The Terror of Legitimacy
Heh. A soon as I typed “Legitimacy,” M.C. Hammer’s hit single got stuck in my head. That’ll be playing for the duration of this post. Kinda annoying.
I’m not too legit to quit, though. In fact, I never set out to be legit. I started out by writing an adventure story that *I* wanted to read. I stuck with that story because my wife got to reading along as I went, and she wanted to know how it all ended. So I kept writing in order to show her.
When I was done, I had an adventure starring this Molly Fyde character that I figured wasn’t all that bad. All I cared about at that point was convincing other people to read it. So I sent the .doc file to family members and friends. My cousin Lisa Robinson fell in love with the story and wanted a sequel. Friends of mine from an online forum said they enjoyed the work as much as anything they’d picked up in bookstores. One of these forum denizens was Lisa Kelly-Wilson, who also happened to be an editor. She wrote me after reading that rough draft to explain how wary she was of anyone who suddenly announces “I’ve written a novel.” And then she said it was good. Really good. I had a hard time believing her (a struggle that persists to this day).
Because of this feedback, I decided to follow the urgings and advice of others and get the thing published. I learned how to write query letters. I researched agents and publishers. I Googled “SASE” to find out what the hell that stood for. This was in 2009, before the rise of self-published authors making it big. I resisted the urge to bypass all this delaying nonsense and simply post the story on a blog or a website like I’d originally planned. Friends and family provided the boost my confidence needed to treat my work seriously.
Even as that story went to publication and won endorsements from bestselling authors and awards from book bloggers, I continued to write for what I perceived to be a small and intimate audience. My wife, mom, sister, and a handful of friends were the only readers I had in mind. Believe it or not, I continue to think of the same target audience when I sit down to write. It boggles my mind to think that strangers will ever read my work.
The first real jolt to my system came in 2010 when I went to visit a middle school English class. I’d met the class teacher in the ASU bookstore where I worked. She and her kids were browsing the aisles while at the university for Model United Nations, and we got to talking YA books. I mentioned my dream of making it as an author and showed her the Molly Fyde series. At that time, only the first two books were out. She bought them both. I didn’t think anything more would come of it until I got an email from her asking if I could send more copies — the kids were fighting over the ones she had.
I donated several more of each Molly book. Before long, another email arrived asking if I would come talk to the school. I said I would love to. At that point, I’d spoken to a few college classrooms about the challenge of writing and publishing. It was quite the step up to go speak to an entire school. But I drove the hour and a half to Mount Airy, gave a talk, and then had pizza with a bunch of 7th graders. We sat with our desks in a circle and I fielded questions about the Molly Fyde universe from a gaggle of fans. Folks, this was weird. It was also one of the coolest experiences of my life. I didn’t know these kids, and yet they had lived and breathed in a world I’d created. It was like being able to discuss some of your coolest dreams with a bunch of people who’d had the same exact dream. I loved it.
Those kids came back the next year for another Model U.N. They had read the third Molly book and Half Way Home by then. They crowded around in the middle of the bookstore and fired more questions at me, told me about a pet gerbil they had in class that they’d named “Vinnie,” and asked me if I’d read The Maze Runner yet. They told me to hurry up with the fourth Molly book and wondered if I would come back and visit their class again. They made me feel, for fifteen minutes in the middle of the bookstore, like I was a real author.
I did end up going back to their school. I taught a writing workshop to two classes and had more pizza. And these yearly visits from the Model U.N. troop gave me a chance to feel what it might be like to have a career as an author. I was still writing with my wife, mom, sister, friends and family in mind … but strangers were now reading my work. I was getting a taste of the fear that came with this. It’s a scary proposition to put words out there that others can dissect and be disappointed by. If you’ve ever double-checked a Facebook post to make sure your grammar isn’t going to make you sound dumb, imagine doing that with 300,000 words per year. I wear diapers when I press the “publish” button on Amazon.
Wool took this fear to a different level. The novelette was published in July of 2011. By October, it had dozens of rave reviews on Amazon. I didn’t publicize the story’s release. I didn’t promote it. I had yet to give away copies or set up “free” days. I didn’t send any to reviewers, friends, or family. This was happening on its own and without my involvement. These people were strangers to me, which is a scary and exciting prospect. I read every review and hung on each word. I took feedback and calls for more works seriously. I dropped what I was planning to write next and launched myself back into the silo to write more.
