Sunday, February 18, 2018

Success At Writing - Part Two

Last week's post began my thoughts about how writing/publishing has changed. It paused at the thought that one of the few ways for new writers to stand out from the crowd of writers is to write more books

I'll put some companion thoughts here.

I've gotten to know quite a few successful writers. Not one of them did it part time. Not one of them wrote just one book. Just as a doctor knows she can't gain traction in the doctor world without 12+ years of school and residency and brutally long hours, successful writers know they have to write many, many books, work the business double time, and do it for a dozen or twenty years before they develop sufficient chops and build an audience.

Periodically, the press keeps the unrealistic dream alive by writing about one of those exceptions, someone who struck gold with her first mystery. Except, oops, a little deeper research reveals that she previously wrote 24 romances under a different name

Want success as a writer? It's just like any other skilled occupation. You gotta go all in.

I've used the restaurant metaphor several times. Almost no successful restaurant can imagine drawing a crowd with only one entree on the menu. You need a broad range of choices. (Even if it's a series that should be read in order.)

Before I go further, I should insert a disclaimer or qualifier. I do not have the one true vision. I only have my experience and my observation. This is what I've learned. It may not apply to anyone else.

Is needing to go all in depressing news? I don't think so unless you are one of the dreamers who wrote a book and imagined you'd be the next Harper Lee.

I actually think it's freeing and almost exhilarating to a realist about writing. Because if you go all in as a writer and approach it the way a physicist wannabe approaches Caltech or the way an NBA wannabe approaches the neighborhood asphalt court, then you have a huge advantage over all the others.

While the people who are in love with the idea of being a writer plan how to spend the riches they probably won't ever see, you will be in love with the actual process of writing, building your technique and your audience. You won't just be considering a second possible book, you'll be plotting out your books through #10 or #20. You'll turn off your TV and spend that time writing. You'll know that your full time day occupation still leaves you with a nearly full-time avocation to be pursued in the morning and evening.

Here's a little thought experiment. No science or math informs this. It's just common sense based on my own experience.

Write 1 book, you have millions of comrades in the writing business.

Write 2 books, you cut your competition down to about 10% of all writers. Wow, that was easy. You just jumped ahead of 90% of all writers simply by writing a second book.

Write 3 books, you now are competing with only 5% of writers.

Get the picture? It's like one of those logarithmic curves. The more books you write, the smaller the number of writers in your crowd.

What if you were to write 10 books? There'd be almost no writers at your level.

What if you were a reader considering books by two writers, one with one book and one with ten books. Which would you think has a better book? Case in point. The writer with more books may not be any better. But as readers, we'd probably lean that way.

At my book exhibits over the last ten years I've noticed a clear trend. When I had 5 books out, readers would ask questions that were aimed at deciding whether or not my books were any good. Now, with 15 books out, there is a clear sense that they assume the books are at least pretty good. So the questions are more about which one to try first.

Back when I had 2 books out (I started by publishing the first two in the beginning) they probably thought I was just one more wannabe who was simply stubborn enough to put out two books before I gave up.

In speaking with the writers who came to my festival book exhibit, I've invoked a writer named Hugh Howey, who has done very well with his novels. I don't agree with everything Howey says, but I strongly agree with most.

Want an example?

Hugh Howey says that he planned to write twenty novels (two per year for ten years) before he decided if writing was the career for him. TWENTY! Talk about going all in. Howey also thinks writers should have a half-dozen novels completed before they even start doing anything with them. Hmmm. He's sold millions of books. Maybe he knows something...

Again, consider two writers. One has twenty books under her belt, the other one or two. Which would you bet on? Will the first one succeed? She probably already has. Can the second writer succeed? Of course. How? There might be several ways. But a logical answer would be for her to go all in, take Howey's advice and write two books a year for the next ten years.

A big commitment? Yeah. So is going to medical school. What else can you do with the time it takes to write twenty books? Watch TV. Play golf. Picnic at the beach. Go to parties or the local bar. You get the idea.

Looking back, I wish I'd had Hugh Howey's focus. I've now finished twenty books. Fifteen published, four in a drawer, one in the pipeline. If I'd done that in ten years instead of the much longer time I've used up, who knows how many more benefits would have accrued to me?

Yes, luck can make a difference. But like everything else in life, success usually comes to those who work hardest. Writers who go all in have a high success rate.

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