At the end of the day, and if you want to “make it” as an author, uploading your debut novel to Amazon in hopes of recognition is like recording a song on Garage Band, putting it on YouTube, and hoping it will go viral. (Of course, when I say “debut novel” I assume you’ve been through so many edits and drafts that if you look at it again you’ll scream like a banshee and punch the wall). As a personal accomplishment, I think it’s awesome you’ve got something “out there.” You did it, by god(s). You should be proud. Think about the ratio of people who say they’re working on a book to those who actually accomplish it–it’s small.
just isn’t in the cards, which leaves me with the somewhat more reasonable challenge, I think, of writing a worthy novel.
So you say I’ve “made it,” and I have, in some sense. I was incredibly fortunate to be the first published novelist at Inkshares, a crowd-driver publisher in San Francisco who said, “We’ve never done a novel before, but if you raise $10,000 in pre-orders in 3 months, let’s talk.
Charles, let me tell you: completing that campaign without any “online presence” was a doozy (I didn’t even have Twitter when I started), but let me tell you: it wasn’t impossible. I contacted every person I had ever made a connection with in my life, and also met more than a few kind souls at public bus stops and local bars. But let’s be real: I am proud of Slim and The Beast, sure, but I have a feeling the reason I’ve sold over 1,200 copies has less to do with my heretofore undiscovered literary genius and more to do with the fact that I benefitted from a marketing campaign that was intended to get Inkshares off the ground (it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a completely unknown author to get a book tour and attend a major bookseller conference).
This is why for me, as far as my next step goes in “making it” as an author, I know it comes down to writing something remarkable. I am confident in my latest manuscript because if I don’t believe in it, who will? But I know the odds are against me. And that’s alright. I need to find a literary agent or a small press that believes in my work, which is why I’ve spent the past three years editing ferociously (I cut a total of 61,057 words from the first to the fourth draft, and that’s not including the thousands of words I deleted before I could call it a “draft”).
Do you believe in your work, or do you believe other people should believe in it? Those are two very different questions, and one of them is the wrong one.
It took me many, many years of serious, disciplined writing to actually write something I was proud of, and that’s really as good as it gets for me. There’s no guarantee I’ll make a penny from the latest manuscript, ever, or that people will even like it. But as the ancient Bhagavad-Gita tells us, we don’t have a right to the fruits of our labor, only to the labor itself. I hate my first novel and wish I could change much about my second. My latest novel is finally at a point where I am at least willing to share it, but there are still moments when I feel like curling up into a ball and weeping because I don’t really know if I’ve used a semi-colon correctly.
So take a long, hard, honest look at your work. Ask yourself the question: “Is this is the best possible version of the book that I can muster?” If so, pat yourself on the back and take the plunge. Write a few query letters, see if anyone bites, and start writing the next novel. Be sure to share the work with others, listen to critical feedback (and digest it), get rejected (and understand the difference between someone rejecting your book and you as a person). Revise, rethink, get rejected again, and continue onwards. If you’re not writing every day, or at least thinking about writing every day, the math doesn’t add up: Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 Hours” idea may or may not be bullshit, but unless you’ve made writing an integral part of your lifestyle, it’s fair to say you’re not well positioned to “make it” as an author.
Which brings us to my conclusion after eight years of serious writing: the only viable goal is to keep on keeping on. If writing hasn’t become an essential, life-giving, soul-soothing part of your life, don’t do it. Writing books is way too frustrating, time-consuming, financially ludicrous, and quite frankly depressing to be worth so much time wrapped up in imaginary worlds where our characters are our closest confidants, only to raise our head, realize no one cares, and still equate “success” with twinkling stars on Goodreads and a horde of followers. Don’t get me wrong: recognition is nice and validation is important. But I had that recognition for about three months in 2015, and I’m writing you an email from the same menial job that I had when I “made it,” once again wondering how I’ll get a manuscript off the ground.
At the end of the day, public recognition and book sales can’t be the measure of success because both are too ephemeral and subjective to be able to count on. Authors that “make it” are invariably people who will trudge up the mountain regardless; and once they reached the peak they weren’t surprised that there will always be taller mountains. Ta-Nehisi Coates gives some of the best writing advice I’ve ever come across: keep writing, if not every day, then every other day … but do it every day, dammit. You’re a writer.
To fail as an author is human. To succeed as a writer is divine.