My first published novel, Living with Your Past Selves, went live on September 9, 2012. As I near the tenth anniversary of my publishing adventure, I’m thinking a lot about what inspired me to write in the first place and what has influenced the way I write.
I decided to write about this on the blog because I sometimes get questions about my inspiration but also because a discussion of this issue might be useful to other aspiring writers. Everyone’s journey is different, but sometimes, knowing about the experience of others can help us to better understand our own.
The discussion below is built around questions readers and friends have asked me over the years.
What Inspired You To Write?
It’s a little hard to give simple answer to that question since I’ve been writing for fun ever since some point in elementary school.
That said, I can identify some contributing factors:
A Love of Reading
My parents worried when I didn’t seem to pick up reading skills as fast as I should have, but I turned out to be a late-bloomer on an epic scale, like an empty meadow producing thousands of wildflowers in one night. Once the necessary skills started clicking inside my head, I read everything I could get my hands on. Since I’d inherited the collecting gene from my parents, I also bought as my books as I could afford, a habit that continued until I literally ran out of space (at about the 8,000 book mark, by which point every available wall space had a bookcase, including every wall in the extra room I’d added. Then I started grabbing ebooks, which required only digital space.)
Needless to say, you don’t need to create a sizeable personal library to become a writer. Public libraries are always an option that can fit budget and space constraints–but you do need to be a reader, and it helps to be an avid one. We learn much of the craft of writing from reading. Writing classes can help, but they will only get you so far.
A Desire to Write
This may sound like a circular answer to the question–I was inspired to write by being inspired to write. Not every reader develops such a desire, though. I think the other critical ingredient is a desire to share with an audience.
I suspect every avid reader creates stories in his or her head, but some are content to leave it at that. I’ve even known a few people who wrote but didn’t seem to have much interest in sharing their writing. It takes more than just reading and imagination to make that final step. Even in ancient times, there were people who were content to sit around the fire and listen to the storyteller without even the slightest desire to be the storyteller.
For whatever reason, I decided I want to share. Doubtless, that also contributed to my desire to teach. That’s a very different kind of sharing, but some of the skills involved overlap.
If you don’t like to read yourself, you probably aren’t even considering writing for an audience. If you love to read, you might want to write for an audience, but don’t try to force yourself. If you feel motivated to share, adopt a writing schedule that leaves time in your life for other things you need to get done. Don’t spend more money than you can afford. And see what happens. It’s likely that if you feed driven to write, you won’t be satisfied until you’ve at least tried it.
Why Did You Start with Fantasy?
Since I was an omnivorous reader, that’s a good question. I could have gone in a number of directions.
Some practical considerations affected my choices. For instance, I love history, but the only way to break new historical ground is to be part of history or to be a college professor with the backing of a university. The first was not entirely in my control. The second clashed with my desire to teach at the high school level, which wasn’t as conducive to original research but allowed for a personal connection between teacher and student.
I read large amounts of literary fiction, particularly when I was teaching English, but literary fiction is not a genre in which self-published authors do particularly well. You really need an appropriate publisher–and probably get shortlisted for one of the well-known literary prizes–to have much of a future in that area.
The genres I have read for pleasure over the years are fantasy, horror, science fiction, and mystery, in that order. That made fantasy a logical starting place.
Although my earliest attempts, particularly an unpublished novel from 1981, The Wanderer, had been epic fantasy, I ended up being more drawn to urban fantasy. I’m not sure why. But my urban fantasy does tend to be longer and more complex than the norm, which I think is probably an unconscious salute to epic fantasy. And yes, that probably does lose me some urban fantasy readers, but there’s a limit to how far I’m willing to reshape myself to be more commercial. More about that in a moment.
Since I was used to working with teenagers, having spent most of my adult life as a high school teacher, starting with young adult fantasy was perhaps inevitable. But that also had its commercial pitfalls. I was most comfortable writing about male protagonists, but about 80% of high school readers are female. (Having been exposed to a lot of male readers in AP and honors classes at my former high school, I honestly didn’t know that was the case.) Fortunately, a lot of people who don’t fall in the high school age range also enjoy YA fiction.
Why Aren’t You More Concerned about Commercial Considerations?
It’s not that I don’t care about selling books at all. One of the reasons for my gradual shift from young adult to new adult fiction was the issue I mentioned in the preceding paragraph. But moving from characters in their teens to those predominately in their twenties, especial in a series in which they were the same people grown older, wasn’t a hard shift.
How concerned a writer is about commercial considerations is a function of that writer’s goals. If your goal is to quit your day job, then writing in a commercial way is a necessity. That means studying trends, reading bestsellers in your genre, and adjusting your structure to match what seems to work. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that if you are comfortable with it and do it well.
