On Expectations

Three weeks ago, my publisher and publicist mailed two hundred preview copies of my second novel, The Tenth Witness, to media outlets, asking each to schedule feature coverage or a review.

Let the games begin!

There’s no denying that my dreams as an author track those of many authors: best seller lists, awards, and a movie deal.  But to grab these rings is like winning a lottery.  The odds are way stacked against you; still, it’s pleasant to contemplate all that success.

But dreamer beware.  An author who has sense enough to keep his feet on the ground, even if his head is in the clouds, needs to acknowledge a few basics.

Relatively few American writers make their living from fiction.  David Morreal (author of the Rambo books), pegs the number at roughly two thousand.  The chances are small that a novel will be optioned for a movie, they’re vanishingly small that that option will become a screenplay, and smaller still that a screenplay will be sold and go into production.  Competition is fierce.  As for awards, these may be in reach if a book is good; but, again, the odds are long.

What, then, can success mean for a writer of fiction?

Here I sit, at the beginning of this ride to publication of my second novel.  The Advance Reader Copies (ARCs) are out; and now that the process to launch on September 15 has begun, The Tenth Witness will find its own path in the world.  I can (and do) maintain a Facebook page and urge readers to post reviews on Amazon and Goodreads.  But the truth is the novel’s success is out of my hands now.  I’ve controlled the only thing I can: the writing.  I think The Tenth Witness succeeds as a story, but the world owes me nothing on that score.

That’s the cold truth about fiction writing or any other art.  You pour yourself into a work; you may discover yourself through it.  And then, when you put it out there, it will elicit responses.  Some readers will praise, some will slam.  But wouldn’t it be nice if a lot of readers, say, millions, had the chance?

My fretting and unrealistic hopes for mega readership unnerve me because I’m forced to confront my own definitions of success.  Isn’t it enough, as with my first novel, All Cry Chaos, that readers contact me (through my web site) to offer encouraging words, to urge that I keep writing?  Yes and no.  Yes, in the sense that I’m profoundly moved to make direct contact with readers and to know they admire my work.  No, to the extent that my idea of success is defined, in part, by the larger culture, where success means mega sales and a movie deal or nothing.

The one sure antidote to the problem of waiting and wondering is to keep writing, which is what I’m doing now.  I’m two-thirds of the way through the draft of another novel.  I don’t leave my desk until I hit my target of a thousand-plus words a day.  It’s a first draft and it’s ugly (all my first drafts are) but it could become something, I think.  While I’m focused on the new project, I can’t think about The Tenth Witness and its reception.

That’s a relief.

But I don’t write all day.   While I’m away from my desk, inevitably, the fretting and the unrealistic hopes bubble back into awareness.  When that happens, I recall two things.  I remind myself that success is a lottery ticket that would be nice to win but one I won’t likely win whatever the merits of the book.  Forces beyond my control govern that kind of success.  I also remember the kindnesses of individual readers who’ve contacted me to say my work means something to them.  I remember that they’re an important part of the reason I write: to reach and move others.

We each are alone in this world.  To break through in some meaningful way to another is a gift.

So when demon Expectation fills my head with dreams, I try to snatch the definition of success back to where it belongs, within me.  When I do that, I can breathe again.










  1. Hi Len,
    I just finished THE TENTH WITNESS, and it is another winner. My Review is up on my Blog, and I sent it to Kathleen.

    • Tom, I’ve read the review and it’s great–generous. Thanks so much! This is especially satisfying coming from a reviewer who read All Cry Chaos and who has a sense of what I’m up to (or think I’m up to). These early notices are encouraging. PW agrees with you. Also Library Journal and NY Journal of Books. So it’s a good start! All best, Len

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