As my readership grew, so did my fear of disappointing my audience. To combat this, I would eventually begin to write works that I thought no one would want to read. A disgusting zombie story. Wool sequels with no Juliette. I sat at a table with one of the biggest names in publishing this summer, and this industry titan looked at me quite seriously and said that he thought I, Zombie was my best work to date. If I told you who it was, you wouldn’t believe me. I’ve considered wearing diapers to future such meetings. I’ve also learned that I write my best stuff by sticking to what got me here: by writing what I want to read and what my wife might enjoy.
Writing loose and fast has been the key to keeping myself interested and engaged with my material. I’m writing for friends and family, which means I can write freely. I take the final quality seriously, of course. After completing a draft, I do 7 or 8 revisions. I keep at a work until I’m satisfied. In three months, I can turn out a 60,000 word novel, which is the length novels used to be back in the day. Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Fahrenheit 451 were this long or shorter. (That’s meant to give you a sense of quantity not quality!). And my output isn’t all that prodigious, not compared to other authors. Frankenstein was written in a few weeks (another ~60,000 word novel). I can write like this because I don’t think of myself as a legitimate author. I’m just a guy who enjoys telling stories.
That isn’t to say I don’t embrace this as a career. I’ve always dreamed of being a bestselling author. But I never really expected it. Which is why a recent spate of reviews from top magazines, newspapers, and websites have taken the diaper-wearing from occasional to routine. I just saw an early version of a review coming out in the Irish Examiner next week. The Guardian wrote an amazing review. The Hollywood News just published a review yesterday. Several of these reviews comment on the ridiculous hype behind Wool, and then go on to say that the work lives up to this and then some. Amber and I could have twins and go through less diapers.
It’s one thing to wait and hear what your mom will think of your debut novel. I mean, she’s gotta be impressed with the fact that you wrote one at all, right? It’s a lot of words to string together. A lot of videogames not being played. A lot of time concentrating and thinking. Most moms would be proud of whatever tripe you set down.
Your spouse is something different. When Amber reads a manuscript, I peek around the corner at every giggle to make sure it’s at an appropriate place, not some grammar flub or faux pas. “What do you think?” I ask as every page is turned. “Go away, I’m reading,” she says, which is the best response possible.
A classroom of 7th graders is a few notches up from my spouse on the terror-o-meter. College classrooms and their professors are right there with them. And then there’s the bevy of strangers reading because someone I know or have had contact with talks them into the story. They have little connection to me. They are free to judge my work based on comparisons to novels from major publishers. From here, you have strangers one more level out — people who don’t even know the people who know you. They don’t understand that you are some dweeb working in a bookstore and writing during your lunch breaks. They don’t know that your mother and wife are your primary editors. They don’t know that the horrendous cover art is something you put together in an afternoon with your wife modeling and your dog getting in the way. To them, this is a serious stab at real literature. It is judged accordingly. I highly recommend the style with the elastics around the thighs and the ultra-absorbant liners.
Then you have The Guardian. Ridley Scott. Steve Zaillain. #1 NYT Bestselling authors, hoping for a blurb from them. The Hollywood News. The Sydney Times. Can you imagine sitting down to write something knowing that these people would be reading it? It’s not that the opinions of everyday readers count less, it’s just that these people are primed to see flaws and then broadcast those flaws to a wide audience. It’s the way I feel when I respond to my college professor on Facebook. I read over those posts three times, fearful of any mistake. (And then make them anyway).
With M.C. Hammer’s song still rattling around in my noggin, I close this meandering stream of consciousness with a bit of advice to aspiring writers: Keep your audience in mind. The ones who matter the most are those nearest to you. By writing to please my friends and family, there was a good chance I could entertain a classroom of 7th graders. From there, it isn’t all that far to Ridley Scott. Because all readers are legit. Sure, my mom might give me a pass, but the hardest I ever had to work to convince someone to read my book was those early days with cousins and online acquaintances. Even my wife was primed to be unimpressed. Those who know the source can be the most forgiving, but also the least interested. I worked my butt off to wow them, to make sure my stories held their own with anything in the bookstore, and that’s as far out as I dared to gaze across my potential audience. It’s as far as I choose to look even now.
Legitimacy isn’t something I strive for. I doubt I’m capable of such ambition. It terrifies me to be analyzed as if I’m a real author, whether by my cousin Lisa or by a professional book reviewer. I’m just a guy who has always loved reading, has always dreamed of writing, and is now muddling his way through one page at a time. I’m 37 years old, a full-time writer, and I wear diapers. I’m living the dream. And I survive by pretending none of it is real.