[Thanks to Jeff VanderMeer for lending out his venue during the marathon Finch/Booklife tour, and thanks to all my fellow guest bloggers for thoughtful and thought-provoking reads these past few weeks.]
With ever-fewer exceptions, modern writers must also be modern marketers, presenting not only their works to their readers, but their identity as writers. Some books sell because of their stories or their characters, others sell because the story of the writer makes the rounds through the audience first and draws the reader in, because the writer‘s character wins the audience over.
Great and lousy stories alike find audiences this way, as do new and established writers. For the successful author, the arc of a career is a meta-story made up of the victories and setbacks of individual books. Was your favorite author’s second book not as good as the first one? It’s a second-act reversal! Is the new one a triumphant return to form? A hoped-for and rewarding twist in the tale!
Is it fair of us to try and devise a career tale based on such sketchy evidence? Is it what we should be doing as readers?
The answers to those questions matter less, to this post, than the fact that we regard authors as products, and that writers must think of how we shall cast ourselves in the theater of our careers, for the sake of our would-be, one-day, hoped-for fans.
Media writer Guy Lecharles Gonzalez posted an article about the 1,000 True Fans model recently that had me rethinking my identity as a writer. In that post, Gonzalez offers three key notes for engaging with a community of potential fans:
- It’s not about you.
- Find your niche.
- Have patience.
Those are three good pieces of advice. It’s the second one that I’m thinking about right now, though. I’m thinking about those writers that worry about their niche above all â€” those writers who skip the stories they want to tell for those projects they think the market is hungry for, the writers who eschew their favorite genre to pursue whatever they think literary agents are after, the writers who are concerned with their meta-story above all.
The pursuit of success comes with a certain amount of fantasizing. We imagine what things will be like when we’re successful novelists, with three or four books out and a story of our own unfolding in the background. First we’ll have the breakthrough debut that marks us as a new and undeniable voice. Then we’ll have the surprisingly sly second book that comments on its own sophomoric position and demonstrates a capacity for mass appeal; fans of the first book will like it less, but the audience will grow. The third book takes everyone by surprise, mixing genre and literary conventions in a bold experiment that, while not wholly successful, is much admired; the author, rather than the story, emerges as the focus of the Terry Gross interview.
The point is, we can fret too much about our personal narrative and distract ourselves from writing the stories that only we can write. We can obsess about the forest when we should be planting trees. We can focus too much on the wrong worry for the moment.
I’ve been fretting too much about the niche, fantasizing too long about my authorial story. I’ve been hopping from story to story, from novel to novella, chasing whatever piece of intelligence I’ve gleaned that day that might lead to a successful sale, to another reader, to another buck. I’ve forgotten, sometimes, that it isn’t all about me. It’s about the story. It’s about delivering for the reader.
To you, this may be obvious. To me, it was obvious once. But I spend so much time reading about the future of media, about the death of publishing and the fate of authors, about what the writer’s career may look like in the next few years, that I’ve forgotten where I have the most control over my fate: at the keyboard. The writer’s most powerful career tool is the oeuvre. A body of work, whether diverse or deep, is the best tool for finding a niche. Am I wrong?
Here I’ve been worrying about how to market myself first, thinking that would determine what I finish and shop around. But how do I even know what I am as a fiction writer if what I have are unfinished manuscripts? I’ve been fretting about the wind instead of finishing my boat. I’ve been worrying out of order.
It’s all carts and horses down here.
My new approach: write as much as I can, from stories to novellas to scripts, to form a body of work that can fit into several niches. If something takes off, I’ll be practiced enough to chase my own successes, however small. It’s in the writing that I have the most control over my own career. Each finished work is a stroke of the oar, pushing the boat in a new direction. I can’t control the current, but I can row hard and I can row fast.