Guest blogger: Laura Resnick

The Things You Can Choose

Few aspiring writers realize it, but talent is surprisingly common. What separates professional writers from the pack isn’t talent, but instead qualities that are more unusual: perseverance, skill, and brains.

Most aspiring writers drastically underestimate the importance of perseverance in starting (let alone maintaining) a professional writing career. Writing is a highly competitive profession. Talent certainly matters, but a very talented writer with no perseverance certainly won’t have a career (and probably won’t ever sell a word); whereas a modestly talented writer with true perseverance will break into the profession and has a good shot at having a writing career. And unlike how much talent you have, how much you persevere is something you can choose. As bestseller Richard Bach says, a professional writer is simply an amateur who didn’t give up.

Similarly, writing skill is something of which an aspiring writer can take charge in a serious way. In his bestselling nonfiction book about success, Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell writes about the Ten Thousand Hour Rule. According to Gladwell, researchers have hit on ten thousand hours of practice as the magic number that it takes to develop true expertise in performing a complex task. Fiction writing is one of the skills specifically named within this framework. It will certainly help if you have talent, but you can get a lot better at writing—even good enough to do it as a full-time professional—just by writing a lot more. According to Gladwell, the consistent difference between the pretty good and the “gifted,” in study after study, is that the “gifted” people simply work much, much harder at the same thing. Talent is mysterious; but working much harder is something that anyone can choose to do. And, as it happens, not practicing their craft enough is one of the most common mistakes made by aspiring writers.

Similarly, since writing is a highly competitive profession, brains matter a lot. Making smart decisions is not only key to breaking in and staying in, but also key in achieving and maintaining success. Probably the single most common mistakes made by aspiring writers is not educating themselves enough about the profession that they aspire to enter. And the need to be smart never ceases, whether one is a brand new writer, a struggling midlister, or a longtime pro. And it’s generally so hard to climb onto The List in this (did I MENTION?) highly competitive profession, and so hard to stay on The List with book after book, year after year, that the writers whose names you see there are usually among the smartest people in the business.

It’s true that a lot of factors go into that level of success–bestsellerdom—that are simply out of a writer’s control. For example, because of the massive and expensive marketing, sales, and distribution machinery needed to achieve bestsellerdom, a writer’s work needs the backing and support of a publisher that believes her work can go the distance; due to heavy competition and limited resources, this level of support is hard to get, and many deserving books do not get it. Additionally, having made that commitment, then a publisher has to do the job well; this is a bit of a crap shoot, for a variety of reasons—one of them being, to paraphrase Tor Books CEO Tom Doherty, every book released is a new product launch, and if you know anything about business, then you know that most new product launches fail. Moreover, all the market conditions have to be right for the book to succeed (this is a scenario with many potential complications). And so on.

This doesn’t mean there’s nothing a writer can do to influence fate. Smart choices stack the deck in your favor. For example, one of the smartest things any writer can do is to be consistent. This means maintaining quality and a steady release schedule targeted at a specific audience whom you’re trying to attract and keeping growing. Obviously, publishers can interfere with this by canceling your contract after a book (or five), or choosing not to continue acquiring from you; this limits or eliminates your ability to release books on a consistent basis. On the other hand, you can also sabotage yourself in this respect by writing one horror novel, followed by one Regency romance novel, followed by one sword-and-sorcery novel, followed by one “cozy” mystery. Not only will most readers not follow you around on such a tour de genres, most won’t even be able to find your books. Also, although readers are pretty loyal once they’ve found a writer they like, you can and will lose readers by disappointing them with sloppy, mediocre, unsatisfying books. It’s just not smart to release anything less than your best effort every time; it’s not a good strategy in terms of building toward success.

