Sunday, March 13, 2016

Your New Book Hasn't Caught Fire? Write A Bunch More.

You've written a novel. Fantastic. You should be proud. Few people ever have the chutzpah to try such large, complex, intellectual undertaking. And of those few who try, only a small percentage follow through to the finish.

It's very exciting when you type "The End," and it's reasonable to want to send it out and pursue the dream of finding a publisher. Or maybe you decide to publish it yourself. The thrill of having your book produced as a physical entity, there to look great on your shelf or coffee table, is like no other. It's a big deal, this book stuff.

But why is it that when someone writes a novel and nothing big happens with it, they think it's a failure, or a giant disappointment, or terribly unfair, or... fill in the blank.

I have four completed novels in a drawer. Two of them garnered a bunch of rejections. The other two I never even sent out. I also have many partial novels and even more treatments and outlines. Nothing happened with any of them. Is that a failure or a giant disappointment, or terribly unfair?

Let's look at it from a different perspective. Think of any desirable career. What does it take to succeed in that career? Probably four years of college, maybe a graduate degree or two, a bunch of specific career training, an apprenticeship or residency or internship or on-the-job training, possibly multiple jobs before you find your rhythm. If you want to be a successful professional, you can expect to spend many years getting up to speed. Six, eight, ten years. If you want to be a cardiac surgeon, you might expect to spend 16 years from college to medical school to your residency to a lot of on-the-job training. Then you'd spend another 10 developing true excellence.

Yet a novelist wants success after writing one book? Is becoming an excellent novelist much easier than becoming a surgeon? I don't know. But writing novels sure ain't ditch digging. It takes time. Lots of time.

If a novelist were to be realistic about the job training, he or she might expect to spend ten or twelve years writing ten or twelve novels to become expert at the job.

Yet, many writers write a single book, and when nothing much happens - no best-seller list appearances and no starred reviews in the big journals - they think that they're a grand failure at worst and a grand disappointment at best? What are they thinking?

A typical professional writer writes at least one book a year. Four books could be considered a minimum of college-level education in the field of writing. Figure in another couple of books for your Masters equivalent. Add four more years of writing to hone your writing chops. Do you see why so many successful writers have dozens of novels under their belt before they achieved success? And why so many writers whose successful "first novels" were actually preceded by a dozen novels written under a different name?

I've mentioned before the old joke about the neurosurgeon who comes to an author signing and says to the author, "When I retire, I'm going to write a novel." And the author says, "Really? When I retire, I'm going to do brain surgery."

Becoming an accomplished writer takes years and years of hard, focused effort. Anyone who thinks they can pound out a first novel and have it catch fire is either deluded or is the next Truman Capote.

Of course, all of us in the trenches are eager to find the next Capote, so go for it. Show your chops.

If, possibly, you're not quite in that category, then your best chance for success is to be realistic. Stop hoping you're the next shooting star. Start thinking of yourself as a future professional writer, with all of the related aspects. Think of your career the way would-be doctors think of theirs. Plan to put in years and years of effort.

The payoff is extremely attractive. Making up stories for a living is the best job in the world. It's worth the investment of time and work and energy. The critical realization is that it takes time and work and energy.


  1. I haven't been to your blog in a while, sorry about that, but I'm relieved to see the continued pointers about getting into professional writing! I'm getting close to finishing my first book, hopefully it'll be available by the end of the year, and no matter how well it does in sales I still had fun with the writing process with plans on where to go from there. Thank you for you wonderful insights!

    1. Hey, Andrew. Congrats on moving forward with your book! Glad to be of help!