Have you ever seen a talented new writer rise to stardom, only to crash and burn?
It happens a lot. As a new writer, I studied my contemporaries with a mixture of awe and fear, trying to figure out who my big competition would be. Ten years later, nearly all of them were gone, even the big award-winners.
I can’t tell you how many ways you might go wrong, but here are some to watch out for:
- Make sure each novel you write is better than the last. When you wow a critic with your first novel, he’ll rave about it. Ideally, a dozen or more reviewers will do the same. But critics look for a “pattern of greatness.” If you turn in one of your trunk novels as your second book, something less than your initial offering, you’ll damage your career. Do it enough, and the critics will stop reading you.
Why? Because you’ve just created a pattern that suggests that you’re on a downward slope. Your great first novel is seen as a fluke. You don’t want greatness to be a fluke. You want readers to feel that each book gets better than the last.
You want to show that you’re growing in writing prowess.
- Don’t be a one-trick pony. Most first novelists who gain rave reviews have a few things they do well. They might have a gift for a certain tone or creating surprising plots, or perhaps for developing gritty characters.
But if you do the same things with every novel, readers are likely to get bored. For example, I once saw a novelist write a tale about an abused child that really enthralled the critics. Everyone loved it. She won awards and sold well. But on her fourth novel about an abused child, a reviewer asked, “Doesn’t she have anything else to say?”
Perhaps not. Perhaps her own childhood experiences left her so scarred that nothing else seemed important.
So her inability to tackle other subject matter destroyed a promising her career.
I recommend that with each novel, struggle to expand your skills. Let’s say that book one was set in a contemporary location. Can you try expanding that—perhaps going into a historical period or moving to another continent? If your character voices all sound too similar, could you try extending your range in your next novel?
- Brand yourself. As an author, you need to define yourself, figure out who you want to be. For example, you might say, “I want to be the Stephen King of children’s picture books.”
By doing that, you create a brand, a niche market that you can develop and dominate. If you try writing in several genres, the chances are good that you will fail to draw readers from one book to another. (Take it from me: I’ve written adult science fiction, adult fantasy, historical, middle grade, young adult novels, picture books, and so on. It’s great fun, but it’s a handicap when trying to develop an enviable readership.)
- Make writing your priority. When you’re an excellent writer, you will often have job opportunities come your way.
Shortly after winning Writers of the Future, I got a phone call from a local software developer. A manager asked, “If I start you at $24,000 per year, could you come to work today?” As a college student, that was a good salary. Later I was offered jobs as a college professor, as the president of a small movie studio, as the vice president in a videogame company, and so on. But each time you as a novelist take on a side obligation, you sacrifice writing time. If you want to be a novelist, focus on writing.
There are ten thousand ways to create a great writing career, but there are a million ways to ruin one. I’ve just told you four of them.
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