The funny thing about being a writer is what happens when people discover you’re a writer. Even people who have known you for years suddenly look at you as if you’re some strange new species. The discussion takes a dramatic shift and quickly hits all the same questions you have no doubt seen covered in author interviews with the biggest names in the business: What made you want to become a writer? What type of books do you write? Where do you get your ideas? Any movie deals coming up?
Then they ask you two questions which both live as cozy roommates in the minds of everyone who feels he or she has a story tucked inside of themselves: what advice do you have for someone who is just starting out as a writer? What’s it take to be successful and make lots of money?
During this conversation, no doubt your own mind is full of memories of all the late nights and guzzled caffeine spent fighting the good fight against the written word. Maybe you’re frowning over the size of your audience base, and how difficult it actually is to get your work noticed. Maybe your entire royalty check for that month was spent on the coffee you’re now holding in your hand. All the same, it’s obvious to you that the way your company suddenly sees you is not the same as how you see yourself.
The more you run into this situation, the more you wonder what you’re doing wrong. There must be something–or why would everyone you meet instantly draw the conclusion that somehow the very act of writing immediately leads to smashing financial success? Should there be a swimming pool full of money in your spacious and landscaped back yard? Should there be a roomful of suits standing around signing checks in your name at black-tie cocktail parties which are full of celebrities?
You study yourself in your mental mirror. You see yourself standing in grubby street-clothes, wearing tennis shoes which have blowouts in the sides. You live in a very modest home, or perhaps an apartment. You work a day job. Your book sales come in spurts when they come at all, and very few of those sales result in reviews. You were just that very morning stressing about some bill, and wondering how you’re going to pay for it.
Your inquisitor sees you as the Monopoly Guy. You’re a writer, after all–and you must be successful, since after all they’re able to find your work listed on Amazon and perhaps Barnes and Noble or Booksamillion. And as a successful writer, you must have some sage advice worth offering. So… what advice would you give a new writer, then?
Never mind all of that, what advice should you be giving to yourself?
Since you’re reading my blog, dear reader, here’s my personal answer: recognize that you’ve just fallen into a trap, and get yourself the hell out of it.
No, it is a trap. Yes, it is! Remember when you were first writing, and you’d set goals for yourself? Maybe it was something like three pages of manuscript each day. Maybe it was finishing a particular section. Maybe it was simply clearing your schedule so that you had time to write at all. Each goal you achieved felt like a triumph. It was a success. When you saw your work out there in the public realm, each new sale was a success; it meant that a new reader had just discovered you, and was about to invest several irreplaceable hours of his or her life reading your hard-fought words.
Yet now here you are examining the word “success” as defined by your company’s standard–in terms of money. Fame. Movie deals. Not on Suzie in Ohio, who just contacted you from off of your blog to tell you how very much she loved your work. Not on John’s raving Amazon review–he can’t wait for your next book, says he, and you’re pretty sure his name was just added to your mailing list. Instead of savoring these things, you’re now focused on the fact that Universal Studios isn’t knocking down your door to have you write a screenplay or at least discuss buying rights from you.
Don’t get me wrong: it’d sure be nice if something like hitting the bestseller’s list or getting interviewed in Playboy ever happened. But never allow yourself to feel like a failure when it doesn’t. For most writers, it won’t.
It doesn’t matter to Suzie in Ohio, or to Amazon John. It shouldn’t matter to you, either.
Author Stephen King is a rock star in the writing world. He also has been writing novels since well before some of us were even born; he has over fifty books to his credit–and if you’re only counting books, you’re not even scratching the surface. At the beginning of his career, he’s mentioned repeatedly about how there were bills to be worried about and credit cards which were being relied upon. Still he wrote. And wrote. And wrote. And wrote. And for variety, he wrote some more. His successes with each day’s goals added into the sum of his successes with the completion of each new project, which added into his success at exposure, which added into his success at earning a living. He was a successful writer before he ever became a “successful” writer. While I’m sure he’d agree that the money is nice, it clearly wasn’t his driving force.
The love of writing was, and still is. I guarantee you that if somehow our economic system ended tonight, he’d still get up tomorrow and write some more. While I have yet to have the pleasure of meeting the man, I don’t think he’d mind me saying so.
I also don’t think that author David Morrell would mind if I shared with you the gist of the online conversation we had about readers themselves. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Mr. Morrell’s work, he is the creator of the character Rambo, which first appeared in his novel First Blood. In fact he’s done a lot more work than that. And still more. He’s a man who has experienced the bestseller’s list several times. Do you know what he’s noticed? That interest in reading has declined over the years. As writers, we compete with the instant and easy gratification of online binge-watching and on-demand articles, not to mention social media. People still have free time, yes; it’s just that they have more things to choose from in order to fill it. The rate at which people buy and read novels has taken a hit as a result. Do you know what he does about it? He continues to write. It’s in his blood. It’s what he’s made of. (I’ll just insert my wink right here, thanks.)
Now let’s go back to you, you little writer, you. You don’t have fifty books out there, do you? And you’re frowning over slow book sales, having never before known the love of the bestseller’s list, aren’t you? You’re worried that your reader base isn’t growing as fast as you expected it to, right? If you’re judging success according to the amount that’s in your bank account, you’d might as well call it a night.
Suzie and John sure hope you don’t. You see, when it comes to entertaining them–maybe giving them something to think about, or maybe providing a source of enjoyment that (who knows?) might be rare in their lives…
Well, you’ve succeeded. You succeeded in writing and bringing your work out into the world. You succeeded in gaining appreciative readers. That’s success. Wealth doesn’t really factor in here: keep in mind, some people are born into money. That’s not success–it’s random chance. Some people buy the winning lottery ticket. That’s not success, either–once again, it’s random chance.
Those who build their fortune a bit at a time, starting with little more than an idea and a belief in themselves… well, now that’s success, right? Wrong. The money is a side effect of their success. The success is in creating something that people are willing to consume, even if they have to buy it. Only when that happens does money have its place at the table.
All of this means, of course, that there’s only one answer for our advice to the newbie writer: write. Write some more. It doesn’t matter if you’re an indie author or if you have a traditional agent and publisher–just write. Read the prose of others and learn from them. Perfect your craft because your craft deserves it, and forgive yourself of your missteps along the way. Once each project is done, keep writing. If that sounds like work to you and you’d rather skip right to the money, then that means you’re not in it for the right reason. Might I suggest the Stock Market?
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have another book to write. So do you. I’m sure if we both stay focused, we’ll be successful.