Now is the best time ever to be a writer, and what follows is a new model for what it will take for you to build a successful writing career in the digital age. Every part of the model is essential. You need to use the whole model to succeed.
Writing begins with a boundless enthusiasm for words, ideas, writing, books, people, publishing, communicating about your work, and serving your readers.
Writing starts with reading. You can only write as well as you read. Read what you love to read and write what you love to read. An acquaintance once came up to me all excited and said: “I just finished my first novel!”
“That’s great!” I said.
Then he asked: “What should I read next?”
Well, if you’re a novelist, you should read as many novels as you can, and read like a writer. What works for you in the books you love will work for your readers. Reading enables you to establish criteria for style, length, content, illustrations, and back matter.
Reading will also enable you to choose books and authors to use as models for your books and career. Telling agents, editors, and readers your models will enable them to understand what your book is instantly.
It’s been said that goals are dreams with a deadline. You must have literary, publishing, and personal short- and long-term goals that are in harmony and motivate you to do whatever it takes to achieve them. One goal that clarifies your other goals is how much money you want to earn a year, because it determines what you write, and how you write and promote it.
A Sense of Mission
To transform passion into profit, you must believe that what you love to do is what you were born to do. Imbue what you do with a sense of mission. As my mother used to say, “The world always steps aside for people who know where they’re going.”
Sue Grafton advises writers to have a five-year plan. Once you decide where you’d like to be in five years, you can figure how to get from where you are to where you want to go. Read about how authors of books like yours succeeded and ask them for advice.
You must have goals for what you want to accomplish every workday and the discipline to make sure you accomplish them. William Faulkner once said: “I write when the spirit moves, and I make sure it moves every day.” Even a page a day is a book a year. Balance your goals, and choose the most productive way for you to spend your time. Take care of the minutes, hours, and days, and the years will take care of themselves.
The path to success leads through failure. Doing things wrong is how we learn to do them right. I once got a fortune in a Chinese fortune cookie that read: “When you’re not afraid to do it wrong the first time, you’ll eventually get it right.” Keep learing from your models, your mentors, and your mistakes, and success is inevitable.
How can you make you and your work stand out in the growing explosion of books and authors? Creativity. In a world awash with media, creativity is essential for making you and your work memorable. There was a New Yorker cartoon showing a man standing over a cat, next to a litter box, and saying: “Never think outside the box.” To be creative today, it’s not enough to think outside the box, you have to think outside the room the box is in.
To succeed, you have to serve, not sell. There are more ways to serve your readers than ever, and the better you serve them, the better they’ll serve you.
You must have faith in yourself, your idea, your book, and your ability to make it succeed and build a career.
To face a blank screen and dare to believe you have something worth writing takes courage. To persevere despite rejections from publishers and the media, negative responses from readers and critics, and perhaps poor sales, takes courage. Overcoming obstacles takes courage. But you have more than enough courage to meet the challenges that await you. All you have to do is summon it, and the harder your struggle, the sweeter your success.
Writers need to know more about more areas of expertise than ever. Besides the things on this list,
- You have to have a positive but realistic perspective about publishing that balances the challenges and opportunities.
- If you want an agent, you have to know what they do, and how to find, contact, and work with them.
- You have to know about using technology, especially social media. You don’t have to be a techie, but you do have to maximize the tremendous power of technology to help you.
However, you are blessed with more free resources than ever to learn what you need to know without leaving your desk.
There was once a cartoon showing one writer saying confidently to another: “I’ve got all the pages numbered. Now all I have to do is fill in the rest.” That’s where craft comes in.
Besides reading, writing has five essential elements:
1. Coming up with ideas—There’s a New Yorker cartoon that shows two women nursing cocktails, and one is saying to the other: “I’m marrying Marvin. I think there’s a book in it.” There’s a book in just about anything and more subjects to write about than ever before. If you create an idea that lends itself to a series of books that you are passionate about writing and promoting, you can carve a career out of it.
2. Research-finding the information you need to write your book.
3. A workstyle-choosing the time, place, and tools that enable you to produce your best work. Ray Bradbury summarized the art of writing in two verbs: throw up and clean up. You have to decide whether it’s more effective for you to outline your book or go ahead and write your manuscript, and then massage it until it’s ready.
4. Writing-a combination of art and craft, poetry and carpentry, vision and revision. Mario Puzo, the author of The Godfather, said, “The art of writing is rewriting.” There’s a cartoon showing two mice sitting on a writer’s desk in the middle of the night reading his manuscript, and one is saying: “We’d do him a big favor if we ate chapter four.” If you don’t want rodents criticizing your work, be your own editor. Keep revising your work until it’s 100%, as well-conceived and crafted as you can make it.
