Four Years, One Million Words

On July 11, 2011 I started writing towards publication.  It’s not the first time I’d picked up a pen and paper or even the first time I’d written a short story or poem, but it was the first time I did so with the conscious intent to try to make money at it.  (Ignoring my submitting some bad poems when I was in 5th grade to that scam poetry contest that just wanted to sell me a leather-bound, gold-embossed book of bad poetry.)

Now, truth be told, I probably peaked as a writer in middle school.  I won some award in 6th grade and then some contest in 7th grade and then another award in 8th grade and then…

Nothing.  No more school awards or recognition.  And not much writing that didn’t involve school assignments or angsty poetry.

But for some reason, over twenty years later I woke up one day and thought, “I should really write that novel I’ve wanted to write all these years.”

(Funny fact.  Before I started I dreaded the thought of having to name everyone and everything.  I mean, that’s hard.  To come up with unique but appropriate names for everything?  Seriously, that probably held me back for a year.)

But boredom finally pushed me to do SOMETHING with my free time.  (That’s what happens when you stop jumping out of planes.  Sitting on your ass watching television suddenly just isn’t enough to occupy you…)

So I did it.  I sat down and wrote a novel.  It wasn’t the novel I set out to write.  I somehow decided to write the character’s back story which morphed into a story about a completely different society than I’d planned on writing about which then morphed into a novel with three interwoven primary points of view where the character I started with was probably the weakest of the three.

But I did write a novel.

Which sucked.  When I came back to it six weeks later I thought it was the worst thing I’d ever read.

But I rewrote it.  Took out probably 20K words, added another 40K or so.  And then refined it over another six or seven drafts some of which were no more than a search for issues noted in Strunk & White.

It wasn’t a bad novel, I don’t think.  Got me a “send pages for the next novel you write” from one agent and the first few chapters got me wait-listed for a good writing program.  Not bad for a first effort.

Of course, I also got told about then that I had to have short story credits to be taken seriously with the big publishers, so I stopped writing novels and turned to short stories for a while.  (For those of you who haven’t figured this out, shorts and novels are not the same.  The approach and breadth of focus are completely different and you can be good at one and suck at the other and what you can get away with in one you can’t in the other.)

So I worked at shorts for a while.  And got to the point where I was receiving some very nice personals from some very good markets, but not selling to them.  Encouraging, but who knows what the gap between “send us more” and “yes, we’ll buy” really is, so discouraging at the same time.

I could’ve kept going down that route, but I really wanted to write another novel, so I did.  I started two at once in completely different genres and one just took control and insisted on being written.  (I like to call that one my therapy novel.  I think we all have one of those in us and need to get it out before we can really be writers that write anything anyone else wants to read.)

Then I got inspired to write some non-fiction.  Don’t ask me why.  I didn’t have a platform for it or anything, I just had something to say and decided to say it.

That first non-fiction book was the first thing I self-published.  Because, why not?

No point in querying something like that.  Who was I to write that book?  Just someone with an opinion and, hopefully, some useful insight.  So I put it out there with an awful cover and saw sales that matched.  (I think it now has a good cover and it sells much better for it.)

That inspired me to publish some of those close but no cigar short stories, because it was either that or start sending them out to the semi-pro or token markets and I figured I’d rather publish them myself.  (Note that I would’ve likely made more if I’d gone with the semi-pro markets, but that’s okay.  I learned a lot by publishing them.)

I had this grand plan to keep writing and publishing short stories on a set schedule starting in late 2013.  And it may have worked.

But then…

Life intervened.  Good in a sense.  But sometimes I wonder what would’ve happened if I’d just said no and followed my plan.

I didn’t, though.  I moved and took a soul-sucking project for six months instead.  No writing really at all during that period.  I did earn a good chunk of change, though, and that was nice.  Money is always nice.  (Just remember it isn’t free.  In this case, I gave up those six months I could’ve been writing and publishing.)

And then back here and I decided to make a drastic decision.

I cut ties so I could focus on the writing and not get sucked into that nasty work trap again.  (You know, the one that pays the bills.  Ugh.)

Of course, two days after I returned my grandma had a serious fall and I spent the next month focused on her and family stuff.

But on August 18th I finally got back to it and I’ve been writing every single week since then.  Not always as much as I’ve wanted to write, but more than I did in the prior three years.

As of that date I had written 412,851 words in the prior three years.  Since then I’ve written 588,032.  (Give or take.  I count new words added in a session and sometimes forget to count new words when I’m editing a finished piece.)

I got serious about publishing stuff in November and have published over fifty titles since then.  (Almost all short stuff except for that therapy novel that I ended up throwing up there.)

I’ve had some nice successes–one of my stories that I wrote, edited, and published in one day has already made me over $500 by itself.

I’ve had more failures.  One or two that didn’t even sell a single copy.

I know I’ve made a number of mistakes in what I chose to publish and how scattered I’ve been about it, but…I’ve learned a ton.

I like to think my covers are vastly better than they were to begin with.  And I like to think my storytelling has improved, although I reread some of the older stuff recently and didn’t think it sucked.

I’m still awful about writing to a specific category even though I know it’s almost a necessity, but I might get there some day.  I can see the formulas and conventions, I just can’t bring myself to write to them.

Ah well.  Someday maybe?

I think I’m very much a workhorse writer right now.  I don’t think I write BAD stuff (at least my reviews don’t seem to indicate that), but no one’s running out to tell all their friends about the amazing story they just read either.

I don’t necessarily want to be a show pony that everyone loves and gushes about, but I’d like to have some loyal readers who genuinely like and seek out my stories.

I continue to try to grow and learn.  I’m taking yet another writing craft class right now in addition to the two I took earlier this year and the workshop I went to two years ago and the conferences I’ve attended.  That’s on top of the 20+ craft books I’ve read since I started this and the psychology books and the books outside of my preferred genre and authors and all the blogs and forums, etc.

I have made progress, but I’m still very much on the uphill climb at this point.

And that’s where I am after four years.  I’ve written my million words of crap (so the theory goes); now it’s time to start writing the good stuff.

Will I succeed at this?

I don’t know.  I’d like to say yes.  But it’s not easy.

Anyone who reads my early posts will see that I kind of argued against that adage that if you don’t love it, don’t do it, because I wasn’t passionately driven to write.  (Still am not.)  But I get that saying more now than I did before.

There are so many much easier ways to make money than this and it takes so long to break through and to then stay at a stable income that you have to have some passion to stick with it long enough to succeed.

(Or an unbridled arrogance that insists that you should be able to accomplish anything you set your mind to God damn it and you are going to damned well succeed at this if it’s the last thing you do.  Guess which one I have?)

Or an amazing amount of luck.  (Although almost every instant success story I’ve seen so far in the writing world is not one.  They were writing fan fiction or they have nine novels in their closet that they won’t let anyone see or, if they’re self-pubbed, they had an agent and some publisher interest before they went the self-pub route, or…yeah.  Not a lot of “I sat down and wrote a novel and published it and made a hundred thousand dollars” stories out there when you really dig in and look for the truth.)

So there you have it.  I’m proud to have made it this far and of what I’ve accomplished, but I’m not happy with where I am, so I’m going to keep trying and pushing until I am.

About M. H. Lee

M.H. Lee is a speculative fiction writer currently residing in Colorado whose stories are sometimes dark, sometimes funny, sometimes darkly funny, but hopefully always thought-provoking and entertaining.
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