Four Ways to Avoid a Dead-End Career

Have you ever seen a talented new writer rise to seeming stardom, only to crash and burn within a couple of years?  I recall being a new writer and studying my contemporaries with a mixture of awe and fear, trying to figure out who the big writers would be in the future. Ten years later, nearly all of them were gone, even the big award winners.

So here are 4 tips for those who are starting out. I can’t tell you how many ways there are to go wrong, but here are some big ones.

  1. Make sure that each of your novels is better than the last.  When a critic is wowed by 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 kill your career.  Why?  Because you’ve just created a pattern that suggests that you’re on a downward slope. Your great first novel was a fluke. You want your pattern to show that you’re growing in creative and writing prowess.
  2. Don’t be a one-trick pony. Most first novelists who grab rave reviews have a few things that they do well. They might have a gift for a certain tone or style, or perhaps for developing gritty characters.  But if you do the same thing with every novel, readers are likely to get bored.  For example, I once saw a novelist write a story about an abused child that wowed the critics.  On her fourth novel about an abused child, a critic asked in a review, “Doesn’t she have anything else to say?”  Perhaps not.  Perhaps her own childhood experiences left her so scarred that nothing else seemed important.  But it did cripple her career.  So I recommend that with each novel, you struggle to expand your skills.  Let’s say that book 1 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?
  3. Choose your turf.  As an author, you eventually have to define yourself, try to figure out whom you want to become.  For example, you might say, “I want to be the John Grisham of hard science fiction.”  By doing that, you create a brand for your novels, a niche market that you can take over.  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 career.)
  4. Make writing your priority.  When you’re an excellent writer, you will often have job opportunities come your way.  After winning Writers of the Future, I got a telephone call from a local computer company, where a manager asked, “If I start you at $24,000 per year, would you be able to come into work today.” At the time, 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, it squeezes your time for actually writing.  As a novelist, keep your focus on writing, if at all possible.

My middle-grade novel, Of Mice and Magic, is on sale for $0.99 on Amazon.

More than anything, Benjamin Ravenspell wants a pet. But when he buys a mouse named Amber, he gets more than he bargained for. No sooner does Ben take her home, than Amber turns him into a mouse too.

You see, Amber has magical abilities, and it so happens that Ben is a familiar—a creature that stores magical energy. Together they each form half of a powerful wizard. Alone, they’re just vermin.

Soon Ben and Amber find themselves pitted in an epic battle against a magical enemy who is as crazed as he is evil—and the fate of the world will rest on them learning to work together.

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