WHY do you want to write? Have you ever asked that question? If you have, did you stop to ask it more than once? With all the sacrifice that goes into writing and writing well, finding our WHY is critical if we hope to be successful.
I get it. It’s easy to get so caught up in the zillions of other factors that go into this ‘writing thing.’
In the digital age, there’s so much more authors are responsible for knowing, understanding, doing, and doing well. Things other than ‘the writing’…though the writing should be paramount.
Why do I care about us finding our WHY? Our why is what will keep us going even when we believe we have nothing left to give.
It’s what will keep us pressing when everyone else calls us a fool, and when even WE believe we’re a fool.
Without a WHY, being an author long-term is next to impossible.
Our WHY is the beating heart that keeps our muse ALIVE.
The burning reason, our WHY, is what separates writers from ‘normal people.’ Just so y’all know, it is NOT normal to sit alone and sit still and write hundreds of thousands of words.
***Just FYI, for all the writers. Forget about normal. The Normal Ship sailed long ago without you 😉 .
In all seriousness, though. Recently, I saw someone post a question on Facebook, ‘What motivates you to write?’ Now, I am being VERY careful here. I know the intent behind the question, but we’ll circle back to motivation in a moment.
What we do is largely amorphous. Until we’ve done enough to PRINT something substantial or make it into a book, writing is very much ‘in our heads.’
This means, since we don’t have a lot of tangible benchmarks (especially now), it is more important than ever to articulate WHY we are doing what we are doing.
Also, as a quick note, finding our WHY is something we’ll need to do repeatedly. Life changes, we change, and our WHY can/will change as well.
I returned home from speaking in Houston late Sunday. Since I put out a lot of energy when I speak, I had to slip into something more comfortable when I got home…like a COMA.
But, while I was in Houston, I had time to
whine and moan have a heart-to-heart discussion with one of my dearest friends Maria Grace.
For many authors, finding our WHY has drastically changed in the past fifteen years.
Last post, I asked a touchy question. Do some people simply lack the talent to become successful authors?
This, inevitably brings up an existential discussion about ‘success’ and how ‘success’ is different for every writer. Yes, fair point. This is part of what we’re going to discuss today in regards to finding our why.
HOWEVER, when I’m discussing talent and skill, we’re covering entirely different territory. Granted, fiction is subjective. There is
a bit a lot of wiggle room for what might be considered ‘good.’
Even books agents turned down that later became a raging success via indie or self-pub still hold some commonalities.
We can still can see that the author a) actually told a coherent story b) roughly understood the rules of storytelling well enough that the average person didn’t need a GPS and a Dungeon Master to get WTH was happening and c) took the time for basic editing and proofreading.
When EVERYONE Can Be Published
I’ve been a content/developmental editor for going on twenty years. Before self-publishing, the WORST samples I received were better than some of the BEST samples I see now.
What’s changed? The WHY. Before self-publishing, the vast majority of writers would have chosen death over self-publishing.
The only way to publish—and be a REAL author—was to publish traditionally via legacy press.
In other posts, I’ve explicated the ads and disads and the changing business model, so no need to go through that again here.
Point is, publishing has changed.
When I used to tell people I was an author, their first question was, ‘Can I get your book in a bookstore?’ Now, the first question they ask, other than ‘Who are you and why are you in my house wearing my comfy PJs?’ is ‘Can I get your book on Amazon?’
Suffice to say, when I began my journey, craft was paramount…to the point writers didn’t want to learn ANY of the business of their business.
THEN, the pendulum swung and suddenly it seemed every writer out there was far more interested in becoming an advertising and marketing expert than learning how to write.
Ergo why we now have over a million NEW self-published books added to the market every year (and climbing).
How Do We KNOW?
Alas, what was I
whining about discussing with a peer? Finding our WHY is much more tricky. When I was a n00b, this publishing success thing seemed so much simpler.
Write the book, finish, edit, land an agent, get a sweet contract, see your books in bookstores, and YAY! Then, have launch parties and book signings and strive for certain awards and titles.
I remember times I was so broke I was living on eggs and saltine crackers praying the power company didn’t shut my lights off.
Yet, in spite of all the people who openly made fun of me, who were even cruel to me, and through the weeks and months and years of work…I had a VISION.
