The Story of my Middling Success (Part 2)
Let’s go back a couple of months, back before I had any idea this Middling Success was barreling down on me. It’s 11:00 at night on October 31st, and I’m in bed, blogging. In one hour, National Novel Writing Month 2011 will begin, and tens of thousands of kooks all around the world will join me in attempting to hammer out 50,000 words in 30 days.
Instead of resting up for this endeavor, I’m in bed with my laptop watching WOOL sales, refreshing my KDP page. The FaceBook Begging Gambit seems to have worked. In a desperate plea (if you’ll remember), I begged anyone who would listen to purchase a copy of WOOL, as I irrationally and desperately wanted to reach the Monk-friendly round number of 1,000 books sold in the month of October. Now, as I overshoot that number, I wonder if my exhortations were even necessary or worth going onto another dozen “Ignore” lists. It also occurs to me that the difference between 999 books sold and 1,000 is still a whopping $0.35. Whatever. That last one feels worth ten times as much (thanks to whoever bought it. Virtual confetti is raining down on you right now).
Midnight. Yay! 1,014 copies of WOOL sold in the month. That’s about 1,000 more than I would have expected to sell. And even though this finish line was ephemeral and nonsensical, a figment of my imagination, it feels good to have crossed it. Now, with all that stress and anticipation out of the way I can suddenly feel the weight of NaNo upon me.
60,000 words. Three weeks until I fly out to Colorado for Thanksgiving. Three stories to write.
And my greatest fear isn’t that I won’t pull this off. My greatest fear, the dread that makes it difficult to breathe at times, is that I will get these stories written, but that the entire endeavor would end up being a mistake.
I agonize over this possibility. I seek counsel from my wife. WOOL is gaining steam with sales steadily climbing every day. It’s also getting rave reviews from readers. The story has a definite ending, and yet every ounce of feedback is telling me that readers want more. So here’s my grief: What if I give them what they want — and they hate it? What if it diffuses the success of the first WOOL? What if sales tank and I’ll always wonder if I was better off leaving it alone?
NaNoWriMo has begun, and I’m vacillating. Part of me wants to do nothing, the larger part is screaming to forge ahead. I opt for the latter.
My November consists of this: Getting out of bed at 5:30, 5:00, 4:30, and writing. I’m also exercising more, so I alternate between pounding keys and doing pull-ups and push-ups. I don’t know it yet, but I’ll lose ten pounds in the month of November, ten pounds most people would wonder where I could’ve been hiding (two of those pounds may have been due to NaNo induced hair-loss).
In the first week, I grind through a few 5,000 word days, which really gets me ahead. On top of this, I’m attending an astronomy class (with accompanying two-hour night lab on Thursdays), working 30+ hours at the bookstore, guest-lecturing in a university class, and I’m sitting in on my public library’s Young Writer’s NaNo program.
Just as I’m wondering if I’ve taken on too much, I get a lift from the Model United Nations program. Every year, delegates from schools all over Western North Carolina converge on ASU’s campus to wage mock oratorial battles with one another. The boys walk tall in their too-big suits and bright clip-ons, and the girls teeter around on heels for the first time in their Belk’s Junior’s power suits. Among these delegates are the kids from Millennial Academy in Mount Airy. And they always stop to visit and make me feel famous for a few minutes.
Millennial Academy has had me on their campus a few times over the years. Once, to speak at a general assembly, another time to lead all-day writing workshops (and a third time just to eat pizza and hang out with the YA Lit class). The kids from Millennial Academy confuse me for a real author. My books are shelved beside Potter’s books and Kateniss’ trilogy. Some of these kids — whose tastes must be questioned — think the Molly Fyde books are better than the Hunger Games. And for my faltering author ego and my flagging November stamina, the arrival of a group of wide-eyed fans convinces me that I’m on the right path. Some crazy readers out there seem to actually enjoy my shit — and so it feels logical that I continue to forgo sleep and all hints of a social life in order to keep at it.
