Basic doubts; have I written this here before?

I know I’ve written all this down before, in one form or another. I believe the most recent time was in a draft of the book I was going to put together of my experiences with writing and publishing books, the one which never got off the ground. Maybe I’ll write that one next, now that I’ve a full decade of experience publishing books, and make it my 20th published book. Maybe not.

(Right now, I warn you, I’m at a point of my depression where the strongest urge is to give up everything. To give up on everything. To quit. To quit writing, painting, creating. To quit trying. To quit living. So perhaps that’s a lens with which to view the following, possibly quite dismal, long (warning: over 5k words long), rambling post inspired by doubts about my writing.)

That’s a good enough place to start, I suppose: A decade writing novels. Two decades seriously creating and sharing my stories with those around me. Over a dozen novels. Roughly twenty complete books to my name; more than that if you count all the different versions, editions, and compilations I’ve put out over the years.

All self-published. From the days of my youth, when I would pass around floppy disks or pages printed on our dot-matrix printers to get the stories into my friends’ hands (I remember I even faxed a story, one time), I have always been the primary distributor of my own words. For the first five years I had my novels available, they were only really available through my own website. When I finally “got serious” and bought ISBNs and signed up with a major printer and distributor in 2007, they still weren’t actually in book stores; people found out about them because of direct contact with me. Most people ordered them directly from me.

I never tried to be “traditionally published.” Literally never tried. I’ve never submitted my written work to a publisher, or agent, and until last year I’d never submitted anything to any contests, either. (Technically, a high school teacher once submitted a short essay I wrote (along with every other classmate’s essays) to a contest, and mine got an “honorable mention” and published; I tend to dismiss this since it was not my choice to submit it.) I did not choose to publish my own works because I had tried-and-failed the traditional route; I never set foot on the traditional route. There was a period, around 2004-2005, where I considered heading that way, studied what needed to be done, the correct order of things, and then my life broke… and when I was reassembled-enough to move forward, I was not strong enough to face those challenges.

There is a certain popular wisdom, risen up from the modern wave of “independent publishing”, which holds that for self-published authors (somehow more so than for traditionally-published authors), their market success will be the true measure of their books. If their work is good, they say, it will find its audience—without regard for who published it. The corollary, that if the work is no good it will simply not sell, is assumed. Assumed, and applied in reverse, especially in my doubts: That if a book does not sell well, it must be shit.

Then there are the times I have to actually look at my sales numbers. I usually try to minimize such things, especially in aggregate, but once in a while it’s required. The governments require it, at the least, once a quarter, and a full accounting once a year. Other times, like this week, I stumble across my numbers by accident:

I just finished rebuilding modernevil.com almost from scratch the other day. A complete overhaul, visually, functionally, and structurally. I had to go through and reconsider, usually re-write, and manually rebuild every page and every link and every image. The one I saved for last (and which still begs for a from-scratch overhaul) is my Submission Guidelines. I don’t know what I want. I don’t know what I could say to get more submissions. I’ve never really spent much time looking at submission guidelines, since I’ve never really submitted anything, anywhere. I did a quick search before first putting that page up, a few years ago, but … really, I have no business writing such a page.

Anyway, one of the tiny points mentioned on the current version of the page, fairly close to the top is “Note: Nothing I’ve published has sold more than 100 copies or earned more than $1500. Yet.”

Without last year’s limited edition hardcover, I could say none of my books has earned more than $850, and without art sales (i.e.: not actually book sales) included, none of my books has earned more than $575. That’s revenue. Before expenses like “printing books”, “shipping books”, or all the other miscellaneous overhead I have to pay for. I have up to 7 individual titles whose all-time revenue remains in the $30-$60 range. (Admittedly, this includes 5 of the individual Untrue Tales… books, which have had much better success when combined into trilogies.) My “financially successful” books tend to earn in the $200-$300 range. Total. Ever.

Including books/CDs sold during its fundraiser (but excluding shirts and art, which are not books), my latest book, Virtual Danger, falls squarely into that range, having earned ~$260 so far, with no additional sales made since Comicon, nor expected in any volume in the future. (Even with the shirts and art, it only earned $600. I calculated this out to equate to a net of roughly $150 after all title-specific costs.)

