From the beginning, every author has a vision of what kind of novelist they want to be. It's often based on what success they've witnessed in the literary world, the kind of books they've enjoyed reading, or the education they've received.
But as the writer's journey unfolds, what becomes apparent is that reality is often very different to those dreams and expectations...
This article will delve into the questions you need to ask yourself when deciding what kind of author you want to be, as well as provide advice on how to manage your expectations as an author, as you dive into this crazy writing world.
Table Of Contents
- What kind of author should you be?
- How to Manage Your Expectations as an Author
Since the start of my writing journey, I always had a really clear idea of the 'kind of author' I wanted to be. However, it wasn't until I was doing my creative writing degree that I realised this kind of author was called an 'author of literary fiction'...
Cormac McCarthy, Anne Enright, Julian Barnes, and Damon Galgut were my heroes. They had crisp, striking prose and clean, blunt dialogue in common and offered great stories, but more than that – they offered a feeling.
These were the authors I wanted to be like. Along with the incredible writing also comes the prestige and respect of other writers. I realised that for some reason, certain people turn their nose up at 'genre' fiction.
Another thing I was becoming increasingly aware of was this notion of 'women's fiction' – if you were a woman and you wrote about women, suddenly you were slotted into this genre. And apparently, it was known more commonly as 'chick lit'. I had to avoid this!
What I'm trying to do here is paint a picture of what influences a writer, and what are conscious decisions and what are environmental factors...
However, as a writer of literary fiction, and an editor of a literary magazine, I've learned some important lessons lately in terms of what kind of writer I want to be.
Here are the questions I've been pondering, and why I think they're crucial when it comes to deciding what you want to write and how to write it...
1. What do you love reading?
I know this seems like a Captain Obvious moment, but you'd be surprised. Here's the thing: I'm not talking about a) the books you have on display on your shelf, b) that intellectual book you studied that one time or c) the books that you read over a matter of weeks and enjoy, but they don't stay with you.
What I'm talking about here are the books that you'd ditch plans for, the books that you devour in a matter of hours and then stalk the author on the internet. Those are the books you should be trying to write.
2. Do you want to make a living from this?
Let's get one thing clear straight off the bat: this is not about jumping on the latest trend and trying to make a million dollars.
Yes, writing is art, but it's also a business. This is something many authors don't really consider when they're starting out.
Sadly, many of us will never make enough money from writing to live off, but the point here is to think about your books as products.
Think about the books you love reading – which of these have been most successful in terms of sales and/or literary prizes?
Now think about why. Is it their audience? Are these people for some reason more inclined to purchase books than another target audience? Are they more digitally savvy and therefore talking about the books online, generating buzz?
Is writing a series a better investment of your time and efforts? Will you make more sales this way? Will you create a loyal following who will wait keenly for the next book to come out?
While these questions shouldn't wholly determine what kind of book you write and what kind of author you are, they should be a contributing factor.
3. What kind of publishing is right for you?
The answer to this question may vary depending on the type of book you're writing, but it's still important nonetheless.
At the beginning of my writing career, I was of the narrow-minded opinion that you weren't really published unless you were traditionally published, in print.
Like I said: narrow-minded.
However, in this amazing digital age, there are so many different options for us writers now: traditional publishing, crowdfunding models, self-publishing, and digital-only imprints.
There are also numerous websites that allow you to publish your writing in serial form, enabling you to get reader feedback as you write.
Why should you think about these? Because the way you publish is incredibly relevant to your target readership and therefore your success. Some genres, say fantasy, have a massive place online – books are talked about on Twitter, on Facebook, on websites and blogs because their readers are super tech-savvy.
How will your readers be reading your book? On a tablet or Kindle? Or maybe as a paperback at a coffee shop? How and where reading is occurring is becoming incredibly important, and it's something writers need to be aware of when they're actually writing.
The same can be said for how your book will be talked about... Online? At a book club? Whispered about amidst bathroom stalls?
I've often heard people complain about how an author's following or traffic to their website gives them an unfair advantage, and it should in fact be their writing that's being judged.
I'm not saying that the writing doesn't matter – the writing is the most important aspect of an author's career, but... We're in the 21st century now, as a friend of mine recently reminded me. It's ignorant to turn a blind eye to the benefits that online platforms and followings can bring.
If an author has gone to the trouble of building up their platform and securing a following, why the hell shouldn't this be a contributing factor to a publisher's decision? I'd argue, in fact, that if a publisher is not considering this, they're doing themselves and the author a disservice.
That's certainly not to say that someone without a following shouldn't be considered, but simply that a publisher or agent should look at all the facts.
5. How Are You Going to Write?
It's all very well and good to want to be a writer. As you delve into this industry you'll realise just how many people share the same dream. But after considering all the above questions, you have to face the hardest of all: how are you going to manage this?
Unless you've got some sort of amazing passive income earning system, you're going to have to write in your spare time, at least at the beginning of your career.
The tricky part here is finding a job that doesn't compromise your time too much, or exhaust your mental capacity for writing.
