My friend and artist/writer Lee Davis had read the first part of The Red Church (my first published novel) and emailed me with his initial thoughts:
"Your understanding of humanity is crucial, ranging from complexities of the young boys' mind to the conflict of a deteriorating marriage and then on to the law that is trying to maintain the peace and keep the town from falling in on itself. I immediately felt empathy to Donnie's young and troubled thoughts at life in general as he goes inside his mind and looks at the nature of his being vs. the world. I could go on and on about that topic as it's practically the story of my life! Then the drama between Linda and David, the pain David feels, the intensity of the conflict and pain of betrayal, and Linda's harboring of a secret that she's not purged for the sake of the morality and healthiness of modern Christianity."
And it made me think about how I felt while writing that novel. The fourth I had written, and at a time when getting published was still a burning dream. But back then, I didn't want to "just" get published. I had something to say. I had stories I thought were important, that I wanted to share with readers, and which I also felt were well-crafted and important enough to reach a commercial audience. I was writing with my heart.
I had no way of knowing it would ever be published. I'd sold some short stories and won some awards, so I thought I had a decent chance, but I didn't know much about the publishing industry. But that book was a hit--alternate selection of the Mystery Guild mail-order book club, Stoker Award finalist, second printing, an amazing sell-through of 90 percent (an average of about 50 percent of all shipped mass-market paperback copies go unsold). Now it's doing well in Kindle, hitting #1 on the "Christian fantasy" bestseller list and as high as #2 in "Ghosts." Some people say it's the best book they've EVER read, including a couple who aren't related to me.
I wrote that book scared. All the fears, conflicts, family lessons, spiritual questions, pain of being human, joy of hope--all I knew about being a human being was in those early books. Even with their structural flaws, the typical internship mistakes, I still felt their power. They affected me, and my chest hummed as I typed, and I felt perhaps that vibe would transmit to the reader. I can't control that end of our transaction, as your response is your own. But I opened up and laid my heart and soul out there. Take, eat.
Somewhere along the way, I had this idea of "a career." I've always believed writers should educate themselves on professional matters, but too much attention to sales numbers, print runs, market conditions, and all the things "you should be doing" somehow become cholesterol that can clog your arteries. Your heart slows a little, perhaps seeing some publishing trend that you should have capitalized on, or some writer near your skill level and genre who gets the big break and push. Or your heart races when you jump into some publicity stunt that's bound to sell some copies. Somewhere along the line, if you're not careful, it becomes more about selling books than sharing stories. The drumbeat of "better keep your numbers up."
I developed a little cynicism that seemed to mirror the growing cynicism of the publishing industry--easy to look for blame in others. Where was my big marketing push? Where was the agent endlessly advocating? Why were my partners failing me? Of course, I was failing them in equal measure, and there's a parallel melodramatic personal story to go along with that publishing internship. I am grateful and fortunate to have been published and connect with readers. It's one of the profoundly satisfying achievements of my life, along with being a decent father and an occasionally good husband.
But the internship is over, and Act II is underway, and today we have an industry where publishers won't consider unagented manuscripts and many agents don't even bother responding to queries. The frenetic rush to cash in on a trend--or change its name, as "paranormal romance" became "urban fantasy" when the former was polluted by too many rushed, mediocre books--is coinciding with a rising do-it-yourself era, where bestsellers will still do very well but midlist writers will have to make tough choices about trying for the brass ring or going indie.
But now, even doing it myself, I say "I'd better write something that sells, so the other books get noticed and purchased and read." But that's not the reason I got into writing in the first place. I want to make a living, but I want to do it with my vision, the things inside me that make me a crazy human, insecure of rejection and egotistical enough to think my vision matters. I don't want to write a cash-in, vapid book, because all that would let me do is buy stuff. It's the reason I've avoided tie-in or corporate-owned fiction, though I've had some chances. That's just a job.
I want to write a book with heart. The kind of books I want to read, and the kind of books I think will survive when trends fade. It's amazing to me that 10 years later there's a new audience for The Red Church. The book still feels fresh. It is, because it was true, and held all the timeless things I wanted to say to the world.
My other books have it, but maybe with a little too much eye on market conditions. My least-successful novel was one I tried to make widely likable, and my last New York novel was written almost in a tooth-grinding state of passive aggression. The sum of the professional industry advice I received can be reduced to:
1) "Write it more like Stephen King"
2) "Write a thriller. They sell."
3) "Have you thought of writing a vampire novel?"
That's it. Now, I'm convinced New York knows better than me how to sell books to one another. They know their industry. I am not so sure they know how to sell books to a reader, or everything they publish would be a bestseller. I am not so sure I know how to sell books to a reader, or I would probably be writing the types of books more readers want--those trends emerge for a reason.
But the one thing I do know, and which NY probably doesn't know or care about, is my heart. All I can write is the truth inside, and let the microchips fall where they may. It's something I often forget. It might be my heart's message only gets to one reader. Maybe a few hundred or a few thousand. Maybe more.
Never once has anyone in the publishing industry asked, "Which idea inspires you? What book are you dying to write? What book would you want to leave as your epitaph? What book would you dedicate to your daughter?"
Maybe other authors have heard it, but not me. And sometimes it makes me woozy that I ever let such a philosophy hold sway over me. I forgot what I was here for. So I ask myself the question: "What happened to your heart? And what are you going to do about it?"