So there are some people who will buy my books, there are a lot more who will download them for free, but it hasn’t really been growing over time. That’s the opposite of what I’ve been working toward for the last 6+ years. The idea was that you start small and unknown, but you keep putting out quality work and keep making a good effort, and over time you build an audience/community/readership/whatever. Don’t expect overnight success, they said, we all took three years or so to reach this point of success. (The people I’m thinking of all had multi-book deals with traditional publishers or tens of thousands of dollars in monthly eBook sales as they made these sorts of posts.) Alas, my trajectory has not matched their example. I kept writing. Two to four new books a year, every year. I kept marketing. I kept trying, trying harder with every project, pushing myself into commercialism to the point of a nervous breakdown last Fall. Yet my sales growth has been unimpressive, not even tracking with the growth in the number of titles I’ve put out. A little bit more each year than the last (though this year looks to be on track to be half of last year’s, due to last year’s limited edition hardcover), but little by ever so little.

And by and large, my books do not sell well. There is only a narrow universe where a book which earns a mere $200-$300 in direct revenues (or even up to $600) is not a total, abject failure. If I ever attempted to shop a novel to a traditional publisher, they’d simply look at my sales numbers (Bookscan would tell them something like I’d earned a mere $200-$300 across all my titles, for all time, because it has no record of my direct sales, or my eBook sales.) and laugh as they rejected me outright. It would cost them more than that to take the time to even seriously consider a novel, considering the value of editors’ time. As far as traditional publishing would be concerned (if they thought of me at all), my books must not be good.

Sometimes my doubts tell me the same thing.

Maybe my books are no good. Maybe I’m a terrible writer. Not nearly an author. Undeserving even to be called a writer. Maybe I’m nothing.

I think about editing. Editing, and my near-total lack thereof. Maybe my writing is shit because I don’t edit. Because I can’t afford to hire a professional editor. (Which would cost 3x-10x more than my books seem to earn. (Of note, a survey last year suggested that professionally-edited independently published books earned an average of 13% more than those without professional editing; not 300% more, and certainly not 1000% more.)) Because I never really learned to edit. Not the way other people do. Not to revise, to rewrite. No idea. I have no idea how people do it.

Again and again, I read and hear about how “all good writing is rewriting” and “the only good thing about a first draft is throwing it away” and so on. I see authors’ updates about their hours, days, weeks spent re-writing and revising their books. I see blog posts about the importance of rewriting, about how much better a writer’s work became through months and years of re-writing it, and I have doubts. Doubts, because I don’t rewrite. I don’t revise.

Not in my stories. Not even in my web design, I’ve just realized. (I took a break, while writing this, for a snack. While eating, I like to read WIRED magazine (I’ve had a subscription since ~1995) and the page I was on had an article about the value of printing something out during revision, to help find and correct errors. It was specifically about editing computer code, and at first I thought to myself, “Ooh! I think maybe I revised the design for modernevil.com while I was working on it, last week! Perhaps I really do know how to edit!” …then I thought about what I’d actually done, and… I write computer code the same way I write stories. I begin at the beginning, work on it, in order, until I reach the end, and then stop.

The closest thing to a change/correction I made after the first pass on the site was because I’d accidentally skipped one item on the detailed outline/notes I’d made before ever starting; it wasn’t a revision like, I saw what I’d done and then decided to change it, or like I wrote an ending a way I hadn’t planned and needed to go back and change the backstory to match, but like “Oh, I forgot to put chapter numbers in as I was writing; I should add those before publishing this.” It took me about a minute per page to correct.

Instead, I did what I do when writing fiction: I thought about it for a long time. Then I made some sketches/outlines/notes to clarify my thoughts. Then I started putting it together. When I ran into a something I wasn’t already sure about, I simply stopped the actual coding and went back to thinking. I thought about it until I knew what the site required, then I went back to work. I continued in this way until it was done. I never coded it one way, then tried it another way. I never changed my mind about how it should look, or how it should behave, and had to go back and adjust what I’d only just coded. …and that’s how I write.

…and maybe that makes me a terrible writer.

Maybe that makes me terrible at everything.

When I “edit” my stories, I’m just line-editing, or copy editing. I don’t do content editing. I don’t revise. I don’t re-write. I don’t think I really know how. Tiny adjustments, here and there, to clarify a sentence or correct a typo, sure. But if I think too much about content editing, I get into a philosophical quandary that leads all the way back to the meaning of life. The big questions of meaning, value, and purpose.

Wil Wheaton recently posted about how Cory Doctorow had been helpful to him early in his writing, with giving him direction in his need for editing and re-writing, and for some reason I read the post. (I really need to learn to avoid reading posts by writers about writing. They only end in pain, for me.) One thing in the post was about Cory’s initial reaction to his work: “Cory replied to me, and was brutally honest about the quality of my writing. He was never unkind, but he made it clear to me that my writing was amateurish. I didn’t told when I should have shown, rambled about things that didn’t matter to the narrative, glossed over things that did, and generally had a lot of work to do if I was going to take this story to the public. And it was a good story, he told me, but it needed a lot of work.”

