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The Why of Writing

Normally at this time of year, I summarize the last twelve months of my writing life, listing goals met, abandoned, and exceeded in preparation for looking forward next week. But I’ve never liked being predictable, and a couple of recent conversations with fellow authors got me thinking, so this year I decided to focus on the why of writing fiction rather than the what.


Sure, I have accomplishments I could tout—including the appearance of The Merchant’s Tale, cowritten with P.K. Adams, just last month. But the actual publication of a book, however satisfying in itself, is the least interesting part of the process. It’s the end point, which is what makes it satisfying. The fun, though, lies in everything that comes before. The “before” can be frustrating, even hair-pulling, but finding the characters and the plot; defining the beginning, middle, and end; watching cherished plot points hit the wall and turn into something more interesting and wholly unexpected—that’s the part that makes writing worth the effort. At least it does for me. Getting the word out, in contrast, takes a gift for and dedication to self-promotion that I just don’t have.


Photograph of a laptop computer, a cup of coffee, a mouse, an apple, and a pair of glasses arranged on a wooden tabletop

I say this in response to more than one comment I’ve heard recently from people who have already stopped or are considering abandoning the writing of fiction entirely because their books don’t sell. Don’t get me wrong: I understand the sentiment. I too hoped at one time to fund my retirement by producing a bestseller. And people do get lucky, both early on and relatively late in their careers. But after more than eleven years as a published author, I’ve come to understand that hitting it big and even acquiring the literary agent required to shop one’s books to one of the Big Five commercial publishers depend on more than producing a well-written book. The topic counts, so do connections and happening to be in the right place at the right time.


The online fiction market is even more competitive, as well as dependent on algorithms, timing, and some kind of crowd appeal that has a lot to do with the skillful deployment of reviews and the frequent appearance of new books (one every three months is recommended), rather than richly developed characters and stories or even the avoidance of typos and basic production errors. There are wonderful self-published books out there, and some of their authors have hit it big—deservedly so. But again, success is not guaranteed.


My point is simple: if you write for publication, especially with the idea that by publishing a book you will reach a lot of readers and make a lot of money, you place your fate in the hands of others—and some of those “hands,” like the algorithms, are controlled by computer programming, a primitive form of artificial intelligence. I buy a salad bowl as a wedding gift, and for six months my email is bombarded with recommendations for salad bowls—never mind that even if I had bought it for myself, I would have one new salad bowl, so why would I want a second or a sixth?


Cartoon of four books, spine out, arranged within a computer monitor

The same goes for fiction: I purchase one cat mystery from the Kindle Store, and next thing I know, my feed is filled with cat mysteries, as if I never wanted to read anything else. (And believe me, there are a lot of cat mysteries out there—many of them entertaining and fun to read, including a number of series that I found entirely through those computerized recommendations.) What that setup means for me as a writer is that unless someone is specifically looking for historical fiction set in sixteenth-century Russia or knows the right keyword combination (Historical Russian Fiction > 16th Century) to discover that I pretty much own that category on Amazon, they will see my books only if they already know to search for me individually. Even then, some of the listings will be sixteenth-century but not Russian, and others Russian but not sixteenth-century. But at least there’s a chance that a reader might stumble across my work.


A young woman in medieval Russian noble dress, sitting next to a window; cover of C. P. Lesley, Song of the Storyteller

So my solution is not to write for publication. I do have readers, and I cherish every one of them. I think of them as I’m writing and sometimes involve them in the creation of a book. But I write because I love following my characters as they discover themselves, one another, and the world around them. I throw them into dangerous situations where they have to struggle with rival characters as determined as they are to succeed in their own goals. I enjoy seeing how my leads cope with the challenges and how they grow. And at the end, when I have taken a particular group to a logical stopping point and polished their story to the point where I can’t bear to look at it anymore, I take advantage of the new openness offered by online publishing and make my work available to anyone who’s willing to take a chance on it. I do whatever I can to ensure that people who will like my stories hear about them, including posting about them on this blog, but I accept that however hard I try, the message will reach only so far.


Meanwhile, I move on to a new group of characters, ready to experience their own adventure, mystery, or romance. As long as new characters appear, with new stories I want to tell, I will keep writing. If they stop, so will I. If one day, the world discovers my characters and falls in love with them, that will be lovely. But I don’t need that to happen to make my writing worthwhile.


Meanwhile, I wish all my readers—and anyone who stumbles across this blog, a wonderful Christmas, New Year's, Winter Solstice, Kwanzaa, or other holiday of your choice. Chanukah is already in the rear-view mirror, but I hope that was great, too.


Images: Computer and other objects on a tabletop and cartoon of books in a computer purchased via subscription from Clipart.com; Song of the Storyteller © 2023 C. P. Lesley, published by Five Directions Press.

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