By Amy Lane
Don’t we all dream about it?
We write that one book. THE book. The book that flows off the shelves—brick and mortar shelves--and is read by everyone, rich and poor, young and old. The breakout hit, the book that gets us fame, fortune, interviews with John Stewart, movie options, and, finally, a trip down the red carpet for the writer’s credit on the screenplay of the century.
We dream about being the next big thing, the writer who smashes all boundaries, the poster child on all blogs and magazines. Is that too much to ask?
Well, yes and no.
I mean, dreams are nice. And that dream of recognition and financial security for doing the thing we really love—should that be so far off? Lots of other fields have that dream, right?
But do consider what that dream really means.
Let’s say you write a breakout genre hit—and I could name a few, because yes, I do look longingly at other people’s amazon.com numbers and think “Oooooooh… that would be splendid! I should write a book like that!”
Excellent. The book rises on the charts, the book falls, and then…
What are you writing next? Do you love it? Does it fill your soul? Does it make you happy? Or are you just trying to write the next chart topper? Because yes, some people do write hit upon hit upon hit but most of us?
90% of us?
Just keep writing.
And we never know if it’s going to be a bona fide hit, or if it’s going to be a flop, or if it’s going to be somewhere in between.
Now, there are some ways we could improve our chances—some basic things we know about sales. Happy sells better than sad, action and drama sell better than tragedy, young sells better than old, contemporary sells better than fantasy/sci-fi, sex sells better than lights fade to black, shapeshifters break all the rules including metaphysical ones, and m/f romance continues to outsell m/m romance on most (but not all!) fronts.
There we go—follow those rules and you’ve got a 75% chance of writing something that might not tank.
But sometimes we do follow those rules, and we don’t tear down the house, and we’re left… wait, what?
Writing our next book, hoping that it sells well and that people like it.
So, just like the people who have topped the charts, we are doing the exact same thing.
We just keep writing.
I’ve had some books that have sold extraordinarily well. I’ve had some books that have barely kissed the amazon.com top twenty in genre and then plummeted back down. I’ve had some books that have barely even skated the tail end of the charts.
My ability to predict which books were which?
Ab. Solute. Zero.
I got nothing. I mean, I wrote last month about how I knew when I was taking a left turn now, but I’d had to actually write another left turn to know I was doing it. And some people who are really great at predicting what sells are probably laughing their asses off, because, well, I just wrote down the probabilities. I’ve been in the business long enough. Shouldn’t I know?
Hang on—I’m about to make another left turn.
One of the tragic things about the United States political system (in my humble opinion) is that nobody in America has passed science and it’s starting to show. One of the things that science teaches us is that first you formulate a theory, then you test that theory, then you use the results of that test to refine your theory, then you repeat the process until you have something that doesn’t make your test subject grow three heads and explode!
In short: Try. Fail. Try again. Fail some more. Try until it works.
It’s tragic that my country hasn’t adopted this approach—has, in fact, failed science and then failed political science as a result. Not believing in science has locked our government—a group of people in charge of a GIANT SLOW CHANGING VESSEL into the idea that if they try something for a month and it doesn’t work, that’s considered a failure and the guy is voted out of office immediately. Because it takes so long to see if anything will work, the general mindset of the government is to get reelected. In an effort to get reelected, none of our politicians try anything new because they’re afraid it will fail.
Trying to play the writer’s market is like that.
If all we do is write the same thing again and again and again, we are, in fact, playing to the idea that if we try anything new, it will fail.
What if we try something new and it succeeds? What if we try something new, and we think it fails, but as time goes on it proves that it was just playing for a select audience? What if we try something new and non-commercial and it fails, but then we refine that idea and it takes off?
What if we try something new and it’s a critical success and a commercial failure and we’re still proud of it?
What if we never try something new and we fail to evolve, and when we’re at the end of our career our legacy is the first or second book we’ve ever written, and all our other work is merely a knock off of our first original idea?
I do remember a few years ago when I was TNBT (The Next Big Thing—not Teenage Ninja Butt Tiger, that’s a whole other comic.) I was shocked a little when people started telling me I was a big deal.
And then, as always, I started to worry. Oh God—I’ve written something everybody loves. What if I never write something that good again? What if the sequel sucks? What if I let everybody down? And remember—my first book out there was If I Must--happy happy kitty on the front, sweet and sexy roommates in love story inside. And after that? Keeping Promise Rock. Oh God, oh Goddess, what if everybody who reads If I Must reads Promise Rock and hates me because they think I let them down, they were expecting cute kittens and then they got tragedy ridden ranchers and then, oh holy crap, I’m coming out with Truth in the Dark and nobody will like that, because it’s Beauty who’s not beautiful, and now it’s Litha’s Constant Whim and it’s something entirely different, and Making Promises, and people are going to hate me because Shane’s not Deacon and…
And if I’d been doing that for that last five years, I’d be dead.