I inhaled craft books, took every class, worked, sacrificed and grew rhino skin because ONE DAY I KNEW I’d have a
giant display of my HARDBACK books in the front of every Barnes & Noble so na-na-na-na-boo-boo-stick-your-head in favorable Amazon algorithms and genre rankings.
Anyway, so I relay all this to my BFF Maria Grace. How it’s so tough to define what ‘success’ is because the roadmap that existed for over a HUNDRED years is gone (or so different from what it once was we hardly recognize it).
I groused about not seeing my books in a bookstore where I could have a real bookstore signing and MG threw my own blogs back at me. Like how marketing, book signings, and ads don’t sell books and never have.
How (according to Book Expo of America statistics) as of 2004 (before self-publishing) authors had a 93% failure rate. As in of all published authors, 93% (almost all traditionally published) failed to sell more than a thousand copies.
And, of that 93%, over 50% sold fewer than 500 copies.
Only 1 out of 9 traditionally published authors ever saw a second book in print. MG reminds me of all these things and how, even though indie and self-publishing are far from perfect, they are still in a state of flux.
From all indications, authors can actually do better in the emerging publishing model. We just need to get through
a CRAP TON some birthing pains. Changing an industry that hasn’t changed in over a century in a little over a decade?
Serious suckage, people.
Friends & Finding Our Why
Did I want to hear my own blogs used against me? NO. Even though I KNOW the old big-box model was a terrible system for authors, DANG IT!
I wanted MY BOOK DISPLAY…at least before Barnes & Noble completely buggered it all up. Ergo this is how the following conversation took place:
Me: Is it WRONG to want a hardback? To see my books in airport bookstores or on displays? Whiiiiiiiiiiiine….
MG: Not per se. But Kristen, why are these things important to you?
Me: Um, because.
MG: *patient saint face* Kristen, ‘because’ isn’t an answer.
Me: *fidgeting* Cuz.
MG: *stern face* ‘Cuz’ is abbreviation of ‘because‘ and still NOT a real answer.
Don’t you just
hate love friends that make you own up to your own drama? Long story short, this discussion made me ask hard questions. Without the traditional benchmarks of ‘success,’how and when did I know when to celebrate?’
I needed a good friend I could trust to be blunt (in a loving way) to make me ask then answer the correct questions.
Sticking to old benchmarks that no longer exist or even serve us anymore is one of many reasons we need to find our WHY more than ONCE.
Finding Our Why the Hard Way
Today is October 9, 2019 and marks exactly twenty years since my father VERY unexpectedly passed away. For those who don’t know, my father’s death was particularly devastating.
First, no one had ANY idea he was even sick. He was an avid cyclist and he rode a bicycle literally forty miles a day. My dad worked in a high performance bike store and rode to and from work six days a week from Fort Worth, TX to Arlington, TX.
Seriously Google Maps that.
We spent weekends rollerblading and mountain biking together. My father and I were an extremely active duo.
My dad had never once called in sick to work in…decades.
Long Story Short
My dad had always longed to be a writer. He had notebooks full of poems and short stories all over the place. But, back then, computers cost about as much as a really nice compact car, so he wrote everything on legal pads and in composition notebooks.
It was about to be his 50th birthday, and I arranged a surprise birthday party. I’d managed to buy him a computer so he could finally live his dream.
Friends had the cake and food set up, and I’d fooled my father into believing I was coming to take him out to a nice dinner (which was pretty much what we always did for his birthday, so not a tough sell).
I’d NEVER been so excited for a birthday.
I was going to pick him up, take him to a party (he’d never had an actual birthday party in all my years growing up) and I was going to hand him the keys to his dreams. A PERSONAL COMPUTER.
Anyway, at the time, I lived about an hour away. I called his work and the guy there tells me my dad had called in sick (first red flag).
So I kept calling his cell phone and paging him to call me. I was desperate to know how sick he was, if I could help, and if I needed to move the party (or bring the party/his new computer to him).
Finally, I got him on the phone and his voice was very strange. I went from agitated about a party to scared that my dad was far sicker than I realized.
Dad, however, joked with me as was rabidly triaging him. Every time he spoke, however, his voice sounded stranger and weaker.
Then I heard the phone hit the tile floor. I yelled and screamed for my dad to pick up and nothing.
