Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Eight Most Important Things I've Learned About Finding Success Writing Novels

Last weekend, I exhibited at the Burlingame Art & Wine Festival. (For those of you from out of town, Burlingame is "on the peninsula" just south of San Francisco.)

Many people came by to get my new book, and many more stopped to see what these "Tahoe Mysteries" were all about. I found lots of new readers, which is always great.

I also had three writers stop by, all of whom were at an early point in their writing careers, still working on their first novels. They had many questions. I realized that the answers comprised some of the most important things I've learned since I began in the business.

Do I know it all? Absolutely not. I'm just one writer with one set of experiences. Nevertheless, perhaps the things I've learned have some value. So I write them down in case they are of any help...

1) Learn how to write a very good book and then do it over and over. Study writing. Take classes. Go to multiple writing conferences. Join critique groups. Get multiple critiques from people who aren't your buddies, the harsher the critique, the better. (Friends and relatives are usually reluctant to tell you "the truth" about reservations they have regarding your writing. Whereas serious critique from relative strangers can save you a huge amount of embarrassment by helping you fix stuff before you publish or send your work to agents.) Join several writing organizations and go to their meetings. Find beta readers. Get your book "work-shopped" over and over. Some writers think that because they are voracious readers - which of course is good - they will be skillful at learning it all without outside input. Those authors may be doomed to fail. And, from what I've seen, they'll blame it on "how hard the business is" rather than considering that their books are filled with pages of needless exposition, a plot arc that doesn't rise, a protagonist who isn't in life-or-death trouble, an antagonist without proper motivation, head-hopping point-of-view shifts within a single scene, irregular writing mechanics, and countless other problems that any of those outside inputs would have found and solved. Write a very good book, and you've taken the single most important step to success.

2) Don't think about writing just one book. Before you've even gotten close to finishing a first draft of your first book, it will benefit you in uncountable ways to be planning and thinking about your future books. Just the act of considering what your second and third novels are going to be will inform and improve how you write that first one. As I've said before, you can't create a successful restaurant with just one entree. At the earliest opportunity, it helps to start thinking about your entire future menu.

3) Plan not for a book but for a writing career. Think long term. Consider your first book as the Beginning Of Your Back List. It is an author's back list more than anything else that creates their rep, their cred, and - this is the huge part - their future income. Almost without exception, the most successful authors have the most books. They rarely think about their current project without considering how it fits into the big picture.

4) Think Series. The portion of bestselling books that belong to a series has grown from a small percentage 25 years ago to a significant majority today. Readers love to revisit the worlds of characters they've come to know. And when you find readers who love just one of your books that is in a series, you need not ever sell them again. They will buy the entire series. But if you step outside of a series, you have to sell them all over again. If you want to write another set of characters, create another series.

5) Write at least one book per year. Yes, it's work, but it's the best work in the world. The only reliable way to keep your readers happy is to give them a new story at least once a year. If you can do more books - and MANY authors do - do it. But if you do less than one book per year, you will have a hard time maintaining an audience. (I've only been writing one book per year, so I'm painfully aware of what I'm missing by not writing more. I'm trying to step up my game, but it will require that I back off events or, possibly, writing this blog!)

6) Be wary of stepping outside of your genre. If someone were to buy the latest Stephen King and find out it was a Nicholas Sparks-style tearjerker, they would likely be upset. Leaving your genre is dangerous to your career. If you insist on switching from, say, mysteries to romantic comedies, consider writing each genre under a different name. Many writers do this and have as many careers as they have pseudonyms. Just remember that you have to produce.

7) Always remember that it is up to the author to sell his or her books. Knowing this up front helps you plan your strategy for developing your platform and reaching your audience. We always read about those lightning bolt success stories where an author catches fire with their first book. But they are beyond VERY RARE. You simply cannot plan on that happening. Look at how many garage bands there are in every little town in the country. Now compare that to the number of rock stars. Yes, writers sometimes shoot to the top - think Gillian Flynn or Paula Hawkins - and the media focuses on them so much that we get a mistaken impression that stardom is what happens to authors. But because the media doesn't write about the millions of authors who never become known, we get a distorted impression about the odds of success. The reality is that they are the top 1% of the top 1% of the top 1%. Statistically, those are impossible odds. So plan from the beginning that you will cultivate and grow an audience reader by reader. If you do that, write multiple good books in a series, and plan to put in many years as you would with any serious career, you will find success.

8) Approach a writing like a business. You have to invest an enormous amount of time and energy and, yes, significant money, too, if you want to succeed. If you are published by a New York house, plan to take your entire advance and maybe double it and spend it on marketing. Seriously, that is what many successful authors do especially in the beginning. (Of course, many of them are reluctant to confess that they've done this as they'd prefer to have people think that their success was a foregone conclusion, so great was their writing.) The authors who celebrate publication by spending their advance on a trip to Maui are the ones whose options aren't renewed. Publishers don't sell books, they merely make them available for sale and include them in their catalogs. Publishers are looking for the few authors who get out and hustle books. (Just ask a publisher or editor after they've had a couple of drinks and are willing to tell the truth.) If you are published by a small house with a small or non-existent advance, your bar for success in the publisher's eye is lower. But don't you want to succeed anyway? Sell a ton of books and then move up to a big publisher? And if you self-publish, then you have the advantage of keeping the majority of your sales revenue, which, for the most successful authors, is a huge motivation. Sell enough books and you'll get rich.

In sum, successful authors think about and plan for the big picture, and they study the business enough to have a realistic idea of what is involved. Naive authors think that their book will light up the reading world like a space shuttle launch. Were they choosing any other career, they would probably have a more sensible approach. (If they chose a career as a surgeon, they would probably expect to do a thousand surgeries before they found stardom, if ever.) But writing has such a magical aura about it that people get starry eyed.

Do your due diligence, learn your chops, study the business, be realistic. Those who do have the best chance of being successful, and once successful, writers relish having the hands-down, best job in the world.

Okay, I gotta go make up a story...


  1. Sorry we missed you in Tahoe. The afternoon you were at Artifacts we had plans. Bought the book and will start it next July as we prep for our few weeks in Tahoe. We'll catch ya next year for sure!!!

  2. I'm almost nine months behind on your posts but I was one of those lucky three working on my first book who had the honor of speaking with you about the writing process. I remember it being a very hot day for the area, which probably had a negative effect on the turn out. You stuck it out like a trooper though and I'm greatful for the advice and encouragement you provided.

    I also stopped by your booth when you were at the Moutain View art & wine fest, but you and your wife were really busy (congrats with that!) so I just waived. Keep up the great work and your blog has been very helpful!

    1. Thanks for coming by, Andrew! Keep up the writing...