Award-winning author Jaden Terrell and I are sitting in the independently owned local Chop House in Franklin, Tennessee, talking about writers’ expectations, which we started in last month’s column, and left off as she was going to tell me about the four different levels of writing careers that authors can aspire to and what it takes in order to get there.
I’m all ears.
Jaden is eating her salad, avoiding tomatoes, informing me again that they are a member of the deadly nightshade family so why in the world would anyone want to be eating those nasty things. I’m already finished with my Southern Fried Chicken salad with extra honey mustard and am now drinking my trademark unsweetened iced tea by the gallons, running the poor server crazy. I’m rapt, though, at what we’re discussing. Jaden has a way of simplifying things that leaves me ofttimes envious.
In last month’s Writer’s Digest column, we talked about realistic and unrealistic expectations that authors might have about their careers, and how sometimes writers haven’t really thought practically about what they really want out of their writing vocations. Writers that I know at Killer Nashville all seem to jump into writing with dreams of superstardom, but is that truly what they want, and is it truly why they’re really doing what they’re doing?
In that column, we talked about time and process for both traditionally and independently-published authors. We talked about the difference between what a writer might like to dream about having and what they might really want (two different things), and we left it with the question of whether we have been doing what we need to be doing to get to where we want to go as writers in our careers, and how I can best address all of those areas as I design the curriculum for the Killer Nashville International Writers’ Conference, which I founded in 2006 and continue to produce as a volunteer for the writer community.
“So, there are four different definitions of success?” I ask, making sure we’re both clear that any one of the four is no better or worse than the other, just different. She agrees totally. She has my interest piqued. I’m wondering which track I’m on and which track she is on. Come to find out, we’re on two different tracks. But that’s later. “So, let’s break it down,” I say. It’s sort of like having someone tell you your horoscope. Narcissistic. Where do I fit on the chart? Let’s talk about me.
“The first level,” she says explaining that each of the four levels builds upon the next, “is what I call the Me, Myself, and I level.”
“So, we are talking about narcissism.”
She laughs. “Not really. Me, Myself, and I is exactly what it sounds like.”
“I write for myself.”
“Just to write?”
“Just to write.”
I think about myself and wonder if I fit into this category. I’ve written mounds of words that I’ve chosen never to publish simply because all I wanted to do is dive into a story and see where it goes. I wonder if I’ve found my category. “So, these are like all the trunk novels I have on my computer?” I ask.
“Maybe. And maybe this writer will share what they write with some close friends.”
“Not even that. They could even hand them a hand-written copy or something. The important thing is that this writer is writing for themselves. By writing for themselves, they are doing what they really want to do. Writing.”
“So, to be at this first level, you write. Isn’t that where we all start?”
“Yes, but the writing—just the writing—is all they really want to do. And that’s okay. And that’s perfect.”
“So, what it takes to be at that level…”
“Is to write,” she says. “By writing, you’re already doing it. You’re doing it well because you’re writing. You’ve already accomplished what you wanted to do.”
“What gives you joy? You don’t have to do more to be happy.”
“But sometimes people feel pressured to do more.”
“But they don’t have to. They are already doing what they want to do to be happy. They are reaching their goal. And so one thing each writer has to ask themselves is how ‘big’ do they want to be? And each writer has to decide that. They can write from their head and heart and enjoy it…”
“And whatever comes out is good.”
“…or they can study the craft for whatever next level they want. The point is, as long as the writer is satisfied with the level of their writing, then they are a-okay to be there. They are writers, and they are happy.”
“So, what if you want more? More of like what I think of as the published writer appearing on booklists?”
“That’s the next level. This is the level that I call the ‘Family and Friends Level.’ These authors want an actual book that they can show to their family and friends. Maybe they get it self-published so they can send people to a website and say, hey, I have this book and you can get it, but they don’t really care if anybody else knows it’s there, and they’re not looking to make a living out of it.”
“But it is ‘out there?’”
“There’s a little more effort that has to go into this level because once you start asking people to read an actual book or story, you want to be at least courteous enough to edit it enough that it’s easy for them to read.”
“No first drafts like on that handwritten document?”
“Once you start asking for an audience, then you owe it to that audience to make their reading experience pleasant and pleasurable.”
“Which is why I have trunk novels. I don’t think they’re ready for prime time.”
“There’s a little bit higher bar there. You want to be at least adequate enough that the people you’re asking to read your work, or who are asking to read it, would have a good experience. And, beyond that, again, the writer needs to decide how big they want to be.”
“Including the big question of how long do they want to stick with it?”
