Thinking long term

Carrie RyanCarrie Ryan
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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.

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22 comments to Thinking long term

  • >>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.>>

    Carrie, I envy people who can focus on their own creative worlds and turn a blind eye to the market’s future. I never had that ability to shut out the market, the commercial aspect of writing, always watching the trends, to twist and tweak the storytelling to keep it current. Which makes it so much work and so much less a pure creative endeavor. Thanks for reminding me that — in the end — I have to travel my own path, no matter what the market does.

  • Faith, just as I was posting I was thinking about this point. I should have put in a clarification that I’m always looking at the market and trying to figure out what’s going on and where I do/can fit in. Given two ideas rattling around in my head I’ll pick the one that I think works best with the market. I think that’s just a reality of writing commercially sometimes.

    I think what I found interesting during that chat was the impression that if you JUST figure out the hot trend that’s all that matters — paying more attention to the market and the trends instead of what you *want* to write about and what your strengths are. It takes more than just writing a book that fits into the market, it has to be a good book because once that trend is done, unless you fit into the next trend too then you’re relying on your skills as an author to sell.

    I too wish I could turn a blind eye to the market’s future — it can be frustrating otherwise. Of course, it can also be fascinating — I love pubmarketplace for just that reason :)

  • I love watching the Biggest Loser. To see that lightbulb moment show up in some of the players eyes and the pure tenacity it takes to overcome is amazing.

    I’ve never been one to watch trends. I guess I’ve always believed if you follow you’re own path, you have a better chance at a unique voice emerging above the flock. (Hugs)Indigo

  • Sarah

    I really have to say that I can understand your friend. I haven’t published a book or anything else and probably won’t for quite a while because of various reasons. Once in a while though I start to “think long term” and think about all the “what ifs…”:
    If I should really manage write a saleable book, how do I know that I can do it again?
    And, if I try to write something that goes with a certain trend, will it be as good (and saleable) as something else I would’ve chosen without factoring in any trends?
    What happens if I don’t like the current trend, if it isn’t something I’d like to or can write about?
    I still think that if you write about something that fascinates you, what you’ve written will fascinate the reader. But since I am not a published writer, I do not really care for trends right now anyway.
    So, these are a newbie’s thoughts on the topic. But even I know, that one published book is only the foundation of the house, called “A writers career”, while the following books will give one the roof that will be needed to keep you dry and warm, when it rains.

  • Indigo – I feel like I’ve learned a lot by watching Reality TV shows (I blogged a while back about learning how important motivation can be). Watching Biggest Loser and seeing those contestants sabotage themselves only for the appearance of control was really a lightbulb moment for me, especially since it’s so easy to get focused on other people and sometimes jealousy.

  • Sarah, you make great points and these are things I’m always thinking too. I think the “will I be able to do it again” question is one that I end up having to just leave to faith in myself — faith that if I can do it once then I can do it again (and acceptance that if I can’t then this isn’t the career for me).

    I lucked into a trend — I wrote about zombies because I loved them and thought I’d get laughed out of NYC. But I also think it can’t just be all about trends, not if you want a long career because it’s almost impossible to consistently hit each trend (and if you have readers in one trend, would they follow you to another?).

    And of course, the trends on the shelves now (at least in YA) are often what was being sold to editors over a year ago (sometimes even two years ago).

  • Carrie, this is wonderful advice. If for no other reason than the fact that if you succeed at following a trend (particularly one you are not passionate about), you may get pigeon-holed in that trend. You’ll be known not as a writer but as a writer of Trend X. Getting publishers and readers to allow you to break free from that might be a problem and you’ll find yourself bored and uninspired. Better to write what you love — if your love is trendy or you can incorporate the trends into your passions, then great. If not, just keep writing what you care about and perhaps the world will come to see things your way. Come to think of it, that’s how most trends start.

  • That’s a great point Stuart — if you follow a trend you might get stuck branding yourself that way. That’s not necessarily a terrible thing but it could be restricting down the road. I know of a few authors that’s happened to and it’s been a difficult transition for them to write what they DO love.

    I don’t think trends are bad or following them is bad, I just think writers need to focus on more than ONLY trend as a way into the market. Trend can only get you so far and I think craft is what will get you farther :)

  • This is something that has been on my mind here recently. As I near the completion of my first novel, I look back on what it has taken to get here. It is a lot. I never realized how much planning, thought, andjust plain work it is to complete a novel. I wonder if I would be able to “write on demand” per a publisher’s contract. It is not something I haev found an answer to just yet.