Also in the vein of smart ways to influence your fate, some writers have deliberately tailored their work for bestsellerdom. For example, Charlaine Harris, who made #1 on the New York Times hardcover bestseller list last year, has talked in a number of interviews about how she developed her bestselling Sookie Stackhouse series (which is also now the basis of a popular HBO television series). Harris was about 15 years into her career as a midlist mystery writer when she deliberately set out to develop a new project that would increase her sales. She decided she needed a series that would still include her mystery audience, but which would also reach beyond that audience to attract portions of the fantasy audience and of the vast romance audience. How and why she came up with the specifics of a telepathic heroine in the rural South, in a world where vampires are real and recently out-of-the-closet is an interesting case study in a writer playing to her strengths and her interests while keeping an eye on the ball: attracting a wider audience, in hopes of achieving much bigger sales figures.

A similar example is Janet Evanovich, whose humorous Stephanie Plum suspense series has made #1 on the NYT hardcover list several times. Evanovich has talked openly in various interviews and speeches about how she was a (pseudonymic) romance writer with modest sales figures who deliberately sat down and figured out which of her strengths and interests as a writer could best be combined to appeal to a much wider audience. The Plum books were a breakout series, attracting mystery, romance, and mainstream readers. Bestselling romance author Mary Jo Putney has done several articles and workshop talks over the years about exploring the intersection between your strengths-and-interests and the marketplace, figuring out what you’re good at that also has sales potential. Which is essentially what both Harris and Evanovich did—and also how Putney has reached bestseller lists.

Although some people talk about a writer’s “brand,” I much prefer the phrase used by longtime publisher Lou Aronica (who worked for several major houses for 20+ years before founding his own press a few years ago): signature. Aronica describes a writer’s “signature” (I paraphrase) as the combination of what you like to write, what you’re good at, and your unique voice as an author. And figuring out where your signature can intersect with the widest possible audience is a smart way to stack the deck in your favor when pursuing success in this (everyone say it with me now) highly competitive profession.

*****

Award-winning author Laura Resnick has written fantasy novels, romance novels, nonfiction, and short fiction. The current release in her Esther Diamond urban fantasy series is Doppelgangster. You can find her on the Web at www.LauraResnick.com.

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16 Responses to Guest blogger: Laura Resnick

  1. Edie Ramer says:

    Laura, thanks for blogging with us today. And for your brilliant post! I’ve thought for a long time that we make our choices — in life, not just publishing. Since I was able to read this before today, it made me think harder and smarter about the choice of my next book. I believe I chose a premise that has sales potential and plays to my strengths and interests. I’m already in love with the characters, and that helps.

  2. Jody Wallace says:

    Thank you for this essay. I love it when successful writers point out that talent, or the desire to write a book, isn’t enough. You also have to be smart, hard-working and a little lucky. The real gift is the ability to perservere when so many odds are against you and all you get are rejections!

  3. Cynthia Eden says:

    What a great post! I think I’ll always remember the 10,000 hour rule now! And I love your book cover!

  4. Donna Caubarreaux says:

    Hi Laura!

    Remember me from Hawaii? I was the one who visited your table and bought a book from everyone…

    Great advice, and I think I know what book I’m writing next.

  5. Awesome post, Laura! Jane Ann Krentz (Amanda Quick, and Jayne Castle) wrote about her multiple incarnations on her blog–it was very inspiring.

    I made a change of direction a year ago–I still haven’t sold–BUT I’m happier and I think I fit my new genre better than ever.

    I think an author needs to think long and hard about her strengths and weaknesses, her style and voice before she makes a drastic move into another genre. Remember when EVERYONE got on the chicklit bandwagon, or the Vampire craze, well, now it’s YA. If you can’t relate to that age group don’t try to break in because kids (and some adults, too) are smart enough to call you out on it.

  6. LaDonna says:

    Laura, perfect analysis! I’ve always felt that perserverence is key. Gearing up for the long haul is a way of life for most of us, and quitting never an option. I’ve never once said, “I think I’ll quit today.” We all think of the odds out there once in a while, but keepin’ on is the road I’m taking.

  7. Liz Kreger says:

    Wonderful Blog, Laura. You’ve raised a number of very good points. Some of which I think I really need to consider. 😎

    To date I’ve written and published two romantic science fictions. I also have three contemporary paranormals ready for querying and am working on an Urban Fantasy.

