A few years ago, Internet was snarking at novelist Lynn Shepherd as her featured Huffington Post blog titled, “If JK Rowling Cares About Writing, She Should Stop Doing It” made the rounds. I wrote this in reaction.
The gist of her argument is this:
“…this is my plea to JK Rowling. Remember what it was like when The Cuckoo’s Calling had only sold a few boxes and think about those of us who are stuck there, because we can’t wave a wand and turn our books into overnight bestsellers merely by saying the magic word… But it’s time to give other writers, and other writing, room to breathe.”
Everyone loves a good underdog story, right? Imagine how much better they’d be if there were no top dogs! The pool of underdogs would shrink as each competitor succeeded and then left the arena – everyone would be given the chance to win! Gold medals and awards for everyone because LIFE IS PERFECT & FAIR, & PERFECTLY FAIR!
I gnash my teeth as I imagine how dull, and freakin’ AWFUL the literary landscape would be if prolific writers like Margaret Atwood, Stephen King, and William Shakespeare put away their typewriters (and quills) after one successful book to make room for works like this.
So to Ms. Shepherd, and any other writer dying of asphyxia and complaining that authors at the top of the publishing food chain are gobbling up all of the available air, I suggest the following:
1 – Stop whining! Stop wishing (or flat out asking!) successful people to stop being successful, because this makes you sound like a sad little sack of sour grapes. Self-pity will not make you a better writer. Focus on making your work the best it can be, and on doing all the things you can to attain that level of success. Learn how JK Rowling got to where she is today. Understand the methods and routines and dedication that best-selling, prize-winning authors use to write best-selling, prize-winning books.
2 – Define your target audience. No, “everyone!” is not a target audience. “Children, ages 4 to 6” or “Boomers facing retirement” is a target audience. The more specific you can be about the people you’re writing for, the more you narrow your content down to appeal to that margin of people, the better focused your writing will be. You’ll meet the needs of your audience when you can define who they are, and write only for them.
3 – Don’t drag out tired ideas and hackneyed clichés. Perhaps there is nothing new under the sun, but there are new ways of looking at things, and improvements on old ways of doing them. Find your spin, that magic that only YOU can bring to the subject or genre, and work it!
4 – Look to trends in business, pop culture, politics and elsewhere. What is the world ready and waiting for? Last week, Indie’s CEO Suzanne Paschall wrote a post about writing a book whose moment has arrived – is the world waiting with bated breath for your content? (Yes, Shakespeare did this – most profoundly when he captured the political subtext of his times. People flocked to see which king or high-ranking family of the day he would dare to shish kebab in a parody or drama.)
5 – Seek advice from industry professionals and outside sources. Get your manuscript evaluated by a professional editor, ask for feedback from people who will give it honestly, or talk to a publishing consultant. Create strategies to get feedback on your manuscript from your target audience, to see if it resonates with them or if they have additional/different content they’d like to see.
6 – Don’t think your work ends when your manuscript is completed. This is when a new and different job begins: promotion, promotion, promotion. In 2010, there were 130 MILLION books in the world. Imagine what we’re at now in 2014?! How are you going to make yours stand out? If you want to be more than a wanna-be, then hike up your chutzpah and go all out. Regardless of how much support and prep other service providers (including publishers) can provide you in marketing, sales and distribution, only YOU can make that all-important relationship connection with your audience. And that, if there is one, is your ‘magic bullet’.
So what have we learned today, Shepherdites? Stop looking for others to step aside to leave room for you. When your star begins to rise, people will make room for you, but in the meantime: blaze your trail, do the work to build a relationship with your audience, and, most importantly, write great books that resonate with an audience ready to embrace them. Don’t be a whiner. Be a writer.