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Part-Time Writer: The Luxury of Patience

For more posts in the ‘Part-Time Writer’ series, click here.

Let’s talk about money. To some extent we all want it, and writers generally enjoy receiving it in exchange for our books.

I don’t think this is just because we want to buy things, or pay rent, or eat; we’ve all been trained to associate money with goodness. We pay for things that are important to us, so when readers spend money on our books we get the sense that our work matters. I don’t see a problem with feeling validated by book sales, but is it okay if the quest for validation compels us to artificially shape our stories in the hope that they’ll sell to a mass audience?

The answer to that question will be different for every person. I know writers who love the challenge of meeting the demands of the marketplace –– they’re great puzzle-solvers, able to deconstruct a genre’s tropes and navigate them to produce thrilling content. To these writers, satisfaction comes from solving the riddle. Each story is a custom-built solution –– a piece of artistic and engineering genius.

I also know writers for whom the keyboard is the only outlet for a narrative that they desperately want to share. For these writers, changing their vision to accommodate fluctuating market forces would be difficult, if not impossible. They’d rather write the story as they know it and let it find an audience –– no matter how small –– than alter it to be more popular.

I’m one of the latter types, and I’m extremely fortunate that some of the stories I’ve wanted to tell have found paying audiences. There are definitely books that don’t sell quite as many copies as I think their characters deserve, but because I write part-time my only reaction to those ‘underperforming’ titles is a slight shrug and a reminder to myself: “Let it happen.”

His Majesty’s New World is a fine example of how this approach has played out. The series launched in 2008 to limited success, and throughout its run it was dwarfed by the Defense Command juggernaut. This seemed logical: an alternate history series is, at first glance, fairly niche, while Defense Command plays (subversively) in the massive military science fiction marketplace.

Had there been financial pressure back then, perhaps we might have tried to change His Majesty’s New World to chase the market –– though I don’t know how. Space battles, maybe? Instead, we had the luxury of trusting the story and its characters, and waiting to see how things would turn out.

It didn’t happen fast. When we entered the Apple iBookstore in 2011, The Rogue Commodore was featured on the science fiction main page for months, but The Grasslands was nowhere to be seen. It wasn’t until 2015 –– three years after both series wrapped –– that the arrival of the introductory novella The Count catapulted His Majesty’s New World into the lead. Now thousands of new readers venture onto the new world each year.

These sorts of experiences teach patience, and patience is a luxury I can afford thanks to my part-time-writer status. I never need to attract an audience right now, and that affords me plenty of creative freedom. No need to panic, no need to upturn plots, replace characters, or try to fit into a specific narrative in order to shift inventory. This is the only way that I’d be any good as a writer –– if I was forced to try to keep up with the zeitgeist, I’d quit in a heartbeat.

I admire the writers who find joy in solving the puzzle of the marketplace. They’re hit-makers with an instinct for what the public wants, and an ability to develop and deliver stories before the audience moves on. They’re thriving in a race that I don’t even have the shoes for. I’m just a hack who lopes along, telling stories about his imaginary (sometimes not-so-imaginary) friends, stubbornly insisting they do whatever they think is best.

This stubbornness has been central to my writing since the beginning, and as I’ve lately come to realize, it’s been instrumental to the day jobs that grant me this luxury of patience. I think it’s relatively common to talk about how day jobs make people better writers; next week I’ll talk about how being a writer has made me better at my day job.