Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Career Chat: Why Writing Really Good Books Matters

 Author Bob Mayer posted a great discussion entitled, If I Were a Newly Self-Published Author, What Steps Would I Take To Succeed?

I love that his first point is to write really good books, and that it takes time and practice to do that. (And, for most of us, critical feedback, which could be from a good workshop or a professional editor.)

We aren't born knowing how to write really good books. Some of us have more aptitude than others, but while -- as the saying goes -- writing cannot be taught, it can be learned. What that means is that there are many ways to get better. Didactic learning (in a classroom or formal workshop, from lectures, from a teacher) is only one. Some writers fizzle in such environments but thrive when left alone. (I'm not one of them -- I fall in love with my own hideous mistakes.)

Every once in a while, a first novel works. Gets published. Does well. Usually it's a book that the author has slaved over for years, sometimes decades. The book has been honed and evolved over time, making it the equivalent of many separate books in terms of practice. Then what happens all too often is that the second book is a failure. Expectations based on that first book are dashed because the subsequent books are written in a year instead of a decade. (Of course there are exceptions, but far too few.) The other thing is that new writers are not usually astute enough to judge the quality of a book they've obsessed about for so long. They're too close to it, they're enveloped by it.

My first professional novel sale (Jaydium, to DAW in 1991) was actually the 6th or 8th novel I'd completed, depending on how you count (drafts/revisions/novellas). (And I'd revised it -- major rewrites not just polishing -- 3 or 4 times.) I have no idea if I'm a slow learner or whether we just don't talk about all those sub-publication-threshold books we struggled through. There's nothing either right or wrong about how many books we have to write in order to achieve one that we can be proud of, one we can use to launch a career.

That's the point if we want a career and not just one book to hold in our hands. If the latter, go ahead and self-pub it because it isn't going anywhere anyway. If we want to be doing this -- writing stories -- for the long haul, we need to cultivate Bob Mayer's "marathon view" -- the long-distance haul that will carry us through dry times, hard times, publisher explosions, radical shifts in publishing technology, and the like. To do that, we need a solid foundation on which to build the castle of our dreams. That first book needs to be the best we can possibly achieve at our current skill level.

But it doesn't stop there. We need to make the next book even better, and the one after that even better. We don't always succeed, and the market can be brutal. But part and parcel of a long-time career is "pushing the envelope" -- meaning continually striving to improve our craft, to take risks, to dig deeper, to hit those high notes dead on. One of the pitfalls of having sold for a while is the expectation that every book we write will succeed. But sometimes we get ahead of ourselves, or we try something that doesn't connect with readers. We reach beyond our current skill level, or the book really is great, it's just the wrong time or the wrong niche, and at some time in the future, readers will discover (and adore) it. As disappointing as it is to have a book bomb, as long as we're still striving to make each book better than the last, we're doing our part to build that long-term career.

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