Please welcome author Susan Wolfe to WU today!
Susan is a lawyer with a B.A. from the University of Chicago and a law degree from Stanford University. After four years of practicing law full time, she stepped out and wrote the best-selling novel, The Last Billable Hour, which won the Edgar Award for Best First Novel. She returned to law for another sixteen years, first as a criminal defense attorney and then as an in-house lawyer for Silicon Valley high-tech companies.
Escape Velocity is her second novel.
Born and raised in San Bernardino, California, she now lives in Palo Alto, California, with her husband.
If You Write a Book That Nobody Reads, Are You Really a Writer?
Most writers start every story with the hope of writing either a blockbuster or a story that transforms readers’ lives. Very few books meet those high expectations. When our readership falls far short of our dreams, what if anything keeps us writing? Should we try to dial our hopes back? Should we go look for a different way to make an impact? If a tree falls in the forest, how many people need to hear it for the tree to have really fallen?
I wrote my second book, a legal thriller called Escape Velocity, with high expectations. I left the practice of law and invested five years to make it the book I really wanted. I decided to self-publish (St. Martin’s published my first book but turned this one down.) When an agent told me I needed to sell 10,000 copies in order to get a traditional publisher even to look at my third book, I locked on that number as my goal. My first book sold more than 100,000 copies almost 20 years ago, so no problem, right?
Wrong. So very wrong.
Almost a year after publication, despite winning the 2017 IPPY gold medal in suspense/thriller, getting a starred Publishers Weekly review and some other kudos, I have sold fewer than 500 books. Let’s call it failure to launch.
Never mind what happened. I have now accepted that my launch has failed and very few people are going to read this book.
So what do I do now? I’ve heard plenty of people talk about how writing is really about the process and the artistry, and I know there are writers who never try to get their work published: Emily Dickinson, whose best poems were discovered by her sister only after her death, or J.D. Salinger after the publication of Catcher in the Rye. But I personally think the whole point of fiction is to communicate something too complicated to be told with dry exposition. If nobody reads the book, where’s the communication?
If nobody reads my book, am I even a writer?
This isn’t an idle question for me. After almost a year of increasingly frantic and futile efforts to sell my book (which shockingly involves quite a few things I don’t particularly feel like doing) I have now spent another six months grinding on the question of whether to write a third book at all. I won’t pretend it’s been a happy exploration.
Am I an idiot to expect any different outcome with my next book? And if I expect the same outcome next time, am I an idiot to write it? I’ve made a few lists.
- I’ve made lists of other things I can do (with law, with charity, with community service) that would be a lot more likely to have an impact.
- I’ve looked at many definitions of “writer” and come up with mine: A writer is a person who is seriously engaged in discovering and telling a story with the best tools s/he can bring to the problem.
If it’s possible to do that without believing you’re going to have an audience (Salinger! Dickinson!) then you are perhaps the highest and purest form of writer alive. I salute you. But as you now know, that isn’t me.
I was a writer by my definition when I wrote Escape Velocity. Can I be a writer again?
Now we’re talking about motivation, so
- I’ve made lists of what motivates me to write:
- The prospect of engaging a reader. Boom, there it is, right at the top. Interestingly enough, the “failure to launch” hasn’t affected my confidence in my writing in general or my book in particular. One reason is that the rare people who do read my book seem to like it. Take for example this message I just got through my web site:
I am a retired attorney and avid reader. I took a chance on Last Billable Hour and loved it. I’m now loving Escape Velocity. Keep writing—you are as good as the best.
Obviously a person of taste and insight.
- Imagining scenes and then listening to my characters talk to each other is the way my mind most likes to work. There is almost nothing better than getting a scene exactly right.
- I think great writing is the highest and best form of human endeavor. I think a great writer is as important to humanity as a great statesman. Mediocre writing, not so much. But if I don’t try, I surely won’t succeed.
Not long ago a fellow lawyer named Jack listened to me through most of a long lunch and then said, “I don’t know what you’re thinking about so hard here. You’re not going to make the decision not to write another book. You can’t. Writing is what you do. So even if you decide now not to write another book, the question will be back four months from now and again eight months from now, until you write another book. So I say cut the agonizing and get on with it.”
After six months, I am indeed writing my third book. I have a plot and four characters (one of whom just underwent quite a character change). I’m not sure I ever reached a coherent conclusion about why I’m writing, but here’s what I can say:
I think this is a good story and I want to see if I can tell it. I hope to do it justice. I think maybe I can.
I finally discovered that, although I very much want to find my audience, I’m pretty much the same person without one. My failure to launch doesn’t seem to have diminished me at all. I cannot tell you how liberating this is. In fact, I encourage all of you to go out and fail miserably at something right away.
Writing is what I do. Jack said so.
P.S. After completing this essay, my ace new publicist arranged for Escape Velocity to have a BookBub promotion, and I just sold 4,200 books in a week. Maybe, just maybe, this is enough exposure to get some word-of-mouth publicity going. And if it doesn’t, what’s so magic about 10,000? Maybe it only takes 4,200 people hearing a tree fall in the forest for it really to have fallen. Maybe it takes fewer than that.
Are you thinking too hard about some aspect of your writing? Have you pushed through a similar challenge and felt liberated by a revelation? We’d love to hear your stories in comments.