A Writer’s Doubt: Taking Stock of the What and Why

Sometimes I feel like a crazy dog loping along after a car. And in my crazy dog brain, I imagine sinking my teeth into the bumper and whipping the whole thing around like a cheap toy, making it my own. There are times when I get so close to that sparkling chrome, I think I can almost taste its metallic tang.

And then I lunge forward and bite, only to meet thin air.

I tell myself I just wasn’t as close as I thought, and so I keep running, tongue lolling out, breath wheezing, my determination made more zealous by the lingering essence of a dream so closely fulfilled. Only a fool would stop when they were so close. Right?

But no one can run forever. There is no such thing as a perpetual motion machine. Sometimes you have to slow down for a bit in order to get your wind back, and sometimes you hit enough obstacles on the path that you have no choice but to stop and lick your wounds and decide whether you’re actually chasing the right kind of car.

Not that I’ve received many wounds.

Yeah, sales have been disappointing for the last few months.

Yeah, I’ve received a few rejections on a short story I’ve been circulating around since January.

Yeah, a couple of my other shorts have received lukewarm feedback, such that I’ve started feeling like the weakest link in the chain.

But nothing truly BAD has happened, really. In fact, in the grander scheme, things have never been better. New opportunities are sprouting up every day. Workshop teaching gigs, local conventions, invitations to submit to anthologies. The sorts of things that make working writers working writers, even if only on a small scale.

For some reason, though, my spirit is responding to a few minor setbacks like it’s been whipped with heavy chains. It’s insisting that I re-evaluate everything to make sure I’m on the right path. So I’m going to ask myself a few questions, just to make sure I have my head on straight, so I can figure out where I really am right now. Maybe I’ll be able to get to the heart of what’s really bothering me. Or maybe I’ll decide I’m whinging over nothing. Probably that. Hopefully.

1. What do I want?

I want to be an author. Well, that was easy. The answer came to me without hesitation, and I think as long as that continues to happen, I’ll be mostly okay.

But I want more.

I want to do speaking engagements. I want to make decent advances on my books. I want to travel. I want my books in stores. I want to write a movie script. I want to dig myself deeper into this crazy industry and really make a splash.

2. Why do I want it?

Because I don’t know how to not want it. Might as well tell me to stop blinking or will my heart to stop beating. I love books. But more than that, I love stories. I think they’re important for so many reasons I won’t take the space to list here, but I’ll just say that I think stories are as vital as anything to helping people understand their world and the ones we share it with. Not only that, but they’re what I know.

3. What do I really want to write?

This is the hard part. Sometimes I think I need to give up on sci-fi and fantasy, because I always feel like the genre represents my writing at its weakest. Maybe others don’t see it that way, but I do. Nothing exhausts me and leaves me feeling less satisfied with myself than writing speculative fiction, probably because I see so many other authors doing it better, and I will always feel like I don’t measure up.

Mostly, I want to write about human beings, and I want to do so without always being tasked with imagining whole new rules and worlds for them. I’ve never felt more alive and competent than when I’ve written contemporary suspense. When I wrote Strings, I was reborn. I’d finally come home. Strings and stories like it are the kinds of stories I want to write forever. I felt the same way when I wrote Kudzu. Better yet, I have more of these stories to tell. So many more. These dark, gritty tales are pieces taken from the deepest part of me, and I honestly can’t foresee a time when I would want to stop writing dark, gritty, visceral suspense fiction.

And yet sometimes I still feel that call to the pure creation that is speculative fiction. It’s why I write Colt Coltrane. Colt is the lighthearted and fun break I need after digging the sometimes harrowing trenches of suspense. It’s also why I chose to self-publish it, because I can produce the stories on my own schedule, when it feels right for me. They also allow me to collaborate with my friend and artist, Justin Wasson, and should they take off and find a huge audience, that’s even better. But in many ways, Colt is my refuge, my own personal playground. And should I decide I’ve had enough of tromping around in the 1940s with a robot at my side, I can just wrap it up and move on. There is a lot I can’t control about my traditionally published work, but Colt (and my other self-published fiction) allows me to feel like I have a tighter grip on this slippery eel known as my writing career.

4. So What’s Next?

Well . . . I guess after spelling it all out, I can’t see doing things much differently than I have been. I will concentrate on writing dark suspense novels that my agent can sell, because this will hopefully get me both the readership and the financial outcome I want. And also because these are the stories I love writing most. As such, these books will take up the majority of my writing time. Meanwhile, I will keep up on Colt Coltrane, releasing two stories a year, one novella, one short, until I have at least five of each. I will write other short stories as time and inspiration allow. I will submit a few of them to traditional markets and anthologies, but most of them will be self-published, because this is the fastest route to reaching readers.

Also, on the speculative front, my good friend Ian Healy and I have decided to resurrect our steampunk adventure tale The Oilman’s Daughter. After it goes through a period of heavy revisions this summer, we will release it through his Local Hero Press imprint sometime later this year.

Finally, when my agent sells Kudzu (I’m saying “when,” because if she believes in the story enough to say it, then I’m going to do her and myself the favor of believing in it too), a firmer path will open that will hopefully carry me for years to come.

As for current projects:

The Last Supper at this point will probably not receive a sequel. That could change if it does find its readership, and if that readership is found wanting for more, but until then, I will have to be satisfied with what it currently is, and frankly I am.

The Strings sequel has a lot more potential for completion. More people have read it, and the response it’s received seems to warrant the second volume in the tale. It’s on my list to complete this year, but not ahead of the new book I’m currently working on. I also feel like this book is a safer bet for my publisher.

Finally, I won’t let a few minor setbacks discourage me. Sales will always have peaks and valleys. They don’t define me. I will not always write someone’s favorite story. That also won’t define me. I will tell the stories of the people living inside my head, not to please others, but to please me because I believe those are always going to be our best told stories.

And I will keep reminding myself that the choice of actually doing the work is the only thing in the whole equation I can actually control. When I think about it, that makes me feel better, even when those creeping tendrils of doubt start finding their way in.

Well, I guess I feel a little better than I did when I started this. My wind is back and my wounds, such as they are, have been sufficiently licked. Now where’s that bumper? I have some more running to do.

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