To the Writers of Non-Commercial Fiction

by Jun 12, 2023Genre, Musings

The author P.J. Fox has taken up a good amount of space in my brain lately. I don’t even remember how I got to thinking about her so intensely again, but it led to me perusing her Amazon author page and buying two of her paperbacks (which is pretty much the only format she has available).

Then the pining started: I wanted more of her gorgeous writing, her fantastically complex characters, her dark romantic and erotic plots. I haven’t actually read much of her work, mind you—Just the first 2 books in the Black Prince series—but that’s been enough to hook me. Despite the fact that I have a fair amount of her books to enjoy, they feel scarce because, as far as I can tell, she hasn’t published since 2016 and is no longer active online.

Thinking about P.J. Fox led me to thinking about my other treasured writers. These writers are more than authors I like or even love. I love N.K. Jemisin, R.F. Kuang, Fonda Lee, Joe Hill, Naomi Novik, and many others, but they don’t quite hit treasured status.

Treasured writers fulfill two criteria:

  1. They write the kind of fiction I crave most
  2. As a result, they’re exceptionally rare

The fiction I crave is a delicious mix of the dark erotic or dark romantic mixed with the elevated: literary, upmarket, deeply character/relationship-focused, award-winning. Add the speculative and you’ve made a worshipper of me.

I’ll eventually write a blog post (or many) dedicated to these treasured writers, but my point in mentioning them is that I only get to experience the heady elation of falling deeply in love with a book because some rare, precious individuals had the courage, discipline, and vision to write “NO stories.”

This is a term my favorite author Octavia Butler used to describe the stories she felt driven to write, in contrast to “YES books,” which were books with widespread appeal that had a good chance of becoming bestsellers. Her frustration with her inability to write “YES books” is one I relate to on a visceral level—and, I imagine, a lot of my other treasured writers share. Too many of them seem to have fallen off the face of the planet or have just stopped writing.

I’ve struggled with motivation a great deal, myself. If so few people will ever give a damn about well-written erotica, why write it? If so many people are disgusted and horrified by the prospect of the dark erotic, why write it? If so many people want erotic romance instead of other kinds of erotic fiction, why write it? Literary/upmarket dark erotic speculative fiction is almost inevitably doomed to obscurity.

So why do I write it? Because it’s what I crave. It’s the shape the stories in my head take and I feel this deep inner need to express them. I write these NO stories because they’re what I want to read. I publish them because I believe a small minority crave them too, and I want to spread that same joy I get from my treasured authors.

A few people have already expressed appreciation for my work. I have an unusually high amount of ratings and reviews for such an unknown Smashwords erotica author. I’d probably do quite well as a dark fantasy romance author, but I love writing weird complex nuanced non-monogamous relationships that wouldn’t fly with the vast majority of romance readers. I have some novel ideas that actually are to market, but not enough to sustain a career.

For so many years, I was obsessed with finding a sustainable niche or trying to make my writing a “YES book,” but after a lot of contemplation, I made the decision to be a writer of “NO stories.”

How to Keep Writing When You Write NO Stories

To my fellow “NO story” writers, I implore you to keep writing and sharing your work. It’s more valuable than gold to the readers looking for just that story. After all, almost nobody else will publish anything like it because it’s not commercial enough.

But how do we keep writing when we don’t have half the chance of commercial success that someone writing to market would have? I certainly don’t have the answers, but here are some of the things that make me want to keep going.

  • Find a good day job: I think having a job you hate can shove hard at that need to escape by making a living from your writing. Therefore, investing in finding a career that you enjoy, even if it’s not your #1 passion, can do wonders for sustaining your writing. You can also focus on alternative forms of fiction-related income from sources like affiliate marketing, Patreon support, running fiction workshops, etc.
  • Look for other forms of external validation: Maybe you’re not likely to quit your day job with what you write, but what else might give you a feeling of deep satisfaction and excitement? Cultivating an avid, active fan group? Telling people you’re an author? Getting traditionally published? Winning awards in your genre? Reading a glowing review from a fan or critic? Seeing your physical book at a bookstore or just on your own shelf? Doing author signings or blog tours? Within reason and budget, what, besides sales and money, can pump you up and keep you excited to write the next one?
  • Focus on fun: Since I have elements in many of my stories that go against reader expectations, I give myself permission to do ALL of the things I want to do. Maybe I was trying to craft the ending into an HEA to make it qualify as a dark romance. If my story has the hero engaged in casual nonmonogamy, I’ve lost romance readers anyway, so why not go with the more ambiguous ending too? Why not throw in that FF scene I struck out earlier? Why not stray from the romance beats altogether?
  • Lean into good craft: This definitely doesn’t go for everyone, but I adore more elevated, literary writing. I try to write more plainly when I’m concerned about commercial appeal, but if I’m writing NO stories anyway, why not crank up the literary dial on my stories as well?
  • Focus on your readers: You may not have a large audience, or any audience at all yet, but you can think about the people who will be overjoyed to find the incredibly rare stories that are perfect for them. Focus on how you feel when you discover that rare, perfect story.
  • Find community: Whether you find a few critique partners online or start a serial so readers can enjoy your stories and cheer you on as you write, getting regular (positive) feedback can do wonders for your motivation to keep going.
  • Dream anyway: Let’s also not forget that some writers of less clear-cut commercial genres succeed as well—often after they’ve already published a few (or several) novels. Think about favorite authors of yours who “made it” while publishing books that didn’t fit the mold. Don’t fixate on becoming a dark horse, but you can dream if it helps. I personally think about Jaqueline Carey, Tanith Lee, and Octavia Butler, all of whom have seen decent literary success.

I’d also like to recommend the book Writing 21st Century Fiction by Donald Mass for some brilliant insight and advice on writing “upmarket” fiction. For my fellow erotica writers, Conflicting Desires by Han Li Thorn addresses the hardships and craft of writing elevated erotic fiction.

Going against the good sense to write to market or write in a clearly identifiable niche seems almost like a spiritual calling at times. Maybe that’s precisely what it is. We’re driven by something bigger than ourselves, bigger than the hopes of one day quitting the day job. Whether it’s the belief that your story needs to be out there regardless of popularity or simply an insurmountable drive to tell the stories of your heart no matter how strange, you’re doing deeply intrinsically motivated work.

And I love you for it. Please keep writing those NO stories.