Friday, September 21, 2012

How Not to Become a Literary Dropout, Part 2

Another consideration for writers who want to sustain a career, is not to put all your eggs in one basket, to coin a phrase. If you focus your entire creative effort on one book, and invest years of your life in that book, it better be an incredibly good idea that you are the right person to carry out—and a book you can finish. But even if it’s the greatest idea on planet Earth, and you are the one person in the universe to write it, and you finish it, it may still not be the book that gets you published for the first time. Even if it is published, it may not be the work that finds the audience you’re seeking.
So I would advise you to work on multiple projects. Don’t count on that first book being the one that gets you in the publisher’s door. Write a second book, and after that, a third book, even if you haven’t gotten the first manuscript published yet. Especially if you haven’t gotten the first manuscript published yet.
The nineteenth century French writer George Sand wrote more than 100 books or plays. Here’s a portrait of George Sand by the great French painter Eugène Delacroix:

Sand was famous for staying up all night to write, burning many candles. Then every morning she slept in, and entertained her children and friends all afternoon and evening. There is a story that she once finished a novel halfway through the night, and instead of going to bed, she started writing another book. We could all emulate that drive. 
Of course, there are writers who write just one great book. The classic example is Harper Lee:

 Born in 1926, she has written just one book in her lifetime. That book happens to be To Kill a Mockingbird. In addition to winning the Pulitzer Prize and selling more than 30 million copies, the book has changed the lives of countless people who’ve read it. If you’re Harper Lee, fine, just write that one book. No complaints. But most of us are not that sort of writer. We’ve got to keep trying, throwing out more than we keep of our writing, getting better at certain aspects of this crazy job as we go along.
I’m going to make up a person who is a composite of several different creative writing students I’ve encountered. This student is terrifically talented. Not only does she write, but she’s also an accomplished professional. In short, a person with lots of skills, including excellent people skills.
She’s been done with her MFA now for about seven years, and she hasn’t published a book yet.
Why? She’s invested years in finishing the book she started as her MFA thesis. The book is a novel with a very challenging structure. It’s a work of fiction, but based solely on nonfiction stories from her own family history. That’s a tall order to fill, since in a case like that you feel you can’t change the story, even when it doesn’t work for the reader, because it’s based on fact. The manuscript also has several main characters who live in different centuries.
It could be a fascinating structure for a novel, but maybe too challenging to pull off for a first book. It’s the kind of project that might be better to work on later in life, when the mechanics of writing a good plot and having a polished style are almost second nature. 
So I would suggest that you don’t put all your chips on one number, and play that number over and over. The odds are, you will run out of chips before that number comes up. Keep working on different projects, and increase your odds of finding the readers you seek.
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