What is your writing dream? Is to finally break into publishing, to see your novel on the bookstore shelf and to enter into the elite club of novelists? If it is, you’re aim may be a tad off. I’ve been in that club for a bunch of years, and while I’m glad I belong, it’s not my goal.
I’m seeing a smoke-filled good-old-novelists’ club here. You’ve got the young Turks sitting at the back tables, gleeful over sales numbers and trying to act like they knew it all along. You’ve got the “I just signed a contract” newcomers seated near the door, hoping not to look too out of it. They spy the latest industry darling come in the door waving her $100k contract and acting charmingly humble. This earns her a sneer from a bunch of rheumy-eyed old-timers (average age 51) parked on bar stools, knocking back cheap gin and lining up teaching gigs. Then you’ve got the writers with thriving careers, sipping scotch on the porch and preparing to make an early night of it so they can meet their 2,000 word daily count.
Which Dream is Yours?
I sort of skewed the picture, but bear with me: Do you see yourself in that room? If you’re like most beginning writers I talk to, you’re content just to be in that bar.
But here’s the part you might not see: half the young Turks who came blazing out of nowhere with those critically acclaimed novels will be without a contract within seven years. (OK, I made up the statistic, but it’s my plot line.) Ditto the newbies, but in their case it’s three years. That rock star? She’s terrified she won’t have a killer follow up idea. In fact, she’s already submitted her loser second manuscript, and a downward spiral will begin. (Check out the award winners in your field over the past 15 years. How many names do you recognize?) The guys at the bar? You already figured them out. The ones leaving early who have writing goals? Yeah, you wanna be a scotch drinker.
Point being, the romance of the club is an illusion. It’s not a worthy goal, and it might be a fatal one, to dream of having a novel published. You want, of course, to have a writing career.
Making it Last
You say you’ll worry about the career once you’ve got your first contract? OK, at least you’ll give the career some thought then. But I’m arguing for having the long view now. I’m suggesting the mindset of the long distance runner vs. the sprinter. If you aim for ten years out, you’ll have that first published novel, sure, but you may also have books two, three and four . . . or ten.
With this long-haul dream, you’ll find yourself thinking in strategic terms. You’ll evaluate your book concepts with steely analysis, not romantic confidence. You’ll develop sustainable writing habits, not hit or miss lunges at deadlines. You’ll understand the industry, your genre, your writing strengths and weaknesses. You’ll be willing to remake yourself as a writer–several times if necessary–and keep learning.
If you want to last.
You’re Trying to Scare Me
No I’m not. I’m trying to help you survive.
So listen up, the door to the club is a revolving one. People get asked to leave all the time. Contracts canceled (you thought a contract has to be kept?), editors sending a Dear John email, new contracts not forthcoming from that publisher who took you to lunch six months ago. Sometimes there are warning signs. Generic cover art, low print runs, long delays on the editorial comments. Those personal convention lunches with your editor become group breakfasts and then a muffin break.
You’re standing in the parking lot wondering where the party went to. (Well it was never a party, exactly… but you knew that. You wanted to be in the smoke-filled, beery room full of people with a book on the shelf.)
I’m not saying you can control what happens to your career. But you can influence it. And you’d better, because there’s a long line of people who also want into that dance hall, and they’re younger that you’ll be later (funny how that works) and they’ve got drive, passion, ambition and, horrors, strategic ideas about their careers. Yes, the publishing industry can’t live without authors. They need good stories to survive. Thing is, they don’t need your stories. Or mine.
That’s why we’re gonna take the long view and be ready with a dynamite second book and winning attitudes.
Attributes of Highly Successful Novelists
I frankly don’t know. I’d like to be selling better, really I would.
Attributes To Stay in the Game
OK, you’re twisting my arm. Here are some things you need to aim for as a career novelist:
- Great attitude. Oh man, this is a blog in itself, but here are some highlights. A great attitude includes ditching bad ones like: your sense of entitlement; as much of your low self-esteem as you can manage given your family-of-origin issues; paranoia and tendency to project the worst possible scenarios; knee-jerk envy reactions. These mindsets will make you miserable beyond what the dark lords of publishing usually deliver. The good attitudes are: humility, joy in writing, persistence and tempering your healthy ambition with a balanced life. You see how hard this is going to be. Still, what you need is a great attitude, not just a good one.
- Versatility. Learn to write in different styles and for a variety of marketplaces. You think you know the type of thing you want to write, but it’s a big world out there. Try your hand at humor, prose, out-of-genre short pieces, book reviews, outrageous subjects and shared worlds. You say you’ll never lower yourself to write a vampire story? But why the hell not?
- Page count. Set a goal and stick to it. Churning up your internet presence is worth doing, but it’s not writing. I like a weekly count so if I can miss some days.
- The reinvention cycle. If what you’re writing is not finding an audience, write something else. No one is saying that your stories that didn’t sell well aren’t worthwhile, but if no one wants ’em, isn’t it crazy to keep offering more of the same? And then, if that doesn’t work, reinvent yourself yet again. I’m not saying follow the crowd, of course. I’m saying that you have to stay fresh and at least keep an eye on the marketplace. There’s no shame in trying to make a connection with new readers.
- Improving skills. Know your shortcomings as a writer and work on them. Keep learning all the time. I have a couple weaknesses that I work on constantly. I’m amazed and refreshed by what writers and writing teachers can show me. Even after ten books, I have so much to learn. When you think you’ve got it licked, be prepared to take your place on one of those bar stools at the author’s club.
- Killer concepts. Don’t go rushing off to write a novel around a pretty good premise. Honestly, that isn’t good enough. You might get lucky a couple times, but eventually your readership will fade. As important as execution of the novel may be, it is far more important to tell a dramatic story with an original premise or one with a fresh take. As you write your second, seventh, twentieth novel, you must constantly be alert for the lazy premise. Read Larry Brook on concept. Your career may well hinge on this one aspect of story.
When I started out as a writer, I was just like you. All I wanted was a book on the shelf, to be a member of the club. Some years down the road I see that, while that is a necessary milestone, it isn’t much of a goal. I rushed breathlessly from one book contract to the next, without a long-term perspective. I survived only because of help from more experienced people in the field who were willing to help me with longer term strategies and sustaining attitudes.
If you’re a few books along the path, feel free to chime in here. What strategies keep a career in motion? I’m still learning.