When Writers Go Wrong Series: Answering Questions About What We Do

Following a post from my favorite literary fledgling last week, I found myself inspired to write about a rarely lauded struggle which I believe all literary folk in general–including the “successful” ones–ultimately face:

I call it The Eternal Shame of Relatively Obscure ROI. (ROR) < Pronounce this like a dinosaur, for optimal fun. (ESoROR works too, if you do it in a Spanish accent and roll the Rs.)

For those of you who have never been forced to take a business or finance class, ROI is a common acronym which stands for Return On Investment. In terms of stocks, bonds, and other fiscal things, the meaning is pretty clear. How much did you make vs. how much you paid? In other things, like real estate, it’s a little more complex. But the basic formula for starting value + time and effort = added value (hopefully) still applies. How much did you buy it for? How much is it objectively worth, if you wanted to sell it later?

Unfortunately for all of us in the fine arts section, this formula RARELY applies to literary or artistic pursuits–at least not in any way that’s clear to the simple observer. And YET, for some reason, sooooo many people expect it to.

Which brings me back to the Eternal Shame part of the equation.

Resurrected at every family holiday, high school or college reunion, Tupperware (or adult toy) party, etc. ad nauseum, this fresh hell is brought on by the above-referenced (inaccurate) assumptions + the soul-crushing obligation to pretend like we care about the intimate lives of people we can’t even bother to text on a bi-yearly basis (unless it’s a mass text that says something like “Happy Turkey Day! Gobble-Gobble Motherf***ers!” of course) + alcohol and the artificial camaraderie that demon liquid somehow produces + lack of inhibitions and let’s face it, no longer really giving a damn about “real life” = Writer Meets World at the speed of a fly hitting the windshield of a 1997 Dodge Caravan.

The World: How many words have you written? Wow, that’s a lot. When will your book be finished?

The Writer: Hard to say, Aunt Gladys. I may harbor some doubt that Jesus Christ is our Lord and Savior, but I have a deep and burning testimony of the fact that word count does not directly correlate to completeness and/or coherency of a story. Quite the opposite, in fact, if your eggnog-fueled ramblings can be used as precedent. Less is more, Gladdie. Have another glass of lightly-dairied gin, why don’t you?

The World: How many books have you written?

The Writer: Are we talking mentally, or like, physically typed? Mentally, I average about ten new stories a day. From short stories to scenes to anecdotes, sometimes they fit in the greater scheme of the Project of Note…but more often, not. Oh, you didn’t mean mentally? Fine, ye puny imagined thing. I have written exactly three attempted books since last August, when the moon waxed crescent. (I remember, because that was when I most recently shaved my legs.) The first was more of a larval effort, but I have high hopes that it will pupate into something glorious during the revision phase. The second was a half-hearted ripoff of Twilight fused with Doctor Who fan fiction. I can basically guarantee that if I can revise that in time and find an agent to represent it, I will be a ridiculous bestseller and household name by next Christmas. New Years. Fourth of July, tops. Did that properly answer your question, Tiffany? No, I don’t want to hear about your kids, or your husband’s car dealership. Now for the LOVE OF GOD Tiffany, would you PLEASE JUST PUSH DEBIT OR CREDIT?

The World: How many have you sold?

The Writer: Uhhhhhh….

The World/The Internet/Life: Aren’t you getting any better? Obviously, the harder you work at something, the more money you should be making at it. Right?

The Writer: *drinks, cries, writes harder, repeats*

Fellow Writers: How hard do you write? I bet that I write harder than you. How high is your word count? How hard do you work? How hard do you market your stuff? How successful are you? Why doesn’t your effort or result ever seem to match what all these “successful” people are doing? Why doesn’t your success make sense to anyone, including you?


Talent. Responsibilities. Resources. Time. Personal goals. Definition of success. All of these things are relative, and nebulous, and ultimately, fleeting. There is no one pathway to perfectly write the perfect book, just like there is no perfect pathway to perfectly sell that perfect perfect perfect perfect *slams head against desk, several times* Whoo! Sorry about that. Where was I?

Oh, yes. I think Chuck Wendig said it best when he said “The thing that defines a writer is that the writer writes.” We are judged by what labels we decide to let define us. So. In my opinion, here’s how this conversation should always go:

The World: How’s that whole “writing thing” going for you?

The Writer: Awesome. I spend all my free time doing what I love most in the world. Sometimes, I write for hours at a time. My personal best moment this week was when I realized–after only six hours straight of wallowing in self-pity and despair–that I knew EXACTLY how to fix the plot hole I discovered (and subsequently fell into) the day before. Such triumph has never been experienced on this mortal coil, Gladys. Your “ultra absorbent and somewhat discreet” Depends could not possibly hold the amount of pride I felt in that moment.

The World: How many books have you written?

The Writer: Many book units, Tiffany. It’s all very complicated and writerly. I’m not sure you’d understand. By the way, are you aware that your immaculately-dressed toddler is dangling from the bottom of your shopping cart and licking the floor?

The World: How many books have you sold?

The Writer: Not as many as the countless hours of my life I freely traded away, for dubious returns, working at that soul-sucking desk job for a corporate monolith whose principles I neither believed in nor cared about. Speaking of which, I heard you made middle-manager at X Corp. Congrats on that, Doug. (Zing!)

_________________________________________What’s the point?

The “bottom line” isn’t money or success, it’s this: being better than everyone else. (Just kidding!) You work hard because you want to do something you love the best you (personally) can. You want to learn, and grow, and become better than you were yesterday. That’s kind of…like the point of life. Writing should be the same way.

You write harder, better, more, because it teaches you things about yourself and helps you understand the world in a new way.

Not because you want to (finally) be able to tell the world you wrote a book, or publish/sell that book, or get rich and famous and finally tell Cousin Courtney and her supposedly perfect life to SUCK ON MY GREATNESS, CHOKE ON IT, AND WALLOW FOREVERMORE IN YOUR BLEACHED CROSSFIT PURGATORY AHAHAHAHAHA…*ahem* again, sorry…like I said, that’s NOT a good enough reason to devote your free time, your life, your eternal soul (or temporary incarnation, as the case may be) to doing something as crazy as putting funny little squiggles on a page.

I’m just saying.

“Happy Thanksgiving. Gobble-Gobble, mother***ers.”