Friday, November 01, 2013

7 Things I've Learned so Far

I don't normally do writing advice, since I generally feel that I have no idea what I'm doing, but Chuck Sambuchino asked me to contribute to his blog over at Writer's Digest, so I obliged. Below is what I told him.

7 Things I've Learned so Far

1. Your first book often defines your career. You may see yourself as a genre-spanner who dabbles in whatever takes your fancy. Most publishers will think you are just a spanner if you do this (Americans: please do not hold this very British joke against me, and accept this definition). They want to build a brand. That process begins with your debut. If your first novel is crime, that is what your agent and publisher will want you to deliver again in order to keep any readers you have hooked. In the words of one big publisher, they want ‘the same but different’ for subsequent works. If you give them something totally new, there is a strong chance they will turn their noses up at it even if it is staggering work of heartbreaking genius. While it is better to be published than not, choose your first book wisely: it may define the next 20 years of your career.

2. You may have to compromise to gain commercial success. As an artist working in a commercially driven industry, you could face an uncomfortable choice. Your agent and publisher will usually look at your labour of love with an eye on what is right for the market, not what is right for your vision. Publishing is an industry, and industries want to make money (although kudos and credibility in the form of prizes or critical acclaim from the intelligentsia form a lesser part of the equation). It is up to you whether you refuse to compromise your vision, and thus run the risk of your career facing a potentially fatal setback, or accede to their requests. Just make sure you can live with the consequences of your decision.

3. If you want to sell, you have to market. This has been said before, but bears repeating. Your publicist will send out review copies and gab about your book on social media for a while. Then, like a serial philanderer, they will make eyes at the next author to come along and you’ll be ditched. Instead of bemoaning your fate, get marketing yourself. The one nugget I have to add to the reams of advice already out there is that you shouldn’t neglect the real world. Social media is awash with self-promoting authors. It’s hard to rise above the noise. So get creative. I wrote a comedy about zombie cows so I am hiring some panto cow outfits, wearing which a group of us will roam around London and prompt a few cardiac arrests. The cows will have posters for the book pinned above their over-the-top udders and I will hand out flyers. At the same time, I will film a silly book trailer. It may have zero impact, but I will feel that I am doing something constructive and we will have a lot of fun in the process.

4. To call publishing glacial is demeaning to glaciers. Never mind how long it takes from starting a book to getting a contract to being published: getting the damn thing widely read can take years. Word of mouth is still the most powerful way for a book to go humungous, and despite the internet we feel is so omnipotent this doesn’t happen overnight. Your marketing will help, but it won’t pay instant dividends. Good reviews don’t prompt immediate sales. Learn to be patient and play the long game.
5. Look forwards, not backwards. In the age of instant feedback, it’s tempting to spend hours trawling Amazon, Goodreads, Facebook and Twitter monitoring your sales and reading reviews. Don’t do this unless it is a way of gauging the effectiveness of your marketing efforts. There is nothing more crippling or demoralizing than passively observing how your last book is being received. Concentrate on your next project.

6. Don’t try to please everybody. So you’ve ignored the advice above, as the majority of published writers do, and read every review. The positive comments give you a glow at first, but after a while you can only think about the criticism. When this happens, understand that you can’t please everybody and shouldn’t try. Don’t change how or what you write because some people don’t like your work. This is a sure path to losing your identity as a writer. Just be grateful that Dorothy Parker isn’t around any longer, and for the love of God do not read the Kirkus review of your book.

7. Never forget why you started writing. I’d like to think most authors started writing not because they desired riches, but because they felt driven to share another worldview or needed to silence the voices in their head (maybe that’s just me). Once you’re in the industry, it’s easy to lose sight of this. You will have setbacks. You will doubt yourself. You will despair that you are ever going to make it. You may even be tempted to set fire to the only copy of your WIP and lob it from a tall building. Through it all, don’t lose your love for writing. If this happens, you may as well go and do another job you hate that pays better. Nothing makes me feel the way writing does, and I will never stop even if I don’t make another penny.

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