I remember a beautiful line in a movie I once saw, in which a father described his happy-go-lucky son as “a failure in everything but life.” Some people know how to succeed on societal terms, others know how to live, on their terms. Me, I want both. Screech! With all four tires of the vehicle of dreams locked and skipping, laying down dashed rubber burns on the macadam of life. In other words, reality-check time.
If you entered the literary world in hope of achieving fame and fortune, well, good luck. And good-bye. You’re not likely to last long. I know I didn’t. My ego was extinguished, my spirit shattered, my hopes and aspirations hacked and addered (not a real word, but nothing else would maintain the alliteration. Hey, if you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with big, steaming field patties of fecal smoothies from an adult male bovine who still has two eight-balls in his center pocket. Isn’t that how the saying goes, or did I miss something?). In any case, I quickly learned that I had to reset my expectations and come to grips with marketplace reality. To succeed in the literary world, you need vision, zeal, and commitment. More than anything else, you need to love what you do. Equally important, you need to redefine success. Notice I’m talking about you, not me. Me, I just need people to buy my books.
Okay, new subdivision of written composition. A paragraph, that is. Here goes: Few successful authors slug through their work in the manner of a clerk, going through the motions of satisfying the predetermined template of duties that constitutes their job. But don’t listen to me; go ahead and try it. Attend all the writing and publishing seminars you want; read all the instructional blogs and books you wish; study the secrets of the masters and catalog their success formulas. I’m not saying these tools won’t help. All I’m saying is they are like sex without salt, or meat without emotion. Uh, hold up a sec. Kids, don’t try this at home. Remember, I’m a trained professional, but there’s a small chance I transposed a couple of words there. Anywho, the fact of the matter is, if you don’t love what you’re doing (again, you, not me. If I sell my movie rights, I guarantee I’ll love what I’m doing), if you’re not intoxicated by the process of word-smithing, character-crafting and plot design, your work will lack the luster today’s audience demands. Simply going through the motions, like a literary prostitute, will never generate the same customer satisfaction as works of love and devotion, no matter how well you fake your “O”. Unlike me, of course. I’m really enjoying this. How is it for you?
All kidding aside, how is it, really? Does the flow catch you, does the energy carry you? No? Oh, well, in that case just leave your money on the pillow and be gone. The rest of you can probably tell that I’m having fun writing this. Matter of fact, I’m having a blast. Despite all the. Incomplete sentences. My grammar checker keeps highlighting. Ha! If only computers could scream from frustration!
So why am I having a blast? And why do you sense it? One reason, and one reason only: because I could care less what anybody thinks. I’m writing as I am, and loving it. To me, that’s the secret. If you sell yourself out as a writer, even if you make millions, you’ll always go to bed feeling dirty. And compromised. A dirty, compromised, sell-out millionaire sleeping in a bigger house than mine, dining on gourmet food served on the naked belly of your worldly desires, and loving every minute of it.
Stop. Remind me – what, exactly, was my point? Oh, yeah. Have fun. Be yourself. And get stinking rich. Then, when you’re bathing in warm Perrier, eating pre-chewed food and wiping your bootie (now isn’t that just the cutest little word you’ve ever heard?) with twenty-Euro notes left over from the latest of your many European tours, turn around and tell other people not to prostitute themselves to the craft.
But not us. Oh, no. We’re clean and pristine. You and me, that is. I’m not sure about the rest.
What? Return to the subject? Gosh, don’t you just love editors? Okay, back to the point: In addition to the reading audience, did I mention that literary agents and publishers also don’t like uninspired work? No? Well, there’s a reason I didn’t mention it: I try not to care (you probably couldn’t tell, huh?). Too many authors write to satisfy what they perceive to be a success formula demanded by literary agents and publishers. Big mistake, in my opinion (Sigh; another sentence fragment). From what I have seen, agents and publishers care about one thing, and one thing only, and that is whether a book will sell. If your work has an audience, they’ll be interested, whether they like your writing or not. Oh, sure, some of them are biased (painfully many) against handling politically or socially incorrect material, others have ethics (painfully few) that preclude material they judge to be offensive, and others confine their business domain to specific genres of their liking. In general, however, any book with an audience can be published by somebody, somewhere. I mean, have you checked out the children’s section of your local bookstore lately? If they can publish and sell kiddy books with titles like “Your Handkerchief is better than the Wall,” what does this say about the marketplace?
Okay, that’s the theory. Fact is, the market is tough. Everybody who has tried to break in as a first time author knows this. The one thing we don’t like to admit, however, is that most authors don’t make the grade of marketability. All joking aside, we have raging egos, we’ve attended too many positive-thinking “Will Your Way to Success” seminars, and our books are our babies. Despite the fact that our book-babies are often wrinkled, bald and ugly, and frequently marred by multiple, serious birth defects, we love them as our own and simply cannot believe others don’t love them as much as we do. What are they, nuts?
Usually, no. Usually, they are trained professionals, and if they say our work doesn’t make the grade, we should listen. And learn. And try again. Even our nay-saying friends and family are usually trying to help, and we shouldn’t brush their criticisms aside. The cry of “The world just isn’t ready for me yet,” “This is my art, and I’m not going to change it for anybody,” and “You just don’t get what I’m trying to convey” are death rattles in the throat of the artist who seeks commercial success.
My serious advice?
Accept criticism but reject praise. Criticism makes you introspective and helps you to improve yourself; praise condemns you to conceited lassitude, even when your work is littered with deficiencies.
Hire a fearless, no holds barred, tell it like it is, manuscript-shredding editor. Cheerleader editors who say you’re doing everything right are probably just trying to get your business, and aren’t likely to guide you to a higher plane of achievement.
Write for yourself. You’ll never regret having written a book that was boiling inside you, bursting to get out. Even if the book falls short of your market expectations, you’ll have it for posterity, and your sense of accomplishment will be priceless.
Focus on subjects about which you are passionate. That passion will come through, and people will ride your wave of enthusiasm.
Have fun. Conform to the necessary market rules, but bend or break the rest. A unique, fun, and/or eccentric literary voice can be an important key to success. If you take your work too seriously, you will suppress that voice, like Uncle Scrooge trying to do stand-up comedy.
Keep your day job. Dream big, but don’t let your dreams override market reality. Writing is an art, and few artists live off of the proceeds of their craft.
Redefine success. Despite all the playful stuff I wrote above, true success is to be had in satisfied accomplishment. If your work lives up to your standards, that is the first rung on the ladder of literary success. The more critics and readers you seduce with your writing, the higher you will climb up that ladder. If and when you get to the top, just don’t forget to salt your “O”.