Determining your career strategy before you publish may seem premature. But if you follow the advice of many writers and have at least one book in edits, one book in draft and one book in outline, you’ve got the content that will take you into being a “mid-career” author in development before you even get published. What you’re building could be a palace, or a sand castle—as a novice, it’s very difficult to tell the difference.
For that matter, three books in development is probably on the low end for aspiring writers. Many have trunked at least one book, and who has just one book in outline? I’ve presently got 4 books in edits—one in draft—and eight in outline (I literally just had to count them). With that much content, it would be suicidal to not be planning my mid-career strategy now.
Career Death—It Looms Quickly
My career could be over before it begins if I get this wrong. Strategy is critically important. You only get a few chances to publish books under your own name before poor sales will garner such a stigma that you have to change your strategy, change your self, and get a pen name. Can you imagine that? Changing your name just to hide your failure—so that publishers might consider taking a risk on publishing something else from you. If you’ve failed hard enough, even that might not save you.
Your Body Of Work—An Attractive Chimera
Despite this, and despite being the type of person who ruminates on risk and tends to be afraid of failure, I’m still knowingly planning to make some risky moves by stepping outside my genre sandbox. I yearn to write a variety of things. Not a wild hodgepodge—a variegated, attractive body of work is my goal—something with organic order, a chimeric anatomy whose composition feels profoundly natural to readers.
I’m picky in my griffins. They must be aerodynamic—far too many have puny wings, insufficient to keep them aloft. Imaginary creatures should be thought out—they should be imagined deeply to the point where they breathe and cavort compellingly. I want the shelf of books I fill across my career to be vividly cohesive but sparklingly diverse, wonder fiction at its best—that is my strategy.
A Writer’s Wanderlust
Not everyone wants to stay in the sandbox where they started for an entire career. I know I’m not alone in this. There are other aspiring writers out there gnawing on the same worries in the depths of the night. I woke at 3:30 AM to work on this article again—it’s a topic that ruins your sleep. I want the others like me to know that you are not alone. We are in this together. The more of us who successfully design careers of our choosing—who are blazingly successful in crossing boundaries—the weaker those boundaries will become.
One does not simply walk—or sail—into Mordor. For success, we need strategy—hence this particular post.
We discussed deciding on the ground you want to cover in Article I, the benefits of staying boxed in Article II, and how to position your first book in Article III. However, if your first book is like your first move of a pawn in a game of chess, what is your mid-game? The game that all of this has been leading up to—where you break out into new vistas of writing possibility.
The Strategy of Timing Your Expansion
There’s always going to be pressure to play it safe—do the sequel to the book that sold well, do something similar, do something the fans are hungry for. Those are not the books that shock the world—but they can still be good. Generally speaking, a sequel should be easier—really, it should be the easiest (those who’ve tried it—you can laugh). Yet in theory, any form of staying in known territory, even if it’s just staying within your genre, should be easier than setting out for far shores and mastering new horizons—risking failure when you now have a career to lose. But this is not a ‘one size fits all’ vocation.
I feel the spin of the earth, the undertow of the storm swells turning me, sucking me into writing certain books. That same impulse is obviously pulling at other writers in some cases. The elemental magic/genetic manipulation book that I have been writing for the last several years has a lot in common with a book I just started reading recently called The Fifth Season. It’s a bit startling really, but not a bad thing—The Fifth Season is selling quite well. There is obviously an enthusiastic readership out there.
Our books are both complex enough and different enough to complement each other—they aren’t in direct competition. No author can write enough to satisfy a normal reader, let alone a super reader.
A Companionable Vocation
Your fellow authors are not your enemies, rather they are allies.
Only together can you keep your mutual readership moderately mollified so things don’t go to a dark place. Similar books sell each other—as long as they are all strong. Talent in the same vein is the best of serendipity. But that mutual impulse—that topical urge touching more than just you—does show there is something to the urge to write something specific at a certain time. It would also be a mistake to base your career off that alone. Vague impulses do not hatch solid strategy. It’s probably best to have a rookery out back where you are incubating a well-stocked nest of outlines.
