writer feelings?
Sorry to hear that you were feeling that way. This does seem to be the time of year for writers to reevaluate their motivations, goals, and so forth. Sometimes pressure causes creativity to thrive; other times, the anxiety borne of expectations (one’s own and/or others’) kills both creativity and joy. I think it becomes important for us to occasionally ask, “Why am I doing this, anyway?”
There is something about trying to monetize something we love than gets soul crushing. I hope your 2023 feels more fulfilling and enjoyable.
I’ve never been particularly motivated by money. I want readers more than riches. Many authors reconcile this by giving their work away for free…but then one is likely chasing downloads instead. I still think labor has objective worth, but money is only one measure of it.