The Building Blocks for a Writing Career

Anne Lamott begins a chapter of her wonderful book Bird by Bird like this:

There’s an old New Yorker cartoon of two men sitting on a couch at a busy cocktail party, having a quiet talk. One man has a beard and looks like a writer. The other seems like a normal person. The writer type is saying to the other: “We’re still pretty far apart. I’m looking for a six-figure advance, and they’re refusing to read the manuscript.”

If you find yourself pretty far apart from publishers, perhaps you need to consider using the following seventeen building blocks to construct your career as a successful author:

1. Read: Ernie Gaines, author of the Oprah book club selection, A Lesson Before Dying, believes that you can only write as well as you read. So read what you love to read and write what you love to read. Reading will enable you to establish criteria for your books.

Also read about authors you admire to learn how they succeeded.

2.  Establish models for your books and your career. Choose those that most inspire you.

3. Understand how publishers and agents work: You want the best editor, publisher, and deal for your books. Having a positive but realistic perspective on the business will help you find the right publisher for you and your book, and an agent if you decide to hire one.

4. Set personal and professional goals: Establish goals that keep you motivated to do all you can to achieve them.

5. Practice nichecraft: You can write any kind of book on any subject. But a faster way to build a career is to come up with an idea for a series of related books that sell each other and that you will be passionate about writing and promoting.

6. Develop your craft as a writer: Make every word count for your readers. Find early readers to help you make sure your work is 100% before submitting it.

7. Build communities: You can’t get your books right or make them succeed by yourself. Get the help you need by helping people and asking them to help you.

8. Develop your craft as a marketer:

 * Build your platform: your continuing visibility, online and off, with the readers for your books.

 * Build the communities you need to succeed.

 * Test-market your work: Maximize the value of your book by proving it will sell before trying to get it published.

9. Promote your work: Whether Random House publishes your books or you do, you will be the person most responsible for promoting them. Regard promotion as an essential part of your mission to spread your message.

10. Be passionate about your books: You want all of the people you meet to be as passionate about your work as you are. You are the well from which they will draw.

11. Make Mistakes: Jame Joyce said that “Mistakes are the portals of discovery.” As long as you learn from your mistakes, you will make fewer of them. Eliminate  failure as an option, and success is inevitable.

12. Staying committed to your writing and your career: No one will know or care as much about your books as you do. So you must be relentless but professional about writing and promoting them, and about building your presence in the industry and in your field.

13. Put your life in the service of your readers: The better you serve them, the more they’ll help you achieve your goals. If you want people to keep buying your books, establish and maintain a relationship with them. You have more ways to do that than ever.

14. Be an authorpreneur: Speaker Sam Horn’s brilliant word which, for me, means:

 * having the entrepreneurial ability to create something out of nothing: an idea; a book that you can sell in more forms, media and countries than ever ; an international 365/24/7 business; and a career

 * coming up with ideas that you can sell in as many forms, media, and countries as possible

 * being responsible for your success

 * being unique by being creative in writing and promoting your books

 * being resourceful in meeting challenges

 * looking at everything you experience and reflexively wondering if there’s a way to use it to enrich your personal or professional life

 * using speed, creativity and flexibility to compensate for size

 * embracing and taking advantage of new information, technology, and opportunities created by accelerating change

15. Have courage: Believe in yourself and the value of your books. You will overcome the obstacles that await you.

16. Take the long view: A writing career isn’t one book but ten or twenty, each better and more profitable than the last. So you have to balance and integrate your short- and long-term goals.

17. Grow yourself: You are the most important factor in your success. You have to challenge yourself to improve physically, mentally, spiritually, and professionally. You have to keep learning if you want to keep earning.

You are Needed Now

Creative, resourceful people keep proving that anything is possible, that we are limited only by our ideas and the time and resources we devote to developing them. The world needs all the information, inspiration, help and entertainment you can provide. Enjoy the journey and best of luck!

Writing for Yourself or the Marketplace?