    I’m beginning to wonder if I’m spreading myself too thin. I get the feeling I should sit down, consider where my strengths are and where I want to see my career going.

    Hmmm. I foresee a lot of inner debates going on in my near future. 😉

  8. Wow! Great food for thought, Laura. It gives me something to think about since I write different genres. Do you think it would be wise should I ever sell in another genre to use a pseudonym?

    Like someone mentioned, I will never forget the 10,000 hour rule.

  9. Elle J Rossi says:

    Laura,

    I also love the cover! It’s fantastic. Thank you for sharing this post. It’s a thinker for sure. Write, write, write. That’s what I need to do. Thanks for reminding me.

  10. Edie Ramer says:

    Liz K, Laura might have a different answer for you, but I think sci fi romances, paranormal romances, and urban fantasy swim in the same gene pool (or would that be “genre pool”?). I’d think most of your readers would follow you without a problem.

  11. Donna Caubarreaux:
    Much to my regret, I’ve never been to Hawaii. So you must be thinking of someone else.

    Liz Lipperman:
    Whether or not you use a pseudonym depends on a number of specific individual factors, so I can only answer: It depends. The short answer is that I think a different name makes market sense if the work is SO different that you’d just alienate and baffle readers by using one name.

    If, for example, you establish a professional name writing a dozen short contemporary category romances for Harlequin/Silhouette, that may not be an ideal name to carry over into guts-and-glory sword-and-sorcery epic fantasy novels marketed to a totally different audience, including a heavily male audience.

    I used a pseudonym to write my Silhouette novels and my real name to write my epic fantasies. And, in fact, even so, I nonetheless received emails from male readers who told me they nearly didn’t pick up my book after they found out I was ALSO a romance writer. The assumption among men–and, indeed, among women who don’t like romance novels–that a romance writer would be incapable of writing a good fantasy novel is THAT entrenched. And this is the sort of thing you need to consider.

    OTOH, apart from innate prejudices like that, I think that most readers are smart enough to differentiate between a writer’s different series or different subgenres or different types of books. So I write traditional fantasy, urban fantasy, and nonfiction all under my own name. And, actually, these days, if I were going to write more genre romance (which is unlikely, giving how busy my fantasy schedule is), I’d think about what name to use and discuss it with my editors; because my urban fanasties have a predominantly female audience, so maybe I should keep the same name (i.e. my real name) if I went back to romance after all these years, to signal to urban fantasy readers that it’s a book by the same person. (Then again, maybe I should NOT do that, because I also still write traditional fantasy, and I don’t want half my sword-and-sorcery audience refusing to try my books because ROMANCE NOVELS (eeeuuuuw!!! cooties!) also appear under that same author name.)

    So it all depends. I think it has to be considered on a sensible case by case basis.

    But, in general, I wouldn’t use a different name unless convinced it was a Good Idea. Because separate names build separate (and usually smaller) audiences; one name has a better chance of building one big audience. So I’d only use a separate name again, I think, if I thought it was DEcrease, confuse, or alienate my target audience(s), rather than potentially cross-pollinate and increase my audience.

  12. Laura, thank you for a really thought-provoking post. I have recently sold my first two books, they come out next year with Simon & Schuster, and I have been giving a lot of thought to what comes next. I have always been uncomfortable with the term ‘brand’ and have almost deliberately switched off whenever I hear it because it did not strike a cord. I have never heard of ‘signature’ but it really DOES strike a cord. I can work with that. Thank you again for being a guest on MM.

  13. Laura, you should write a book.

  14. Donnell says:

    I love this article, Laura. I will say it with you. Publishing is a highly competitive profession. Thank goodness, I’m surrounded by writers with tenacity, but for writers, they don’t understand the meaning of “quit.” Thanks for reinforcing our thoughts! And thanks to blogs like Magical Musings for the continued education.

  15. Tori Lennox says:

    Great post, Laura!!! I love the Esther Diamond books and am looking forward to the next one!

  16. Monica Britt says:

    Thank you for the kick in the pants. Perseverance. One of the hardest things to require of yourself, but so worth the effort!

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