That way, as the market changes, or the performance of your other works influences your decisions, or just as that overwhelming urge to write this one takes hold—you are ready.
You also have to take the wax and wane of reader desire into account. In any genre, it’s a tide that can lift you up on a cresting wave… or drown you in a deluge of similar works, written a just year or two late. I suspect timing will be particularly demanding in YA. Young adult readers are in that moment of maximum age-bracket appeal so briefly, and feel so passionately. If you don’t time the crests of their interest properly, you will drown.
Of course, one of the best ways to surf the crests is to make your own waves—don’t be derivative, don’t be predictable—other than predictably awesome. Defying your box could help you with this. Especially if your old mastery informs how you step into a new genre in interesting ways. What if you gripped Military Sci-Fi by the scruff of its power-armored neck and plunged it deep into a down pillow of enveloping romance? Would it asphyxiate? Would it punch you in the throat? Or are those readers starved for passion? I don’t know, but it seems an interesting question…
Sometimes it really is the right choice to play it safe.
Writing something that’s not yet ready to hatch is also a mistake. The more complexity and depth you add—the greater heights your debut reached—the more expectations there are to follow up flawlessly. But remember that the notches on that yardstick will be most pronounced and most precise to measure you if you are writing a sequel—playing it safe is not always safe either. You took years to write that first book—can you follow it up—eclipse it—with quick turn around? How many weak sequels have you read? That could be you… Or you could do something radically different.
Safety Takes Self-Control
If you are going to play it safe, doing it right might take its own kind of fortitude. I put my first trilogy away for several years due to the problems in book two and three I knew I was not yet mature enough to fix. Publishing Book 1 at that time would have been a mistake because Book 2 would have been a disappointment. Holding myself back took self-control. But you only get so many shots at this. I want a great launch and an epic follow-through, surprising wonderful new titles for readers and satisfying returns to their favorite refrains. I don’t want to write a book just to write it, I want it to sing through my fingers, crescendo across the keyboard of my laptop.
The Future Sky
Beyond lie constellations of works future me will write. I can see them at times—winking in and out of glimpsing. They are, as of yet, far away. Stretching won’t get me there, not from where I stand right now. But I don’t have to stay here. I can plan a path forward. Books can be stepping stones to each other, into the outer dark.
Skills can be acquired. The hard No that stills my pen now is actually beckoning me.
That nest of incubating outlines—examine them, what can they teach? It hurt to trunk the trilogy, and the odds of returning to any trunked novel are abysmal, but I did it with strategy.
Chugging Bitter Medicine
First I identified specific weaknesses in myself as a writer: I needed snappy “YA” dialogue, tighter plot, and how to turn disengaging shoe-gaze engaging. I estimated it would take me two books to learn those items to the depth I required. In my problem prose, I had the measure of my requirements after all. I was planning a confrontation—I would exhume that trilogy from its grave and fight the un-dead three headed monster. I would do so and win.
I selected two books to write specifically with those goals in mind. Coven would tackle the “YA” dialogue, Elemental Things would go to war on shoe-gaze until I developed effective tactics. Both would demand tight plot, but in different form factors. Coven taking the straight shot plot approach, Elemental Things taking the complex braid path.
Go Deep In Your Weakness
Two books to dive into the chthonic depths that held my answers.
Two books may seem like a steep price—but it’s more like a “buy two get one free” deal. Salvaging something from the steamer trunk is well worth it—especially if it was trunked for being too ambitious. Plus I was going to write those two books anyway. Best, they fit my career defining, sandbox defying criteria nicely. Together—Elemental Things, Coven, and The Ending Ordinary Realists books (starting with Waxing Dark) claimed my territory nicely. They staked out the right sand – the core of my interests but also enough space for me to write comfortably for a long time. Cult works with deep dark premise, chewy pulp books, Fantasy, Science Fiction – all were now integral to my premises—my castle, my kingdom, my domain.
You are the SunTzu of your own writing vocation—plan your campaign, the minutiae of logistics up to the grand conquests. Craft your career strategy lovingly. Where do you start, where do you end? Know.