How to Be a Successful Writer* (*spoiler alert–I have no idea)

April 30th, 2015

My first novel was like an eruption from my heart onto the page. I composed entire scenes in my head while I rocked my young kids to sleep, and then raced to my laptop and pounded out the words. It was satisfying, cathartic, romantic–both the act of writing and the book itself.

Eventually, it got published–a dream come true–but no one bought it–a nightmare come true.

I wrote another novel with an eye toward the market. I wrote it slightly cynically, threw in a lot of popular tropes, took all of the editor’s notes, felt no particular pride of possession, and forgot it almost as soon as it was done.

It sold very well.

If you think you can draw a conclusion from any of this, you’re wrong.

Since then I’ve written many more novels–seven of which have been published–and some have sold and some haven’t. I promise you, if I could tell you what the determining factor is for literary success, I WOULD ONLY HAVE SUCCESSES. I’m not writing for my own pleasure.

Oh, wait, maybe I am.

Which brings me to the age-old question: why do I write? Why do other authors write? Is there a correlation between the reason you write and your ultimate success as a writer?

Some people genuinely seem to have something to say, a message to impart to the world, a burning vision. Which maybe leads to true brilliance . . . but can also just as easily lead to the situation in the movie Sideways where you’re told that your novel is absolutely wonderful, but no one wants to publish it, because it’s just not what the market wants right now.

There are others who seem to have their fingers on the pulse of the public, giving them vampires when they want vampires, bleak thrillers when that’s what’s selling. If the timing works and they’re good at what they do . . . huge success. But there’s also a risk of just being derivative and chasing a market.

Obviously, through luck or insight, some people hit the sweet spot–write the book they want to write at just the right time for the market.

I hate those people.

I don’t really, of course.

I just envy them.

I write the way I read–chaotically, experimentally, somewhat thoughtlessly, flitting from one genre to another, feeling very much tapped into the zeitgeist at one moment (loved Gone Girl) and then completely alienated another (never did make it through the first Twilight, let alone all four). The same is true for me as a writer: I’ve hit the sweet spot a couple of times, missed it a few more.

Sometimes I aspire to writing the great American novel, and sometimes I just want to be allowed to keep writing in whatever humble way I can.

Right now I’m in between projects–just sent something off to my agent and am trying to decide what to work on next. The freedom is exhilarating. The freedom is terrifying.

The page is very blank . . .  but it’s also filled with questions.

  • I loved this and enjoy the way you write so honestly about NOT knowing how to approach each new novel but instead keep feeling your way.

  • Cheri-Ann says:

    This is a fabulous post Claire! Love your honesty as well as your insight. I haven’t even begun to think about the “market.” I pretty much write what comes to me. When an idea does come and I’m in the writing mode, the words just seem to flow easily. Oh did I mention they flow out in rhyme? 🙂

  • a c nasch says:

    Wow. I continue to feel your intensity ten minutes after I read your post. Either I need to adjust my meds, or probably you’re just that exceptional! Thank you for your thoughtful words. But you forgot another category that eludes 99% novelists and screenwriters…Birthing a new genre, which of course is not true. But take J.K. Rowling and George Martin (Game Of Thrones), they are the one percenter’s of us story tellers. I envy them for the unique freedom that often comes with this success, branding them as phenom’s.
    Cheers!

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