Twenty years ago, at the end of October 1987, the first copies of my first Signet Regency were creeping into bookstores. The Diabolical Baron was a November release, so late in October I began haunting my local Walden’s to see if my book had arrived.
Yesss!!! There it was, my book, my story, with my name on it! And I even liked the cover! One of life’s great moments.
Twenty years is a very long time to be regularly published as a novelist, though not uncommon among Word Wenches. (In fact, 1987 was a bumper year, as I believe that the first Regencies of both Loretta and Jo were released within months of mine. And Edith and Pat were already established authors by then.)
As a farm girl who never met any authors, it had never occurred to me that I might actually get a book published. Becoming a writer was definitely in the realm of dream, not reality. When I started my first story, I marked the disk RR for Regency Romance because I had trouble admitting even to myself that I had the temerity to try to write a book. (The disk was a 5 ¼” floppy—as I said, it was a long time ago!)
That book led to another, and then another, and twenty years later I’m still writing, still pulling out my hair in the middle of a story when it becomes clear that there is no conflict, the characters are boring, and this is the book that will end my career. Same old, same old. <g>
But much else has changed. When I sold my first book, the romance genre was past its explosive beginning, but it was still expanding, and optimism was rampant. Aspiring writers believed that if they worked hard enough, they’d get published. Success was within one’s grasp, not a question of if, but of when.
The late, beloved traditional Regency genre was flourishing—four of us Wenches started there. There were lots of different settings, too, with writers like Johanna Lindsey leading the way by jumping from Vikings to Westerns to British historicals. Lots of places, lots of time periods.
There was also more room for experimenting. Historical writers might decide to write a suspense, contemporary writers might try a historical. If the book didn’t do very well, no big deal. At least you’d had a chance to try, and you got that story out of your system. And maybe the book would be a great success.
Computers changed everything. I find this ironic, since I owe my whole writing career to buying a computer for my graphics business, then deciding to see if I could write a book. The career-killing computers are those of the bookstore buyers that mercilessly keep track of sales figures of previous books. A bad cover, an unpopular story line, publisher errors, some great public crisis like 9/11 when nobody buys books—any of these things can tank your numbers and put a serious dent in your career. Maybe end it all together.
Needless to say, this has really cut into creative experimentation. Write a book in a genre that isn’t your usual and it probably won’t do well because stores would rather stock proven bestsellers. Then those low numbers can go on to hurt your bread and butter books. It’s generally a better career strategy to write consistent stories with a proven audience—unless your genre crashes altogether, as has happened with traditional Regencies. Then you have to start all over, maybe under a new name, like the veriest newby.
It’s a tough business. I know a fine and long-term published sff writer who has written science fiction, horror, and fantasy, but these days, all his publishers want is fantasy, which has the best numbers. He’s good at that, but he misses the variety.
Another thing that is striking about my twenty years in the business is how many writers have come and gone. We battle-scarred survivors play the “Whatever happened to….?” game now and then as we think of all the writers who did a book or few and have since vanished. There were writers whose debuts were greeted with wild acclaim who are now gone as thoroughly as if they were sucked down into the murky depths of a whirlpool.
There are many, many reasons why a writer might stop writing. At my first writers’ conference, I met a very talented Canadian Regency writer who wrote and sold easily, but she kept getting sidetracked by other interests. Ultimately she had two books published, both very well reviewed, but nothing since. Not that she was wrong to make the choices she did. It’s her life and the choices were valid. But that doesn’t make for a long term writing career.
Plenty of writers have had to take day jobs to earn a steady income, and they no longer had the energy to write. Or they get discouraged by the craziness of the business. Or family demands such as sick parents or divorce or new babies or health problems get in the way. Some writers retire to enjoy the grandchildren. And most painful to watch, some hardworking, competent writers simply can’t sell books any more for reasons beyond their control.
What I’ve concluded from all this is that long term success as a writer—and by success, I mean continuing to write books one enjoys, selling them, and having an audience, not success as making a particular amount of money or achieving any particular bestseller list—requires a combination of talent, tenacity, flexibility, and luck. And a very large dollop of crazed obsessiveness. It’s not always a pretty sight.
But the one thing that hasn’t changed is the satisfaction of a good story well told. Not all readers like my books, and not all who are fans like all of my books equally. But I’m proud of every one I’ve written. They said what I wanted to say. They all have their advocates. Even the ones that didn’t particularly aid my career are beloved children.
The other thing that hasn’t changed is readers, and how great it is when someone finds pleasure in the stories I’ve told. The internet makes it possible to connect with readers as never before. Some people send e-mails, almost always nice ones. There is this blog, where we can chat back and forth. We can interact with writing buddies who understand why we howl, and give us a kick when it’s time to snap out of our funk. So accounting computers may be the bane of our sales, but internet computers have helped us create this world-wide community of readers and writers.
Twenty years. A long time, a lot of books. For those of you who have read my work, are there particular stories of mine that have spoken to you? Or characters? Or phrases? Have my stories helped you celebrate, or helped you through a bad time? If you have any particular memories of my stories that you’d like to share, please do! We’re all in this together—
PS: Typepad keeps removing the spaces between paragraphs. If that happens again this third time–my apologies for the smooshed together type. Mercury Retrograde winds this one….