IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Went From A Highbrow Writer To A Commercial Sell-Out (And I Liked It)

In a burst of frustration with my failed literary endeavors, I wrote the most commercial, basic-bitch book I could -- but I didn’t think I’d actually enjoy it.
Publish date:
June 16, 2014
It Happened To Me, travel, books, writing, authors, selling out, self-publishing

I decided early on that being a famous writer was the best kind of celebrity. There would be no stalking or TMZ, but every once in a while you’d still get a sparkly gem of recognition when a stranger identifies you from your impossibly elegant black and white author photo. In other words, the fame I wanted was that of Donna Tartt’s -- with her privacy, killer bob, and cool disdain.

After college with my newly acquired degree in advertising, I decided to turn myself into this very serious writer.

But instead of actually writing, I focused on earning money to become independent enough to be a full-time writer. By my mid-20s, with a little money saved up from living at home and a boatload of that endless, delusional 20-something ambition, I left both my advertising job and the States to go off and become a true and tortured artist.

Here is a good time to tell you what sort of girl I was back then: I smoked French cigarettes and listened to “concept albums.” And my debut novel was no exception to this darkly crafted image.

I wrote the book I always wanted to read; my "The Sun Also Rises" meets "The Rum Dairies" (so basically a story about traveling while drunk and depressed). There was a lot of research done by making bad decisions in seedy bars and listening to Morrissey -- all in the name of art. I wrote that book for years and years, periodically returning to advertising work or working remotely to support myself in the process (turns out that advertising degree paid off).

But when it came time to get an agent for the book, the Publishing Industry -- I pictured her a courtesan lolling on a chaise lounge -- wasn’t interested. The book wasn’t commercial enough to have mass appeal. Shocker.

Undeterred, I decided to self-publish.

Have you heard of Amanda Hocking? Self-published wunderkind who sold a bazillion copies of her book, and who later got a sweet seven-figure deal with a traditional publisher?

Well, that didn’t happen to me. I sold maybe 200 copies even after pimping out the book with considerable vigor. As it turns out, my debut novel didn’t have commercial appeal or what it takes to gain an underground cult following.

So I moved on and wrote another book. This one was not so dark, but still highly literary, stealing the style of an Iowa Writers' Workshop grad. I don’t need to tell you that the world still wasn’t interested. (Its seldom drawn to actual MFA grads, let alone watery imitators.)

By this point I had been in the writing game for years. Money was dwindling, and I was becoming disillusioned. Snooki had a goddamn book deal and I didn’t. This was one of standard remarks delivered in jokey disbelief, but with an unmistakable undertone of bitterness.

So in an almost visceral kind of angry rage, I deliberately decided to sell out. Writing was my full-time job, and I was failing and flailing, and I reasoned that the only way I could keep writing full time was to sell something now. So I sat down at my laptop to write the most commercial and informal beach read that I could fathom. I was done trying to be arty or cool or disaffected.

But what qualification did I have to write a book that could sell like fresh cronuts? Well, I had read thousands of them.

I was a snob of a writer but much more of a plebian reader. I tempered my heavy literary tomes with lighter reads. I’d snack on books with covers the color of Parisian macarons and with trendy ink drawings of long-legged urbanites always rushing off somewhere. Sometimes you want a foreign film and sometimes you just want to check out and watch "Real Housewives." Screw symbolism.

We call these books guilty pleasures, but I never had that much shame about reading them -- I consumed these books alongside pieces of great literature. As far as I was concerned that made me well-rounded. (Read Sarah Seltzer’s excellent piece on being a full-spectrum reader because she argues this point far better than I ever could.)

And so I aimed to write one of these books; these treats that you read between healthy, life-sustaining meals; these nibbles that keep your blood sugar up; but -- if they’re really good -- that spoil your boring, old dinner.

Instead of focusing my new light-hearted story around shoes, pinot grigio, cupcakes, or jobs in PR (why do they always have jobs in PR?), I centered the narrative around my lifelong love of travel.

Soon, my third manuscript, GIRLS WHO TRAVEL: A Romantic Comedy of Errors and Wanderlust took shape. The protagonist is a serial backpacker named Kika, who tries to reconnect with the object of her last holiday “roadmance.”

Just as I did with other the books, I threw myself into my protagonist’s world to write it. But this time, instead of frequenting depressing bars down dark alleys or adopting an intellectual air and interesting eyewear, I entered Kika’s brightly colored biosphere. To find inspiration for this eternal optimist and adventurer, I scoured Pinterest and Instagram (they love travel “inspo”); listened to relentlessly upbeat pop music; and dreamed up impossibly romantic heroes.

This had an uplifting effect on me. With my ear buds bursting with top 40, I found myself with a literal spring in my step. There’s a part in Nick Hornby’s "High Fidelity" where the protagonist asks, “What came first –- the music or the misery? Did I listen to the music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to the music?” The idea that what you consume may become you is not a new concept; just think of the old adage, “You are what you eat.” But this was the first time I had personally tested it.

My protag, Kika, could be dismissed as some basic bitch, but I became one to write her. And I liked it! I liked forcing myself to get in a carefree, optimistic mood to write about these silly, early 20s backpackers in the face of my shame of failures past. It was like smiling when you didn’t feel like it: sometimes it really can make you feel better.

That’s when I began to rethink my stance as a writer. I had always thought that commercial was less than. I self-identified as a literary writer, and to write anything other than something erudite was to sell out. To me, that’s what all those successful marketable authors were: clever opportunists only looking to make money.

For the first time it occurred to me that people wrote commercial material for the same reasons that they read it: because it was fun. It was a whack-on-the-forehead realization that I’m ashamed never to have considered earlier.

Maybe this enjoyment came through in my writing. Maybe happiness begets happiness. Maybe after writing two books, my craft improved. Or maybe it’s true that the industry is only concerned with marketability. Regardless, my manuscript won a contest on Wattpad, and I finally signed with an agent. My manuscript is now being submitted to publishers.

Maybe I just got lucky. Or maybe I’m finally becoming a well-rounded writer.