Why do people write fiction?
- For enjoyment? That seems likely.
- For money? I guess that could be true, although except for a lucky few, writing fiction is certainly not the road to riches many people probably presume it is.
- Because they feel compelled to? I've heard people say that.
- Because they are good at it (or fancy they are) and are driven by the need for praise and validation? Ding ding ding, we have a winner.
If the question is why I write fiction, my answer is enjoyment and, I'm embarrassed to say, the need for praise. That became glaringly clear last week when something happened--I'll keep the details to myself--and I realized that far too much of my self-worth is wrapped up in the need for positive feedback on my work.
I would think that this far into my writing career, especially considering that I have had a fair amount of success, the joy I derive from the act of writing should be enough. I shouldn't need validation on top of that. But I do.
No matter how much I enjoy writing (yes, sometimes it's a slog, but sometimes it's not), when I'm finished, I immediately crave feedback. That's why I used to send stories out more quickly than I do now, often too quickly, because I couldn't help myself. Thankfully, in the past few years I've become stronger, giving my stories time to cool so I can give them a good edit before I send them out, but it's a struggle each time I get to the end. I probably still send some stories out too quickly, resulting in unhappy rejections.
This is why I am much more excited on a day a story is accepted for publication than on actual publication day. A story's acceptance is direct feedback that someone I respect liked it enough to decide to publish it. The acceptance email might even have some comments about what the editor liked about the story. Publication day likely doesn't involve that same kind of feedback. Sure I might hear from people who congratulate me on the publication--and I'm not knocking that feedback at all; bring it on!--but such words are different from someone reading the story itself and telling me that they liked it and, even better, why. Some stories are published and I never hear any feedback from readers regarding whether they liked it. I may never even know if it's read. It can be a bit of a letdown.
That's why I read my reviews. It's why I search for them. Some of you reading this are probably shaking your head at me. "Never read your reviews!" I've heard the advice more than once. But still they pull at me like a drug. I seek them out. I bet some of you reading this column do too.
As someone who was raised in a home that emphasized academic achievement, I can understand how I ended up this way. A good primary-school student does homework that is returned regularly, often with check marks or stars. As the student gets older, there are tests and report cards that hopefully have the expected high grades, which result in praise or acknowledgement that you met familial expectations. I was primed my whole life while growing up to want the positive feedback that comes from doing a good job. And that desire hasn't disappeared now that I'm an adult who writes fiction. Instead, I'm like Pavlov's dog. Whenever I've put in the work and written what I believe is a good short story, I crave corresponding (hopefully positive) feedback.
I recognize that I shouldn't place so much power over my self-image in the hands (and the words) of others. I should derive joy from the act of writing, especially since I have enough experience to know when my work is good. I should not need external validation. But I do.
Perhaps others do too. I likely am not alone in this. This is why I urge readers to let authors know if you read their stories or books and like them. Public reviews or comments are good, but even a private email would be fine. It doesn't have to be detailed like a book report or written well enough to get an A. An email that said, "I just read X and it made me laugh. Thank you," would make me float all day long.
And now I open this blog to your (hopefully kind) comments. You know how much I love feedback.
***But first, a little BSP: I'm delighted to share that my story "Dear Emily Etiquette" was named a finalist last week for the Agatha Award for Best Short Story published last year. (Talk about external validation!) It appeared in the September/October 2020 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. Also nominated in my category are my fellow SleuthSayer Art Taylor, as well as Shawn Reilly Simmons, Gabriel Valjan, and James Ziskin.
The Agatha winners will be announced in July during More Than Malice, this year's online Malice Domestic convention. You can learn more about the convention (and register at an early-bird price) here. And if you'd like to read my nominated story, you can read it by clicking here. Or you can listen to me read it to you on the Ellery Queen podcast by clicking here. The story runs for 32 minutes. Enjoy!