Sunday, November 6, 2016

Writers, When Does Your Body Of Work Become More Important Than Your Next Book?

Maybe this is a no-brainer... But the obvious often eludes me.

I was thinking about the dichotomy between a writer's "next book" and a writer's slowly-growing "body of work."

As writers, we go through predictable stages. When our first book comes out, we think, Oh, my God, I have a book out! When each of our next few books comes out, we think, Oh, my God, I have another book out!

With each new novel, we are very aware of this sense that each additional book demonstrates that we're not a one-book-wonder, that we are a real writer. But we're also aware that we're only as good as our most recent book. If it is lousy and it tanks, maybe we're done for. Maybe the vast universe of readers will think we collapsed into a black hole without even going through a flame-out supernova.

A few books ago, I began to notice that readers sometimes spoke of my series, of my characters, of this whole world-building thing I've created as much as, or even more than, whatever book was my most recent. Each year, that sense has increased.

So I thought about other writers, which made me wonder about John D. MacDonald, one of the gods that all of us mystery and thriller writers worship.

Of course, I'm nowhere near John D's league. But when he wrote "The Lonely Silver Rain," the 21st in his Travis McGee series - the book that became the last of the series because of his sudden and untimely death - did he worry about whether it was sufficient in quality to maintain the rep of the series?

I'm pretty sure he realized that the series was more important than each addition to it. Even if he hadn't written about four dozen other novels, it would have been obvious that his body of work had taken on its own substance, and, that while each novel he wrote could benefit from his body of work, no single novel could measure up to it. John D's collected works had become far more important than his current or next writing project.

So here's my summation. Perhaps as writers, we should, very early on, start to think about our body of work. Maybe, while we're thrashing through the current and next writing project, we should back up - back waaaay up - and look at our total future bookshelf. When we see our work as a collected body with, hopefully, a cohesiveness that we've thought about and shaped and designed, maybe that will give us a grander vision. We can use that perspective to greenlight the good, useful stories and hit delete on the ideas that look good up close but from a larger distance - the distance of a long view - appear lame. By looking at our body of work, we can see that some of the stuff that seems so cool right now might be, in fact, a drag on the larger picture of what we're about.

Our body of work is more important than our next book.

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