It is assumed, quite falsely, that a writing career gets easier once it gets going. The assumption being, all you need is your foot in the door — just enough sneaker to wedge that fucker open so you can slide sideways through the gap — and now you’re in the Kingdom. After which it’s all, what, signing contracts delivered by courier and royalty money falling from the sky like rain and a dragon whose breath weapon is endless writing time, he just disgorges endless time upon you, whoosh, and now all you have to do is write, and write, and write.
But, as I’m sure you’ve anticipated already, it isn’t like that at all.
A writing career is like an RPG. (Dealer’s choice whether we’re talking pen-and-paper or video game, but for this metric, let’s go with MMORPG.)
The beginning of your writing career is in fact your entrance to a new land, but for the most part, you’re probably some kind of Scrub Knight, some Pig-Farmer Squire-Scribe who has been tasked with using his rickety wooden sword to whack rats in the unicorn stable. You’re just a ratwhacker, bringing rat-pelts to the local Publishing Guild.
Point is, your book is out, but so what? Obviously, so what is so quite a lot, thank you very much, because having a book out is a glorious thing, an impressive wonder, and you should be pleased as peaches with yourself. But the important thing to note here is, dozens, literally dozens of books come out every week in your given genre. Your book coming out isn’t the toast of the town, most likely. There’s no secret library parade, no invitation to the monthly Publishing Orgy, no golden key that opens every bookstore in America. It’s a book, and now it’s out, and you hope it does well.
Now! Maybe, just maybe, the book does well. Or maybe, hell, you were the toast of the town — certainly some debut authors are lucky enough to be chosen in such a way, given a considerable marketing and promotional boost at the outset. Maybe you were lucky, maybe your book is amazing, maybe it’s a confluence of both of those things or some other quirk in the time-space continuum but ha ha now you’ve done it, now you’ve really Won the Publishing Game.
Nnnyeah not so much.
One does not win this game.
One simply tries to stay in the game.
Again, we return to the RPG metaphor — yes, once you’ve whacked enough rats, and earned enough Publishing XP, you are granted access to a new land. You have a Shiny New Word Sword.
YOU HAVE LEVELED UP. Ding!
One thing, though —
Your problems have leveled up with you. You have new skills, new cred, new weapons, but you also have new problems. You’re not just playing D&D anymore, now it’s Advanced D&D. Success breeds new concerns. Are you more branded? Too branded? Can you easily write outside the genre in which you have found success, or is that like re-speccing your build and starting over? What will the next book look like, and can it possibly match the success of the first? And when do the contracts run out? (See last week’s post about cliff mitigation for more on that problem.) Are you with the right publisher? Right editor? Right agent? Have you chosen your ADVENTURIN’ PARTY well? Have you collected the proper blurbs, the good reviews, the nice royalties? What happens when the money runs out? Or when the totally sporadic way of getting paid in this industry leaves your budgeting all out of sync? Or, hell, what happens if you discover… you’re not just having that much fun?
(Parenthood, by the way, is similar to this: you keep thinking, ah, once we have the kid past this next step, it’ll get easier, once she’s walking, or talking, or eating solid food, or in school, or out of school, or, or, or. And diapers give way to the kid running full-tilt into the corner of a coffee table which leads to dealing with second grade social circles which leads to middle school horror which leads to now they can drive which leads to oh hey now they rule over a band of apocalyptic hill cannibals at the end of the world and they’re some kind of chosen one?)
(Though of course every child is different.)
Success breeds new problems.
Failure breeds new problems.
A standalone novel, a trilogy, a series, an award win, a bestseller tag, a box of remaindered books, a bookstore going under, an editor orphaning you, a marketing budget that never manifests, an agent gets too big for your books, an agent quits, there’s a film and TV deal, some foreign rights, a publisher shutters, a genre tanks, a genre takes off, new successes, new problems, and on and on and on. The game doesn’t stop just because you get some victory in you. Every new sword and cool spell just means a new realm, a bigger dragon, more complicated decisions.
And that’s okay. It’s just good to know it. There is no comfortable plateau in a writing career, I imagine — not one that isn’t equivalent to some kind of literal or creative death. You left the stable, and now it’s a forest. You leave the forest, and now it’s a jungle. From rats to orcs to demons in the chasm. From slingshot to wooden sword to steel blade to diamond scythe. It gets more fun. It gets more dangerous. It gets more frustrating! It gets more confusing. And it never really stops transforming itself. There’s always a bit of a grind, always a need to level up, always decisions about how exactly you’re going to tweak and advance your character (aka, you) going forward. Then there’s the sweet ding of the next level, and again you climb. Onward you go.
And onward I go, too.
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DAMN FINE STORY: Mastering the Tools of a Powerful Narrative
What do Luke Skywalker, John McClane, and a lonely dog on Ho’okipa Beach have in common? Simply put, we care about them.
Great storytelling is making readers care about your characters, the choices they make, and what happens to them. It’s making your audience feel the tension and emotion of a situation right alongside your protagonist. And to tell a damn fine story, you need to understand why and how that caring happens.
Whether you’re writing a novel, screenplay, video game, or comic, this funny and informative guide is chock-full of examples about the art and craft of storytelling–and how to write a damn fine story of your own.