The rough draft of WOOL 2 is wrapped up in the first week. It runs 18,000 words, which I know will swell as I revise. Instead of looking it over (a NaNo no-no), I dive straight into WOOL 3. Meanwhile, I suspect I’ve just written something special with the sequel to WOOL. I was tearing up at parts. And the character I’m going to hang the full weight of this series on? I think I love her. She’s a more grown-up Molly, but with deep flaws to boot. The best part is that this devious masterplan I’m devising, this scheme to let the reader know that NO ONE is safe, will convince everyone that this character is doomed.
I’m already picturing the T-Shirt I need as I kill off another beloved character. Inspired by Christina Aguillera’s “AutoTune is for Pussies” shirt, it will say: “George R. R. Martin is a Pussy.” People brag about him offing protagonists, but doesn’t his last two books have over 40 POVs between them? Somebody’s holding back, if you ask me. Georgie’s falling in love with his precious little protagonists. Well, not me. I love them, but I also know all characters die. Halting the story at the peak of a fictional character’s existence and expecting my reader to be foolish enough to believe they live in that perfect moment forever seems disingenuous. Everyone dies, folks. Unless you’re reading comic books or stories about gods, and where’s the drama in immortality? I’m like the guy who hunts for his own meat (which I’m not, btw), in that I do not want to shy away from the brutal reality of what happens after a person has had their finest moment.
Another thing about character death and traditional storytelling: Most stories are told from the point of view of the survivors. Other lives are lost around them, sure. Bodies tumble to either side of our protagonist as they adventure through the story relatively unscathed, but these are bodies we hardly care about. They become numbers and background noise, a threat that isn’t real.
The author (or director) has cheated, you see. They carefully chose someone who, by luck or twists of fate, will make it. They know this ahead of time, and somewhere, deep down you know it too! Don’t we have enough of these stories? What of the tales of the unfortunate? What’s wrong with exploring the last few days of a character’s life, rather than the breezy, beautiful highlights? The full picture of a person is only achieved right there at the end, when we see all they have become and all they have had taken from them.
So keep this in mind as you delve into the fabric of WOOL: I’m not being sadistic for the thrill of it. I’m examining characters at their endpoints. I could easily tell the story of a periphery character (Peter Billings’ would be an interesting POV), but can’t we agree that those stories exist in abundance? And that Peter will die one day as well, probably ignobly and ingloriously? So let me tell the story the way it really happens and give the dead the same due most stories grant the quick.
Okay. End of rant. Back to NaNo and that first week of November, which was already getting emotional. If you’ve read the end of WOOL 2, you’ll understand what I was going through. It was a sad time, but I felt like I was doing something pure, walking new ground. The format risks, the POV risks, the chance that I’d piss people off with the length of these stories and the unsatisfying endings . . . all of this was weighing on me as I began WOOL 3. This was where the tale would hinge, where it would take a turn, where my star would reach her apogee. It seems like, as soon as I got started on WOOL 3, the entire thing just wrote itself. I don’t even think I needed to glance at my outline; I knew what was supposed to happen, exactly how it should happen, and it fell into place on the first go. This is a rarity. The first Molly book and Half Way Home went like this, but few others have. I’m over 40,000 words in and two stories down with a week to go before my library event. Meanwhile . . . WOOL is blowing my freaking mind.
By now, my wife is now watching my sales with me. We refresh the KDP page twenty, a hundred times a day? There are times when I hit refresh, wait less than a minute, hit refresh again, and WOOL jumps up a few ticks. There are other times I refresh for an hour with no sales. I go from wondering if I need an agent to thinking the bubble has burst. And the KDP tab is never lonely; it’s lovely little twin, my Amazon Author Page, sits right beside it (both are open at the top of this window as I write). On the Amazon page, I can see at a glance if any book has been reviewed. I can also click on the book and check my ranking in several categories. The overall ranking has dipped into the low thousands (like 3,000 or so). That’s in all of the paid Kindle store. There’s millions of damn books; I know, I used to be ranked at the very bottom of them.
