Do I even want to write another book?
Or should I write something that will actually get read, instead?
Three months ago, I penned a post entitled “the one where I get off the internet and start writing fiction again.” When I published that post, my day job was in a pretty demanding state and I realized I would only have time for one creative hobby—I decided that hobby was writing my Utopian novel.
My intention was to let all else fall off: social media, my newsletter. I wanted to focus on doing my job and writing on the side—nothing else. Then I received an email from Substack saying that I was being awarded one of 10 spots in their annual fellowship program—and I was ecstatic. I couldn’t let this opportunity pass me by!
Instead of getting off the internet to write a novel, I hunkered down on Substack. For the next two months I immersed myself in writing this newsletter and in soul searching what it might become—and it paid off! After only one year of writing this newsletter, this month I reached 4,000 free subscribers and $10,000 in revenue, and that feels like a huge accomplishment to me!
By the time I completed the fellowship program, I had all of this momentum. In fact, I’m exactly where my mentor was only two years before she was making $100,000 from her newsletter. On one of our calls she told me, “the way I see it is that you have two years of hard work ahead of you, but then you’ll be set.”
Two years. Suddenly I found myself wondering whether I wanted to spend two years writing a novel, when I could write this newsletter instead. I mean, I was hitting a bunch of green lights with my newsletter, did I really want to pump on the brakes to, of all things, write a book? I just spent the past year researching book publishing and I can sum up my findings in one sentence: No one reads books.
Did I learn nothing from all that research? Was I really going to prove my insanity once and for all by spending another three years writing something that would see another dozen reads? When my writing is getting MUCH MORE reads elsewhere?
As I was pondering these things, Bruce Kasanoff commented on one of my posts and hit me like a ton of bricks.
It literally did not occur to me, until this exchange, that the writing I do right here on my newsletter is even writing—it honestly just feels like the place where I organize all my thoughts. And yet, 4,000 people tune in to read my thoughts while only 46 read my gothic novel.
Am I like Lucille Ball trying to be a dramatic actress? Am I trying to be taken seriously as a novelist because that seems like the most prestigious thing I can do with my craft? Like why does writing a book feel like the pinnacle of a writer’s life, when there are so many better platforms available to us now? And certainly better ways to get read?
And to Bruce’s point, what if I’m better suited to one kind of writing over another?
I’m currently taking voice lessons and I’ve noticed that my voice sounds much better on some songs than it does others. Could I learn how to sing like a high soprano opera singer, I asked my teacher, as well as I could a low alto jazz singer? Or was my voice naturally suited to one genre and it was just a matter of learning to be better at it?
If your voice is a violin, it’s a violin, she told me, if your voice is a cello, it’s a cello. A violin can play cello parts, to some extent, and a cello can play violin parts, but the instrument is built in such a way that each is better suited for a specific part—and the voice is the same.
My voice has a very sing-song quality to it even when I’m speaking. Categorized as a soprano ingénue, it naturally sounds more like a Broadway actress or a Disney princess than it does Nora Jones or Adele. Once I learned this, I started practicing songs better suited to my voice, and I already feel like a better singer.
But what if I had spent all my time trying to be Norah Jones, never realizing I sound much better singing Les Miserables? What if Lucille Ball kept trying (and failing) to get dramatic roles, never realizing she was good at comedy? What if I keep trying to write books not knowing that my real gifts lie elsewhere?
And what if I could be much more successful at my craft if I followed my natural talents, instead of the “most prestigious” use of them?
Even if I am good at writing fiction—even if I am super talented at writing novels—then publishing them as books might not be the best way to go about it.
Personally, I count myself among the small handful of people who enjoy my novel. I’m proud of what I’ve written and can argue the case to myself that maybe it just hasn’t found the right readers yet. The problem is that finding readers is decidedly hard—for anyone who’s writing fiction.
I think the medium has something to do with it. For instance, I’ve been thinking about writing poetry. I know that if I published my poems as a book, I would see very few readers. But—I could perform them as rap songs on TikTok, and maybe enjoy a greater chance of success.
Even the novelists I most fervently admire would have taken advantage of what today’s platforms allow us to do rather than continue to write books the way we did 150 years ago. After all, Alexandre Dumas was looked down upon by his literary peers for publishing his novels as serials. Today, would he have a Substack? Would Victor Hugo have a Twitter? As Nishant Jain once asked: Would Da Vinci make a TikTok channel?
(Sidenote: can we all agree that Victor Hugo would have been a TWITTER GOD? It would have been such a good outlet for all of his political inclinations and activist diatribes—and definitely a better one than that very long rant in Les Miserables—I mean, good lord. Though maybe I wouldn’t have been such a follower of his work?)
I think they would—and why shouldn’t I do the same? People only spend 15 minutes each day reading, but they spend 145 minutes each day on social media. Perhaps it’s time to stop thinking of books as the most prestigious thing a writer can do—when in fact it’s probably the least read medium a writer can use.
And there are so many mediums available to us now! Last year, I wrote a gothic novel and serialized it on Substack. I crowdfunded an NFT novel and published it on the blockchain. I’m about to publish the diary of The Mage Queen, a character I created for Twitter. I do want to write a rap album for TikTok.
I want to write beautiful, imaginative things, but the second I stopped thinking about all of those things as “books” my imagination started bubbling over and the possibilities became endless. Because I don’t want to publish a book just because it’s the thing writers have been doing for centuries. I want to write because it’s my favorite thing to do in the world—and there might be platforms that are much better read than books.
In the end, I wrote a gothic novel because it was always meant to be a novel. And I still want to write my Utopian novel because I must have a little bit of insanity in me. But I’m not anxious to spend three years writing something that won’t be read—not when I could spend a week or two writing something that will be.
Thank you so much for reading!
Until next time,
P.S. Next week I’m interviewing someone who writes mini screenplays for TikTok—talk about figuring out a way to use modern mediums for your art!
The Totally True Story of Scott Paul, an update
You might remember, The Totally True Story of Scott Paul, a short story I crowdfunded using cryptocurrency, minting each chapter as NFTs as I went. The final installment was funded last week, and I finished writing it this week!
Rather than put it up for auction as an NFT, I have decided to try to sell it to animation studios. Personally, I think it would make a great pilot episode for an adult cartoon series that takes place in the metaverse—or a great South Park Episode! (If you happen to know Matt Stone or Trey Parker, send them my way 😎)
If I reach a sale, I will mint the story as an NFT and sell it to the buyer, with the backers of my project earning a percentage of the sale relative to their ownership. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’re interested in purchasing the project. Wish me luck!
Here’s the complete story:
Mark Helfman writes Crypto is Easy. He recently interviewed me about my crypto novel for Medium. Here is the interview in full if you’re interested.