5. Sharing-the great ballet dancer Nijinsky once said: “I merely leap and pause.” After you take your creative leaps, it’s time to pause and get feedback on your work. It’s been said that if at first you don’t succeed, skydiving is not for you, but writing is a forgiving craft. Only your last draft counts. You can’t get your writing right by yourself, but you don’t have to. Build a community of knowledgeable readers to give you feedback.
There are more ways to test-market your book than ever. Test-marketing your book gives you the chance to prove it works and to get testimonials yu can use to sell and promote your work.
Your platform is your continuing visibility with book buyers, online and off, on your subject or the kind of book you’re writing. Building your platform by test-marketing your book enables you to maximize the value of your book before you sell it, which, for most nonfiction, is the only way to get the best editor, publisher, and deal for your book.
There’s a New Yorker cartoon showing two disreputable guys sitting a bar talking, and one is saying: “I tried victimless crime, but I’m a people person.” If you want to be a successful author, you have to be a people person. Writing is a solitary profession, but it’s the only part of the process you have to do alone. Create communities of fans, writers, and other publishing professionals to help you with your writing, promotion, using technology, and getting reviews and cover quotes.
Two cannibals are having dinner and one says to the other: “You know, I don’t like your publisher.”
“OK,” the other cannibal says, “then just eat the noodles.”
The most common reason authors become disenchanted with their publishers is lack of promotion. If you’re writing a promotion-driven nonfiction book, the promotion plan you include in your proposal will determine the editor, publisher, and deal for your book. Novelists are also as well. A plan is a list, in descending order of impressiveness, of what you will do to promote your book, including, when possible, how many of them. Exaggerate nothing, but submit the strongest plan you can.
Chicken souperman Jack Canfield says a book is like an iceberg: writing is 10%, marketing is 90%. If this is true for the kind of book you’re writing, you will need to spend nine times more effort promoting your book than you do writing it. But there are more ways to promote your book at less cost than ever with just your fingertips.
You have to be a contentpreneur:
- Your content has to be scalable from a tweet to a book, and your promotion from a one-line pitch to a one-hour radio interview.
- You have to make your laptop and your smartphone your office and be able to work and to respond to your communities wherever you are.
- You have to keep writing and publishing a steady stream of work for free and for fees that maximizes your pleasure, income, and visibility.
- You have to focus on writing work that you can re-purpose in as many forms, media, and countries as you can.
- There’s a cartoon showing two guys sitting in a bar talking, and one of them is saying to the other: “Since I started freelancing full time, I’ve made quite a few sales…my house, my car, my furniture.” If you don’t want to be like him, you have to take entrepreneurial responsibility for the promotion and sales of your book.
- You also have to be resourceful in figuring out how to solve problems and take advantage of new opportunities.
- You have to build a community of professionals and virtual assistants with whom you can collaborate to create new products and services.
- You have to embrace accelerating change as an opportunity to create ideas, publicity, sources of income, ways to improve how you work, and renew your sense of mission.
There’s a cartoon showing a man and a woman, sitting on a couch talking, and the man is saying: “Look, I’m not talking about a lifetime commitment. I’m talking about marriage.”
Being a successful author requires a lifetime commitment, and I hope that you will commit yourself to becoming the best writer you can be, not just for yourself, but for all of us.
Marketing guru Seth Godin says that the best time to start promoting a book is three years before it comes out, because it may take that long to build a platform, create the strongest promotion plan for your book, and have the ability to carry it out.
You have to have patience to take the long view as well as the short view in writing and promoting your books, and building your career. You can’t look at your career as one book but ten or twenty—each new book being better and more lucrative than the previous one.
To be the best writer and author you can be, you must love the process. You have to believe that using this model is what you were born to do. You have to
- love to read and write
- write out of love for serving your readers
- love the challenges of devoting yourself to becoming a better writer and communicator about your work
The love you send into the world through your work and your relationships with your readers will come back to you many times over and provide a profoundly satisfying life, regardless of how much income you earn doing it.
Regard achievements large and small as opportunities to celebrate on a scale with what you accomplish. The prospect of celebrating your work will help keep you going.
The Best Piece of Advice
Add luck to this list, and your books will be failproof. After forty-four years in the business, I’m convinced that every part of this list is essential. I may have left something out—and please tell me if I have-but you will need all of what’s here to succeed. I end the model with the best piece of advice I’ve ever heard about becoming a writer:
“If anything can stop you from becoming a writer, let it. If nothing can stop you, do it and you’ll make it.”
You can adapt this model for other professions and in your personal life.
My partner Elizabeth Pomada and I give talks about the model, which was adapted from my blog: http://sfwriters.info/blog and my books, the new fourth edition of How to Write a Book Proposal and How to Get a Literary Agent.
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- A New Model for Becoming a Successful Writer in the Digital Age - July 12, 2020