The Dangers of Success
When authors talk about things to fear, we almost always center them around failure. Because failure is the beast that lurks in the shadows of all artistic careers, the knowledge that countless others want to do the same job, and so few make it. Nearly every piece of advice and wisdom is built around coping with or planning for failure, simply because it is far and away the thing most people experience at least once in their journey.
But what about the other side of the coin? What happens when the stars align, the heavens smile, and you manage to find success in the writing industry? Surely your problems are behind you, consigned to the “early days” you’ll look back on wistfully from your double-decker yacht. Yeah… not so much. Success opens you up to new, more insidious dangers that can send your career back to the starting point, if not worse. Dangers like…
Look, I’m not here to take anyone to task for how they make their living, so rather than calling out specifics let’s just admit that, as frequent readers, you all know what I’m talking about. You find a book that’s a lot of fun, and pick up the sequel, only to discover it’s basically the exact same as the first book with a few variables in the equations slightly altered. This happens a fair bit in long running series, things become formulaic, and the author ends up trapped without meaning to be. If they try to break out of the formula and do something new, they’ll risk alienating their existing readers, but the inability to grow or change the story makes it boring to a wider audience as a whole.
Thats not even getting into the authors who just mimic the plots of whatever the hot genre is at the time. In a series, especially one that runs without a ticking clock, it is extremely easy to get stuck in the idea of what the books should be, rather than how to best move the story along. In the latest Fred book, for example, there’s a slightly more serious tone through most of it. Part of that was because this entry drilled down on the responsibility of leadership, part of it was because Krystal is gone for most of the book and I wanted the tone to reflect her absence. I gave it real thought, and yet I was still nervous to make even a temporary tonal shift because it broke away from what’s come before. Even knowing it was best for the story, the change was cause for concern.
I have a lot of freedom as a writer, and it still was worrying. If I were beholden to a larger publisher, one with very firm ideas about what they wanted the series to be, imagine how hard the fight could have gone. I’m not saying don’t write a series or don’t stick to a format, only to keep in mind that story comes before everything else. More than format, more than adherence to past style, and if you’re at a fiscal point where you can handle the risk: more than success.
Do you know why most authors will tell you to have at least 5 books out before you try going full-time? It isn’t that they think you need the experience, although yes that doesn’t hurt. But mostly it’s because the more books you have out, the easier it is to live off of them. If you sell 50 copies of each book per month, you’ll find it a lot easier to survive off that number multiplied by five, or ten, or whatever point you finally reach. With every new release, the catalog grows, and the terror of going broke lessens slightly.
As your external drive (survival) diminishes, it can be very easy to fall into the trap of complacency. There are two forms of it I want to touch on today, the first being production complacency. This is where the steady income stream reduces how much you feel the need to write, slowing your output of new books. Now, to an extent, this is going to be a natural part of succeeding and growing up. As you get older and life asks more of you, there might be less time to give over to writing, especially if there’s not a monetary need for you too. Hell, even I’m starting to slow down a little, nobody can sprint forever. But there is a difference between seeking a solid work-life balance and resting on your catalog. If you want to do the latter, you certainly can, just be prepared for what follows. Less production means less launches, fewer new readers discovering you, and an overall drop in sales as you fade from people’s minds. Stay away too long, and the readers might not be waiting for you when you come back.
Creative complacency is the wilier of these dangers, however. I’ve seen it sneak in and impact even the greats who I hold in high esteem. Creative complacency is when you begin to believe the hype of your most ardent fans, and start thinking that anything you make will be deemed successful. To be clear, I’m not talking about when artists grow more experimental in their works, taking them in a less marketable direction. That’s almost the opposite of this, them caring so much about the art they no longer have to factor in market concerns. This is talking about the feeling when you pick up a book by an author you enjoyed only to find… well, crap. Writing isn’t easy. I’ve been at it for a fair while now, and I constantly see ways to improve each year. If you ever reach the point where you’re so certain of your talent that you don’t think you need to try, hire twice the editing staff you normally use, and listen to everything they say. The time when you think you can do no wrong is when you’re most likely to fail. Creating a plot takes effort, whether it is your first or your five hundredth, and anyone can write a bad book if they aren’t careful.
I hope all of you have enough success to encounter these problems, without falling victim to them. Making it as a writer is amazing, if that’s what your passion is. Just keep in mind that there is no finish line, no point at which you can sit back and coast. If you want to be an author, you’d better love writing, because if you’re very lucky, it’s what you’ll be doing for the rest of your life.