Is it strange to admit that one of the biggest “ah-ha” moments in my writing career had little to do with writing? I’ll show you what I mean, but we have to hop in the time machine real quick—back to around 2006 or so. We’ll stop at the front of a bookstore in the unincorporated little hamlet of White Marsh, Maryland, where our hero—that’s me, in case you haven’t been keeping up—is signing copies of his third novel, the now (blessedly) out-of-print The Nature of Monsters. If we hang around long enough—and we might as well; we have a time machine, so what does a few hours mean in the grand scheme of things?—then we’ll see that only a handful of people show up to purchase books throughout the day. Many others show up, but it’s really just to gawk. I’d slaved to achieve this status, author of three published novels, and I couldn’t quite understand why I hadn’t reached a wider audience. I was thrilled to sign a few copies, but these people didn’t know me and bought the book based not so much on my sales pitch, which was rather pitiful back then, but—I surmise now—because of some pity they must have felt from seeing me sit there, gloomy, dejected, pathetic. Then this kid shows up wearing a T-shirt with the letters NB emblazoned in green and yellow across the front, and it was like I was jolted by a sudden bolt of electrical current.
Okay, quick, let’s hop in the time machine again. Let’s spin back to, oh, roughly 2002 or thereabouts. I’m the front-man to a local rock group called Nellie Blide. I’ve got the longish hair and the cavalier, post-grunge attitude, the whole nine. The band was never really successful—we played some cool gigs, and had some talent, but it was mostly for laughs, for fun—yet we’d managed to accumulate a large number of fans.
One of these fans, now in the present of 2006 (which is really the past; hey, no one said this time travel stuff was easy to keep up with), stood before me wearing one of our Nellie Blide T-shirts. The following conversation went something like:
“Hey, you were the singer in Nellie Blide, weren’t you?”
“Wow. In fact, yes.”
“Dude, I loved you guys. Whatever happened to you?”
“We broke up.”
“That sucks. So...you’re writing books now?”
“You could call it that.”
“Awesome. I’ll take two.”
“Two?” It would nearly double my sales for the afternoon!
“Yeah. My sister loved your band, too, man. I think she’d dig one of your books. Could you sign them?”
So I signed them, talked a bit more about music, then saluted the guy as he ultimately strode away.
And that was when it hit me—how easy it had been to acquire fans when you were doing something you loved and didn’t care about the style of music you were playing, how radio friendly (or unfriendly) it was, or how to market your sound. And it occurred to me that the same was true of writing fiction—that if you temper your material in an attempt to appease everyone, you’ll wind up appealing to no one, to include yourself. I was trying so hard to write what I thought I should write instead of writing what I truly wanted to write. Maybe this sounds like common sense from the outside looking in, but friend, when you’re in the thick of it, sometimes you can’t see the forest for all those damn trees, know what I mean?
If this were a Public Service Announcement, I’d end it by saying something cheesy like “Follow your heart,” or some such thing. Yeah, it sounds corny—and sounds like common sense, too—but it was a moment that really opened my eyes to this crazy writing thing. Now let’s split; I gotta have this time machine back to the lab before midnight.