Sunday, August 4, 2019

Writer, Know Thyself

by Holly West

April 2009
When Do Some Damage started in 2009, I was just an itty-bitty baby writer who hadn't even finished the first draft of my novel-in-progress. I was hopeful, so hopeful, with big dreams of multi-book deals, Edgar nominations, and crime fiction super-stardom.

If I could finish the goddamn book, that is.

That hope sustained me. If I'd ever doubted my eventual publishing success I probably wouldn't have followed through. And even then, it took me five full years to finish a draft I thought was publishable, plus six or more months of querying and rejections, a professional edit, and an extensive rewrite before MISTRESS OF FORTUNE finally found a home at Carina Press, the ebook imprint of Harlequin Books (now a subsidiary of Harper Collins. I think. It's hard to keep track of who owns who, at this point). I secured a two-book deal and wrote the second in the series, MISTRESS OF LIES, in eight months. Both books were published in 2014.

I haven't finished writing a novel since.

If I'm being honest, there's a part of me that wishes I'd put MISTRESS OF FORTUNE in the proverbial desk drawer. The series didn't sell well and my fears for my publishing future were stoked into a raging blaze. I didn't stop writing but I stopped believing I'd ever publish anything of any note again, so really, why bother? I still called myself a writer but only in the flimsiest sense. I wrote short stories here and there and did what I considered the bare minimum to keep myself in the game.

Please don't take that last statement as a denunciation of short fiction. I love short fiction and I love writing it. But my larger goal was to write novels and I stopped following through on that.

Somewhere along the line, Steve Weddle, who seems to have been there at every point in my "career" (he published my first short story, did you know?) asked me to be Wednesday's contributor on Do Some Damage. At the time, I felt I still had something to say. Not wisdom, exactly, but I had been published, I did have some experience. Week after week, I wrote posts, sometimes about my process, sometimes about my life, sometimes about my depression, and sometimes, about nothing substantial at all. I tendered my resignation when I was finally tired of hearing myself speak and those throw-away posts became more frequent than not.

This all sounds very sad-sack, but I promise it will get better.

But first, it gets worse.

2018 was an exciting year for me, publishing-wise. Down & Out Books agreed to publish a charity anthology inspired by the music of the Go-Go's, edited by me. A group of some of the best crime fiction writers in the business signed on to write stories for it. I enjoyed the editing process even more than I expected to. From start to finish, MURDER-A-GO-GO'S was a labor of love.

My own writing? Not so much. By the time 2019 rolled in I was ready to call it quits. Who was I kidding? I was never gonna write another novel and it didn't seem to matter anymore. My plan was to launch MURDER-A-GO-GO'S then sail off into the sunset. Or, that's what I wanted to do. In reality, I had one more project I had to finish, a novella I'd agreed to write for Frank Zafiro's "A Grifter's Song" series.

Writing that novella, titled THE MONEY BLOCK, helped to change everything. In true Holly West form, I waited until nearly the last minute to write it, which meant I had to work smart if I wanted to finish on time and deliver a good book. I returned to the method I used when I wrote MISTRESS OF LIES all those years ago: I plotted the entire story in detail before I got down to the actual writing and used that road map to quickly write a fairly clean first draft. Two drafts later, I had completed a manuscript I was proud to submit (and nearly a month before the deadline, to boot).

At less than twenty thousand words, THE MONEY BLOCK is a small project, really more of a long short story. But finishing it served two functions: 1) The subject matter was new to me (cryptocurrency) and I wasn't sure I could pull it off. But I did pull it off. 2) Writing it reminded me how much I loved the creative process.

Or, put it this way. I enjoyed the way I felt about myself while I was writing it. I was happier, I felt like I had a purpose. I'd returned to a process I knew was effective for me from past experience and I put in the work.

Did you hear what I said? I PUT IN THE WORK. And I knew if I wanted to keep feeling good about myself, I needed to keep putting in the work.

