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Why I'm done with novels
For a while, at least
The short answer is that I’m taking a break from novels because my wife and I both have rapidly growing businesses. There is plenty of hustle in my family, but no time for side hustles.
If I didn’t have kids, I’d have time to write fiction, but as it is, the writing time is stolen from family time. When I’m working on a large project, I’m never completely present. That makes being a good Dad an uphill battle. And right now is a magic time for both of them. They both love being around Dad. I know that window is going to close as we head into adolescence, but while it’s open, I’m going to make the most of it.
All the rest of these are ancillary thoughts about writing, which are also true, but less important reasons.
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I’m not writing the right kind of thing
And by that, I mean the book only I could write. I’m writing things that other people could write, and, often, write better.
Nassem Taleb, brilliant but often very cranky on Twitter, put it this way.
The only writing advice I've ever given: write the book that nobody else can write. If there is a single person on Planet Earth who can write anything close to it, find a hobby.
Generalize to every line you write. Those who didn't follow such a guideline are punished by ChatGPT.
I’m in search of the book only I could write.
A lottery I don’t want to win.
I’m not sure the world of publishing (independent or otherwise) is for me. It’s really messed up right now. There’s no real short story market. And the markets for novels are weird. This probably won’t last, but right now it’s bit dismal.
Jason’s entire thread is brilliant (as are many of the comments) and I’ll be poaching things from it throughout this post. So click through and read it.
A game developer friend of mine likened the problem to selling games on Steam. Somewhat unexpectedly, his situation was better as an indie studio when the process was a bit gated. Now anyone can publish anything and the market is flooded with low-quality titles. So the mere act of getting “published” doesn’t help with discoverability.
You’ll notice that 8/25 are Romance Novels by Colleen Hoover.
But I don’t want to write romance novels. And I don’t want to write the same book over and over again. I write to discover. Which makes me an artist. Good artist or bad artist, but artist. A lot of what I have tried to do is use genre conventions to explore things more deeply. I’m not saying I’ve always succeeded, but I’m trying to make each book fresh and surprising for me. This is the opposite of selling a lot of books. And there’s fewer and fewer books to sell each year.
In the U.S. the median number of books read per year is 5. That means that half the people in the U.S. read less than five books a year.
The Other Problem with Traditional Publishing
In addition to all the other problems that traditional publishing has, it seems it’s gone insane.
None of this is my circus, but it turns my stomach. You keep your bullshit, I’ll keep my work.
A creative industry that used to thrive on risk-taking now shies away from it. And it all stemmed from a single writer posting a discursive and furious takedown of “American Dirt” and its author on a minor blog. Whether out of conviction or cowardice, others quickly jumped on board and a social media rampage ensued, widening into the broader media. In the face of the outcry, the literary world largely folded.
I believe that once a work is complete, the creator of that work doesn’t matter. There is only the work standing on its own.
I don’t care about the politics or ethnicity of any author. And if you do, I can’t see how that’s not anything other than foolish bigotry. The only thing that matters is if the work is good or bad in itself.
But that’s not the way the creative world seems to operate now. And I think we are all the poorer for it.
Holy shit, no. Literary fiction is an incestuous embarrassment. Many of the greats of the past never went to college. Now the only people who win acclaim are people with an MFA pedigree. And honestly, I’m not impressed with the quality of the writing or the process that produces the writers.
To produce great art requires a great spirit. And from what I have seen, MFA programs produce debt-riddled, disempowered (sometimes even broken) people. Something is wrong with the nature and role of the arts in our society, and I can’t help but see MFA programs as part of it.
Read “The Friend” by Sigrid Nunez. It is beautifully written and deeply horrible. You will have nothing but compassion for the main character/author and nothing but contempt for the system in which she is forced to live.
I have a character flaw to kill.
One of my flaws has been the multiplication of projects and interests. I’m naturally and endlessly curious, but any virtue, taken to an extreme, becomes a vice. To wit, when one thing isn’t going well, I’ve very often jumped to another thing so I don’t have to deal with the pain of struggling with the first thing.
The solution to this problem is to make all things I do about the same thing. I mean, you’re not going to go through life as a simple, singular thing, but to have all the things work together… that’s powerful.
