Guest Post by Kenneth Mugi
You’ve heard it; we’ve all heard it. It’s the question. It’s the “What is the Matrix?” query of writer’s groups.
“How do I become successful?”
Sure, there are variations. “How do I get published? How do I get past the editor’s secretary? How do I sell more units?”
The core is the same, as is the underlying assumption: I’m ready. My work is better than the other jokers on the market and if I could just get it out there…money. Maybe even fame and attractive people feeding me grapes will I lounge.
It’s also a question in search of a life hack. It’s saying, “I know my favourite author toiled endlessly and died broke, but I’m not them. I’m better. I write four-to-five-star novels (even though I’m not published yet) and when it gets out there, people will stop and stare.”
Out of a hundred people who make this assumption, there’s probably one who’s correct. The odds are, you are not that person. If you could learn this earlier than I did, and in the comfort of your own home, it would be a good outcome. For everyone. For the editors you might get upset with when they hand back your first precious gem (and get a strongly worded letter from you for their troubles). For the networking opportunities you could waste because of your impatience and becoming known as ‘that gonna guy’ in literary high tea circles. And, finally, for the readers that do like your first works (flawed though they may be) and suffer through them in silence despite not seeing much improvement.
Still, when this question comes up, everyone does a lot of hand wringing. They talk about quality, mastering your craft and having that special ‘spark’. There’s waffle about creativity and talent. Iconoclastic author names get pulled out, case studies are used and alcohol is consumed. Sometimes they even mention writing.
I used to be in the ‘talent’ camp. I believed that people who wrote were more special, more creative and just…well…better than those common office administrators. Right now, I’m not proud of that part of my writing history because it involved a lot of swagger. There was even blustering and horn honking. Back then, I was a discovery just waiting to be…discovered. Riches would pour in once the book hit the shelves.
Life taught me otherwise. Success in creative writing is elusive because it’s hard. There’s no way around it. Some people get lucky (1 in 1,000,000 or a 1 in a 1,000). If you’re that person, thank luck and stop reading this article. If you’re not then here’s some more depressing news: consistent success is even difficult because you can’t guarantee it.
The ray of sunshine in this dark cavern is that this is not a unique phenomenon only occurring in the writing world. It happens all over the commercial sphere. Designing, producing and creating a product that captures the imagination of thousands (let alone millions) is challenging. Even the best designers fail often and regularly to achieve it.
Google has launched brilliant pieces of software and had the market ignore them. Apple, until the iPod, created intensely intuitive machines but never achieved mainstream success. Sega’s Dreamcast died in a whimper despite it being a decade ahead of its time.
These products were created by companies with hundreds of skilled staff and people who knew the inside and outside of their respective industries. They put millions of dollars on the table, tens of millions in ad campaigns, multiple-year production schedules and did exhaustive market testing—only to fail commercially. Yes, their products were quality and sublime, but they weren’t successful.
What’s this got to do with you? Well, I’m in a new camp now. I still believe in quality and I believe in improvement, but I place my faith more in production schedules. For me, success is about running the numbers and consistent delivery.
Think about it this way: the more products you have on the shelves, the higher the chance people will notice you. The more times they see you, the increased likelihood they’ll try your goods, and if extra people explore your output then maybe some additional long-term readers will stick around for the journey.
If you give them something to come back for regularly (weekly, fortnightly, bi-annually) then they’ll form a habit. Habits, as you know, are hard to break. So even if you produce the occasional hit-or-miss work, their ingrained biology forces them to allocate you another chance.
It works for webcomics. It works for vehicle manufacturers, IT organisations, movie studios and so on.
“But doesn’t that mean extra toil in the mines of vowels and constants?”
Yes. It means thinking of yourself as a production machine. There was a Guardian article I read (the bookmarked reference is tragically long gone) that broke down the number of words authors wrote per day. The really successful ones (think Suzanne Collins) punched out approximately 2,600. The modest, just-pay-the-bills authors slammed out 2,200. Those who were stuck writing as hobbyists completed 1,500.
There are a thousand (plus!) books that have been written about how to become that unique, one-in-a-million author who has ‘the creative spark’. Only a few about focusing on your production flow as an author. One flatters your ego, tells you that you are special and promises so much for so little. The other says you’re just a fan in the stadium; you can either toil harder than the rest or be surpassed.
Both take skill, discipline, high-level analysis and commitment. There’s nothing easy about producing 3,000 words a day regularly. Nothing. People who mock it haven’t tried.
Look, you don’t have to believe me. You don’t have to agree with me. I fought against it for years. I hated the idea that all my abilities were nothing more than a word-count or hours spent on my craft. Malcolm Gladwell, pfft. I had talent. People told me so.
Eventually though I changed my mind.
Well, let’s finish on a thought experiment. We’re both competing for the same readers. You’re all about ‘quality’. You write when you’re inspired and when you’ve got time. After all, you can’t write quality without being in the mood. Don’t I know anything?
Let’s say you average 1,500 words a day. They’re good phrases and they make critics happy. That’s 547,000 words a year or 6.8 novels. Say each of those novels has three edits and you’re down to 2 regular manuscripts or one epic adventure.
A pretty solid effort. You might even fist bump your editor on the way out after a contract signing.
Except I’m also in the same market and I punch out 2,600 words in those precious twenty-four hours. They’re reasonable phrases. I get three-star reviews, not four. Your friends call me ‘the hack, the industry clown’.
Yet, I produce 949,000 words in the same space of time. With three edits, I’m down to 3.9 novels. I could produce an epic and still slip two other emotional experiences on the market.
Now, let’s put our reader hat on and take a trip to the store. Your one epic saga’s there and it seems like the kind of thing I’m interested in. It’s epic and has a fancy cover. Famous authors say swanky things about it, there’s a featured display.
Yet, because you’re a new author, I’m not totally convinced. Where’s the back catalogue? What if I do love you and want more, how long will I have to wait? Three years? Five? Are you a Patrick Rothfuss or a George R.R. Martin?
So I keep going and notice this other writer, person. It’s a ‘good read’ and ‘awesome entertainment’. Not quite fixing my literary itch, but he’s new. He’s solid. No one seems to hate him. Plus, he’s got three books out. And if he’s got three novels on the shelf, then he has to have proved himself to the industry, right? You’ve only got one. You could be gone tomorrow. This guy’s here for the long haul. I’m willing to invest in that.
Or maybe I only read six-star novels with so much praise they smack bookstore customers in the face when they walk past. But I don’t think there’s that many of those people out there.
I’m just saying, once you’ve read On Writing, think about your production flow. It might just kick start your career.
Kenneth ‘Enthusiastic Hobbyist Author’ Mugi
Discover more about Kenneth at his website: http://www.noshovelshere.com or read his latest story, Flickering Lives, in the recently released anthology, 18.