A-Game Tips for Launching a Successful Writing Career
I’m a shameless conspirator in my own success.
Because of my extroversion, most people tend to think of me as a wacky disruptive presence. In many ways that’s true. I’m a bone-deep rabble-rouser who loves improvisation and the unlit path. On the other hand, I have a 40-year history in show business which is beaten into me the need for schedules, structure, and systems. With all of the impossible details necessary to bring people together for any kind of entertainment planning is essential. No matter how Dionysian your druthers, there comes a moment when you have to get strictly Apollonian.
Genre fiction is an oddball career. In the modern era, we all have access to the basic tools and skills: even if you don’t own a laptop, a pencil and paper cost pennies. Via the magic of technology, we now live in a world where literally anyone can publish a book at a moment’s notice. That doesn’t mean everyone should, but they have the option at their fingertips. Unfortunately, learning how to type words vs. how to write a book vs. how to sell copies vs. how to build your audience require wildly and widely disparate skillsets.
To folks starting out that may seem a supremely unsexy truth. Few relish the prospect of arduous, long-lasting tedium for an uncertain payoff. This harsh reality is the source of all those poisonous fantasies about “overnight” success and “surefire” secrets that crack whatever system to “make” you a beloved bazillionaire: wishful thinking turned rancid.
There will Never Be a Substitute for Hard Work and Paying Attention
Just because you know how to ride a rollercoaster doesn’t mean you know how to build a rollercoaster. Want a fiction career? Learning to write a book worth buying is job one.
Publishing has always been the strange, drunken uncle of the entertainment industry, awkward and distressing. It’s still a competition for eyeballs, and 27% of adults in the US simply don’t read books at all. Books must compete with film, tv, games, and all the other sexy chocolate-covered bells and whistles dangled for dollars. For a newbie author that’s a rough mountain to climb.
Facing that inhuman gauntlet, many new writers fixate on a core question: where’s the best place to start?
What most of them want is an imaginary secret password, but every time my answer is the same: “Right where you’re standing!” That may sound glib but I mean it honestly. “No time like the present.” Waiting around for the ideal moment to appear just guarantees that the perfect time will be never. This is why our lives are littered with people who would just love to be authors if they could just find the time.
Nowhere and Nothing is a Perfect Starting Point
See, back when I was actively working in showbiz I learned that there was a great trap in trying to strategize every forward movement necessary to get you from nothing to everything you ever wanted. The stands to reason; any creative project requires a strange alchemy of coincidence, opportunity, talent, and sheer ballsiness. With a hat tip to Lin-Manuel Miranda, no one wants to throw away their shot.
The trouble is you can spend so much time scheming and polishing, wishing and waiting that nothing ever happens. By such caution are all those would-be writers paralyzed. Think of every time someone has come up to you to announce they’ve got a great idea for a story and if you write it y’all can split the profit 50–50. Nonsense, right? How many people are “working” on books they never start? How many bitter wannabes curse the industry for refusing to buy manuscripts they never submitted? Learn to take every step. Train yourself to get up after falling down. As Lillian Hellman once said, in art “it is best to act with confidence no matter how little right you have to it."
“Shpilkes” is a Yiddish word which translates literally as “restlessness” but in practice tends to mean something more like “ants in your pants.” Let me tell you: I have always had shpilkes in spades…just how I’m wired. I have too much energy to sit on my tail for very long and so early on in my life I learned to find things worth doing and get busy. For good or ill, idle hands have never been among my problems. Happily, my restlessness ended up being a huge boost to my career in film and television and fence romance. With so much to do, I could just chip-chip-chip away at the mountain certain that more work would come to take its place.
Every Day Do One Thing That Moves Your Career Forward
When I first moved to New York I had a theatrical mentor who saw all my untapped energy and gave me a great piece of advice, “Every day do one thing that moves your career forward.”