I hung up and tried calling back but the phone gave a busy tone. He also wasn’t answering my 987 pages.
My at-the-time-fiance walked in the door minutes later, and, shellshocked, I told him, ‘I was just on the phone with Dad, and I think he…I think he died.’
Since DENIAL is the first stage fo grieving, and people don’t actually DIE on their BIRTHDAYS, do they? I called my grandparents who lived only a few minutes away.
SURELY he was just super sick and I was being a drama queen.
I was too far away, so I begged my grandparents to go check on my dad and force him to go to the ER even if he refused. Call an ambulance if need-be, and I’d pay for it.
The next call back was from my grandfather to let me know that my happy, joking-literally-ALL-THE-TIME father was dead and nothing could be done. He was gone before they’d even arrived.
So I, of course, felt like the world’s BIGGEST JERK because I’d never even realized he was SICK. Not only THAT, but did I call 911? Nope. I sent his parents to find their eldest son deceased…on his birthday.
***Yes, this has required a lot of therapy and probably will require more.
Finding Our Why When There Isn’t One
Suffice to say, a surprise birthday turned into a surprise funeral. What I didn’t know until after the autopsy was that my father had esophageal cancer, which was one of the hardest cancers to detect (like you LITERALLY had to be deliberately looking for it).
There’s nothing inherently OBVIOUS about this kind of cancer, and it’s commonly misdiagnosed.
Usually, by the time doctors find it, the cancer has spread everywhere, so esophageal cancer has an extremely high fatality rate.
The reason my dad’s voice sounded so strange was his esophagus was closing off his air, and he was slowly suffocating (while talking to me…INSTEAD OF TALKING TO 911! *takes calming breaths*).
Anyway, I take some comfort knowing that I really couldn’t have known he was sick. As I mentioned, esophageal cancer masquerades as a lot of other common/benign ailments (sinusitis, acid reflux, etc).
It alleviates my guilt that, due to his advanced stage of cancer, there would have been no way to save him even IF I’d called emergency services.
I find some solace that our last conversation involved us cracking jokes, me telling him I loved him, and him being able to tell me the same.
This makes it a bit better.
Maybe I took his mind off his fear, because he HAD to know something was horribly wrong and chose, instead, to spend those final moments with me.
No way to know.
Finding Our WHY: Re-Gifting the Gifting
The strange thing is that, because of my father, I had always wanted to become a writer. We dreamed together from the time I was old enough to hold a pencil. How we would both be famous writers one day.
To be painfully honest, I really didn’t take the dream seriously. Instead, I went into corporate sales. Writing was something relegated to a back burner of ‘later.’ Finding my why had nothing to do with my life.
All that mattered was proving myself with a paycheck (which is likely why I was sick every day on my commute to work).
Then my father passed away. This taught me a brutal lesson: Tomorrow is promised to NO ONE.
And I took up the torch. My dad not being able to fulfill HIS dream was a huge impetus to pursue MY dream. In a strange way, his death gave me permission to step up and dare to dream big. Why me? Well, why NOT me?
This said, sometimes the WHY that’s meant to get us started isn’t designed to be our WHY forever.
I’ve accomplished most of the goals my dad never got a chance to even attempt. I started with finishing the book. Okay so it was 187,000 words long and an unreadable, unsalvageable mess….
But I FINISHED. That was/is still a HUGE deal.
Finding our why is critical because it helps clarify our goals and define our benchmarks for success.
If our idea of success is making money, then we’ll approach this business very differently than if success is writing simply to have fun WRITING (or something in between).
Just so you know, not every hobby requires monetization to be valid.
Finding Our Why Involves Change
Seasons change and so do we. Finding our why is something we should do regularly, because, if we’re operating off a motivation that’s older than our favorite yoga pants? It might be the reason we’re burned out and hate turning on our computers.
ESPECIALLY THESE DAYS.
In the digital age publishing world, we can easily become SO overwhelmed by all we should be doing (social media, platform, SEO, branding, tweeting, blogging, vlogging, clogging….) that we lose our WHY.
WHY did we start this writing thing to begin with?
Because we wanted to tell incredible stories. We LOVED books.
Start THERE and THEN everything else can fall into place. Most of us didn’t become authors because we dreamed we’d one day have b$#&in’ SEO, favorable rankings, or so many clicks on an ad.
