I was taking part in a chat recently where the topic of trends came up: what’s selling right now, what are editors and agents looking for, what do readers want, what’s hot? Before I started writing The Forest of Hands and Teeth (my first published book), this was a HUGE topic of interest to me — send me a link to an agent or editor’s blog listing what they wanted to see and I was all over it, trying to figure out what I could write that would be what they’re looking for. If I’m honest, what I really wanted to know was, “What trend can I write about that will get my book published?”
What I wasn’t thinking about was what would come next, after (hopefully) getting that first book published.
Not too long ago I was talking to a friend about writing and publishing and careers. He was writing his first book and told me that he planned to write, revise and put it in a drawer. He couldn’t think about trying to sell it and probably wouldn’t try to sell it because once he started thinking about those things it caused him to second guess every word he wrote which ended in writer’s block. He was adamant that he would not, under any circumstances, ever sell that first book. I asked why he wouldn’t try to sell a saleable book or at least leave the possibility open.
He replied: “If I want a career in writing, I have to write more than one saleable book. And if I can’t write a second, a third, a forth and so on, then I won’t have a career. If I can write one saleable book then I’ll need to write another.
Normally this kind of talk would cause me to seize up with terror and anxiety, especially since I make a living by writing and so the idea of not being able to write something saleable is not a notion I like to ponder. But he said it with such a tone of acceptance that I allowed the thought to flutter in my head.
I realized he’s right: a career in writing is about writing a book, selling it, writing another one, selling it, etc etc. There will be rejections (I have plenty) and bad ideas (I have plenty of those too) and projects that go nowhere (I have several of these), but on the whole it’s about writing a saleable book at a rate to sustain a career.
So when I think back on me several years ago, wondering what hot trend I could try to capture so I could find a way into the market I realize I was being a little short-sighted. That what I needed to prove to myself was that I could write a saleable book and that I’d have to continue proving that year after year.
I’ve been a The Biggest Loser fan for several seasons (I promise this ties back in). The premise of the show is that everyone tries to lose weight and at the end of the week the two people with the lowest percentage of weight loss are put up for an elimination vote. Almost every season there’s a challenge where someone can eat a lot of calories and in return gain a measure of control over the game, usually by having the only elimination vote.
Someone always chows down thousands of calories to get the advantage and stay safe and the trainers always go insane because in the end, the only control you need to have in that show is over yourself. If you don’t want to be eliminated, then work out harder and count your calories. Don’t play the games, just worry about yourself.
I think publishing can be like this. It’s easy to want to look at everyone else — what they’re writing, how they’re selling, what trends are hot, etc. — and want to play the game when in the end, if you worry about yourself and work on your craft and write what you love you almost always come out ahead. And even if you don’t win, you’re stronger and leaner and better prepared to face the next stage and the next book.
If you’re looking for a career in writing, there’s always going to be a point when the next book becomes more important than the current and the last and while I’m a big fan of living in the moment, it doesn’t hurt to keep an eye towards improving yourself for the road ahead.