That's all it's really about, isn't it? Putting in the work, with no guarantee of success or acceptance other than the satisfaction derived from the process itself. I did the work and I remembered I like the work and that the work makes me feel more whole. I realized that writing is good for me and that I'm well-suited to do it if I make the choice to shut out other distractions and get it done.

I'm getting it done.

July 2019
I can't promise you I'm completely reformed and that I'll have a new novel ready to shop by the end of the year. I titled this post "Know Thyself" for a reason, and I know myself and my capacity for self-delusion. But I can tell you that I've made significant progress in the past three months and I like the way that feels.

So, ten years later, I'm... what? An adolescent writer? All pimples and braces and training bras and first kisses? More like menopause and Spanx and a snoring spouse. And pimples. I still get pimples.

Certainly, I haven't yet reached full writer adulthood. But I'm slowly growing up, letting go of insecurities and envy and taking responsibility for myself and my own work. All it took was 50 years.


Happy 10th Anniversary to Do Some Damage. I'm proud to have been a part of it.

Most of all, thank you to Steve Weddle, who has always had my back. We should all have such friends.


Scott D. Parker said...


Fantastic post. And boy do I concur with your feelings about your writing. I used to joke that it took me eight months to write my first novel back in 2005-2006 using one method. Then it took me seven years NOT to write my second. The sequel is that when I finally got off my ass and wrote the second, it took way less time. So I was back on the wagon.


Like you, I've struggled with a consistent writing process. Some days it's awesome. Other days, it's not. But, like you, I know I'm a better person when I'm being creative. So I power through. Because for every valley, there has to be a mountaintop. The mountaintop can't be for something that might happen: book deal, best seller, etc. It has to reside in the writing process itself. The part of the process over which we writers have 100% control.

Great, great post.

scott adlerberg said...

Love this post, Holly. Love the candor.

Thomas Pluck said...

I'm glad you stuck it out. for me I try not to call writing work because it is supposed to be a pleasure. we forget that sometimes, that we would do this whether someone would read it or not. everything else is just gravy.
it's work in an artistic sense in that it has value and we should be paid for our work, because that's how our society deems value, but stories are a joy, and sometimes creating joy is hard work... But when it becomes toil, we need to think back to the beginning. Where are our stories come from and why we are sharing them.
It's not easy to reconcile this with the business side of writing, for me. So I write for me first and figure the rest out later.
so glad to read you here again. Any time you want to drop in on Wednesday and take the spot you gave me, for a day or longer, say the word.
I love reading what you write.

Holly West said...

Thank you, Scott P, Scott A, and Tom. I still spend a lot of time worrying about whether the work I'm doing now will eventually pay off (and Tom, I do consider it work but it's work I enjoy) and when I look at the odds, chances are, it won't in any significant (and I'm not even sure what I mean by significant). But if I don't do the work at all, it definitely won't pay off and by just doing it in the first place, there's a pay off in my quality of life.

It's a definite mental shift for me because I've long said I enjoy the feeling of having written but not the actual work of writing. I've now discovered that I actually enjoy the work as a thing in itself.

Claire Booth said...

What a great post, Holly. It's always a joy to read anything you write--blog post, short story, novel.

Holly West said...

That's lovely to hear, Claire. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

What Claire said - always a joy to read anything you write and always a joy to see your face and be around you. I love the honesty of this post. You are a rock star!

Holly West said...

Thank you, Kristi. This means a lot to me. xx

Unknown said...

Okay, darn it! I'll keep writing. You've touched on many of my own thoughts along my own path, so I might as well keep on keeping on. Maybe. No, yeah, your words were inspiring.

Michele Drier said...

Great post, Holly! Last week I published my 15th book since 2011. I’m still not even a mid-lister, but I’m proud of the books I’ve written and I do have a group of fans who like my stories so I’ll keep on telling stories because that’s what I do...I’m a writer.

Holly West said...

Yeah, you're a writer, Michele, and you're killing it!! Congrats on your 15th release. I'm so glad I've gotten to know you better in the last year.