“Yes. But again, this level is an end unto itself as long as it gives the writer pleasure. They write something and then they share it with other people…”
“In a professionally bound volume that looks like a book…”
“Or publish it somewhere.”
“And then telling people where they can go to find it. Family and friends.”
“And the goal is met.”
“Anything else,” she says, “is extra.”
“So, what if you want more?” I can see the build she’s making, though I also see that writers may not all have the same goal and there are numerous places a writer can get off the train at a destination that is their own happy spot. And that is totally and perfectly okay.
“The third level is what I call ‘The Professional Level.’ This is a step up in terms of how good you need to be to get there.”
“And this is where most people are heading.”
“No. ‘Me, Myself, and I’ and ‘Family and Friends’ are both solid ends unto themselves. The writers in the Professional Level just want to go a step further. They care about making a professional product. They want to promote their work on some sort of professional level.”
“Beyond family and friends.”
“Yes. And on this level, there’s a wide stretch. Some may just want to write a little bit better books. They might want to attend festivals and sell their books through a booth. If they sell a few copies…”
“…they’re happy with that. Or maybe they want to develop a professional career and make a living from it.”
“Making a living from it versus supplementing a living. Yes, that is a stretch.”
“On this level,” Jaden says, “the writer has to decide how they want to approach it. Do they want to be traditionally published? Do they want to publish the book themselves? Either way, you must have a book that is well-written and that has been professionally edited. If you go traditional publishing, your publisher will edit it.”
“But if that’s the route you’re taking…”
“You want to be on a professional level before you send it in because the competition is huge. And if you’re traditionally published, then you better make sure that your book is of equal quality with what is traditionally published.”
“And, if you’re self-publishing?”
“It needs the same care in editing. The cover needs to look good. There are a group of skills as a self-published author that you need to have, or you need to delegate to someone—or pay someone else—to do. And you’re right, that’s the level most people who pursue a writing career really want.”
“That’s kind of what you think of when you think of a writer, or a career as a writer, anyway.”
“Yes. But there is that range. These writers want to be somewhere between ‘I want some copies to sell’ and ‘I want to have readers who like my work’ all the way to ‘I want to make a comfortable living.’”
“And each of those steps requires additional work and skills.”
“But a person does not have to go to the next level just because it is expected.”
“Correct. It’s about what makes them happy. And we’ll talk more about that in a minute.”
“And then there is the next level…” I lead her.
“I call this last one ‘The Superstar Level’. That’s your James Pattersons, your John Grishams, your J.K. Rowlings.”
“The everybody knows their name…”
“You could probably name a bazillion of them, your bestsellers who are kind of megastars.”
“So how do you get to that point? Become a household name? If you want to?”
“There’s a certain amount of luck in this area because it’s like being struck by lightning.”
“Not much control you have in that,” I laugh, though I have been struck by lightning once before. Literally. Knocked me off my feet and blew off a tennis shoe.
“The thing about getting struck by lightning, if you want to be struck by lightning, you better go stand out in the rain, preferably holding a lightning rod. And you really have to stand there long enough and really hope that the lightning strikes you.”
“It doesn’t just happen.”
“And sometimes the author, because of some of the things they do or don’t do, make it very hard for the lightening to strike. But once you’re at the professional level, then you can work toward your superstar level.”
“But you’ve got to get to the professional level first.”
“You want to make sure you work at your quality. You want to make sure that it is professionally edited. You probably want to be with one of The Big Five if you’re doing traditional publishing. Or if you’re doing self-publishing, you have to make sure that what you have is distinguishable from other self-published or traditionally published books. And if you’re looking for the high-level, professional level where you’re making a significant portion of your income or living from writing, if you want to be the superstar, you must do some sort of marketing. You have to be willing to do that. And if you’re not good at it and you’re not comfortable with it, you need to figure out how to learn that skill, or how to motivate yourself to do that…”
“Or hire someone else.”
“…and to do so consistently to attract an audience and maintain that audience.”
“So, what does that take?” I ask.
The waiter comes and takes her salad bowl and Jaden rests her elbows on the table, fingers clasped together, as though we are about to get serious as we head into ‘The Superstar Track’.
I can’t wait for what she says next, but I’ve gotten the one big takeaway: a writer is happiest when they know what they want out of their own career and are not influenced by what others might think is the ideal. Know thyself. Still great advice.
Jaden Terrell is the author of four Nashville-based private detective novels and one cozy cat detective mystery. She also teaches live and online workshops and courses for writers. http://www.jadenterrell.com