While I’m writing WOOL 2 and WOOL 3, their older sibling is on the move. Remember in Part 1 of my Middling Success when I got jazzed about passing the RENEWAL guy? (I called him a hack in jest, btw. I recommend his books, if only because I grew fond of watching them day after day as I chased them down). Well, he’s old hat. WOOL shoots up the Science Fiction Anthologies list, vaulting Douglas Adams and the Complete Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and now it’s hanging out with George R. R. Martin (the pussy), and Edgar Allan Poe (not a pussy). When WOOL cracks the top 20, I’m suddenly on the front page of a fucking Amazon list. My wife has to come look at the screen. I’m making her do this a lot. I’m also taking copious screen captures of every single move in number, always expecting it to be my last.
This is the Anthologies sub-category, but I’m also crawling into the top 40 in all of science fiction. At the library event, I pull up my Amazon page (I do this for complete strangers. I have the impulse to show the guy in the Chick’fil’A drive-through my current ranking) and the kids in the library marvel at the little picture of WOOL sitting above Stephanie Meyer (who is always fun to crap on, am I right? I’m totally right.) Speaker for the Dead, Orson Scott Card’s Nebula and Hugo Award winner, is just above me. I could totally spit on him from here — but Ender would probably kick my ass.
It’s also at some point in the first two weeks of November that my wife and I realize the random numbers we’re bandying about no longer make sense. We can’t keep track of them.
Her: “What was it before?!”
Me: “I can’t remember! In the 130’s?”
Her: “That can’t be right! It was like the nineties or something!”
Her: “Will you come in here so we don’t have to yell back and forth?!”
Her: “Honey, you’ve gotta start writing these numbers down. I mean, if you’re gonna continue to obsess over them.”
Me: “Isn’t that something you could do for me?”
But of course, it wasn’t. It was something I could do, and began doing first thing every morning and right before I went to bed. At first, I was bouncing an email from Hotmail to Gmail and back again. Until I found out you can just email from one account TO itself. Now I just type numbers and hit reply. It was (and remains) a stupid and OCD thing to do, but boy am I glad I started. Now, refreshing a hundred times a day didn’t confuse me with so many numbers that I fail to see the trends. And when I saw the trends, I had to go to my wife for confirmation.
“Look,” I told her.
“That’s not right,” she said.
(I’m kinda making this dialog up, but it happened, so I don’t know what you call that. It’s like paraphrasing but with a lot more imagination).
“Yeah. Over a hundred a day,” I tell her.
“Shut up,” she says. (This one is verbatim).
Over 100 books a day. Just one title. And I still don’t grasp what’s coming.
I finish WOOL 3 two and a half weeks into November and start on WOOL 4. After the library event (which was an all-nighter with some young writers, pizza, cookies, Christmas lights for mood, and muzak) I’m already over 50,000. I’ve got most of WOOL 4 in place (excepting a few chapters), and I decide that I’ve already “won” NaNoWriMo (third straight year) and that it’s time to go back and see if WOOL 2 is as good as I think it was. I’m a little flustered now that I can see daily sales. Last month, I went nuts over 1,000 books sold. In the month of November, I’m on track to do three times that. I am positively dying to get WOOL 2 out there to see if it will diffuse this mania or add to it. The stakes and stress are higher. Part of me just wants it over with.
At some point, my observant wife points out something else on my KDP page. Everything else I’ve ever written has started picking up. People are enjoying WOOL and seeing what else I’ve got. I continue to under-appreciate and overlook this, but the Molly series has picked up steam, and Half Way Home has gone sorta-bonkers. I’m too obsessed with the number 3,000, though, to pay attention. I go back and forth between refreshing my KDP and revising WOOL 2. I have to make this shit great, I keep telling myself. How do you make something great? I don’t even know what I did right in the first place! Why is WOOL going crazy while THE PLAGIARIST gets so little love? I always thought of them as equals. What was it that people liked so much?