…and I read his post, and feel gut punches from phrases like “…rambled about things that didn’t matter to the narrative, and glossed over things that did…” because how does one know what “matters” to a narrative? Does narrative matter? Is there really some definitive, singular thing any given narrative is “about”, and how could one know what it is? I don’t know what most of my stories are about, not before I write them, not after I’ve read them a dozen times, sometimes not ever. I don’t know what most of the stories I read are about, either, not in any definitive way, and certainly not in any singular way. One scene seems to be about this one thing, and another section seems to be about half a dozen other things, and usually when I think I’m reading something superfluous and unnecessary in a book, if I bother to do a little research (or in some cases, simply finish reading the story) I find that other people thought that part was central to the theme and value of the work. And if I do more research into this whole concept, it seems pretty clear that if a story is actually only about one thing, with nothing extraneous, that’s a bad thing; it’s “flat” or “shallow”. So there’s no easy answer, it’s a balancing act.

Plus, it brings up more questions/problems. If a narrative is supposed to be about something, to be so clear that there can be “things that matter to the narrative” and “things that don’t matter to the narrative”, then what should my narratives be about? What should I write about? What’s the point of [my next story]? What “matters”? Not just whether a story ought to serve a higher purpose, such as influencing society, or morals, or teach an important lesson, but even just whether a story ought to “be entertaining” or “follow genre expectations” or if it should have a “meaningful resolution”. In order to decide any of these things, a writer must consider some things more important than other things, to value some ideas and outcomes over others, but how does one determine value, or importance? Where does value even come from? Value in terms of what? Individual survival? Commercial and/or financial success? Societal health? Emotional well-being? And once something is selected to measure value against, the measurements must still be made; and how to do this has been debated for millennia. There is certainly not one all-defining answer to “what matters?”, as yet determined by human philosophers, which can be applied to any narrative to determine whether it is well written.

So how can I write, and how can I know whether what I’ve written is any good? What ought I to write next? What stories are worth telling? What methods for telling stories are worth exploring? What should stories be about? What messages are worth conveying, through the plain text as well as through the themes and undercurrents of a work?

I don’t know.

And maybe that’s why my writing is terrible.

For the last eleven years or so, I’ve been operating on a set of arbitrary guidelines I selected in response to just this sort of existential crisis. I’d spent years in mental agony, trying to work out where “goals” and “motivation” comes from—eventually coming to the conclusion that, for anyone not simply accepting whatever the world has placed before them, goals, values, motivation, et cetera, are arbitrarily (and rarely consciously) selected. There is no meaning, except what meaning people ascribe, and that most often ex post facto. Coincidentally, I’d also recently reached the end of a roughly decade-long period where I attempted suicide many dozens of times and found myself not allowed to die. I still haven’t figured out what God has been keeping me alive for, but at that time I’d reached a point where I’d given up on suicide, knowing with certainty that there was nothing I could do to end my life before God would allow it, and nothing I could do to extend my life beyond my appointed hour. So the search for value, for meaning, for motivation, was an important one for me, as I needed something to get me going and keep me busy until God would allow me to die. Once I determined that it was all arbitrary, I simply selected a couple of things which I didn’t hate as much as the rest of my life, things which had, on occasion, actually been somewhat enjoyable, and decided to care about them. To value them. To be “motivated” to pursue them.

Something to pass the time until I’m allowed to die.

Writing, and the arts, I picked. Creative expression. Selected arbitrarily. Not because I’d been passionate about writing or being published from an early age (as another writer’s blog about writing recently mentioned, and I’ve seen again and again over the years), or because I had “something to say” with my books or my art, but because I wasn’t allowed to die, yet, and I needed something to pass the time. I’d been writing stories and creating art from an early age, and had always been encouraged by family, friends, and teachers when I did, so it wasn’t as totally arbitrary as it could have been. But this isn’t something I’m passionate about.

It isn’t, as I’ve been trying to express here, something I even really understand. Not really. Not in a deep, basic way. Functionally, yes. I get grammar. Spelling. Description. Dialogue. But “about”? I’m lost.

Partially it’s because when I was filling in the blanks eleven years ago, under “values” I didn’t have more detail than “creative expression”—so I ended up creating works where there was no point but to create the thing. No morals, no meaning, just an arbitrary expression of creativity. Which is where books about noodles come from. Or books with no plot. Indescribable books. Unsellable books. Books whose main reason for existence ended up being something I actually do hate; commercialism. Since I had no other reason to be writing.

