I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the process of writing, and after my father recently sent me a great article on having a system for success by Dilbert creator Scott Adams, I thought I would post my thoughts.
The length of novels varies, but on average you can expect something in the range of 70k-120k words. The first Harry Potter book was ~77k words; Lord of the Flies: ~60k; The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: ~110k. (Source)
The quick math is that if you write 1k words a day, every day, you can have 365k words in a year. That’s three long books or about five shorter books. I know authors who can do 1k words in twenty minutes. It takes me about an hour for quality work, less if I am rushing and don’t care about errors. The point is that you can write 3-5 novels a year working at only a thousand words a day. It takes work to get into the habit of writing every day, but if you can hack out an hour instead of watching TV or exercising (just kidding), you can have an impressive catalog in a short couple of years. And from two years of trying to make it as a self-published author, I can tell you with certainty that having a dense backlist of books is key for prolonged success.
If you choose high output as one of your goals, I am of the opinion you can maximize your success by adhering to a couple of simple rules (besides getting an editor to keep your grammar and spelling in line). In fact, this may be the best way to ensure you get your career off the ground. Please note that this is a classic case of the author not following his own advice. It took me almost two years to come to these conclusions and I am just now swinging my career in the direction I have always wanted it to go.
1) Stick to one genre. Every successful independent author I know (who brings in more than $20k a month…yes, a month) writes in one or more series with a very specific, clearly-defined genre. What this means is that they don’t do what I have done: write a horror novel, then a sci-fi novel, then an urban fantasy young adult novel. These authors crank out book after book of what their readers love, and it has brought them success and financial stability. The biggest thing they have done is use a system, personal to their own goals and dreams, to make it happen. They chose a path and stuck to it. Success did not find them after one book. It found them after they proved they could consistently deliver a product that fit the needs of a group of passionate readers.
Which leads me to…
2) Series. This is it. You want more readers? You want rabid fans breaking down your email doors begging for more content? Series is the key. Build a world the readers don’t want to leave and you have yourself a long-lasting product with the possibility to provide continual income for as long as you can conjure up new adventures for your beloved characters. There’s a reason the film business has switched from a majority of original movies to an overwhelming tidal wave of sequels and remakes: viewers (and readers) love familiarity, nostalgia, and characters they can follow on more than one adventure. They invest something into the fictional realm which I believe is an extension of our childhood imaginations; an adult way of dealing with our more mature, less obvious desire to immerse ourselves in a world of pure make-believe.
Anyway, this feeds into something I tend to bring up a lot in conversation, mostly because others tend to hang so much value on one specific word that should be ignored completely when dealing with the direction you want your career to take: “Should”.
This word is responsible for more frustration than I could recall if my life depended on it. You “should” be able to write in as many genres as you want. You “should” be able to write a book and then write another which is completely unrelated instead of a direct sequel, and readers “should” pick it up anyway and give you the benefit of the doubt that it’s just as incredible as your first book.
And you’re right. Things “should” be like that. But they aren’t. There “should” be no crime and heartbreak in the world, but guess what happens anyway? The best thing you can do to guarantee success is to understand what you’ve been dealt and play the cards that have the best chance of winning. You can labor your whole life in the artistic pursuit of the next great American novel and never see a dime. Or you can write five action novels in a year and live off the proceeds for five years while you work on that masterpiece. Different people have different goals, naturally, and some people believe the pursuit of that great novel is its own reward. I’m not one to argue with them, because I am that person on some level. But I am also the person that doesn’t want my wife to have to work until she’s 65 in a mostly thankless job for very little recognition.
So I devised a system, just like anyone else can do. I write for a certain amount of time, every single day, and at the end of the year I’ll have a series of books that will hopefully connect with a percentage of the world’s readers. Your books are products, as much as they “should” be respected and viewed as individual pieces of art. If you don’t care about selling any copies, then that’s your prerogative. If you do care, then you are no different than any other inventor peddling their wares to the masses. You need to have something they want if you are to move any product, and the best way to do that is to throw away “should” and align your goals with that which will put food on your table.
It isn’t an artistic compromise to work on something that has more popular value than what you know from research and market data won’t sell more than half a dozen copies to your most loyal fans. I would think that almost every author has a love for some genre that has a potential for selling really well. Lend your specific talents to that genre and apply your passion to making a commercial novel as personal and endearing as possible without sacrificing your authorial honor. Make it as good as you possibly can, and you will be surprised at how good it feels as an accomplishment in its own right. Then you can relax and write the next Gatsby. I know this kind of success is possible because I talk to authors every day who have turned their love of a popular genre into $20k+ a month. It takes hard work and persistence, but in the end it’s a surprisingly simple formula for achieving your goals.