That seems counterintuitive. Of course I do stuff for my career. Of course I work every day. Of course I’m making things happen as fast as I can. That’s not what he meant. It’s all too easy in show business to let wishing take the place of working, to let emotion replace effort. No, what he suggested was that without fail every day of my life I take one action that brought me closer to my goals: a letter, a phone call, a lunch, a favor, a visit. Even if it only took two minutes, by chipping away steadily at the wall between me and my success, I not only walked my path, but also strengthened my own commitment to it.
Obviously you can take that too far. I’m compulsive and so when I was younger that one thing could all too easily morph into giant impossible tasks that required traction and a quart of vodka to survive. Oddly enough, the things that mattered most turned out to be the small meaningful actions that I would otherwise have skipped…painstakingly building my castle in the clouds one brick at a time.
Because I was a writer, getting my pages in daily was a baseline that (to my mind at least) didn’t sell the work to the necessary parties. So each day I knew getting my words done needed to be a steady is breathing and to that I added one thing to put those words in the right hands.
The Fastest Way to Change Your Life Is to Change Something You Do Every Day
One of the terrible things about the ridiculous myth of overnight success and the poisonous fantasy of the magic bullet is that artists often forget to plan for their own futures. Don’t succumb to that toxic fairytale: the idea that you can have something for nothing. Spoiler alert: you can’t.
Each of us want something different. No two visions of success are identical. What about yours? Part of your job as a working artist is to lay the foundation for a stable, sane professional life. Whirlwind success might be headed your way, but you need to be able to handle those positives and negatives. And frankly, planning for success affords you a perfect opportunity to think and act strategically on your own behalf.
Luck is Opportunity Plus Preparation
So you need to prepare for the opportunities before they appear. Have you? If you are planning to be a global success, what have you done to make that possible?
- If The Tonight Show called you this moment and asked you to appear on camera and discuss your latest book this evenin, would you be ready?
- If Oprah Winfrey knocked on your door because she plan to relaunch her book club with something from your backlist, how would you make the most of the opportunity?
- If Amazon flew you to Seattle to plan a super swanky rollout for your entire oeuvre in progress what kind of infrastructure and platform could you bring to the table?
I don’t ask these questions to be facile or glib, but because we should dream with all our senses.
Let’s scale it back a bit… If a radio host or a genre blogger wanted to feature you, would you be ready? If your local library wanted to base a book club on one of your titles what kind of support could you offer? If a beloved brand name author in your niche invited you to cohost a book launch party, could you hold up your end of the bargain?
Everything worth having takes time to build: your strengths, skills, platform, representation, training, professional relationships, allies, and assets. You wouldn’t expect a professional athlete or professional musician or professional surgeon to tackle the biggest challenges of their field without intense preparation. All that mastery requires serious personal investment every day of their lives.
Yes luck exists, but luck is not a strategy. Take pains to stack the deck in your favor. As Mark Twain once said, “the harder I work the luckier I get.” The perfect time to start is now. Chop wood, carry water. If you ever want to be a success, you’d best get to steppin’.
The Secret of Success is in Steady, Daily Practice
So writing aside, name one thing you did today to support the career you want to have. It doesn’t have to be extravagant or camera-ready or thrilling. Grand gestures are all well and good but most professional relationships grow out of slow accretion like a stalactite…one mineral-rich drip at a time. So get to dripping! If you’re a born procrastinator chipping away at the mountain might move you passed the pressure you put on yourself by dodging difficulty. If you’re a ruthless strategist, combing through your lists and five-year plans for tiny tasks will make that process less daunting. You lose nothing by taking a positive step. One step every day.
To keep yourself from getting nutty, make a list of things that need to get done: emails, favors, calls, notes, thanks, gifts, connections, invites, intros, donations, blurbs, edits, mentoring, volunteering, articles, study, practice, and more. Start your journey of a thousand steps right this second and keep walking.
Then one day when you least expect it fortune will come knocking. Opening the door will present no problem because you’ll have a handle on it.