I try to leave out the parts that people skip. –Elmore Leonard

Someone once indelicately said that if you don’t understand the obscurity in Eliot’s poetry, it’s TS. This reminds me of an article in The New Yorker by Jonathan Franzen, author of the bestseller The Corrections. He described two models for novelists that I think can apply to nonfiction writers as well: the status model and the contract model.

The Status Model

The status model is that of literary artist whose mission is to create the most artistic combination of characters, plot and setting that they can devise. How commercial their work is, or how well readers can understand it, is not their primary concern. If Umberto Eco wants to start Focault’s Pendulum with six lines of Hebrew, and you don’t know Hebrew, it’s tough, er, darts. But Eco’s The Name of the Rose does prove that literary writing can be entertaining as well as erudite and enlightening.

If University of California, Berkeley, lecturer Vikram Chandra uses so many Hindi words in his otherwise accessible bestseller, Sacred Games, that many of his sentences are unintelligible, it’s our problem, not his. But Chandra is a gifted storyteller, and it didn’t keep him from getting a million-dollar advance. And it made his use of Hindi Harpercollins’s problem.

Herman Melville may be the ultimate example of a status writer. He wanted to write books that are “said to fail,” and he succeeded. Moby Dick sold less than 500 copies during the forty years that Melville lived after writing it. (But as George Carlin once wondered: “If you try to fail and succeed, which have you done?”)

My bias: I can’t sustain the suspension of disbelief when I read something I don’t understand. It takes me out of being immersed in the story and annoys me that the author has interrupted my enjoyment. But if you were born to be a literary artist, you won’t let my bourgeois failing stop you. Nor should it.

For me, the status model for nonfiction writers is represented by those who feel liberated from the demands of the marketplace. Their mission is presenting their ideas or story however seems best to them, without using successful books like theirs as models. As agents, Elizabeth and I can sometimes tell from the first line of nonfiction submissions, sometimes even the cover letters, that the writers’ only concern is delivering their message, regardless of how well they do it or its salability. But thanks to technology, status nonfiction writers are always assured of getting their books published because print-on-demand and e-book publishers will do it for free.

The Contract Model

The premise of Franzen’s “contract model” is that when you buy a novel, you’re buying entertainment: the author has entered into a contract to entertain you. That becomes the criterion for everything in the book: Does it entertain? Does it, as Elmore Leonard advises, leave out the parts that people skip.

Since readers can’t be entertained by what they don’t understand, being incomprehensible isn’t an option. Most of the literary novelists you see on bestseller lists thrive on making their books understandable as well as entertaining.

For nonfiction, I think the contract is that the book will deliver the benefit that the title promises well enough to justify the time and money you spend on it. Reviews and sampling a book can usually lead you to the right decision about whether to buy it.

Since the fate of most books is uncertain, you’ve got to love writing them to produce your best work. Books you love to read will lead you to the books you were born to write. But no matter what you write, the challenge is to find the right place for your work on the spectrum between art and commerce, between writing for yourself and writing for the marketplace.

Happy trails!

Comments and questions welcome.

The S Theory of Compelling Storytelling

  Forcing Fiction and Narrative Nonfiction Readers to Turn the Page

 The first page sells the book.   –Mickey Spillane

 Agents, editors and book buyers only read far enough to make a decision. If they don’t like what they read on page one, they won’t turn the page. Book buyers may not read the second sentence of a book in a bookstore. This leads to “The S Theory of Storytelling” for fiction and narrative nonfiction that writers want to read like novels:

 Style

Story

Setting

Someone

Something

Something Said

or Something Else

on page one must be compelling enough

to make agents, editors, and book buyers turn the page.

Your book will compete with the growing number of ways consumers can use their free time and discretionary income. So every word you write is an audition to get your readers to read the next word. Every line you write must convince your readers to read the next line. Assume you have only one sentence to convince browsers to keep reading. Every page you write must arouse enough interest to keep readers turning the pages. And you face that challenge on every page you write except the last one.

The last page sells the next book. –Mickey Spillane