Last week I wrote about how Lin-Manuel Miranda didn't just write some great tunes and then, presto, had a smash hit with his musical Hamilton. It was clear that he had a plan to succeed. He knew that he had to write an enormous amount and he had to have a focus on how he was going to make it all come together. The message to the rest of us creative-content producers is to realize that you can't just write some stuff or even a bunch of stuff. You have to know how it will all come together, and then you have to doggedly work to assemble the steps, one by one.
A musical is a good example of how a plan is necessary because we instinctively understand that it is a big production. It's not like writing a single novel and then hoping to have a smash hit.
And yet, it actually is very much like writing novels.
With very few exceptions, almost no one has ever written a single novel and then had a smash hit. It sometimes looks from the outside like that is what happened. But when you do a little research, you find that the one-book wonder actually wrote multiple other books under a pseudonym. Or has a pile of books in a drawer that no one has ever seen. Or ghost-wrote books for a celebrity author who has no writing skills. Or, like Lin-Manuel Miranda, wrote a series of books without immediately publishing them, then edited and rewrote and edited and rewrote some more. When the first book was delivered to the agent/editor or was self-published, the advance reviews and blurbs were all ready to print. If you haven't done that, why not?
This is not a write-it-and-the-readers-will-come enterprise. This is a careful, thoughtful process where every major question has been posed and then answered before the writer ever reveals her first book. Lin-Manuel has shown us the way. Have a thorough plan and then execute it step-by-step. Know where you're going. Do your due diligence.
So my challenge to anyone who reads this is the same as my challenge to myself. Look very carefully at what motivates readers (or theater goers) to devour certain kinds of books or stage shows or any other type of intellectual entertainment (as opposed to watching team sports or riding the roller coaster at the amusement park). There are a thousand components. Study them. Sympathetic characters in trouble, gripping plots that intensify those troubles. surprise that worries and surprise that delights.
Next, study how it is delivered and how an audience is built. Miranda learned how the theater works. And he didn't just produce one spectacular show. He built a body of work. Multiple musicals. (And starring roles for himself!) Miranda shows that you don't have to brag your way to getting attention. Instead, position yourself to get noticed. Be ready to take on opportunity. If you write a musical and your skill is such that someone is willing to put up the dollars to produce it, does the starring role go to someone you've never heard of? Much better to take the time to learn to sing and dance and act. Be available for your success! This approach applies to all of the creative arts, including novelists. When the libraries and book clubs call and ask you to come and give a talk, is it already written? Can you give them 20 minutes or 40 minutes plus Q & A? Are the jokes and the self-deprecating lines ready for their laughs? Will you be prepared for the radio interviews? If not, why? You're a writer. Write those talks. Write those jokes. Be ready for your success.
Another aspect to your plan is the big picture. If you are a novelist, don't, I repeat, DON'T just write one novel. Unless you are Margaret Mitchell or Harper Lee, you won't go anywhere. Plan your SHELF of books. Plan them IN ADVANCE. Plan a series. Plan characters who will populate that shelf. There are almost no one-book wonders. In fact, even among authors who write multiple books, there are almost none who are successful unless their books fit into a plan, books that are linked by series or characters or, at the minimum, theme. Don't just write. Write to a comprehensive plan.
That may just be the most important ingredient for writing success.
P.S. We saw Hamilton in San Francisco, and it was great. It was obvious that it wasn't put together by someone who merely had a great idea about writing a musical. This was a tour de force, created with great planning and relentless effort and follow through. We can all learn from that kind of focus. That kind of plan.