Novels won’t get my company any more work. The kind of writing I’ve been doing up until now doesn’t really increase my luck surface for everything else I’ve been doing. And all that other stuff is very important because it feeds my family. So, as I build the next phase of my company and my life, I have to put the novels down for a while.
The Novel is probably a dead art form.
If you ask me, seriously, what’s the next book you should read, I’m going ask why you are reading. If it’s for diversion, it doesn’t much matter. I will eagerly suggest one of mine.
But if you want to expand your experience of being alive and broaden your idea of what it means to be human, I’m going to suggest a difficult book from the classics. I’m going to suggest that you take your time and after you’ve read it, read some things about it. Then wait some number of years and read it again. I, myself, try to read one big book a year.
Am I saying that there are no great books being published now? How would I know? How can anyone know what will stand the test of time? There is nothing less likely than the cultural success of Moby Dick, but thar she blows, in spite of all the odds.
What I am saying is people aren’t reading like they used to. And they certainly aren’t paying for fiction like they used to. The short story markets that produced the great writers of the 20th Century are gone. People read non-fiction in short bursts on the internet. Conversation has replaced sustained narrative.
Our culture does not value fiction. What our culture values is distraction and a quick dopamine hit. And the media environment we live in has made it harder and harder for people to have the focus required to consume books. That’s why thrillers and plotting of all kinds are so important now. The suspense acts as an antidote to distraction that allows the reader to be transported away from the everyday.
I do not think this will last, but I fear it will last longer than my working life.
And, at last, the AIpocalypse
So I’ve know this to be true for the last few years
But GPT-3 (and certainly GPT-4) had put paid to it. Someone must be reverse engineering, say Colleen Hoover’s novels, building it into a series of prompts and using it to write novels. They are not good, they will get better) are probably good enough right now. In fact, I spent two days on this over the Christmas break, realized it was possible, felt dirty and stopped. But if you see a romance novelist named Holleen Coover climbing the bestseller lists, you’ll know I have fallen prey to my darker urges.
The market is going to be flooded with AI generated crap. And, for the exact same reasons I wouldn’t go fishing in a hurricane, I’m going to push back from the keyboard, mend my nets and wait to see what the weather does.
So, enough bitching already. What am I going to do?
I’ve got a number of things I can write for film and television. Since I own a video production company, it makes sense to focus my efforts on that medium. Overcoming my character flaw by collapsing my interests down into a unified direction.
My intention is to write and produce a short film in the next couple of years.
I also have enough cred to get things in front of people in the industry. So there is a possibility of making something happen.
Beyond that, I’m going to write essays here. I’m always reading and always thinking. So it won’t be dull. I am guilty of an intellectual flanuership, but, honestly, it’s the best way to live. Perhaps this writing will collapse into a topic that I can form a hook-y audience around that can become a non-fiction book, but perhaps not.
I want only joy from my writing right now, not obligation.
On the commerce side of the street, I am launching another newsletter about using video for B2B sales and marketing. This is a narrow topic, and I’m going to make it as helpful and entertaining as I can.
I think we’re on the cusp of a revolution in the way people take products to market. Largely driven by the amount that LLM’s (i.e. Chat GPT) are about to spam the shit out of our lives.
This is going to force Business to Business marketing to become better than consumer advertising. And I’m here for it.
The working title is V2B, but I’ll have a full write up when it launches.
But will you ever finish “A Town Called Nowhere?”
That is my intention. But I can’t tell you when. As Neil Gaiman said, “It takes the time it takes.”
My wife and I both have growing businesses (and growing children). Everything is firing on all cylinders and I am very optimistic about the future. As I add people and systems and clients to the businesses, I hope to quickly get to the place where I have structured free time, rather than grabbing writing time where I can. Rushing, cutting corners, etc.
It’s something of a paradox right now. If I focus on business and build a solid foundation, I’ll be a better writer. If I just continue as I have been, a little of this, a little of that, it seems like I’ll be in the exact same spot 10 years from now — left farther and farther behind by a world that is moving ever faster.
That’s a situation which my ambitions, for both writing, business and life, will no longer allow.
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