Some of these are going to be obvious, but here are three big, broad things that can be done to increase the chances that you will make a career out of writing fiction.
1. Write well.
Told you it would be obvious. But many writers think that simply by sitting down and writing the first things that pop into their heads, the world will owe them a living. That’s like picking up a violin for the first time and expecting that, just by making a few noises with it, you’ll soon be invited to appear in a concert hall. Just as learning a musical instrument takes time — and making a successful career out of playing the violin would take a tremendous amount of time and dedication — so does writing fiction take skill, practice and learning the craft.
It’s possible that writers get the wrong idea about this because words, after all, are the central part of writing and they’ve learned words years ago as children. Words are, of course, vital to writing — but there is a whole different level of craft associated with the art of writing fiction which remains invisible to most people unless they seriously search for it. And many don’t search for it simply because they don’t suspect its existence. It’s that level of craft which says that there are rules, intentionally kept hidden behind the curtain of what appears on the page in front of readers, which writers must learn if they want to achieve the goal of attracting large enough numbers of readers to become viable as writers.
When you hear a violin concerto, you simply receive the beautiful music through your ears and it affects you emotionally. You don’t have to know what techniques the violin player is using, or the amount of years he or she has put into perfecting the art — that’s all concealed from you, not necessary to the experience of hearing the music. It’s the same with reading fiction: you read a story and it affects you emotionally (or not). More often than not you don’t ‘see’ the mechanisms the writer has employed which have resulted in this effect, nor do you know anything about the drafts that preceded the version you’re reading, or the months or years of practice and experience which may have gone into the work prior to publication — you just receive the finished work, like listening to a finished piece of music. A successful violin concerto is even more successful if you never even ask why it affected you, and the same is true of a story. If a tale leaves you in a state of wonder, or rapture, or despair, or whatever the story was intended to create within you, you probably don’t ask how it did so — unless you’re keen to be a good writer. Then you sit down and study the ‘hidden’ techniques until you can master them yourself.
The good news is that I have taken years of study out of the equation for you by doing it myself and distilling my findings into the book How Stories Really Work. In that book, you will learn the fundamentals behind most of the elements of the craft of writing. You won’t need to study hundreds of authors or learn all about techniques used since ancient times to attract readers: it’s all there for you.
Writing well is one of the three foundations in building a successful writing career. No doubt you can think of several books which are not written well, but which nevertheless went on to earn their authors a fortune. The truth is that those authors, despite the poor quality of much of their writing, hit upon some of the fundamentals described in my book — probably by accident — and managed to employ them consistently enough for readers to overlook the other flaws in their work and buy and read their books anyway. It works both ways: success is built upon fundamentals, so you can find something successful and deconstruct it to establish what those fundamentals were in each and every case, even when it looks on the surface as though a particular book didn’t ‘deserve’ success.
2. Have patience.
This one can be even more difficult to swallow because it seems so counter-intuitive to what the whole society is telling us to expect. We are trained by the international, national and local consumerist communities around us that we should expect as close as possible to instant gratification whenever we have needs. So authors, growing up in this context, come to believe that commercial success should occur almost as soon as their first book rolls off the press. Bitter disappointment often ensues if their book is not a bestseller within weeks.
Gone are the older and wiser ways of thinking — or almost gone. When society ran on agricultural principles, and was more closely tied to longer, natural rhythms — the pattern of the seasons, the expectations of sowing and harvesting, the daily cycles of light and dark — people tended to have more patience. Instead of being able to contact someone instantaneously by text or call or through social media, people had to wait for letters to arrive at a much slower pace. Of course, things have moved on and technology has enabled a much swifter turnaround in certain matters — but true, reliable commercial growth in any enterprise still obeys the older laws and slower routines. Like a farmer, a writer must plant seeds, nurture them carefully to full growth, and then use a series of methods to ensure that they will reach harvest time. In business terms, a career usually takes two or three years at least to mature: it takes that long for a person to fully learn what it is he or she is supposed to be doing in various circumstances, to master their remit, as it were. It’s the same for writers.
Writing is a peculiar profession: one takes invisible intangibles from one's own head, transforms them by a strange alchemy into a pattern of words, then congeals them into stories and electronic or hard copy books, then sends them out into the world. To expect cash to instantly appear in one’s bank account as a result of this sorcery seems a trifle over-ambitious. Cash can eventually materialise — but only if one adopts, like the farmer, a series of patient approaches to the marketplace. These things can be learned, and I’ve written about them too.
From the above two things comes a third.
Sitting down and writing a bestseller within a few weeks is a highly unlikely event. The tiny proportion of cases where this has actually happened — and even the famous To Kill a Mockingbird took longer than that to write and edit into shape, though it went on to become the author Harper Lee’s single published book until very near to the end of her life — spoil the picture for the rest. 99.9999% of books that are written do NOT immediately sell well.
Instead, an author who wants to achieve commercial success, apart from writing well and having patience, has to think long term. They also have to think ‘deep term’. In other words, they need to write more and more books, but they also need to step back and work out exactly what it is in those books that works for readers. You might write one book that eventually, after a period of possibly years, sells well; you might go on to write a dozen more, only to find that they don’t sell anywhere near as many copies. So you have to write more, but also stay true to whatever it was that sold the first book.
Look to some of the recent big commercial success stories, like Terry Pratchett, J. K. Rowling, Harlan Coben. They wrote series of books — and each book in their series bore strong resemblance to the others. They didn’t write twelve novels, each with its own entirely different theme and approach: no, they wrote many, many books -- or in Rowling's case, only seven-- each sticking very closely to what had worked previously.
Commercial success is always a case of mining an existing motherlode of interest in the customer.
‘Ah!’ some may protest. ‘What about Jeff Bezos, creator of Amazon? He’s a big commercial success — one of the biggest ever — but he diversified into just about every product there is! How does that fit in?’ It fits in because his motherlode of customer interest wasn’t a specific product, but a distribution and accessibility model: Amazon grew huge because it tapped into the whole social ‘instant gratification’ urge by focusing on making all kinds of stuff easy to get.
Jeff Bezos may or may not be a model for fiction writers. My point is that ‘Whatever sold a book is capable of selling another’. Writers who want commercial success need to hone in on the key factors in their own published work and ensure that these are repeated again and again in future works. This isn’t ‘recycling the same story’ — far from it. It’s recycling the same theme, the same quality of style, the same fulfilment. It's part of finding your own voice as an author. Learn how to do that by telling a different story each time and the world is yours.
There’s more to say about all of this, but three big things are probably enough for now!
Drop me a line if you have any questions: