Career Patterns that Work
If your goal is to get published, that’s great. As an agent with thirty-plus years experience developing fiction careers, though, I can tell you that your thinking is too limited. Getting published is not the end of the road, but the beginning. Sizeable audiences rarely materialize following publication of a debut novel. It usually takes a number of titles to grow both a readership and your skill as a storyteller. To be a full-time novelist, you have to imagine long term.
What, then, are the strategies and patterns that work? How do you choose which stories to write and in what order? What if you are the kind of writer for whom stories aren’t planned but rather just happen? Is genre writing a good plan for developing your skills? What is success: money or art, or both?
In short, what works and what doesn’t? Let’s take a look at some career patterns and the various choices that you may face along the way.
Almost everyone who writes fiction also dreams of being a full-time novelist. What a splendid life! No boss but yourself, no commute except across the house in your pajamas. Turn off the phone, ignore e-mail, just dwell for days in the dream state doing what you love to do the most: writing.
So powerful is that dream that budding novelists will do almost anything to attain it. Some strategies are helpful, others are not. Writing every day, learning from others, revising, and getting feedback all are good ideas. Not so brilliant are trying out tricks and shortcuts, building a marketing plan before starting your novel, and querying agents before your manuscript is finished. Sound obvious? You wouldn’t believe how many writers do those things.
There are a couple of early career strategies so common and so unhelpful that it’s worth mentioning them in detail. The first is the maverick approach. Mavericks are writers who feel their fiction is different, even unique, and are determined to be accepted on their own terms. A certain grandiosity goes with this. It comes through in query letters that assure us that the novel on offer is a work of genius. You think I’m kidding? Drop by my office on any random day and you’ll see.
There is nothing wrong with originality, and sure enough there are novels that are ahead of their times. I’m not against taking chances or in favor of slavish adherence to genre requirements or storytelling “rules.” But the mavericks’ manuscripts are universally awful. There are ways to break the rules, but the mavericks haven’t mastered them. What’s really going on is that the mavericks are rushing. They hope to blast their way in. They may be anxious or angry or acting out childhood conflicts, but whatever the case, they are not learning how to make their stories work.
Another unhelpful opening gambit is what around my office we call The Deal. In this arrangement, the writer quits his or her day job and sets about writing full time on the theory that this will accelerate the process. It sounds smart, but there are flaws. The first is that mastering the craft of novel writing isn’t wholly a matter of hours at the keyboard. More than time, what’s needed is perspective. Have you ever put away a manuscript then looked at it again after an interval of months or years? Did you see immediately what was wrong with it? Ah, then you see my point.
There’s another dimension of The Deal that is a hidden detriment. Frequently, the writer is supported by a spouse. As with a married medical student, the bargain is you pay the bills now and I’ll pay you back double when I’m rolling. What’s wrong with this trade-off? For one thing, doctors usually can count on graduating and getting their license. Writers cannot count on getting published. Worse, the growing guilt and ego risk cause the writer to rush a process that demands patience. That is particularly true when it is a male writer being supported by a female partner.
A third strategy is one that can produce the desired result, publication, but in the long term probably will lead to failure. Paradoxically, that strategy is play by the rules. We see this plan at work in authors who submit novels that hit genre markers like hammers on nails, match market trends, and are stylistically slick as Astroturf. There’s nothing illegal about that; it’s just that formula fiction doesn’t stay long in readers’ imaginations. It’s popcorn. And it’s not just genre fiction that can feel empty. Literary fiction can be just as imitative as vampire stories.
The fact is whether an author’s novels are literary or commercial, for them to make an impact, the author must bring to his stories something personal and passionate and a voice and theme that spring from deep inside. It’s the difference between imitation and the real thing. And readers know.
What catches on is not fiction that’s safe, but fiction that takes chances. I don’t mean experimental writing or unremittingly dark protagonists. I mean stories that sing: tales told within a known story framework yet that also are fired with conviction. Fiction writing is a business, but it’s also an art. Embrace that duality, and you’ve got a winning plan.
What to Write
What should I be writing? Man, I hate that question. Most of the time it comes from a status seeker. (See chapter twenty-one Status Seekers & Storytellers.)
Sometimes, though, that question has a legitimate basis—for instance, when a new author is trying out stories in several genres. At some point, all authors will face a decision about what to write next. The options on the menu all may be good. In such a situation, how do you choose?
At the outset, trying several kinds of stories is not a bad idea. It’s a way to discover what you do naturally and well. Difficulty arises when the question comes not from curiosity, but from anxiety. If you are wondering what project to pursue because you want to know which will get you published fastest, then you’re looking at it the wrong way.
What should I be working on is also a question I hear when a first novel is on submission but is not yet sold. It’s great that the author is focusing on his next project, that’s healthy, but it’s a thorny issue when that first novel is the start of a series. Is it better to write the next in the series, or work on something else until the series sells?
Generally, I don’t think it’s wrong to write a second novel in a series but finishing more than one additional series manuscript may not be the best allocation of time, at least until the series has a home. There’s another consideration, too: Is that second novel a story that is powerful on its own terms, or something easy to do merely because it’s there?
As tempting as it may be to slide into a sequel, not every sequel is necessarily strong. To discover for yourself what to write next, here are some better questions to ask of the projects on your plate: Which story has the most inherent conflict? Which story has the most potential to expand? Which protagonist has the most to tell me about herself? Which story makes me the most angry? Which novel has the most to say? Which one do I feel ready to write? If I were to die next year, which manuscript would I want to leave behind?
As you can see, the best answer to what to write next comes not from marketplace knowledge or strategic savvy, but from a creative self-awareness. What is running hot? What is burning inside you? What demands to be written? That’s what to write next because that will be the best thing you can write.
Genre vs. Mainstream
Most authors have a pretty good idea of the story they want to tell. The difficulty is how to categorize it. One of the most common questions I get at the workshops I teach is What kind of novel have I written? The answer to that has grown more elusive as authors’ influences have diversified.
Today, it is not uncommon to find espionage that reads like literary fiction, noir pastiche with magic, or crime stories wrapped around journeys home to heal. Authors like Alan Furst, Jim Butcher, and Cornelia Read have proven that genre-blending is not only possible, but that it can be popular. Indeed, it’s conceivable that the twenty-first century will erase the whole concept of genre. For the moment, though, genre categories still are with us.
So what genre is your novel? If you don’t know, that’s okay. Your agent will help you make a choice of the bookstore section to use as your launching pad. You may also find that editors have interesting ideas on how to spin your story. If nothing else, just pitch your book as a “novel.” That doesn’t mean mainstream, necessarily, just that you’re reserving judgment. That said there probably is one section of the bookstores in which you’ll find the greatest number of appreciative readers. Don’t be afraid of that, either.
Is genre a ghetto? Many feel that way, but on the other hand, plenty of authors who started out on genre shelves are now front-of-store best-sellers whose books are categorized simply as fiction. They transcend genre. How? They have written so well, for so long, for an ever-growing audience that they no longer need a genre label to find their readers. Thus, if you feel that after five or more books that genre writing has you stuck in a ghetto, you might consider that the problem is not your genre, per se, but the scope and ambition of your stories. Write bigger to break out.
Remember, too, that writing fiction called mainstream isn’t an automatic ticket to huge sales. There are plenty of titles in the fiction section that are selling poorly. Conversely, category labels aren’t necessarily indicative of low quality. There’s beautiful prose in the fantasy aisle, and absolute junk labeled contemporary literature. More important than subject matter or style is how well you enact your intention.
In other words, the choice between genre and mainstream is not one to worry about. Write your novels. Write them well. The problem of category will sooner or later become irrelevant.
Series vs. Stand-Alones
There’s no question that readers love series. They sell well not just on the mystery shelves, but in romance, fantasy, inspirational, and mainstream. Revisiting beloved characters and places is for readers a promise of a good time. Should you write a series? Maybe yes, maybe no. Before deciding, it’s worth taking a look at what makes for a successful series.
When we speak of series, we really are speaking of series characters. Why do readers return again and again to a protagonist? It isn’t because he or she is ordinary. Larger-than-life characters are required. It also isn’t because there’s nothing new about them to discover. Unearthing backstory secrets and pushing protagonists into ever deeper tests of their convictions is important.
A common mistake of series authors is holding back their protagonists’ problems for later books. They imagine that their heroes are like veins of ore that might one day be mined out. That’s untrue. Protagonists are infinite wells of conflict. They’re human. There always is a new way to put your protagonist through the wringer. If you have one, don’t save it. Use it now. You will think of others later.
Villains and secondary characters also play important roles in series. To draw readers back, these players too must be more than one-dimensional. Inner conflicts, secret dimensions, and unresolved story lines all can help give them staying power.
Keeping a series fresh is a tug of war between you and your readers. Nothing produces more e-mail than killing off a beloved series character. But sometimes they have to go, if only to shake things up. When up against tough decisions like that, don’t back down. Readers may want things to stay the same, but that isn’t the way life works—or series, either.
The decision whether to write a series isn’t founded on what’s beneficial for your career, but on the complexity of your characters. If in one book they’ve revealed everything about themselves, then they’re done. But if they have more to say, more to show us, and more to show you, then maybe you should let them stick around for a while.
Building an Audience
What’s best: exploding out of the gate, or building an audience over time? To a large extent, that isn’t up to you, but here are some guidelines to help keep your expectations in line.
Most fiction audiences build slowly. It’s easy to see why when you realize that there are roughly six thousand new novels every year. Standing out is difficult. On average, it takes five books for name recognition to take hold among readers of a given category. I call this the five-book threshold.
There’s another reason that it takes time to build a readership: It takes time to grow as a storyteller. Many first novels are limited in scope. Sophomore slump is all too common. Going forward, many commercial novelists find themselves on a book-a-year pace. (Romance novelists can be on an even faster schedule.) Such a pace does not make for a leisurely and playful development of your voice. It can all too soon feel like you’re grinding ‘em out. For all those reasons, it may take a while to gain full command of your art.
Some authors feel that genre writing can be a good way to develop chops while making money. Is that true? There are best-sellers who started out that way. Nora Roberts, Elmore Leonard, and Harlan Coben are examples. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with writing genre novels. The problem is that some authors don’t advance their storytelling skills beyond that level. Writing a 60,000-word category romance is not the same as writing breakout-level women’s fiction. That may sound obvious, but you would be surprised how many authors stop growing once they get published.
Two other factors can work against building an audience: jumping genres and changing publishers. Yes, I know, earlier I mentioned that it’s not wrong to experiment with different story forms. The picture changes, though, once you’ve begun to build an audience. Look at it this way: When you publish your first novel, you’ve opened a store. There you sell, say, flowers. Suppose one day you close your flower shop and then reopen a week later selling high-performance automobiles. Will your former customers come flocking? No, of course not. When you switch genres, it’s the same. You’ve even relocated your store to a different street.
Changing publishers would not seem at first to have any effect, but over the years I’ve noticed that authors who jump houses (often chasing higher advances) usually fail to build a solid following. One reason is that those authors’ backlists do not follow them. When the backlist remains in print (not often), it usually looks different. Ordering by accounts also becomes irregular. Shelf presence is less than it could be.
What happens if you are one of those lucky authors who wins a huge audience right away? If so, congratulations. Just remember those instant bestsellers who stumbled. Even longtime residents on the best-seller lists can fade. When that happens, we all know why. Their novels aren’t as good.
The best plan for growing an audience is to give your readers more of the stories they’ve come to love and expect from you, and to do so on a regular basis. If you make them stronger and deeper each time, so much the better. Over time, your audience will grow in proportion to your storytelling skill.
When to Go Full Time
For a dose of scary reality, remember chapter twenty-five Numbers, Numbers, Numbers. With those numbers in hand, here is the best piece of advice: Don’t go full time too soon. When is that? It’s when your royalty earnings are not yet sufficient to support you.
Notice I said royalty earnings. That’s a key point and one that you are likely to ignore. The moment that advances (note the difference) being offered by your publisher are sufficient to support you and your family, you will be sorely tempted to quit your day job. The rationalizations will be iron-clad. You will feel that you can’t lose; indeed, you feel that it’s smart to go full time.
But you can lose, and a great many novelists do. Their myopia grows acute and their rationalizations become cement even as their careers begin to erode. They ignore warnings signs, focus exclusively on good news, and then are shocked when they crash. Sorry if that sounds harsh, but it happens on a regular basis.
Okay, how can you keep that from happening to you? Here’s a good yardstick: When the royalty (note!) earnings from two consecutive books can support you and your family, then you have a viable business as a fiction writer. Remember that you are not being paid by your publisher, you really are selling stories to the public. Until they’re on board and loyalty is established, you do not have a business. Sorry, you don’t.
Take your time. Going full time is a huge decision and not one to make lightly. The consequences of going full time too soon can be ruinous.
What is the measure of success for a novelist? To start with, I can tell you that no novelist fails. Once published, every novelist I’ve ever known thereafter identifies himself first and foremost as a writer. Never mind that he’s been dropped by three publishers, has written nothing new for ten years, and pays the bills by coaching others. That person is a writer, damn it, never suggest otherwise.
Even those making a full-time living from their fiction can find it difficult to define success. Advances? There’s always someone who got more. Weeks on the best-seller list? Same thing. Awards and recognition? A Pulitzer Prize for Fiction is a high honor no question but, hey, what about the Nobel Prize? Good luck getting that one.
You see my point. Outward measures of success may be markers for you, but it’s inward satisfaction that’s the most important. The other day, I was speaking with a client who once had been a New York Times best-seller. In recent years, he’s written novels that are different, darker, and more difficult to categorize. His most recent may prove one of his least popular, but it is the novel he’s been longing to write. He said to me, “For me, this is The Book.” Now that is success.
What is the book of your heart? What is the heart of your childhood? What is the story that stretches you to your limits, says the most, digs the deepest, and takes you to places you never imagined you could go? Is there a story you’re afraid to write? Is there a world to visit that lives in your dreams? What is the ultimate tale that expresses all you know, maybe some stuff you don’t, and already makes you cry?
Write that story and you will have written what is for you The Book. Then, whether it makes you rich and famous or the reverse, you will be a success. Get going. I can’t wait to read it.
For more craft and career tools and exercises, check out The Breakout Novelist by Donald Maass.
Literary agent Donald Maass shares what it takes to succeed in as novelist.