I have a long-term strategy for becoming an author.
My goal is to be hugely successful commercially. Number one on the New York Times Best Seller list. Nothing less will do.
Sadly, the competition is stiff. There are millions of people in North America who want to be paperback writers. It’s hard to go anywhere without running into someone who thinks that they are writing the next bestseller.
Yet there are only a handful of authors who make it onto the bestseller racks.
I estimate my chances of success are about a million to one. That’s not hyperbole; it’s a real calculation based on defensible assumptions. And it’s a daunting number. But I can accept the odds because I have a certain degree of financial security. I’m not wealthy, but I will continue to have a decent standard of living even if I never make a nickle from my writing.
That said, the question is: how to maximize my chances of success? I believe what Malcolm Gladwell said in the first part of his wonderful book, Outliers. Studies indicate that achieving world-class status in any endeavor, from athletics to science to the arts, requires both talent and 10,000 hours of practice.
I find that number strangely reassuring. My previous failures to sell my writing commercially may not indicate a lack of talent. Maybe all I need is a few thousand more hours of practice. Only when I’ve written several million words will I have invested enough time to know if I have the talent to be a best-selling author or not.
The first step on the path to bestsellerdom then is to practice writing. I do that in three ways.
The first part of my three-part strategy is to be a member of a writing group for some years. It is a peculiar group because, rather than simply reading and critiquing, we actually sit quietly and write for an hour or two during the group meetings.
In these meetings, I’ve been practicing “improv writing”. I begin without an idea and force myself to create a complete story within the allotted time. I haven’t counted, but I’ve written dozens of such stories. Maybe close to a hundred. Enough that I’ve developed a set of tricks and techniques for creating plots on the fly.
For example, if I’m stuck for a story idea, I’ll create a specific character – maybe an aspiring actor who’s supporting himself by walking dogs for Hollywood stars; then I’ll put him in a situation – maybe he is walking a half dozen dogs on the beach when it begins to pour down rain; next I’ll imagine what he would do – run for shelter – and have him do the exact opposite – take the dogs to an open, dangerous part of the beach where waves are crashing on the rocks. The rest of the story has to be an explanation for why he would do such a thing – in this example, because he resents the dog owners who have achieved a success that eludes him and he expresses his hostility by putting their pets in danger. That gives a surprise ending that automatically reveals a hidden aspect of his character – that he deliberately denies himself the success that he thinks he wants because he is frightened of it.
Viola! I’ve developed an idea for a new story in the few minutes that it took to write that paragraph. I do enjoy improve writing.
The second part of my three-part strategy is to write full-length mainstream novels. Thrillers, mysteries, science fiction, literary. I’ve written more failed novels than I care to admit. They’ve never been published for good reason: my early writing was really bad. No one should ever read them. My later writing was better and I might have found a small press that would want a couple of my more recent novels, but I never submitted them. Even if they were worth a small run, they weren’t bestseller material. The NY Times Bestseller List is my goal and nothing less is good enough.
I wrote three of my last four novels as NaNoWriMo exercises in 2007, 2008, and 2009. NaNoWriMo is the “National Novel Writing Month”. The challenge is to write a 50,000 word novel during the month of November. For three years in a row, being something of an overachiever, I spent each November writing a full hundred-thousand word novel in thirty days.
Cranking out 100,000 words in four weeks is an exhausting effort but it sure gets the word count up. Unfortunately they aren’t great words. The improv writing that I’d been doing helped create plot quickly but my characters tend to be shallow and clicheed.
Worse, NaNoWriMo encourages an author to write extraneous exposition just to get the word count up quickly. If you don’t already know, I can assure you that excessive exposition is a bad thing. I can show you my own custom-made examples.
But the NaNoWriMo exercise gave me a lot of practice toward that 10,000 hours that I need; it showed me that I could produce a full novel in a reasonable time; and it helped me see some of the mistakes that I was making.
My latest attempt to write a bestselling novel was not a NaNoWriMo challenge. I took my time and thought things out a lot better. It’s a better novel. Maybe it’ll even sell.
The third part of my three-part strategy is to write stories for BDSMLibrary.com, which I’m now self-publishing on Smashwords.com. Writing porn has been more useful than most people would imagine. The readers of porn, especially BDSM porn, show a wonderful combination of intelligence and tolerance. They know good writing when they read it but they are willing to read bad writing. They are patient and encouraging while still being willing to point out both copy and line errors.
I never could have kept writing if someone had not been encouraging me to continue. Having 5,000 people read a story in a week, and a few of them give favorable comments, is exactly the kind of encouragement that every aspiring writer dreams about.
Even better, they allow me to experiment. I’ve written an epistolary story (“Roissy, Cleveland, Ohio”), a stream-of-consciousness story (“Portrait of a Middle-aged Woman as a Wife”), flash fiction (“Topper”), didactic stories (e.g., “Betting on God”), and religious symbolism (“Making a Point about Backgammon”). I’ve been able to experiment with different points of view, types of dialog, and varying amounts of exposition. In my latest story, I wrote over 600 words about a single stroke of a cat o’ nine tails. You can’t get away with that in mainstream fiction. Not unless you’re James Agee.
I freely admit that I love writing porn. I have always enjoyed bondage fantasies and find porn easier to write than anything else. I believe that my porn stories are my best writing. Like I said, some of my mainstream novels are really bad.
The only downside to porn is that I have to write it under a different name than my mainstream novels. I can’t submit a young adult novel to a publisher using the same name as my Backgammon Trilogy. Any decent agent, editor, or critic is going to do a quick Google search and “Ashley Zacharias” on the title page would definitely poison the well.
For that reason, I am militant about keeping the two identities separate. Literally no one in the world has read both my porn and mainstream work knowing that they were written by the same author. That includes my family and closest colleagues.
It also means that I cannot earn money from my porn because that would mean giving someone a path that would lead to my other identity. But I don’t mind that. I’m happy to keep writing the porn and giving it away.
The fourth part of my three-part strategy is to blog. I’ve been blogging for the past few months. My blogs aren’t fiction, and therefore, aren’t truly part of my three-part strategy but they do give me more practice in structuring sentences and paragraphs and I accumulate a few more hours toward the required 10,000.
In addition to writing as much as I can, I’ve also taken a couple of courses on writing. The best course was about the business side of writing. It covered topics like how to write a query letter to pitch a novel. I went to a writers’ conference last year and met a couple of agents. The advice about pitching novels was bang on. I had no trouble convincing both agents to read a sample of the novel that I was pitching. The only problem was that neither liked my writing. I know why and know how to fix it the next time around.
I’m not worried. It’s still a little early to expect to make the bestseller lists.
When I’ve practiced writing for 10,000 hours, then I’ll be able to see if I have enough talent to succeed or not. I remain hopeful that the bestseller brass ring is getting closer.
I’m sure that my strategy will pay off big one of these days. And, if not, I buy the occasional lottery ticket. You never know when you’re going to get lucky.