I’ve been watching other writers now for nearly fifty years, thanks in part to a neighbor I had as a kid. I was born and raised in Oregon, and in the late 60s, the Hippie Generation was on the move. I lived in a small farming community, and suddenly we had “flower children” moving into town in droves. Some lived in communes in farmhouses, others in teepees, and others in vans that were crudely painted with flowers and peace symbols. Hell, I had friends who were wildmen that just camped out in the woods.
One of those friends was a hippie who made a living as a writer. He was odd even among writers. He once told me that he had twenty-some pseudonyms. He would use one name to write porn for Hustler, another to write a news piece of the Christian Science Monitor, a third to write for Redbook. He focused entirely on short nonfiction. I’ve known novelists like him, but none with more than seven or eight pseudonyms.
Then there was Ken Kesey, who wrote One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Sometimes a Great Notion, and other fine novels. I think I was thirteen, maybe fourteen when I first met him. I went to several parties where he was present, but didn’t talk to him much. I was just a kid, after all.
As I watch novelists, it becomes obvious that we all go through phases in our writing.
New Writers. Some of you are still struggling to break in and make your first sales. These writers are often excited at the prospect of writing and are fueled solely by adrenaline and the need to write. I love new writers.
Career Builders. Others of you are early in your career, where you’re expanding your audience. You have a novel or two published. The excitement is still there, but you find that writing a book is more enjoyable when you finish a novel and a big paycheck comes with it. So you often start to explore different genres, try to hone in on where you’ll make your mark.
Mid-Career. Then we hit plateaus in mid-career where we often feel satisfied that we’ve broken out. This is an odd point. Writers at this point—say a dozen novels in—often feel that writing becomes a grind.
I know some writers who begin to feel, “I’ve said everything that I want to say in life.” One of my friends, an award-winning author, began to feel as if, “I don’t think I have anything left.” Both the need to communicate and the excitement about paychecks starts to diminish.
The writers realize that family and society are really more important than their personal ego.
But when writers hit that mid-career mark, they often become popular enough so that producers begin talking to them about movie options and television deals. When this happens, the truth is that the folks who talk to you are often young filmmakers who don’t have the pull, connections, and know-how to maneuver in their own industry, and so if their plans bring any fruit at all—say a movie—, it is often small and malformed.
In other words, as a writer you learn to avoid getting excited about such things. A few months ago, I had a young producer ask about optioning a novel and I actually had to stifle a yawn. (I didn’t want to embarrass him by yawning in his face.) But I felt as if I’d ‘been there and done that’ so many times that I have learned to get bored with such offers. It’s better to just keep your head down and keep writing.
You see, those big offers tend to come to you the most once you’re popular enough.
Apex Writers. If you can reach the point where your books sell six million copies globally, then you’re bankable as a writer. Those six million books act as advertisements for movie adaptations, and filmmakers know it. Each book sale guarantees about one film viewer.
So suddenly at the apex of your career, you find that it’s not the independent producers that seek you out, it’s the big bankable producers that run the studios.
They have guaranteed distribution and can bring in truckloads of money, and they’ll get very serious. If you can hit 20 million sales on a book, you don’t have to wonder if big offers will come your way, you just have to pick the best offer among dozens of suitors.
This is when you know you’re at the apex of your career. This is when you hit the Stephen King/John Grisham level, and running your apex career becomes a well-oiled machine.
Your books advertise the upcoming movies, and the film companies spend millions advertising your books. The relationship becomes synergistic. Your audience grows so large that each book you write has enough pre-sales so that you hit #1 on the bestseller lists, and the resulting films hit #1 at the box office.
If you’re a new writer, it may be hard for you to imagine that you can have an apex career, but the truth is that you can do it right out the gate. With the right book and the right push from a publisher, your first novel can generate enough excitement so that you become an apex writer—the way that JK Rowling, Stephenie Meyer, John Grisham, and Stephen King all did.
What I want to emphasize is this: don’t be self-limiting. You don’t have to imagine that becoming an apex writer is outside your abilities or that it will take you a thousand years. It could happen with your very first novel. But if you’re a Suzanne Collins (The Hunger Games) or a James Dashner (The Maze Runner) and have to ramp up with a few early novels, that’s not so bad, either.
Just understand that this is the goal of every beginning writer, to reach the apex of your career. Don’t ever let yourself lose the fire in your belly. Don’t imagine that it can’t be done.
I’m going to be starting a new program that focuses not so much on “how to break in” or “how to write a single novel,” but “how to turn yourself into an apex writer.” So stay tuned.
Two of my online workshops Writing Enchanting Prose and the Advanced Story Puzzle will be starting again Dec 14th. That’s this Saturday!
The Advanced Story Puzzle: How to Brainstorm and Outline a Bestseller
The Advanced Story Puzzle covers the steps involved in prewriting and outlining your novel.
Learn to identify what pieces you need, what pieces you’re missing, how to find the elements you lack, how to know if a piece to your story puzzle is worthy of being included, and how to know if you’re even working on the right “puzzle”.
There are six lessons on setting, character, conflict, plotting, theme, and treatment. You will also have weekly video conferences where we can discuss your story and answer any questions. Turn in your weekly assignments and I will grade them and give further advice.
Writing Enchanting Prose
Writing Enchanting Prose will help you write in order to entrance your reader.
You’ve read stories that absolutely swept you away into another world, stories made you forget you were reading and ultimately left you changed. This workshop is designed to teach you how to make your readers feel that way about your stories.
Similar to the Advanced Story Puzzle, there are eight lessons with weekly conference calls and assignments.
You can find more information on both workshops here: http://mystorydoctor.com/online-workshops/