Monday, July 19, 2021

Write Selfishly

Hey everyone! Mary here, and once again I've been doing way too much thinking about writing and what it means to me. I think it's because I'm in a weird spot in my writing "career" (if you can call it that). I'm not a wet-behind-the-ears newbie -- it's been 9 years since I got my first publishing contract -- and I'm not an established author with a gazillion contracts and deadlines to fulfill. My last book through a publisher was released over two years ago (still one of my personal faves, check it out if you like warrior girls and China-inspired steampunk fantasies), and my last indie novel came out nearly a year ago (pretty proud of how that trilogy turned out too, here's a convenient link if you like sweet romances set in sci-fi dystopias).

What's next? I have no friggin' clue. I've still got a bunch of sequels to my other two indie series that I want to release, but I haven't been able to sit down and write them yet. Meanwhile, I've had two new manuscripts perish in submissions hell. I'm currently working on yet another, but I have absolutely no idea if it has a chance at finding a home or if it's too weird for "the market" and will be considered dead-on-arrival. Part of me is tempted to simply indie publish one of those perished-in-submissions-hell manuscripts, but with two open indie series already in the works, that feels like overkill.

It's weird not knowing what my next novel release will be. Sure, I've got short stories in various anthologies on the horizon, but it's not quite the same, mostly because I still consider myself a novelist first.

Come to think of it, though, I did find myself similarly adrift once before. It was late 2016 (oh, 2016, you hell year, you), and my then-agent had just (very politely) told me she hated my latest manuscript. In 2015, I'd completed my first trilogy, so that was done, and meanwhile, a small press that was supposed to have released one of my books in 2014 had yet to show any sign of completing the editing process. I had nothing else on the shelf... in a desperate attempt to salvage my relationship with that agent, I pitched and then wrote about 50 pages of two new manuscripts, telling her I'd work on whichever she liked better. She hated them both. So we broke up, business-ly speaking.

In hindsight, though, I hate those two manuscripts too. Because the last manuscript that went out on submission (what would eventually be indie published as Starswept) was deemed "unmarketable" by traditional publishers, I thought I had to try something completely different. If sweet YA sci-fi romances weren't going to sell because the market was too saturated, why not try magical realism or hard sci-fi? Much fewer of those out there.

The answer: because I don't like writing magical realism or hard sci-fi. Let's face it: I don't do literary. I'm a genre writer through and through - I've literally written pulp.

After losing my first agent, my original plan was to force myself to finish one of those two manuscripts anyway. But in early 2017, angry at the world for a lot of reasons, I suddenly got it in my head that "f*** it, I'm gonna write a Chinese steampunk fantasy about an unapologetically rage-y warrior girl." 

Reader, that book wrote itself. It was kind of weird. While my previous books had taken tons of planning and hemming and hawing, this one I dove head-first into with only the sketchiest of outlines. It only took a month to write the entire first half (which, considering it wasn't NaNo and no one was making me do this, is pretty fast for me). 

That's the book that became Stronger than a Bronze Dragon. And I think the reason it went so well for me is because, for the first time in a while, I was writing selfishly. In other words, I was writing for me. No imagined audience, no "market participants," no vain effort to jump onto a trend, no attempts to pander to a stranger's manuscript wish list. I don't think that's why it's the one that got traditionally published -- I think I was accidentally trendy because non-Western fantasies were suddenly popular -- and ultimately, the fact that it ended up with a contract isn't what matters.

It's the book that got me out of my rut and made me remember why I liked writing -- for its own sake, because it's fun, because I want to.

We've written on this blog before about how publishing is like a bad significant other. One feature of bad relationships is when one party calls the other selfish for daring to think about themselves. It can be easy, as a writer, to fall into the trap of wanting to please everyone but yourself. The fickle "market" and all those whose salaries depend on it. The strong-opinioned reviewer, whether professional or on Amazon/Goodreads. The gatekeepers -- real or imagined -- whose endless expectations and demands coalesce into a chaotic brain-sludge of criteria that make you wonder how any books satisfy them.

But sometimes, we need to be a little bit selfish. Because sometimes, no one's going to look out for us but ourselves.

So write selfishly. At the end of the day, all we really have are our manuscripts. Write what you love, and understand that though it's natural to want more, it has to be enough because nothing else is guaranteed.

Basically this whole ramble is me justifying the super-weird definitely-too-long probably-unmarketable hopeless opus I'm preparing to send off soon. Nobody asked for it, and most likely nobody will want it, but hey, I had a blast writing it.

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