Twelve years ago I decided to sell out.
I landed on an idea that I felt would be a financially lucrative novel series. I’d been reading the fiction
bestsellers at the time and I realized that they were, to a large degree, formulaic, trite, fast-moving, and written on about a fourth-grade reading level.
I thought I could certainly write that poorly. It would require less revision, fewer edits, and I could pump out the books much faster, probably producing several per year.
All it would require was me being less insanely neurotic about quality. I figured that mediocrity would actually boost my career and help me put away more money for my daughters’ college education one day.
So, I put together a book proposal for the new series and spun out a few sample chapters. My agent sent it out, and it made it to the pub boards of two of the New York publishers.
I admit that I was excited when I flew up to New York City to meet with editors to discuss the book, which we were hoping to put on auction—but in the end it didn’t sell.
Thankfully, oh thankfully, that series didn’t sell.
It would have sent me down a career path that I know, and (if I’m honest with myself), that I knew at the time, wouldn’t have been one I could be proud of.
Not long after that, I had an opportunity to ghostwrite for one of the biggest names in publishing. “You’ll make a lot of money,” my agent told me. “You’ll be a New York Times bestseller.” So, I had to figure out what to do. Write my own stories, even though they didn’t have Mr. Famousguy’s name on the cover, or go ahead and write stories for him, make a ton of money, buy myself some time, and then go write my own books after I’d cashed the check.
It wouldn’t have been immoral. I’m not judging ghostwriters. I have many friends who ghostwrite and I’ve done work for hire myself. In this case, the bigger question was whose stories I was going to spend my life telling. It would have been a lucrative job at a point in my career when I could really have used the money.
At that time, my daughters were young, and one day as we were driving home, I was talking in the front seat with my wife about the possibilities of the ghostwriting.
I guess I didn’t even think they were listening in, but kids have a tendency to do that—especially when we don’t think they are.
When there was finally a pause in our conversation, my youngest daughter asked me, “So what are you going to do, Daddy?” She was maybe five at the time.
I was about to tell her that I was planning to help this other man write his stories, but right before I answered, I felt a nudge deep in my heart to say something different.
“I’m just going to write the stories God has given me to write,” I told her, even before I realized what I was actually saying. “Even if I don’t make as much money, at least I’ll be telling the stories that I think need to be told.”
“I’m glad, Daddy,” my daughter said.
And that was that.
And so, I did not end up ghostwriting for Mr. Famousguy.
The issue never came up again.
And thank God I did not end up selling the dumbed-down series.
In the past twelve years, I’ve written a dozen novels, and, yes, some have been bestsellers. Many have not. Some created buzz, others hardly appeared as a blip on anyone’s screen. Some have won rather prestigious awards and acclaim, others not so much.
But the journey has taught me a few things.
As you foray into the world of fiction writing, you’ll be tempted to settle for less than your best. You’ll be tempted to follow the latest marketing and publishing trends. You’ll be tempted to write what you think will sell rather than the story you think you should tell. And of course, today with the ease of self-publishing, you’ll be tempted to publish a book before you’ve edited it a dozen times, before it’s ready for the world, before it’s been sweated over and revised until you can hardly stand it anymore. It’s good enough, you’ll tell yourself. I’ll just send it out there and see how it does.
My friend, do not give in to this temptation. Write books that no one else in the world could write, and write them so well that you will never live to see the day when you are ashamed to have your name on the cover.
Frankly, I don’t care if you self-publish or not. I don’t care who publishes your book, or where or how they do so. But I care when it’s published. And I have yet to read a self-published book that was ready to be published. Self-publishing poorly-written fiction doesn’t suddenly make it better, it just proliferates mediocrity. It’s just so easy to press enter and so hard to print out the book again, start from the beginning, and revise the hell out of it.
Do it anyway.
Don’t sell yourself short and don’t sell yourself out. Only you will know the degree of integrity you put into your work. Rage against mediocrity. Write worthy books, and tell the stories that God has given you to share with the world.
Steven James is an award-winning, national bestselling author. His novels have won wide critical acclaim from Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, the New York Journal of Books, and more. His latest craft book Troubleshooting Your Novel (Writers Digest Books, 2016) is helping thousands of writers improve their manuscripts themselves. For more information about his popular seminars, click to www.novelwritingintensive.com