This week I was asked how well my books are selling. “Not well enough to quit my day job,” I said.
“What does it take to increase sales?” the person asked. “Social networking? Speaking engagements? Book tours?”
I thought about it carefully before responding. “Usually, it’s a breakout book. A story so compelling no one can put it down. It’s something you either find or it finds you.”
I haven’t published that breakout book yet.
Sure, there are moments when I thought I had. With my first novel, Legs, the breakout moment came when a scriptwriter approached me about turning the book into a screenplay. The arrangement, however, didn’t work out and the movie was not made. But for a moment, I had visions of quitting my day job, moving the family to Hollywood, and becoming the next novelist-turned-screenwriter. With my second novel, Blood Moon Rising, my publisher anticipated a wave of sales in response to the phenomenal success of Twilight. For the first time, I had help with promotion. But the fanfare fizzled with poor reviews and even poorer sales. The book survived only because a few readers discovered the novel is not a book about vampires but a book about motherhood. Word of mouth spread slowly and steadily, the exact opposite of what happens with a breakout book. My third novel, Out of Balance, seemed to catch my readership by surprise. After all, I had one book in one genre, a second book in another genre. Who knew what to expect with the third book? But it turned out to be the best of the three so far.
I don’t know what to expect when my collection of short stories, The Human Act and Other Stories, is released from All Things That Matter Press. Die-hard fans will definitely purchase it and write good reviews, but who knows what the rest of the world will think.
Although I have not had a breakout book yet, I have had breakout moments in my writing career. From the controversial story in my high school paper that landed me a job at the local paper to the short story turned memoir that won the Mary Tanenbaum Literary Award and the attention of literary agents and an editor at one of the largest publishing houses in the United States, I know what it takes to write a breakout story and it’s nothing a professor, a literary agent, an editor, a reader or another writer can teach you.
Then how do you learn it?
You live it.
You write from the heart about your deepest, darkest secrets, the things you are ashamed of, the things that keep you up at night. You write about what you love and fear and hate, the things that make you proud, the things that make you ache. You write like there is no one in world who cares about you or what you have to say, because you will die if you do not say it. You write in your own voice, very simply, one word at a time. You stop writing because you are crying or laughing too hard to see the page. You throw your fists against the wall, break the crystal vase, and clean it all up before you sit back down again to finish what you started to write because the words won’t stop coming from wherever they are coming from. You write from what you’ve experienced, not in the moment but after time and forgiveness has softened and shaped them into something beautiful and new. You write because you want to connect, to share, to touch, and to feel what you once felt before but didn’t have the words or the wisdom to explain. And then you find the courage to expose all of that to the world.
Those hard stories, the ones you say you can’t write, won’t write, find you. If you listen to them, you can write a breakout moment. But if you turn away and return to the safe words, the safe stories, the stories you think you want to write, then those breakout moments go away.
The problem with breakout stories is the world isn’t always ready for them. That’s why there is so much rejection.
But if you are persistent and continue to pour out the words you are meant to write, then you may experience the magic when finally, finally, you do your job as a writer and connect in a way that forever changes not just one reader’s world, but the whole reading world.