Andrea Phillips: Throw Everything At The Wall
Andrea is a friend and a talent and initially when she sent me a guest post that said throw everything at the wall I assume that meant she was offering advice for how to deal with the frustrating realities of being a writer (“JUST BREAK EVERYTHING AND YOU’LL FEEL SO MUCH BETTER”), but her advice is far broader and, well, more useful than all that. Anyway, here Andrea talks about the willful messiness of a writing career:
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Sometimes, when I talk about all the different kinds of work that I do, I think I come off like a lying liar.
See, I’m here today to promote my brand-spanking-new project, The Daring Mermaid Expedition, which is a choose-your-own-adventure-style game except convenient app form. An interactive novel, if you will. It’s about mermaids and academia and pirates and loyalty. It’s funny and fluffy and… pretty weird, I guess? Also fun. And you can play the first couple of chapters for free!
Buuuuuut I’m not actually going to talk about my game. PSYCH! Ha ha promoting your work is hard.
The most perceptive of you throngs of Wendigites will recall that the last thing I was here trying to con you into buying was something completely different: Revision, a snarky sci-fi thriller about a wiki where your edits come true.
And my record only gets weirder from there. I’ve done nonfiction, and spent a while as a leading world expert in transmedia storytelling. I’ve written children’s books! Entertainment marketing campaigns! I’ve written smut under a pseudonym! Blog posts, alternate reality games, poetry, fitness games, old-fashioned paper newspaper articles, catalog copy. I’ve even written ye olde search engine optimization. (Never again, my friends. Never again.)
That’s not even getting into my day job shenanigans: library secretary, IT product manager, copy/production editor, game designer.
And yet here I am, just one single person with no apparent sense or focus to how I go from one thing to the next. I might as well be choosing each new project with a wine-spattered Ouija board.
But there is a method to my madness. To wit, I go where the money is. I walk through the doors that are open to me, instead of banging my head on the ones that sound like they’re locking me out of the most funnest parties. Sometimes those open doors aren’t in a straight line, or very close together. And that’s OK!
It’s easy to be seduced by the idea that there’s one true career path. It makes a nice story, with a clear progression and a sense of narrative justice. You write some short stories and get them published in semipro magazines, then you hit the pros, then you write a novel and sell it. Or you start in the quality assurance department of a big game studio, you work hard and prove yourself, and then one day you get a crack at writing yourself. You start as an assistant reading slush, and then you become an assistant producer, and then one day—
But the truth is, real careers are messy, and a lot of writers do a lot of different things before and even after their big hits. You may know George R.R. Martin from Game of Thrones, but I first knew him as the guy behind those Wild Card anthologies about mutated superheroes. And he wrote for the TV show Beauty and the Beast in the 80s! (Remember that? It was huuuuuuuge.)
Lewis Carroll famously received a request from Queen Victoria to dedicate his next book to her after the charming Alice in Wonderland, and was bemused when it was a dense mathematical treatise. John Scalzi has a well-known career in science fiction, but he’s also written film and music criticism and nonfiction about subjects from astronomy to financial advice.
Our own host Chuck Wendig has written original fiction, Star Wars tie-in novels, film scripts, writing advice, and an obscure line of threatening notes for fortune cookies. So it goes.
The point I’m making, in my roundabout way, is a two-for-one. First: Opportunity can come in many shapes and sizes, and only a sucker turns it down. Second: Diversification is awesome.
You might well have one thing you’re burning to write and that’s the only thing that will ever make you happy. Which, great! Fine! I’m very glad for you. But if you have your heart set on writing only wangsty love-triangle science fiction about a sentient lawnmower and a pair of animatronic garden gnomes, then your career options are going to be, ah, somewhat limited. If you only have one move and nobody’s picking up what you’re putting down, well, so much for that. Them’s the breaks.
On the other hand, if you’re willing to try a whole bunch of things, throw all that mess at the wall and see what sticks? That’s how you build a career.
It’s purely a matter of numbers. Because no matter how hard you work as a writer, your success will always be subject to an unpredictable climate of luck, timing, zeitgeist. There are authors who strike it big with their first thing out of the gate – and I’m looking at you, JK Rowling and Stephen King — but there are authors who not only never strike it big at all, they never strike it small, either.
So it’s a smart move to keep your options open and your eyes on the horizon. Maximize your chances. Maybe the garden gnome/lawnmower thing won’t work out, but somebody likes your style and wants you to move on to garden gnome noir crime fiction. Or maybe you’ll get an itch to step away from it and try your hand at middle grades occult primers.
“Oh, but Andrea,” you wail, “what about my personal brand? Won’t I confuse my audience?” Pssssssh no, I wouldn’t waste my time worrying about that. There’s a grain of a point there, inasmuch as the people who loved your lawnmower romances might not care for your garden gnome noir. But if you like both things, how can you be sure your audience wouldn’t? We all contain multitudes.
And many an author has lamented being locked into a series from the start of their career, and had trouble branching out to the other kinds of work that interest them later. Again, JK Rowling and her crime fiction.
That doesn’t inevitably lead to “pick one kind of thing and do it forever.” It means do a lot of different kinds of things that you like your whole career. Added side bonus: it keeps your creative wheels spinning faster, too. Variety is like crop rotation for the writer brain, letting some parts lay fallow and grow new ideas while you harvest the field next door. So switching things up doesn’t just increase your odds of making sweet sweet moolah, it can actively make you a better writer.
Try it, you might like it!