And if I’d tried repeatedly to recreate If I Must or Keeping Promise Rock I’d also be dead—or at least creatively dead. But… but… but I want this next book to be in the top spot, or the next one, or the next one, oh, hey, this one made it, how do I make that happen again? But I don’t want to write that book again, what about the next one or the next one or…
Well, yeah—there is a reason writers drink, singers do drugs, and actors retire at thirty.
But not all of them.
Most of them—90% of them—just keep swimming.
They take the jobs they can, they do their best, they hope for another. Some of their endeavors are successful, some of them are not, they move on to the next thing.
When I was teaching, I used to fear and loathe the almighty fucking evaluation—I have a host of bad ones in my memory chamber that would give anybody with performance anxiety hemorrhoids. There was the time I sat in the principal’s office waiting for the principal to come in and talk to me, and overheard the secretary and the receptionist talking about how I wasn’t going to get hired back anyway because the district office was pissed that I’d gone into the interview pregnant and now, at nine months along, I was taking a whole six weeks maternity leave. There was the time I was told, “Yeah, you’re a good teacher but you’ve taken too much time off for your new baby with mysterious problems, and I’d look for another job.” There was the time the principal came in with his laptop open and told me he was taking “attention matrix readings” during my first period class so he could prove nobody was paying attention. (I am not making this shit up. God, what a douchecanoe.) But far and away the worst review I ever received was the one where the principal—after fourteen missed appointments wherein my anxiety built in spades--walked in on me while I was giving the same lesson that had failed when I’d been evaluated the year before.
Yes, you read that right.
I was trying something new, something not in the books, and during my first evaluation at that school, the lesson flopped. Badly. Kids screaming around the room badly. Sweat dripping into my eyes badly. I hyperventilated during the wind-down, when I was supposed to be telling them what they had learned because they hadn’t learned a fucking thing--that badly.
And I re-tooled that lesson for the next year, because dammit, it had the seeds of something great in it, and I wanted to see it through.
So it was, the next year during evaluation season, after fourteen missed appointments, my principal walked in and I don’t remember how it went, to tell you the truth. All I remember is that I ended up sobbing in a corner for the next three periods while half my students tried to comfort me and half of them tried to burn the room down. I cannot begin to tell you the anxiety of having yet another authority figure watch me fuck up the same idea. (Granted, some of the fucking up was that sense of doom I got when he walked in to watch me try this particular lesson plan one more time.)
The next year, I did that lesson One. More. Time.
For three freshman classes.
And it worked.
It worked for the next ten years, freshman through seniors, it worked.
At the end of my career, the school’s demographic had changed radically, as had the teaching standards in the earlier grades. The last time I tried that lesson—the one that had done so splendidly for ten years—it flopped, completely, but I didn’t cry this time.
This time, I’d had enough experience, knew enough of what worked and what didn’t and what kids should know and what they often didn’t have when they walked into my room, to know that it wasn’t me. It was them. And I had to find the thing that worked for them.
That is the secret to writing the chart-topping genre blockbuster.
You try, you fail, you try again, you go with what works, you try something else, and when what works starts to fail, you take the something else and work with it some more.
And when all else fails?
You look at Bruce Springsteen’s career.
After Born to Run (or was it before? I always forget) he appeared on two nationally known magazines in the same week. Then he dropped off the public radar for a couple of years, fought a law suit, put out a couple of albums that fans treasure, and resurfaced in the throes of wild stardom with Born in the USA. When that faded, he kept putting out albums, got married, got divorced, found his soul mate, kept putting out music, stole the limelight back in 1998 or so when he sang “One Headlight” with Bob Dylan’s son in live concert and blew everyone away, and then totally wiped the floor with us when he put out The Rising in 2002. And then he went low-key for a little while, put out Magic, and Wrecking Ball, and Devils and Dust (not necessarily in that order) and at one point in there blew our minds on stage during the Super Bowl during a live concert by doing a back flip on stage—when he was in his fifties.
It was not one hit that made his career. Or two. Or a hit album. Or several. It was his entire body of work, and all the things he did in between.
Yeah, sure. We all dream about it. We dream about writing that chart topping, crossover hit with a million copies and twenty printings, the one on everybody’s lips in the bookstore, the one that makes the talk show circuits, the IT BOOK for our age.
And some of us write it.
And some of us just keep on writing.