Are those things GREAT? Sure! But only if in their proper place. Otherwise? Welcome to Burnout Land.
Life is short. And, since I’m speaking primarily to writers…
What’s Our Legacy? Check Our WHY
Our children won’t remember our Google rankings, but they CAN read and reread our stories. Friends can’t pass on or share our ‘favorable newsletter open rates,’ but they can enjoy our ‘imperfect’ novels long after we’re gone.
My father left me an amazing legacy—a powerful WHY. I’ve had the privilege of passing part of this legacy on to you guys. Not only through my books, but through every one of these blogs.
Twenty years later, it still hurts that I lost my father. But, I know if that hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t be here posting today. I wouldn’t have been through enough to tell you we NEED to find our WHY.
I’d likely still be in sales, because I never would have had a strong enough WHY to even dare to become a writer in the first place.
I’m pretty sure I never would have lasted as long as I have had I not been carrying my father’s torch. I wouldn’t have been able to push and grow and learn and reevaluate and come back time and time again….
…no matter how many bumps, bruises, failures and black eyes.
I cannot count how many times I’ve had comments or emails from authors who nearly gave up, who’d lost their way, or gotten so bogged down they nearly gave up.
Then they read one of my posts.
My father may have passed one torch on to ME, but I’ve made it my mission to use the torch I picked up off that lonely tile floor to and use that flame that nearly flickered out to help keep each of your lights burning.
So much light they can see us from SPACE, BAYBEE!
And it has been the greatest honor of my life.
I might not be able to measure success with my book in hardback (apparently those phased out with Jeggings *rolling eyes*). OR a fancy title (other than ‘Benevolent Overlordess of the Red Pen Society’???? Still working on that one).
Don’t yet have a the worldwide tour or the paparazzi….though when you’re stuck in Houston traffic you can pretend, right?
Like that ALL those people behind me were blaring their horns because they wanted a picture with me and NOT because they somehow think honking makes us…GO FASTER?
Alas—five successful published books aside—I CAN say I can say a little bit about finding our why.
I’ve been posting on THIS blog since June 11th, 2009 and Y’ALL ARE WORTH EVERY SECOND OF HARD WORK. I have the most fabulous, intelligent and strangely good-looking fan base.
Almost 2,000 blog posts and 77,000 comments and hundreds of millions of unique visits later? Fair to say I think I’ve got a few wins.
If nothing else?
I’m still here. Which, in the digital age ,says A LOT.
Still HERE, in your corner. Here to give you tough love, more love, hard truths, more laughs and let you know that you matter. Your writing matters—regardless the reason you do it—so do yourself a huge favor and take time finding your WHY.
Then once you find it, always keep searching. The world needs more dreamers, more storytellers and more stories.
Happy 70th birthday, Dad.
What Are Your Thoughts on Finding Our WHY?
*cues Mom’s NY accent* Aside from I am a horrible, horrible person for making you wreck your mascara.
Did you start writing because of something BIG that made you rethink what you wanted to do? Was it something smaller?
What are the day to day things that keep you going? The benchmarks you celebrate? Was finding your why easy? Or are you STILL finding your WHY?
***Mine might be in the unfolded laundry *hangs head in shame.*
I love hearing from you!
And to prove it and show my love, for the month of OCTOBER, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.
I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).
In the meantime, treat yourself to a class! Since I am on the road speaking, I will be loading the upcoming LIVE classes in a few days but take advantage of these sweet discount codes.
Use Binge10 for $10 off.
How do we create characters that readers will fall in love with, characters strong enough to go the distance? Find out in this THREE-HOUR class that also comes with detailed notes and a character-building template. Again, use Binge10 for $10 off.
This class dovetails with my previous class:
Bring on the Binge: How to Plot and Write a Series (ON DEMAND). Use Binge10 for $10 off.
Need some help with platform and branding?
Use brand10 for $10 off.
Come join all the nerdy fun! See y’all in class!
THIS WEEKEND! Ever wonder if I am THIS weird IN PERSON? Spoiler alert! I’m weirder. Come see for yourself. I am keynoting in the Permian Basin so come join the fun!
***Bail money for getting kicked out of Home Depot not included in conference fee.