Frustration, Doubts, and Failure

I wrote this post over a month ago, and I’ve only just now gotten up the courage to publish it. What’s different now? Well… Things Unseen, the first book in the A Long-Forgotten Song series is almost done (I’m working on the final copy edits and formatting), and the third book in Erdemen Honor (which still needs a title) is not done but is still POSSIBLY on track to be published by Awesome Con DC in April. Basically, I was so discouraged that I didn’t even want to admit how discouraged I was. Sad, right?

My sales are still excruciatingly slow. I’m a bit more cheerful about writing now because I’ve been newly excited about EH3 and I actually see how it’s turning out, and Things Unseen has gotten some great feedback from beta readers. Encouraging feedback is always helpful. I’m hoping that with four books out, rather than two, my sales will pick up a little. Will that actually happen? Who knows? But I can hope!

~~~begin soul-baring now~~~

I’ve been asked how my writing life is going. “You’re making a lot of money, right?” “Selling a ton now?” and “When are you going to make the bestsellers list?” (Which one?).

It’s easy to brush those questions off with a flippant remark. “Yeah, ’cause writing is definitely the easiest way to riches and fame.” “I’m hoping to be on the New York Times Bestsellers List next week.”

The truth is, though, that I’m always a little frustrated, a little doubtful, and a little discouraged by failure in my writing life. I read this blog post about failure and thought that, while I’m not proud of my failure, I’m ready to own it.

So here’s the truth:

I haven’t sold many books. At all. You’d be shocked at how few. It took over a year from first publishing The King’s Sword to sell a combined 100 copies of The King’s Sword and A Cold Wind, in all formats (ebooks and paperbacks, both in person and online). I also gave away about 20 review copies (mostly ebooks and a few paperbacks) and received only a few reviews (the others are from sales).

I can’t submit my books to some of the major advertising websites until they have more reviews, but I can’t ask friends and family to write reviews for me (even though they would be totally honest and not just “I LUV THIS BOOK SOOOO MUCH!!!1!1!!”). Thus the low sales are likely to continue unless the lightning of Amazon algorithms strikes and suddenly shocks my books out of the depths of invisibility.

Although I love my stories, I find myself reading writing craft websites rather than writing. This is discouraging because A) I’m not making progress, and so I feel guilty, and B) I constantly pick apart the stories that are done and finished and published already. This is stupid and counterproductive. Yes, I should always be learning about writing craft. Yes, I hope that my writing keeps improving since my early novels. But those novels are done, and I need to move on. Picking them apart doesn’t do me any good, it doesn’t do the readers any good, and it destroys what little confidence I have. Focusing only on the minor details I would change, and not on what worked, isn’t an honest view of my work, either.

I doubt my ability to write future books. I’ve been struggling with the third book in Erdemen Honor for over a year, and although I’m finally making progress again, I’ve lost confidence. I love the characters and I’m not sure I can do them justice.

I doubt whether it’s worth it to spend the money on things that I know are required to publish professionally… editing, cover art, and various other things I’d love to do. I don’t doubt that they’re good things to do, I just doubt whether my future sales justify the expense. I’m committed to publishing the third book in Erdemen Honor because it was Kickstarted. I’m also excited about the A Long-Forgotten Song series, and I know I’ll publish it. But as much as I love the stories, I feel a bit like I’m pouring money into an expensive hobby that really ought to be paying for itself by now. I never expected to get rich by writing, but I did hope that novel sales would at least have paid for cover art for my short stories by now.

I don’t think of myself as the misunderstood artist, or the too-cool-to-be-popular artiste, or the writer of fringe weirdness that can only expect a few dozen readers. I don’t think of myself as completely untalented or unskilled. I do, however, fear that I’m somehow not quite good enough… not only for runaway bestseller status (because I didn’t ever expect that), but for semi-successful midlist author status.

The reviews I’ve gotten help, as have the emails from readers who say they love my books. I know they’re honest and that my writing has touched some people. But is that encouragement enough? Most of the time it is. Sometimes it’s not. Sometimes the doubts loom larger than the pats on the back.

Will I stop writing? Of course not. But will I take a break after Little Brightley #2 is born? Maybe, and not just because I’ll be busy and recovering from giving birth. I think I need to reevaluate how I feel about success and failure.

I’ve told myself, and deep down I believe, that if I write and I enjoy it, that’s success. If other people enjoy it too, that is also success. If it brings in enough money to buy a cup of coffee every now and then, that’s success too. But only the writing itself is really important… that’s what defines success for me.

But all my life I’ve struggled with the need to prove myself. To prove that I’m good enough, smart enough, capable enough to… what? Be valuable? As a Christian, I know my value isn’t dependent on what I accomplish. I know this, but I still struggle with that need for approval. I’m struggling with it now. Without the pats on the back of sales and reviews, I get discouraged. Maybe discouragement isn’t bad, as long as I remember that how I feel isn’t necessarily a true reflection of what I’m worth, or even what I’ve accomplished. It’s just a feeling. Feelings change.

So what is failure? Giving up because of discouragement. If I decided that writing wasn’t for me because I genuinely didn’t enjoy it anymore, that would be ok. But if I quit writing because I was afraid, that would be failure. I’m not doing that. That’s part of why I’m writing this. I want to own my failure thus far, admit my pathetic sales numbers, and be ok with it. For me, this is being brave. Some people are good at admitting when the results of their efforts haven’t lived up to their expectations. I’m not. This is hard.

I write this blog as a way of sharing my journey as an indie author, but I want it to be encouraging. It would be dishonest to always sound happy with my own sales and my own writing, and I want to be honest about what’s going on, how it feels, and what struggles I’m facing. At the same time I don’t want to ask for sympathy or seem like I’m complaining. I’m not. I don’t think this is unfair, or that others don’t deserve their success. I don’t intend to stop writing, now or ever. Discouragement and doubt shouldn’t prevent you from pursuing something you love. I love writing, and I can’t imagine I’ll ever stop.

Is it a good thing to bare my own frustrations and doubts like this? I don’t know. Maybe it will encourage someone else.

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