But I Want Success Now!

When I was a writer aspiring to be published, I went to a book signing here in Seattle where number one bestselling author Lee Child was making an appearance. As I stepped up to get his autograph, I mentioned that I had finished three books and was struggling to find a publisher. He told me, “Remember, it only takes ten years to become an overnight success.”

At the time I thought he was just being kind to a newbie, giving me encouragement that I would someday reach my goal. It wasn’t until a few years later when I was a published author and knew Lee a little better that I ran into him at Bouchercon and reminded him of what he’d said. I told him that I understood he hadn’t been pandering to me, and Lee nodded in agreement. Although he won awards early in his career, it took him eight books before he made an appearance on the NY Times list, and several more years before he became LEE CHILD, brand name author.

I think the Internet has only accelerated our skewed expectation that you should become a huge success as soon as you type “The End” on your first manuscript. Writers focus on promoting their first novel to a fault. I see that mistake frequently when I go to writers’ conferences and spot an author pitching agents the same book they’ve brought three years in a row. I see it with authors flogging their one and only book on social media over and over in the hope that it will take off.

Our excessive exposure to the one-in-a-million shots only exacerbates the problem. We see someone like E.L. James, Kathryn Stockett, or Stephenie Meyer reach a massive audience with their first novels and think that will happen for us. It does happen, about once a year out of the over 200,000 books published, but we don’t often read about the back stories behind other authors who toiled in relative obscurity for years before hitting the big time.

Everyone knows mega-selling author Dean Koontz. He’s been producing work for so long that it’s hard to remember a time when he wasn’t on the bestseller lists, but many don’t realize the dues he paid to get there. Before he published Whispers, his big breakout hit, he wrote thirty-eight novels in twelve years. During that time he was making a living, but he wasn’t a household name like he is now.

The ranks of the current bestseller lists are filled with similar stories. It took twelve years and eight novels for Steve Berry just to find a publisher. Dan Brown published his first three books to little fanfare, and then The DaVinci Code turned them into bestsellers.

Tess Gerritsen wrote nine novels over nine years before she released her first NY Times bestseller, Harvest. Lisa Gardner wrote twelve books over seven years before reaching the next level with The Perfect Husband. Janet Evanovich wrote at least twelve novels before hitting it big with Stephanie Plum in One for the Money. In the self-publishing realm, romance author Bella Andre wrote two series over seven years without much notice and then began self-publishing, after which she became a regular on the bestseller list.

These stories of determination and persistence are the rule, not the exception. While it’s possible to land on that one killer premise from the get-go, building an audience, working on the craft, and developing your voice seems to be the steadier path to ultimate writing success.

I often think of a story from Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland. They write about a ceramics teacher who, on the first day of class, divided the students into two sections: one half would be graded on the perfection of a single pot, while the other half would be graded on the weight of their output—an A for fifty pounds, B for forty pounds, and so on. At the end of the semester, the results for the quality vs. quantity test were remarkable. The students being graded on poundage had thrown pots that were of significantly superior quality than the ones by the students who had studied and ached about how to create that one perfect pot. Practice ultimately made the “quantity” students produce better quality as well.

I believe being an author is the same. Thinking about writing doesn’t make you better, writing does. And if you have a large body of work, it’s much more likely a publisher or readers will discover your writing.

So don’t perseverate on perfecting that one novel. If you want to make writing a career, your publisher and readers are going to want many more books. Sit down at your computer and throw those pots. When you’re a success and looking in the rear-view mirror ten years from now, you’ll wonder how it went by so quickly.

27 thoughts on “But I Want Success Now!

  1. So don’t perseverate on perfecting that one novel.

    I think it’s a tad scary that you folks know exactly what I’m worrying about and write a blog on it the very same day.

  2. Boyd, that story about the ceramics teacher is a keeper. Photographers know this lesson well: my wife, who has won awards with her photographs, takes thousands of them in search of that elusive memorable shot that captures a particularly memorable moment or image. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Sound and solid, Boyd. Whether traditional or indie, the name of this game is quality production over time. Quality comes from practice and learning and discipline. Gee, just like almost everything else in life.

  4. Ditto to what James said – I think many aspiring writers focus on that ‘one first big hit’ mentality but sadly I also think many publishers do too.

  5. Exactly what I needed to hear. I have touble doing it all though–not the preserverance, I think I have that, but with the day job and the painting practice and the photography, something suffers (these days it’s the photography). I would like to write more than one thing at a time, but I worry about not finishing things and I worry that I’ve written only 4 novels in 6 years. 🙂 You could say I worry about everything.

  6. Possibly the best writing advice I ever got was on what to do when a first novel is finished: start the next. Work to get it sold, but keep writing. if the first novel is good and sells, the first question an agent or publisher will ask is, “What else do you have?” If it doesn’t sell, you don;t want to have wasted time you could have spent improving your craft.

    • So true Dana. Agents aren’t interested i one-trick ponies. Every one I ever met said they wanted writers who wanted long careers. And the “what else have you got?” is important in that your novel might not be sellable for many reasons but YOU as a writer might be. You have to separate the YOU from your NOVEL. It’s YOU THE WRITER that you are trying to sell; not one book.

  7. I have kept this quote above my typewriter (then PC then laptop) for two decades:

    “The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas.” — Linus Pauling.

    The guy was “just” a chemist but it applies to writers as well. You have to willing to try a lot of things out, write a lot of crap, throw it away, and start over again. It’s the only way, grasshopper.

    • Great quote. As a scientist-turned-writer I got a chuckle out of seeing Linus Pauling’s name in a writing site. This “just” a chemist guy is the only person in history to win two unshared Nobel prizes and is credited as a founder of my favorite field, molecular biology.

  8. Boyd, great post. When I was practicing medicine, I received a sage bit of advice from one of my mentors who was a recognized expert in the field of facial plastic surgery: Perfect is the enemy of good.
    He taught me that, although you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear (as we say in Texas), it’s possible to make quite an acceptable sow’s ear. I guess you can say that the same applies to our fiction–given enough practice.

  9. I love posts like this. They remind me that it will be my perseverance that pays off as much as, perhaps even more than, my talent. Thanks for the encouragement.

  10. Thanks for the reality check, Boyd. Us wannabees don’t hear it enough. Write, write, write, rewrite, rewrite, then write some more. Lather, rinse, repeat.

  11. I am stealing this word-for-word for my creative writing students. It’s such an important lesson for anyone who starts out with stars and/or dollar signs in their eyes. And I love the tale about the pots. PERFECT for high school kids to understand.

    Also, kudos for proper usage of perseverate. Don’t hear that one much!

  12. I think that is the key to any success, the Practice Effect.

    As long as that practice is done with the constant addition of new things learned, and failed things discarded.

    I figure I’ve got 15-20 years within my day job before I can retire, therefore there is that much time to get it right and perfect the practice on each new book.

  13. The key is, do not write for money, write cause you love to write, Write for the passion, write for the satisfaction. So many times, we let money get in the way and distract us. I have let the quest for money distract me for years and I still have not told my story.

  14. Fantastic post, thanks for sharing. I hope you don’t mind but I have shared the opening two paragrpahts on my site with a link back here for the full thing.

    I wrote a post about this very same thing this morning, from the perspective of someone with a single book published, and a wild marketing sea surrounding me.

  15. Great article, thanks for sharing! Found you via Alex Laybourne, and this was just the thing I needed to reassure me that I am doing the right thing with my writing.

  16. I needed this reminder today! THANK YOU!
    I love this quote:
    “Remember, it only takes ten years to become an overnight success.”

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