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.