The Do's and Don'ts of Being a Happy Writer (On Your Way to [long-term] Publishing Success)
I was asked to give a presentation at a writer's guild meeting a few weeks back and I tried to think about what kind of wisdom I wanted to impart on my audience. What have I learned after five years in this business between being rejected by literary agents (at least 100 of them), self publishing my first book, getting that book picked up by a Big 5 publisher along with a second book, and then going BACK to self publishing the subsequent 5 books, including the three in my J.J. McCall series.
I don't know if anything I've learned is particularly profound, but what I know is that every word is true. If you want to be a successful writer, you have to find a way to be a happy writer--you have to find a way to love what you do, every day, through success and failure, through sales ups and downs, through weeks and weeks devoid of sunlight and human contact because you're so deep in your work, through rejection, through bad reviews and good reviews and more bad reviews. The act of writing a story must give you some level of satisfaction, some level of joy. Maybe not consistent joy, but enough of that sweet spot to keep you coming back for more...even when more sucks to the high heavens, even when you're not where you want to be and frequently question the insane voice that told you you will get there....someday.
Want to be a happy writer who can weather storms of publishing future? Do...and don't do the following...
1. Do -- Write for the love of writing. Don't write to achieve another author's level of success.
The biggest lesson I've learned is this -- for most writers instant success WILL NOT come. You will not be discovered by a Big 5 publisher. Even if you are discovered, most WILL NOT be bestsellers, rather you will whither away and die in the mid-list. No movie producer or book editor is stalking your Amazon or blog page waiting on you to become the next big thing so they can give you a 7-Figure deal or turn your book into a movie. Your chances of becoming the next big thing are slim and none--especially if you give up, which so many authors who don't achieve their "author ideal" tend to do. And the reason that most people give up is because they aren't writing for the love of writing--they are writing for the sole purpose of achieving some other author's success. And if that's the case, you may as well quit now.
You can't do it.
If you're not happy in the grind of writing, tapping those fingers at 3 AM, cloaked in funky pajamas, with an IV drip of coffee, no audience, no help, nothing but you and your pen and notebook---or laptop? Then you won't find sustainable success in this business. You might get lucky...but it probably won't last. Those who love the grind will out last them all. The more books you write and publish, the more likely you will be to find success--whether you're lucky or not.
2. Do -- Write what you love (not necessarily KNOW). Don't -- Follow trends.
I write what I love...which is why I STILL love writing so much. Now, get this. Three years ago, I pitched the idea for my J.J. McCall novels to my agent. He thought the initial concept was good but when I made J.J. a lie detector, he hated it. He wanted it to be like a Clancy or a Silva type book. And I'm not Clancy or Silva. I'll never out Clancy, Clancy or out-Silva, Silva. Just won't happen. All I could do is find the story that I love, be the best S.D. Skye I could be, and see what the audience thought. Admittedly, my initial sales were almost non-existent.
I think they're up about 100-fold...and growing a little bit every month. Why? I can only imagine current events have sent people back looking for good spy novels. How in hell could I have predicted more than three years ago that I would write a series about Russian intelligence versus the FBI just in time for Russia to make incursions into the Ukraine or Edward Snowden to seek asylum in Russia. Or predict that Book 2 in the series, which centers on a major Secret Service failure, would be on sale right when there was a major Secret Service failure.
I wrote the stories that I loved, whether they sold or not, and eventually they started to find their audience. And I think that's what you have to do. If I find above average success with these books, I will be able to sustain because I'm writing what's in my heart...not what's trending.
3. Do -- Learn to accept criticism. Don't -- Take all advice.
The first thing I learned in this business is how to accept and process criticism and I don't think any other skill has helped me stay as happy in the publishing business than that one.
Truth is -- not everyone is going to love your work. Some people are going to dislike it...intensely. Some people are going to hate it. Some people are going to wake up and shit on your baby just because they can. It's just a fact of life. Deal with it.
How do you deal with it? If you're like me, you'll start with a shot of vodka, tell them to piss off...and then after you cool down, you will read the soul-searing words with an objective eye and find the grain of truth that you can use to make your work better in the future. I believe the reason that I've had some level of staying power is because I not only have learned how to accept criticism...but then I use the good parts of it make my work better the next time. No greater satisfaction than taking what was meant for your harm using it for your good.
The thing is, though--you can't take everyone's advice. Some advice won't apply to you. Some people just flat out don't know what the hell they are talking about. It's true.
The best way to discern between the two is to KNOW YOUR CRAFT. I don't have an MFA. I have an MBA. But I've read enough books on craft and taken enough classes to know what's BS and what actually applies to my work.
If you learn your craft, really study it, then you'll know how to filter criticism and advice.
4. Do -- Have the drive to be successful. Don't -- Judge your success on someone else's journey.
What gets me out of bed every day is writing stories and transcribing these voices in my head everyday. That's what gives me the energy. The love of writing.
What keeps my ass in the chair....through editing, and Beta reads, and sunny days when I'd rather be outside playing with the other kids, is my desire to reach as wide an audience as possible for my work. To write the best stories I can write...and to publish them in a way that people will fall in love with my characters as I have.
When it comes to judging my success, I have learned to STAY IN MY LANE. That means, I don't judge my success by what Silva and Clancy have done. I judge my success by where I was 5 years ago, 4 years ago, 3 years ago, 2 years ago, 1 year ago. I started out selling less than 10 books a month. Now I'm selling well into the hundreds (for the same book). When I was with a Big 5 publisher, I had ZERO online pre-orders with any bookseller. With my J.J. McCall series -- not only do I have pre-orders, but I have them in like 4 countries. I mean, who knew???
By judging my success by where I've been versus where others have been, then every single step forward is success and it keeps me happy...and it keeps me writing.
5. Do -- Seek Publication. Don't --Seek Validation.
There is a difference, I've learned. There was a time when I did think my work was good enough if an agent didn't want to represent me or an editor didn't want to publish me. With my very first novel. I thought I didn't have what it took. I hired an consulting editor who had previously worked with a Big 5 publisher and she told me to throw it in a drawer and start the next one. I was deflated to say the least. Almost gave up. Then I had a Come-to-Jesus moment. And during that moment, I really had to decide if I believed in myself and my story. I sat and read it from beginning to end--and laughed my head off. It's really funny. And I said, "Somewhere in this world, there is ONE person that will get something out of this book and I'm going to try and sell it to that ONE person. Damn what the literary agents say. Damn what the editors say."
And I self published that book--which four months later was represented by a pretty major NY agent and published by a Big 5.
I didn't wait for validation. I believed in my story enough to know I could reach ONE person...and one person was good enough for me.
Where so many people fail is that---ONE person isn't good enough. They want ONE million and when one million doesn't come in the FIRST MONTH they give up. You have to learn that if you believe in your work enough to sell it to one -- then you can sell it to one more.
So, I hope writers feel rejuvenated and inspired to stay happy and keep pushing another day. Sometimes, that's all it takes to find success.
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