And then it all came crashing down. I broke. The whole façade broke. Things had progressed to the point where “commercialism” had become the point, but that was killing me so I took it out of the equation, which turned out to be the last leg standing before I was back to seeing that the real point was to “pass the time before I’m allowed to die.”

Which is where I am, right now.

And I’m having doubts.

I mean, on one hand, life is meaningless and I wish I were dead, my books might be terrible, terribly written, and there might be no hope for me as an author, even if I did convince myself to get back to it. On the other hand, sometime in the last few months my total podiobooks (episodes) downloads passed a million (across all titles) and I estimate that’s from around fifty-six thousand different listeners, by the end of 2012 my eBook downloads had exceeded fifty thousand (probably different readers from the audio versions), and most of my books released in the last three and a half years (including the first book I’ve published of someone else’s work!) have been profitable out-the-gate (or almost so) through the support of half a dozen generous fans/supporters and another dozen fairly loyal readers.

Sometimes I think about figuring out how to revise, to rewrite, but it always seems to come back to needing to know what the goal is—beyond “to write [to pass the time until I’m allowed to die]”, which I haven’t figured out how to see beyond. Maybe the Oracle was right and I can’t see beyond the decisions I don’t understand, and since I don’t really understand why I write (since it’s almost totally arbitrary), I can’t see beyond “to write” as the goal. “Because it sucks less than most everything else I’ve tried” doesn’t seem to help, either. How can any particular phrase be improved, any sentence, paragraph, scene, chapter, or book be improved, if I don’t really know why it’s there?

I look at each sentence, each word, and I can almost always explain why it’s there, what purpose it serves, in terms of the story, the characters, the big ideas, at least, as well as I can understand it—though when I do, it usually just feels like I might be making up excuses, to cover my ass. i.e.: “Well, of course I need a detailed, highly visual description of the way he sees his mundane life, so as to (at least) draw parallels with the level of detail he experiences his extra-normal visions/daydreams in the next sequence, to give the character a basis for the visually-centered way he navigates other people’s thought spaces in the next major section of the book, and to parallel the coda at the end of the final book of the series where the reality he ends up living leaves him longing for the mundane everyday existence. It isn’t just a long, boring description of someone getting up, getting dressed, eating breakfast, and getting ready for school: It’s a vital foundation for the book as well as for the conclusion of his character arc, six books from now.” …and then it’s really hard to change it. Even if I’m not sure whether it really has all that meaning or I’ve just invented an excuse to cover for an unwillingness to do the uncomfortable thing which is “editing”. Even if, armed with thousands of similar, detailed explanations for the existence for each individual scene and sentence in the story, I don’t feel capable of expressing what the story as a whole is “about” or what the purpose of the story is, or why anyone ought to read it.

((Gha. That’s another thing that writers write about in their writerly blogs which bugs me! The ones who really ought to just be marketers, rather than pretending to be “writers” first, who are great at selling books because they’d be great at selling anything. They say things like: “When someone asks what your book is about, they don’t want to know what it’s about, and don’t ever try to tell them what the book is about; they want to know what’s in it for them. They’re self-centered, and looking for personal gain, for what they’re going to get out of it. When they ask you what your book is about, tell them what benefit they’ll get from it. That’s what they really want to know.” I have no idea. It’s a novel, not a technical manual or a textbook. Maybe (maybe) you’ll be entertained by it. Some of my books: Through reading it, hopefully you will experience a state of being previously unknown and otherwise unavailable to you. Or maybe you’ll think some of the ideas in it were kinda neat. This is the problem with not having an understanding of the value or purpose of my books is: I don’t just not know what it’s about, I don’t know why anyone should read it, either. This, of course, leads to having a heckuva time selling said books.))

“Here, read this book; it’ll help pass the time until God allows you to die,” isn’t exactly a strong sales pitch.

So, if my books don’t sell well, they aren’t edited, they have nothing in particular to say, and even I can’t give anyone a good reason to read them … well, I’m having some doubts.

They aren’t new, and I doubt they’ll ever really go away, even if I come up with answers or solutions to these particular problems. Doubting and questioning are a big part of who I am, in a way that writing never has been. I spend a lot more time doubting and questioning than I do writing. I mean, from start to finish, including what “editing” I do, the publishing side (cover design, layout, eBook conversion, website updates), and recording and editing the audiobook, it probably only takes me a couple hundred hours’ work to create the average book. If it’s a particularly involved book, maybe three or four hundred hours. If I decide to do research first, probably again as much time doing research before I start writing, but we’re still talking about five or six hundred hours’ work to create an entire book, max.

