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.