That said, I can think of a number examples of doing it poorly. The ideal would be to create original work that follows the current trend lines. What often seems to happen, though, is that the originality part gets lost, and what we end up with is a large number of formula books that check all the boxes but don’t bring anything fresh or new to a genre.
That’s by no means inevitable. For example, in a future blog post, I’ll look at school-of-magic kind of stories that are far more than just attempts to capitalize on the trend created by the Harry Potter books. Each one approaches the basic subject in an entirely different way. That’s what I would hope someone writing commercially would strive to do.
But there’s no denying that it’s easier to be original if one writes what one wants to write. At some point, I made the choice to tell the stories I wanted to tell. That doesn’t mean I never think about ways to tell the story better. I think about that all the time. At some point, that might bring more commercial success. But I’m doing to bring greater pleasure to my readers, hoping that commercial viability may follow, rather than the other way around.
When I first started writing, my goal was to share my stories with readers and hopefully entertain them. I’ve accomplished that goal, albeit on a small scale. (At this moment, I’ve sold 11,123 books on Amazon and had 2,999,945 pages read in the Kindle Unlimited Program. That number of pages probably represents something like 6,000 more books read, though it’s hard to tell without sitting down and calculating reads for each title separately. If we add a sprinkling of sales from other vendors and audiobooks, the total would be somewhat higher.)
Whether or not that result is a success depends on how you measure. Most self-published authors sell only a few copies. Even some traditionally published authors don’t make huge sales. So in some ways, my performance is above average. But, particularly when you divide it over ten years, it’s clear I’m not generating anything like enough income to live on. And it’s less than some bestseller authors do in a month–or even a week.
Though I’ve been writing for years, by the time I started publishing, I was nearing the end of my teaching career and retired shortly after. Consequently, making enough money to quit my day job was never an issue (and I wouldn’t have wanted to quit teaching, anyway).
Right now, I’m keeping my options open. I wouldn’t say no to a good offer from a major publisher or a movie producer. I’ve certainly daydreamed about being on the bestseller list or having a major movie made from one of my books. But I had a moment, specifically when Different Lee became my best book launch so far, when I began obsessing over sales and fretting about the future rather than dreaming about it.
After a while, I realized that I’d lost focus on my original goal–bringing pleasure to readers–and was making myself miserable trying to replicate the feelings I’ve had during the early Different Lee days when it seemed as if I might be about to have major success.
Perhaps I could have become an enormous commercial success with a different strategy. Perhaps not. But I decided to focus on my original goal and leave fame and fortune to others. Now I’m happier and more productive. If opportunity knocks, I will open the door. I’m just not going to sit right next to the door and wait for that knock.
Did You Have Any Specific Inspiration for Your First Book?
The book evolved gradually. The main character, Taliesin Weaver, was originally conceived as a character for another project. The concept was a book about Greek mythology for high school students in which a group of student characters studying for a mythology tests told each other the myths. Taliesin would have been the main character, and, as a surprise twist at the end, a reincarnation of the original Taliesin, King Arthur’s bard. (Yes, that would have been odd. At the time, I hadn’t discovered Aethalides, a hero in Greek myth who kept reincarnating and would have made more sense for the role into which I’d plan to put Taliesin.)
This was at the beginning of the summer of 2012. I realized I could never do the research necessary to do a good mythology book over the summer. In a very different form, the mythology idea eventually became A Dream Come True in 2017. In any case, with the mythology book on hold, I realized that I needed to address my creative side in some way. At that point, I began to think about starting a young adult urban fantasy, with Taliesin Weaver as the main character.
Rather than starting with plot, I started with character. Taliesin Weaver was created as a teenager who could remember all of his previous lives. How would that affect him? What sort of problems would that create for him? Once I had some answers to those questions, I began to convert those answers into a plot.
I can’t honestly say that the book wrote itself, but I was able to finish a draft in just a few weeks. Like goals, the writing process needs to suit the personality 0f a writer. We each work in different ways. For me, trying to craft a plot based on situations that would arise organically with a specific characters has often served me well.
Since I also loved mythology, it was to develop some characters and additional plot elements from the underlying Welsh and Arthurian mythologies. It was easy to find a good antagonist as well as several possible allies. The sources in subsequent books became more diverse, ultimately providing a rich variety of characters and situations that could be exploited in later books.
My personal life played a role as well–but I think would be best left for another blog post.
(Featured imaged is copyrighted by Pakhnyushchy and licensed from www.shutterstock.com)