  • Carrie, this is a topic near and dear to my heart. I can’t just jump on a trend for the sake of making money. Sure, I’ve got ideas all over the place, but I have to write what’s in me, rather than trying to jump on a bandwagon. I had to modify a Ghandi quote to hammer it home to myself: “Write the stories you wish to read in the world.” There’s no predicting the future, so if I’m going to write, I need to follow my own path.

    Which is why my husband has way more of a chance with his recently-started zombie novel (he loves that subject), while I’m happily chugging away at a YA fantasy.

    Besides, maybe what *we’re* writing right now will become the next trend, so it can’t hurt to try. Hm, “If you write it, they will read?”? ;)

  • “Don’t play the games, just worry about yourself.”

    That is phenomenally good advice, and sadly I don’t always take it. It’s wise to keep track of the market, as long as one doesn’t obsess over it or completely sacrifice creative vision for commercial viability. But I sometimes get caught up in using the careers of others as yardsticks for my own success. And there is nothing good about doing that at all. It breeds envy and insecurity and whole host of other negative emotions. I’m happiest when I just keep my head down, do my work, and stay away from the games. Thanks for the reminder, Carrie. Great post.

  • As for writing to the market, I personally don’t see any advantage to doing that. If werewolves are hot right now but I don’t care about werewolves; then I will write a bad story about werewolves. Because if you don’t write what you love, then it will reflect in your story. The only way this would work is if the “hot thing” just so happens to coincide with the topics that you love normally.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    There are so many interesting directions to go with this topic. For myself, I tend to do things really slowly, so your friend’s take that he needs to know he can keep doing it book after book before he tries to sell anything really makes sense for my style of person. Also, I’m a little bit trend averse (and yes, I know, snobbery is unbecoming) so if I think I’m interested in a project that might be trendy, my first thought is how to make it OTHER than the trend, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But I think that both the directions and the restrictions of trends have the potential to really add to a person’s creativity. They’re like pieces of a puzzle that has to be put together just right to both satisfy external criteria and make it something cool that you love. What sort of twist can you add that turns the imposition of trends into an awesome creative stepping stone?

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Sorry, hit send to soon.
    Maybe werewolves aren’t your thing, but were-cheetahs are just the ticket!

  • Wow! Your friend writing a novel and then INTENTIONALLY shelving is the most serious example of long-term thinking I’ve ever heard of. I don’t know what else to say but another Wow! I agree with his logic; I just don’t know if I’d have the courage or the committent to actually do it. Thanks for sharing that story.

  • Good point Mark — it def takes a lot of work to get to having a finished book and then there’s just more to worry about as promotion and copy-editing get piled on. I’m not sure any of us know if we can write under deadline until it’s time to do so :)

  • Moira, I definitely think sometimes you write what’s not a trend only to find yourself starting a new trend or catching the front end of one! I’ve always thought of it this way: what happens if you write to the trend and STILL don’t sell? Then you’ve written a book you might not be in love with and still haven’t sold.

  • Oh David, I can’t count the number of times I’ve looked at other authors as yardsticks — I think it’s impossible to avoid it. But you’re right that at the end of the day that can really get poisonous — it’s one thing to pay attention to the market and another to focus on everyone but yourself.

    I think you’re spot on with this: “It’s wise to keep track of the market, as long as one doesn’t obsess over it or completely sacrifice creative vision for commercial viability.”

  • I really like this thought, Hepseba ALHH: “What sort of twist can you add that turns the imposition of trends into an awesome creative stepping stone?”

    There have been a lot of successful books that have done this — put a new twist on a trend. And also, I try to remember that often something is a trend because people love to read it and there’s nothing wrong with that. Of all people I can’t complain because I’m the type of person who falls in love with a song and will listen to it over and over again for hours — I can see doing the same with books!

  • Edmund, thanks! I agree — his thoughts on the market are really insightful and have really changed my own approach. I really like that he’s been approaching things by looking at the long term aspects — what it will take to establish a career and not just sell a book. It’s so easy to get wrapped up in the here and now and the ONE idea that will change it all but really… there have to be several ideas.

    My friend is tenacious which I very much admire :)

  • Suzanne

    I think your right about the whole "ignore everyone else" and only work on your personal project thing. But I also think you shouldn't look at every other writer as competition. Make friends with those writers! You'll never know when someone in the biz can help you out, or when you can help someone else out, and where those connections will get you. You shouldn't get hurt when someone else gets a contract and you're still getting rejection letters, but you shouldn't shut out writers all together. There's a lot of usefulness in those connections.
     
    Also, having to log into this site is weird, especially because I have a wordpress account already. I'm not entirely sure what was up with that.

  • Suzanne, the log-in requirement was instituted when we started having trouble with people misbehaving.  I'm sorry if you're not fond of having to log in, but until that magical day when everyone can behave politely on the internet, we're going to keep it this way.  :D