By Mark Alpert
First of all, notice that the title of this post isn’t “Five Ways To Become A More Successful Writer.” There’s plenty of information already out there about how to write better books and sell more copies. I can’t add much to that topic, and I’m not the best authority on it either, because my success in this business has been modest.
No, I want to focus on happiness, not success. The two goals are often linked, but not always. There are miserable authors on the bestseller list, and there are jubilant writers who work in blissful obscurity. Which goal is more important? Well, if you’re looking for success alone, writing novels isn’t the most promising occupation. The competition is fierce and the monetary payoffs are meager. In financial terms, you’re better off investing in the stock market, even with all the current volatility.
It’s much easier for a novelist to reap emotional rewards. There’s the joy of writing a beautiful sentence, the satisfaction of creating a likable character, the sneaky elation of engineering an unexpected plot twist. And those rewards are magnified when readers recognize a novel’s virtues and share their admiration with the writer. I love getting emails from readers who’ve enjoyed my books. It’s one of the best feelings in the world.
But there are other forces in the publishing business that can spoil the party. Rejection by agents and editors always hurts. Bad reviews aren’t fun either. Worst of all, perhaps, is the massive indifference of a nationwide audience that already has too many novels to choose from and is reluctant to try new authors and new kinds of books. After a writer spends months or years perfecting his or her manuscript, it’s deeply disappointing to see it ignored.
So how can a fiction writer maximize happiness and minimize distress? I’ve come up with five useful tips:
1. Don’t let your happiness depend on things that are beyond your control. This rule applies to everyone, not just writers. I repeated it all the time to my kids when they were working on their college applications. I urged them to make their college essays as good as possible, but I also warned that there were no guarantees. Sometimes a college will reject even the best applications, for no evident reason. Let’s say you’re a straight-A student from Weehawken who can compose operas and pitch no-hitters and solve differential equations; you assume you’ll be a shoo-in at the college of your choice, right? But if that particular college has already accepted a different student from Weehawken who excels at baseball, math, and music, the school might not want to admit another. You’ve done the best you could, but the final decision is out of your control. So the smart strategy is to apply to at least a dozen colleges, increasing the chance that one or two of them will recognize and reward your talents.
The college-application game has become ridiculously competitive, but it’s a cakewalk compared with the process of winning a book contract with a major publisher. Thousands of brilliant manuscripts are rejected or ignored every day. Publishing a book in the traditional way is a worthy goal, but don’t let your happiness depend on the often arbitrary decisions of literary agents and editors. They have to consider many factors when deciding whether to represent or buy a novel, and a good number of those considerations have nothing to do with the quality of the book. (For instance, has the publisher just issued a very similar book? Is the agent already overloaded with promising clients? Is the editor about to make a job change and therefore not interested in buying anything at that moment?) Given that all these random influences are at work, it seems absurd to sulk after a rejection or pin all your hopes and dreams on your next submission. Don’t withdraw from the game; just understand that it’s a crapshoot. That way, you won’t be so disappointed when you lose, but you’ll still be just as excited when you win.
2. A writer’s happiness is not proportional to his or her number of readers. Because we live in such a competitive society, we create lots of rankings. In the publishing business, the critical measure of success is the number of books sold. Certain categories of books sell better than others; short-story collections, for example, don’t do as well as novels, on average. A traditionally published debut novel that sells only 1,000 copies would, in most cases, be considered a commercial failure. Conversely, a debut novel that sells 100,000 copies would be considered a commercial success (unless the publisher paid the author a seven-figure advance for the book, in which case it too would probably be considered a disappointment).
But what about the happiness dividends of publishing? Even a novel that sells only 1,000 copies will give its author a fair amount of pleasure. There’s the joy of seeing the novel at your local bookstore, perhaps stacked next to the masterpieces written by your literary heroes. There’s the burst of pride you’ll feel when sharing the book with friends and family. And your novel will most likely be catalogued in the Library of Congress and perhaps a few local libraries as well, giving you at least a smidgeon of literary immortality. I’ve had eight novels published so far, and though none of them was a huge commercial success, each made me very happy.
Now consider a novel that sells 100,000 copies. It will no doubt give the author more pleasure than the thousand-copy-seller, if only for financial and/or egotistical reasons. But will it provide a hundred times more happiness? I don’t think so. So why obsess over sales numbers?
3. Write about things that make you happy. Now this doesn’t mean you should limit your fiction to Christmas stories, tales of adventurous puppies, and other feel-good subjects. Stories of murder and mayhem also give pleasure to readers and writers. If you love to write about serial killers, go right ahead. If zombies or vampires are your thing, take a stab at it. It’s much better to give free rein to your fictional passions, whatever they are, than to force yourself to write about a subject you hate, no matter how commercially appealing it may be.
My latest novel, THE COMING STORM, is about an erratic U.S. president who persecutes immigrants, ignores global warming, and orders the creation of an American Gestapo. Writing this kind of novel probably wouldn’t have been fun for most writers — it hits a little too close to home — but I loved it. During the months when I was working on the book, my wife would sometimes spot the secret smile on my face and interrogate me: “Why are you smiling? Did you kill off one of the characters in your novel today? Someone in the White House?”
4. Figure out how important writing is to your happiness, and adjust your life accordingly. There are many gradations of pleasure. For example, I love skiing, but only in small doses. Skiing once every winter is enough for me. I enjoy cycling once or twice a week, but doing it more often would get boring. And then there are the pleasures I would enjoy every day, if I could: dark chocolate, good coffee, sex, listening to music, hanging out with friends. Some authors feel the same way about writing fiction — they can’t miss a day of it — but for me, the passion waxes and wanes. I write one novel each year; if I tried to write two books a year, I’d probably be miserable. I need some downtime between books. Each year, I spend six or seven months hammering out a novel, and during the rest of the year I do freelance journalism, participate in a video-art festival, and toss around ideas for the next book.
That’s the writing schedule that makes me happiest. What works for you?
5. When good things happen in your writing career, celebrate like crazy. I love throwing launch parties for my novels. I invite all my friends to an independent bookstore in Manhattan and arrange a FreshDirect delivery of beer and wine and party platters. I chat with everyone, I do a reading, I sign books. It’s a ton of fun.
Some authors stage a celebratory ritual when they finish a manuscript. (Remember that scene in Stephen King’s Misery?) Others party hard at writers’ conferences. The publishing world can be stingy about doling out rewards, but that shouldn’t stop us from rewarding ourselves.
Speaking of parties, this week I’ll celebrate the publication of THE COMING STORM. The novel has already received some great reviews, and I’m scheduled to do a radio interview to promote the book on Tuesday. You can learn more about THE COMING STORM at my website, and the buy links for the book are here. I hope it makes you happy!