A year ago I was in a tough spot as far as my writing “career” went. Granted, I had a solid, awesome literary agent that I was stoked on. I’d written two strange novels and he was excited about both of them and shopped them around to publishers, convinced that they were solid books. He did a great job of propping me up when the inevitable answers came down the pipeline from editors:

Great writing, but this character’s viewpoint lost us.

Solid writing, we’re just not quite sure how we’d market it.

I loved it, just couldn’t get the rest of the team behind it.

Admittedly, they are strange books. One is an alternate history novel set in a small coastal Oregon town in the 1980s. The other’s a road trip book of sorts, but the two buddies are an alcoholic painter and the living reincarnation of Geoffroy Therage, Joan of Arc’s guilt-ridden executioner.

Like I said, weird-ass books.

It made sense why people were trepidatious, right?

It was hard not to take it personally.

“So yeah,” I eventually wrote my agent, after the submission velocity of both books had eventually slowed. “I think I’m gonna try to write a crime novel. Just a straight up genre novel, a thriller. Single-person viewpoint. No ghosts, no monsters, no historical fuckery.”

It would be lean, clipped, short. A simple story.

Dark motivations, fucked up, fallible characters, and brief, brutal moments of violence.

Most importantly, and my main motivation: something that was marketable. That would remove the apprehension publishers had. I pretty much have one skill set, such as it is, and I was gonna use it.

I was gonna write a book that would sell, goddamnit.


Can you guess what happened next?


Fast-forward a year.

I had written a 100,000-word screaming mess.

It wasn’t a novel, per se, save for the fact that, you know, it was a whole bunch of words strung one after the other, and I had managed to stick with the single-person narrative throughout.

I’m not going to get into all of the reasons why the manuscript was bad, and why, at least at this point in my life, no amount of editing could save it. There’s no point to it. But I will say that the most important part of writing – the simple leaping awesomeness of it once the words start coming, once that world starts being crafted out of nothing, once the dialogue starts pinging around in your head like a ricochet – was lacking throughout the entire process. It was drudgery, a commitment to myself. I did it, but it was just not fun writing a book like that, and the joylessness absolutely translated to the page.

Other people may be able to write like that, but it’s just not sustainable for me.

Long story short, what I learned over the past year is what type of writer I am. I can’t write a book just because I want to be able to sell it. The lack of heart translates directly onto the page. The end result is bad work. It’s one of those things that I knew instinctively, but apparently had to learn the hard way. I finally had to recognize that the crime novel, as a finished piece, was just not very good. At its core, it was flawed in ways that no edits or run-throughs would fix. At least not now, and probably not ever.

I sat on that notion for a while and came to terms with it: I’ve gotta write stuff that resonates with me, otherwise, what’s the point? If I don’t, it’ll be terrible work anyway, so I’ve got to stick with what I love.

I’m just one of those weird writers, it turns out. I have to embrace it – monsters, ghosts, murky crypto zoology tropes, merging all that stuff with literary fiction is my jam. That’s what I love. That’s the writer I am. When I’m motivated by fear – because that’s what it was, when you get down to it – I write badly.


Fast-forward a few weeks. The crime novel is safely moldering in its digital file folder. I will probably open it up again at some point, though probably not for a long while, and probably with a wince and more than a little gratitude, like a man who leapt out of the way of an oncoming train after walking, like a jerk, for miles towards the train tracks.

I’ve started a new project. I’m 25,000 words in. A long way to go still, obviously, but the difference between the two stories is palpable. I can’t wait to sit down and work on it. Plotlines stack up and then interconnect easily in my mind. Phrases, entire sentences, come to me out of nowhere when I’m doing something else. The joy is there. The entire reason I’m a writer in the first place.

It took me a year, and writing a really bad book, to realize I can’t write what sells. I can only write what I love. (Oh, and in the interim one of those was novels sold, too.)

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