Over the last decade I’ve averaged fewer than two new titles a year, and most of those (>80%) required no research time. That averages out to less than fourteen hours a week working on creating books, in any measurable capacity; under two hours a day. (It isn’t actually two hours a day; it’s usually three or four very intense weeks each year, with the rest of my time spent thinking, doubting, and questioning.) I certainly spend a minimum of two hours a day doubting and worrying, frequently several times as long. Heck, I’ve spent over four hours writing this post, and while some will say that should count towards my “writing time” (blogging is not accounted for in the above minimization of my writing efforts), I would counter-argue that, whether or not it counted as writing, it certainly qualifies as four hours of intense doubting and questioning (and is the culmination of a week or six of daily thinking, doubting, and questioning). Now, those who would add writing this blog to my writing hours would then probably proceed (quite reasonably) to add most of my “thinking time” to the writing time, too, and if they did the following conclusions fall apart, but:

As I’ve expressed above, I don’t really like writing all that much, it’s just something I arbitrarily selected to do to help pass the time until I’m allowed to die; in large part as an excuse I can give to other people to explain what I’m doing with all these blasted hours. Consequently, I don’t actually spend all that much time writing or otherwise working on books. At most, on average, less than 14 hours a week. If I simply worked as much on my writing as most people do at their day jobs, I could easily write (and publish) four or five new books a year, every year. (Or a smaller number of longer books than my current average length.) If I were actually passionate about it, like, say, the average entrepreneur, I could probably write and publish ten new books a year—or up to almost fourteen new books a year, if I loved it so much I sacrificed any semblance of a family or social life to pursue my writing. (That is, up to roughly 500k-700k words (2k-2.7k pages) a year of work, theoretically at or above the quality I’ve been producing for the last several years.) If I cared. If I loved it. If I were passionate about it, and put the hours in.

But I don’t put the hours in.

Even after I became able to do this “full time”, I didn’t really write much more. I spent more time thinking. I certainly began to spend more time researching. Some years I wrote more books. But the average was already two books a year before that, and it still is, five years later.

Which gives me ever more doubts. If I don’t even seem to spend all that much time doing the thing I picked “to pass the time [until I’m allowed to die]” when it’s ostensibly the main focus of my life, and if instead I still spend the majority of my time sitting around thinking (and doubting, and worrying, and questioning), which is what I was doing for years before selecting creative expression as my arbitrary life goal, then was there ever any point to it? Has the last decade (plus) been a total waste? I have nineteen meaningless, forgettable, possibly terrible books to show for it, I have a couple hundred works of amateur, meaningless, pointless works of art to show for it, but doesn’t that sound like a waste of time? (Would it be so bad if it did? If the point was to waste my time, I suppose it might not…) A waste of time, a waste of effort, a waste of philosophy…

Would I be better off cutting out the meaningless “creative expression”, and move to admitting that all I’m really doing is counting off the hours until death? Socially it would probably be awkward, but I’d at least still have the excuse/answer of being a “househusband”. Financially it seems likely to only improve things; while, for tax purposes, my business has been “profitable” for several years now, in actual money this exercise has cost my family around $10k more than it’s earned, just since 2007. At the current rates of after-tax income and projected revenue growth, we won’t even earn that back for ten or fifteen years, if ever. Spending my days and nights staring at the walls would give a better return than the last five years of running this business. Heck, buying razorblades by the case, spending my weeks and months trying to slit my wrists open, again and again, until God decides to give in and let me die would be cheaper. Certainly it would mean less time spent doing all the parts of this that I don’t actually enjoy, and especially the parts I hate, such as Marketing. Or worrying over reviews, or ever-more-time spent worrying over a lack or paucity of reviews. Or worrying over whether my books mean anything, or what they ought to mean, or whether I can make a book I want to write commercial enough to be a book someone would want to read.

Or perhaps I’d be better off trying to do a better and more specific job of arbitrarily selecting my goals, values, and motivations. Knowing the shortcomings of trying to be creative without specific and detailed values and motivations, develop a random list of “things I care about” and “reasons to create” and “what I’m trying to express”, which I could then turn to when I need to do things like “editing” or “explaining what my [thing] is about and why [you] would want to [experience] it.” Maybe write another 20 books, create several hundred new works of art, and burn up another of the decades standing between myself and my death before I realize again how meaningless it’s always been.

Or maybe the next time I put a blade to my flesh, it won’t miraculously, ridiculously, slide away harmlessly. Maybe I’ll be allowed to die before I waste my time writing yet another meaningless book.