I could go nuts analyzing all this, so I don’t. I tell a completely different story from the original, but one with a similar “mood” and “feel.” WOOL, meanwhile is now on the front page of Science Fiction. If this is starting to sound repetitive, welcome to my world. Write, revise, edit, refresh, take a screen-shot. WOOL hits the top 10. When I can see it and ENDER’S GAME on the same screen, I start taking extra screen grabs. For two weeks (it felt longer), I’m one or two places away from Card’s classic. I can’t stand it, can hardly sleep at night. How is this not ruining what I’m doing with WOOL 2? Because it isn’t. I’m done with it before NaNo is even two thirds complete. (The publication date for WOOL 2 ends up being November 30th, and it has its first sales, from complete strangers, during NaNo. I can’t imagine that this has ever happened before. Nor could I imagine what would happen with these NaNo projects come December…)
In the latter half of November, my wife and I fly to Colorado for Thanksgiving where I meet a FaceBook friend for the very first time. Which is strange, considering he spent a few weeks at my dad’s place earlier that year, and my wife and I spent two weeks in his apartment in NYC watching his cat just a few months prior. Jonathan (PRECIOUS BLOOD, remember? Go read it) turns out to be the funniest motherfucker on the planet. No exaggeration. He keeps us in stitches over the Thanksgiving Holiday, and I keep him apprised of WOOL’s status. I read every Amazon review. Almost all are 5-star and glowing; I just about can’t handle it. At some point, the first 3-star review goes up, and I realize just how fragile my ego is. I briefly consider giving up writing and taking up drinking. Another 5-star review the next morning averts the catastrophe of an adulthood full of AA meetings and lapses into methamphetamines.
WOOL 3, somehow, is polished up and finished by the end of the Colorado trip. And at Thanksgiving Dinner, after a summer of dreading my father referring to me as an “author” in front his father-in-law (who has written books), Jonathan (who has sold several hundred thousands of copies of his debut with Harper Collins), and Mr. James Hume (who has written 40+ books, wrote the plaque that sits on the frickin’ moon, and held the orignal Winnie the Pooh bear in his arms), I find myself sitting at a table with all these people whose success I had feared, while likely (that day, at least) outselling all of them.
It didn’t make me feel big. But I felt less small. (Especially after I had seconds of my wife’s sweet potato casserole)
I spent the end of November much as I spent the end of October, refreshing my sales, taking screen grabs, anticipating the fall. The total tally: over 3,000 copies of WOOL sold. Dozens of copies of WOOL 2, even though it had only been up for a day. WOOL 3 is almost finished; it just needs another revision or two. I know exactly where WOOL 4 is going; I just need to wrap it up.
This was the apex, I thought. The highest peak of my writing existence. Something I had always done for fun had actually made me money. More than I make at my day job, in fact. It was time to soak this up and enjoy it, to bask in my four weeks of fame, to prepare my battered and oft-repaired ego for one more crash back to reality.
December, I thought, would bring normalcy. I would slide back into happy obscurity, slide down from my high of #6 on the science fiction list, wave goodbye to Orson Scott Card a few places above me, and eventually publish the last of the WOOL series to blank stares and silent applause.
Except . . . none of this would happen.
November, you see, was but a tease.
Tripling my sales in a single month? Well, it might not be the last time that ever happened . . .
Next, I mention my Christmas Tree Transplant Scheme, I find a new Monk-ish number to obsess about, I take umbrage with shitty reviews, and Christmas day is the biggest letdown since my brother got Megatron, who turns into a gun (with silencer and extended stock), and I got Optimus Prime (a flippin’ do-gooder rig who probably pulls out in the left lane right as a hill is approaching and totally backs up freeway traffic for miles).