Writing Fiction Hurts More than Nonfiction

Successful author and friend Chris Brogan asked me to pen some thoughts the process of writing fiction works versus penning business books. My gut response was that it hurts more than nonfiction.

How can writing a book hurt you ask? I think most people who have accomplished the task will agree that it’s a laborious two-year process (give or take six months). For every accolade you get, you’ll invest hours of your time. Most authors make very little money.

After my last business book I felt a great emptiness, a lack of purpose in my writing. I needed to turn back to my heart’s desire, writing fiction (as opposed to developing books about social media and marketing).

When I published Exodus, I released a demon that had bugged me for decades. I gladly sucked it up to make the dream come true.

Why Novels Are a Personal Journey

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Image of my first business book Now Is Gone by Dave Barger.

Exodus had little financial pay-off — in actuality, I published it at a loss. So today I find myself focusing on business needs first. Consequently, Exodus became my stepchild of published works. It was poorly marketed, but still moved more than 3000 units in spite of me (it’s true, I am not Stephen King).

Still, I published a novel. I finally wrote the book that I always envisioned would be my calling card as an author. No one can take that away from me.

With a successful business book there is usually some sort of a pay-off, including developing new business, introducing new ideas to the marketplace, garnering speaking gigs, or positioning yourself as a “thought leader.” These are the reasons to write a business book, in my opinion. While I am much less inclined to jump at the opportunity to write a business book these days, I probably will write a couple more before my career ends.

The pay-offs are much less obvious with novels. For most successful novelists, it takes a catalog of books before they start seeing strong financial gains. It requires real commitment, and it’s one of the reasons why I admire Brian Meeks‘ steadfast focus on his fiction career.

This lack of any significant financial gratification makes publishing a novel something you do to fulfill yourself. Most publishing houses are reticent to sign new fiction authors. These days most aspiring authors are going to have to self-publish or work with a hybrid publisher and share the financial risk.

After the First Novel

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I still want to write novels, but it’s less about fulfilling a lifelong inner need. Now it’s about being who I am, an author. In fact, I am still working on the last draft of book II, now titled Perseverance, and I believe it will be released this summer.

After Exodus was published, it became clear I had room to grow as a writer. Character development and style were all in need of mechanical improvements. So I set out to write a better novel, one that shows the lessons learned from experience. I owe it to my readers and myself to improve.

But because the pain has no obvious reward and I am not getting paid to publish the novel, I treat book two like a hobby and am taking my sweet time. Novel writing is a second tier priority compared to family and business.

This slower pace makes it less likely I will become a mainstream novelist anytime soon. That’s OK. Since I see novel writing as a personal act of art rather than a career, there is no sense of loss with that. The slower pace mitigates the pain and intensity of a major work, while allowing me to meet my responsibilities.

What are your thoughts on writing novels versus business books?

6 thoughts on “Writing Fiction Hurts More than Nonfiction

  1. I share your pain :) But in the end, I believe the satisfaction that comes from writing fiction…from creating something from nothing, is the real reward. Cheers! Kaarina

    • Absolutely. This is really the only reason to write, and therefore the richest reward.

  2. I am glad that you wrote this Geoff. I know that we’ve had discussions about writing versus ‘authoring’ and I make a distinction. No writer sets out to write a best seller — s/he sets out to purge the writing bug that persists on a daily basis. Business books are just that – business. And, as you aptly point out, they are written to further one’s career. Being an author does not a writer make and visa versa. Moreover, writing a business book doesn’t always guarantee ‘leadership’ or a smoother ride. But I digress. Writing a novel is similar to giving birth. In fact, the writer is giving birth, to story, to characters, to language, to voice, to a trajectory that the reader is invited to hop on and off at his or her leisure. I believe that the twain can meet but it’s not a given.

    • It’s funny because a lot of people ask me to write a new business book. Knowledge is a curse. I am not likely to do this without a clear purpose toward a business payoff. Nor am I willing to write one to simply stay relevant. It must be a precision tool accomplishing differentiation, offering new thoughts and ideas.

      So, I am biding my time until that book becomes obvious. I’d rather spend my increasingly precious writing time on fiction, for I know it is precious and I’d rather spend it on something I care about, another attempt at meeting the ideal of a good story.

  3. I agree with you that fiction writing is more about the personal need and reward. Of course, with all that investment in time and love, it makes sense to put effort into seeing if you can reap some financial rewards, too. But for me, it’s mostly about the joy of writing. I took a three month hiatus from working on my latest MS due to family needs, but am now back at it and loving it. Like you, I am continuing to grow my fiction writing skills–and that’s half the fun. Such a different kind of writing and different skill set than business writing. 3000 units sounds pretty good to me for a first, self-published book. Best of luck on the 2nd one.

  4. Thanks for the shout out, Geoff.

    Everything you said it true, it can be brutal. For me, I’ve been able to withstand the pain through taking a long view of the process.

    Most of the “overnight” success I know really well in fiction, and I know quite a few, worked for years to get there. They also, like you pointed out, have 5, 6, or 10 books available for sale.

    But the one thing I’ve learned in the last six months that truly separates the full time novelists from those who haven’t quite gotten there yet, is the depth of understanding of the entire publishing process to a level of detail that is invisible to most Indie authors.

    – What’s better for an author mailing list sign-up? a box to enter email addresses or a button that then brings up an email address

    – For audio books, is it better to go with a 50/50 split with the voice talent and have zero up front costs or pay them $200 per finished out?

    – Why do you want to push to get foreign translations early in your book writing lifetime?

    – Beyond getting people in your funnel, why give away the first book in a series?

    – What are the key elements of long tail keywords for optimizing Amazon SEO?

    – Why would you want 30 beta readers, when it’s likely that the first five or six will catch 99.9% of the remaining mistakes?

    I could go on, but there are literally dozens and dozens of tiny details I’ve learned over the last couple of years that change how I approach every aspect of the book business.

    You are right, it’s a much slower path for someone who’s not doing it full time.

    But, the great thing about this business is that there isn’t a shot clock. It doesn’t matter if you take two years to write a novel, or one month (or two weeks), because once the novel is done it’s there to work for you for the rest of your life.

    Harper Lee has only written two novels in her entire life. Johnny B. Truant and Sean Platt write 1.5 million words per year.

    The pace each author chooses should suit their life and if they can manage to take pride in moving the ball forward and NOT searching for reasons to bash their own efforts, they will do just fine.

    Thanks again for the mention.

    Brian D. Meeks

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