Or why am I not making 8 figures yet?
One of the latest Pocket articles (no, I haven’t turned off the feature) to catch my attention was this: “Professional Romance Novelists Can Write 3,000 Words a Day. Here’s How They Do It.” That caught my interest because I just finished my novel on the 1st of the year, am still trying to find an agent (so far ignoring me), and occasionally wrote 3000 words in a day. I never got stuck on words. What I did get stuck on was storytelling—how to build on what I’d already written so that what came next felt as inevitable and natural as life itself. In other words, I wanted the novel to feel character driven rather than plot driven. I had ideas to get across, but the trick was to make them without obviously manipulating the plot. I sometimes would get stuck for several days not knowing the best way to get from A to C. I would sit in front of the keyboard like a pond fisherman on a day when the fish weren’t biting.
And I would berate myself at day’s end. Did I seriously just sit there all day long and have nothing to show for it? The problem with writing is that if you don’t sit there, if you don’t keep your hook in the water, then you definitely won’t catch any fish. I would chalk up those unproductive days to part of the process.
The other problem, if you want to call it that, is that I wanted to write a great novel—or at the very least a unique work of literature. I think I succeeded, but then I question what success really means. Let’s say I’ve deluded myself. Let’s say I’ve written what I think is a unique work of literature but is really little more than a demonstration of my own self-delusion. That’s possible. The history of writing is littered with the corpses of writers who were legends in their own minds. At last three or four times a year I’m contacted by one of the great and ignored poets of world literature, a poet who outstrips Shakespeare as the sun the moon, and demands that I recognize their genius; and invariably their poetry is gawd-awful stuff. I’ve had to ban one such poet from my blog. His fury at my refusal to recognize his genius was turning into multi-paragraph rants.
It’s possible that I’m self-deluded. Even the very greatest writers are going to have their vocal detractors—and who’s right? Ultimately, all the writer has to fall back on is their own judgement which, as a point of reference, may be deeply flawed. The madman is mad because he thinks he’s the only one who’s sane. If you don’t have doubts about your sanity, then the madman is you.
But getting back to why I’m an idiot.
Why am I not making 8 figures from my writing? I’m definitely not going to make much money from my novel, if any. I’ve never made any money from this blog. I’ve made no money from my poetry. This blog has been visited almost 4,000,000 times, is read around the world, is linked to by hundreds of educational institutions, and I make nothing. But I’m my own worst enemy. I don’t want to run ads on my blog, which would require me hosting my own blog, and who’s going to advertise on a poetry site anyway? Almost to a person, the last thing any literary agent wants to see is poetry. Poetry has been so damned cheapened by the deluge of mediocrity over the last hundred years that nobody wants to touch it. I can’t blame them.
Add to that the mediocrity of the readership; and there’s the rub. And that’s because I’m of two minds about the great mass of readers. And I mean you. Individually, you don’t have a clue. You don’t have a clue as to how poetry works, how a novel works, what distinguishes great writing from mediocre writing or why. Ya’ll are clueless. But why not? I myself don’t have a clue when it comes to art, architecture or cinema (the short list).
Given enough time and even though 99 out of a 100 of you won’t be able to explain why you like one poet, artist, author, composer, or band more than another—beyond, you know, reasons—you nevertheless know who the great ones are. You’re brilliant. You’re amazing. The genius of humanity resides in you. Likewise, when I see a painting by Van Gogh, as opposed to a landscape by some mediocre hack, I’m inexplicably drawn to Van Gogh and I say inexplicably because I’m idiot appreciator of art. I couldn’t begin to explain why Van Gogh is better than the next painter. He just is. Leave me alone.
But that’s only one among many reasons why I’m a fool.
The main reason is that I’m not making an 8 figure income writing romance novels (see the linked article above). Out of morbid curiosity, I checked out some romance novels by H.D. Ward (she who makes the eight figure income—yes, eight and not six—self-publishing; on Amazon; and who tells agents and publishers where they can stuff it.) Here’s the opening paragraph to her latest masterpiece of income production, The Arrangement:
The gunshots echo in my mind as I stare out a window, perched on the top floor of the large estate house. Down below there’s a great pool with a glittering blue bottom. Warm lights illuminate the otherwise inky night, creating a soft cast of golden light from beneath the water. The surface ripples as crimson streamers seep from the two bodies floating face down in the water.
There are two things to be said about this opening paragraph. First, it looks like stream of consciousness dreck—the 3000-words-a-day kind. It’s bad writing. It’s stuffed full of clichés, “inky night” and redundancies, “down below”. The whole first sentence is up there with It was a dark and stormy night. It’s like a satire of a satire—a meta-satire perhaps. The second thing is that it’s brilliant. Ward is obviously a great storyteller and what a great way to start a story—two bodies face down in a pool as they “seep crimson streamers”. It’s the stuff of penny dreadfuls, pulp fiction and campfires. And the great mass of readers are rewarding her with an 8 figure income. And →I’m an idiot← because I could write like that but I don’t. To be honest, though, I’m increasingly tempted. At this point I’d be satisfied with a two figure income and food.
I’ve written posts on this subject before but to repeat: Readers love poets who have a message and novelists who are storytellers. Just as with Ward, there’s a reason instapoets like Rupi Kauer are selling millions of books. It doesn’t matter how brilliant your style or original your vision, if your poetry has nothing to say or if your novel doesn’t tell a good story, you’re ultimately going to go the way of a Geoffrey Hill or John Ashbery—the tallest gravestone in the cemetery. Congrats.
I can only hope there’s enough storytelling in my novel that it persuades an agent and publisher, somewhere, someday, that it’s worth publishing. When I’ve given it to friends and relations to read they’ve told me that well, you know, they’re clueless; and not to expect any real criticism. I put a lot of stylistic work into the novel’s writing. There are passages of pure poetry in my madman’s opinion, but my answer has always been: Just tell me if the novel makes you turn the page. That’s all I want to know. Period. If it doesn’t do that then I’ve failed. Doesn’t matter how beautiful my writing is. And yes, I know that the three people who read Finnegan’s Wake at least once a year will disagree.
And to those three people I apologize.
Also, to readers of Ashbery who can name a single poem beyond Convex Mirror, my apologies.