Someone asked me the other day, “So what do I need to know about being a writer?”
For context, this person is working on his first novel. I’ve read enough of his work to know he has the basics down: grammar, spelling, punctuation. He reads a lot, too. I feel like you have to read if you want to write well.
So all the nuts and bolts aside, my answer was: “You need to know what success looks like for you.”
This is the first step.
As-yet-unpublished writers will find so much information online. A swell of it, a tide, a flood. They will read of new authors getting six-figure deals with big publishers, and they will read about self-published authors building empires in which they make six figures a year, too. Then these new, young writers will get dollar signs in their eyes and think about how rich they’re going to be, just as soon as they write this novel.
But let’s get real. Most authors are living middle-class lives at best. I’m not saying it’s impossible to land a big agent, a big publisher, or reel in the big money as a self-published author, I’m just saying it’s not something that happens quickly or often. And what you really need to know is: Are you in it for the money? Or are you doing it because you love to write?
Before you start yelling at me in the comments, I know the two are not mutually exclusive. You can love to write and make money doing it. But publishing is a business and kind of a machine, and we all lean a little more one way or the other. Some of us are business people with some creativity in us, and others are creative people with a smidge of biz.
Bottom line: if you’re more focused on your bottom line, you’re going to approach the work a little differently than if you’re more into the writing part. Neither way is right or wrong, just different. Because all of this drills down to how you personally are going to define success for yourself and your work. You need to know this to map the path you want to take.
IF you want an agent and a major publisher, that’s one path.
IF you’d be happy with a small publisher, that’s another path.
IF you’d be content to self-publish, that again is another path.
Decide how and when you’ll feel “successful.” Set that goal. Those goalposts will move later, once you’ve reached your first goal, but focus on one thing at a time.
“I’ll feel like I’ve made it when I have an agent.” <— Is this you?
“My goal is to see my book in stores and libraries, which means I need a publisher with good distribution.” <—What about this?
“I just want to get my book out there. I’m not as concerned about how, and I’m happy to market myself.” <—Maybe you want to self-publish?
Once you’ve picked a road, you can begin your journey. I recommend finding out as much as you can about every possible option. And remember that it’s okay to change direction later on. But don’t let others’ stories of success or failure be what determines your path. Remember that no one gets there exactly the same way, and your journey will be unique to you.
As for me, when faced with these options, I chose to focus on writing things I want and like to write. Many times I’ve been told how much more money I could make if I’d just pick a genre and stick to it, or if I wrote faster. I know it’s probably true. But when I try to write in just one genre, I begin to feel confined. I stop having fun with my work. And for me, it’s more important that I enjoy it. Yes, I’m so happy when others do, too. And I’m flattered when they want more. I can never count out the possibility that I’ll write more of something. But it will take me a while. Because I’m also not a fast writer. I’ve tried, but it only makes me anxious and unhappy. So I go at a pace that is comfortable for me.
tl;dr: To be a writer you must first be a reader. And you also need to figure out your goal: an agent? major publisher? to self-publish? Do you want to make x amount of dollars per month or year? Do you want to sell x amount of books per month or year? Set a definite, concrete goal for yourself, and don’t be sidetracked by all the news of other authors’ successes. Focus only on reaching the goal you’ve set.