My new release, Sloth: A Sinful Secrets Novel, made the USA Today bestseller list today.
And here’s the thing: I really dislike talking about sales and rankings. Not because they’re not important, and not because selling a lot isn’t an achievement. But because I feel like a lot of the time, the people who notice these sorts of posts are other authors, who may or may not be enjoying strong sales at the moment.
My take on this is that readers don’t care so much if you’ve made a list, your friends know anyway, and fellow authors might find your success disheartening. Because the truth is, we compare ourselves to others. We all do. Anyone who says they don’t is either living in a bubble, a zen master, or lying.
So I wasn’t going to post about the list. My family knows, my friends know – great. I ordered cupcakes from this amazing delivery cupcake place. End of.
Except this is my sixteenth book, and I almost didn’t finish it.
I’ve struggled through books before, but this was different. I spent last year writing mostly serials. Which is all well and good, except writing serials is not like writing full-length novels. I’m not saying it’s easier or harder, but it’s different. And that was what I had gotten used to doing.
I chose a topic for Sloth that was intensely personal to me – something I had never done before – and then decided to tell the story in a way I thought would be challenging for me as a writer. In retrospect, I probably took on too much, especially with the personal elements of the story.
I didn’t give myself long enough to write the book, which was more of a problem than it might have been because I also didn’t realize how long the book would be. (Very). I had trouble in my personal life. More than usual. I also had an undiagnosed thyroid issue, something women sometimes suffer in the year after having a new baby, and that led to a serious – and surprisingly sudden – depression.
But one of the main reasons I struggled to finish Sloth was because I was afraid no one would like it. It’s a fairly standard romance novel in many ways, but for a few reasons, it felt to me like a step outside the box. Also (again) it was personal. The story. Writing Sloth felt a lot like writing about my life – and that was scary.
And then I missed my publication date. Not my deadline, but my actual publication date. I had to cancel a blog tour. Tell my readers. No one in my circle was quite sure what I should say. The consensus was that no one wanted to hear about my personal issues, or my depression, which at that time was severe. I wouldn’t have known what to say about it anyway. I posted something short and simple on my Facebook page and stepped back from social media for a month.
In that time, I started dealing with my depression, but I found when I emerged that my confidence had taken a nose-dive. Writing books is my job. Not releasing them is not going to work. If I don’t go to work, my family suffers. I felt pressured. Embarrassed. Lost.
The more like this I felt, the less clear I was on the book. I wrote 600 – yeah, 600 – pages that didn’t end up in the book at all. I see now that I was probably suffering from “writer’s block,” but when you write for a living, you write – so I kept writing even though I felt that none of it was good. I wrote the book’s ending seven different ways.
I struggled so much with Sloth, so hard, and for so long, I started wondering if I should find a new job. One I could do with greater ease: just walk into an office, sit down, and work. Reliably. But I don’t have another profession. I’m not a nurse, a lawyer, or a teacher. I’m not organized. I make a terrible receptionist, an unconvincing salesperson. I used to be a journalist, but I hated the politics and felt sorry for everyone I wrote about. I don’t like anything but writing.
But I could not finish this book.
No one around me knew what to say or do to help me get my mojo back. Several wonderful friends spent many hours listening to me talk about what wasn’t working. Repeatedly telling me I could do it, even when, I have to imagine, they wondered if I could – or would. My readers’ group was enthusiastic and kind, even though they probably thought I was a little crazy. And I kept struggling.
One day, one friend made a remark about the surprising number of people who finish all the classes required to get their PhD but never actually earn the degree because they get so bogged down in writing their thesis – the last step in the process.
I thought about this for a few days, feeling vaguely bothered, and eventually I realized why: I could, theoretically, never finish Sloth. In fact, in that moment, had I done nothing to reverse my course, I never would have. My inaction – or rather my inability to write THE END – would have charted a new course for me, just as powerfully as any action.
And still I struggled, because without hard evidence that I was a writer – evidence I could only find in successfully finishing and publishing books – I questioned my ability to do it. What if the first fifteen books were just a coincidence, and I don’t really know how to write? I know… it makes no sense. Sometimes things don’t make sense.
I have a writer friend who was previously a NICU nurse. With that as an option, I feel almost certain I’d have run back to the hospital. But I didn’t have that option. I sucked it up, and I made myself finish – one, because I was terrified of allowing myself to quit, and two because I didn’t have a Plan B. I had been “out of work” for about six months, and I needed to return.
When I released the book, I had no idea how it would sell. I was almost four months past my previously announced publication date. Some people seemed excited, but others had ridiculed my lateness. Until about a week and a half before the release, I had no real PR plan in place. I hadn’t been brave enough to set one up. (I’m very thankful to the tour companies who helped me on short notice, and to several friends who helped me brainstorm. You know who you are).
I tried to keep my expectations extra low, but had the book not done well, I don’t know what I would have done. So it wasn’t a fun time. Not until I saw how many people were buying the book.
Why am I telling you all these things? Because when I see another author doing well, I often compare myself to them. What are they doing that I’m not? How much better are their books? What kind of ads are they running? They’re doing so well – maybe at that moment, I’m not.
Writing is not an easy job. So much of it is playing mind games with yourself. Bluffing. You have to keep your balance. Don’t look down. When it’s your business, you try to measure the uncertainties, to keep the risks tightly contained. Until you can’t. Because sometimes, life can’t be contained.
At one point, when I was lost in the forest of Sloth, one of my friends told me about another author who’d missed her publication date. I heard of three such authors when I was feeling really down – all “big” authors, whose work I respected – and had they not shared their struggles, I would have felt more lonely.
So instead of sharing my screenshot of Sloth’s spot on the USA Today list and saying, “Hey, look, my book made a list,” I wanted to say something more real. Because I’m pretty sure there are other authors out there struggling through some project, wondering if people will like it, worrying over their sales, or feeling shitty about themselves. Like maybe they don’t deserve to be where they are, or like any previous success is just a cosmic glitch that might right itself any time.
I didn’t send out ARCs for Sloth, I spent almost no money on advertising, and the only early reviews I had were those from other authors and a few bloggers who happened to buy it on release day and like it. It’s not the best book ever. I’m sure there are many better books that weren’t on any list this week. But that’s not the point. The point is that I finished it – and something happened. I’m thankful that it turned out to be great.