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Whatever happened to your
By Scott Nicholson
My friend and
artist/writer Lee Davis had read the first part of
The Red Church (my first published novel) and emailed me
with his initial thoughts:
"Your understanding of humanity is crucial, ranging
from complexities of the young boys' mind to the conflict
of a deteriorating marriage and then on to the law that
is trying to maintain the peace and keep the town from
falling in on itself. I immediately felt empathy to
Donnie's young and troubled thoughts at life in general
as he goes inside his mind and looks at the nature of his
being vs. the world. I could go on and on about that
topic as it's practically the story of my life! Then the
drama between Linda and David, the pain David feels, the
intensity of the conflict and pain of betrayal, and
Linda's harboring of a secret that she's not purged for
the sake of the morality and healthiness of modern
And it made me think about how I felt while writing that
novel. The fourth I had written, and at a time when
getting published was still a burning dream. But back
then, I didn't want to "just" get published. I
had something to say. I had stories I thought were
important, that I wanted to share with readers, and which
I also felt were well-crafted and important enough to
reach a commercial audience. I was writing with my heart.
I had no way of knowing it would ever be published. I'd
sold some short stories and won some awards, so I thought
I had a decent chance, but I didn't know much about the
publishing industry. But that book was a hit--alternate
selection of the Mystery Guild mail-order book club,
Stoker Award finalist, second printing, an amazing
sell-through of 90 percent (an average of about 50
percent of all shipped mass-market paperback copies go
unsold). Now it's doing well in Kindle, hitting #1 on the
"Christian fantasy" bestseller list and as high
as #2 in "Ghosts." Some people say it's the
best book they've EVER read, including a couple who
aren't related to me.
I wrote that book scared. All the fears, conflicts,
family lessons, spiritual questions, pain of being human,
joy of hope--all I knew about being a human being was in
those early books. Even with their structural flaws, the
typical internship mistakes, I still felt their power.
They affected me, and my chest hummed as I typed, and I
felt perhaps that vibe would transmit to the reader. I
can't control that end of our transaction, as your
response is your own. But I opened up and laid my heart
and soul out there. Take, eat.
Somewhere along the way, I had this idea of "a
career." I've always believed writers should educate
themselves on professional matters, but too much
attention to sales numbers, print runs, market
conditions, and all the things "you should be
doing" somehow become cholesterol that can clog your
arteries. Your heart slows a little, perhaps seeing some
publishing trend that you should have capitalized on, or
some writer near your skill level and genre who gets the
big break and push. Or your heart races when you jump
into some publicity stunt that's bound to sell some
copies. Somewhere along the line, if you're not careful,
it becomes more about selling books than sharing stories.
The drumbeat of "better keep your numbers up."
I developed a little cynicism that seemed to mirror the
growing cynicism of the publishing industry--easy to look
for blame in others. Where was my big marketing push?
Where was the agent endlessly advocating? Why were my
partners failing me? Of course, I was failing them in
equal measure, and there's a parallel melodramatic
personal story to go along with that publishing
internship. I am grateful and fortunate to have been
published and connect with readers. It's one of the
profoundly satisfying achievements of my life, along with
being a decent father and an occasionally good husband.
But the internship is over, and Act II is underway, and
today we have an industry where publishers won't consider
unagented manuscripts and many agents don't even bother
responding to queries. The frenetic rush to cash in on a
trend--or change its name, as "paranormal
romance" became "urban fantasy" when the
former was polluted by too many rushed, mediocre
books--is coinciding with a rising do-it-yourself era,
where bestsellers will still do very well but midlist
writers will have to make tough choices about trying for
the brass ring or going indie.
But now, even doing it myself, I say "I'd better
write something that sells, so the other books get
noticed and purchased and read." But that's not the
reason I got into writing in the first place. I want to
make a living, but I want to do it with my vision, the
things inside me that make me a crazy human, insecure of
rejection and egotistical enough to think my vision
matters. I don't want to write a cash-in, vapid book,
because all that would let me do is buy stuff. It's the
reason I've avoided tie-in or corporate-owned fiction,
though I've had some chances. That's just a job.
I want to write a book with heart. The kind of books I
want to read, and the kind of books I think will survive
when trends fade. It's amazing to me that 10 years later
there's a new audience for The Red Church. The book still
feels fresh. It is, because it was true, and held all the
timeless things I wanted to say to the world.
My other books have it, but maybe with a little too much
eye on market conditions. My least-successful novel was
one I tried to make widely likable, and my last New York
novel was written almost in a tooth-grinding state of
passive aggression. The sum of the professional industry
advice I received can be reduced to:
1) "Write it more like Stephen King"
2) "Write a thriller. They sell."
3) "Have you thought of writing a vampire novel?"
That's it. Now, I'm convinced New York knows better than
me how to sell books to one another. They know their
industry. I am not so sure they know how to sell books to
a reader, or everything they publish would be a
bestseller. I am not so sure I know how to sell books to
a reader, or I would probably be writing the types of
books more readers want--those trends emerge for a
But the one thing I do know, and which NY probably
doesn't know or care about, is my heart. All I can write
is the truth inside, and let the microchips fall where
they may. It's something I often forget. It might be my
heart's message only gets to one reader. Maybe a few
hundred or a few thousand. Maybe more.
Never once has anyone in the publishing industry asked,
"Which idea inspires you? What book are you dying to
write? What book would you want to leave as your epitaph?
What book would you dedicate to your daughter?"
Maybe other authors have heard it, but not me. And
sometimes it makes me woozy that I ever let such a
philosophy hold sway over me. I forgot what I was here
for. So I ask myself the question: "What happened to
your heart? And what are you going to do about it?"