Some writers choose to support themselves via freelance work, and simply deal with the instability as best they can; others opt for part- or full-time work in a completely different industry.
The most important lesson here is to make sure you prioritise your writing and protect your writing time – otherwise, it's unlikely you'll ever get that book written.
How to Manage Your Expectations as an Author
After you've figured out the answers to the above questions, or at least thought about them on some level, it's time to move onto the nitty-gritty of managing expectations.
As a writer and a reader, you'll have heard those crazy overnight success stories, you'll know of authors who are raking in the six-figure deals, and you'll be familiar with authors who, as far as you know, have always been authors.
This next section is about helping authors rein in unrealistic expectations, and preparing them for what is, in most cases, a long hard slog to success...
1. Expect Rejection
This is something all new writers are told: expect rejection, don't expect to get published, don't expect to make any money from your craft. I once had a writing teacher say, 'If you can, mooch off your parents for as long as you possibly can'...
What none of this so-called advice was followed up with was: it's not because you're not good enough.
And it's genuinely not. So many other factors contribute to whether or not your story gets published, or if a publisher wants to read more of your manuscript.
Timing, what a press is already publishing, how the editor feels on the day, budget, and everything else in between can influence the outcome of a submission.
Although, naturally, work will often be rejected because it's not good enough quality, you need to have faith in yourself and your writing that this isn't always the case.
Rejection will most likely always sting, but the knowledge that rejection isn't personal and isn't always a reflection of the quality of your work is a powerful thing to have.
2. Make Writer Friends
This is something that I feel isn't stressed enough to new writers – make friends with other writers. It is these people in your life who will understand the rejections, the frustrations with characters, the seemingly never-ending waiting for publishers...
Personally, I would not be where I am today without the support of the writing friends I've made along the way.
In addition to the emotional support, they provide you with advice on your writing when you can't see straight anymore, they talk through contracts with you, and they let you know if they think you're getting the short end of the stick.
Whether you make these writing friends online or through a writing course or degree, you'll be a better writer for it. These people tend to be your rock as you go through all the ups and downs of writing life.
3. Don't Stress the Little Things
As I mentioned earlier, for the longest time, I was concerned with being pigeonholed as a writer who wrote 'women's fiction'. It was around the time where authors like Jonathan Franzen and Jeffrey Eugenides were being hailed as literary geniuses while their female counterparts like Meg Wolitzer and Emma Donoghue were being cast aside because they wrote 'women's fiction'.
Now, this it not the time or place to get into a conversation about what 'women's fiction' is or isn't, and the lit snobbery that seems to follow it around, but either way – this was not what I wanted to write.
All of the books by these authors centred around regular adult life, full of domestic scenes and the general dramas of life. However, it was because the latter were women, and only because of this, that their work was deemed less credible.
As a woman who was trying to write 'serious' fiction, this was incredibly disheartening.
What I've learned recently, though, is this: for most of us, at the beginning stages of our careers – it doesn't matter. We're still growing as authors, we're still finding our style and our audience.
I think back to when I was concerned about being pigeonholed and it seems silly, because now, I want to write all kinds of different books, not just 'serious literary fiction'.
I want to enjoy what I write, and this means experimenting and above all else – writing what I enjoy reading.
4. Think About Your Skill Set
This may seem like an odd one, but from what I can tell, publishing-savvy authors tend to do this a lot...
Identify your skill set outside of writing your book. Are you an online whiz? Do you have a background in marketing? Do you work for a local publication? Are you interning at a publishing house? Are you a natural leader? Are you a social media addict?
Think about what you're good at and brainstorm ways that these skills can be utilised to help move your writing career forward.
For instance, a social media addict might, as they write their book, also build up their Twitter following by reaching out to similar authors, relevant publishing houses, or book bloggers in their chosen genre.
Utilising their existing skill set or passion could very well benefit their writing career further down the track. In this case, the author would have an existing 'readership' to market their book to.
It's forward thinking like this that can help move your career along when you feel like things are getting a little stagnant.
5. Don't put all your eggs in one basket
This has been one of the most difficult lessons for me to learn, despite the fact that it seems like common sense...
This advice applies to writing life in general:
- Don't submit to just one publisher (I don't care what their guidelines say – monogamy may have a place in this world, but it's not in submitting to publishers).
- If a publisher shows interest, don't stop submitting to other publishers. There's a long way between 'interest' and 'contract'.
- Don't just submit to publishers, submit to literary agents and literary prizes as well. The more options you have, the better!
- Don't just listen to one critic or beta reader; get the opinion of multiple people.
- Don't stop writing just because you've finished your manuscript. Keep writing, whether you start another book, you write a short story or a poem, or you contribute to a magazine – being a writer means that you actually write.
- Submit these other projects to publications – nothing feels better than having the 'win' of being published while you're waiting to hear back about your book.
See? Putting your 'eggs' in multiple baskets makes for a much healthier literary life.
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While this is, of course, just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the decisions you'll have to make as an author, asking yourself these questions early on in your career can help you manage your expectations and journey later down the track.