Best of the Blog 2009: Kiss of Death: The Renaissance Writer

Wendy Lawton

Blogger: Wendy Lawton

Location: Books & Such Central Valley Office, CA

What a fun week. There’s nothing like talking about all the things that could kill a writing career. Cheery little series, right? Okay, I’ll admit it, I employed a bit of hyperbole. Most of the things we covered could stunt a writing career, but not necessarily kill it. Today, however, I want to address one of the most subtle career killers— the stealth kiss of death.

But first, let me introduce you to a writer. We’ll call him Will. He’s good. Very good. He’s also a fast writer. Everything interests him. No one could call Will a dilettante. He’s serious and professional about each project he undertakes. He’s more like a Renaissance man. Editors like him and he’s worked with a number of them in the ABA as well as the CBA. Unfortunately, none of his books have enjoyed the kind of sales numbers that make publishing houses willing to get behind him. With a number of articles under his belt, he sold a nonfiction book on parenting. He followed that up with one on how to run a successful business without middle management. He co-wrote a book with a diet doctor and then ghost-wrote a book for an NBA player (who unfortunately was implicated in a doping scandal a few months before the book hit.)

But as Will says, “That was then and this is now.” He’s discovered fiction and Will is passionate about the novel he’s writing. It’s an inspirational international espionage story and his writing friends tell him it’s good. He can’t wait to finish it, but he’s taken a break to work up a synopsis for a category romance so he can cash in on that hot market right now and try to get some impressive sales numbers to make the editors sit up and take notice.  And though he’s not serious about children’s literature for the long haul, he has a new granddaughter so he wrote a series of picture books using a princess and the King as a spiritual allegory. Pretty impressive, right?

Wrong.

Will is an agent’s nightmare. His two nonfiction books were for two different audiences. If he gained readers with the first one they certainly didn’t follow him to the business book. Co-writing a modest diet book was a detour that would’ve confused any readers even further. We won’t even talk about the celebrity ghostwritten project. And since his readers weren’t confused enough, he’s turned to fiction. Apparently his genre of choice is the international thriller (a tough sell for the inspirational market which is largely female) but before he even tries to get out there with it, he’s chasing what he thinks is an easy sell. (It’s not. It’s a highly specialized market that requires skill and sensibility.) Will is a mess.

When we talk about branding, many writers tune it out. Each time I bring up the B-word in a workshop I invariably get someone who takes offense.”I refuse to be put in a box.” Or, “I’m a generalist. Have pen, will write.” Or even, “I want to be open to whatever God calls me to write.” Many writers feel the idea of specializing and being branded is somehow dehumanizing.

So let me ignore the idea of branding for now. Instead we’ll talk about focus. You have two choices. A writer can be a broad, meandering steam or a narrow river slicing through a gorge. The broad stream is the generalist, like Will, covering a lot of ground but running slow and shallow. The specialist is like the river. It runs deep and fast. It cuts into the terrain and changes the very topography of the landscape.  Which do you think makes the biggest impact?

Will has never made much money as a writer but he feels he’s on his way. He takes pride in the fact that he can write anything and everyone in the industry knows him. Trouble is, he keeps watching other nonfiction writers who write book after book on variations of the same topic. They keep getting bigger and better speaking gigs, and they’re making ten times the money he does. What’s with that? And when it comes to novelists, he sees some of his friends getting bigger advances with each subsequent novel and adding to their readership with each newsletter, blog and book club event.

Will doesn’t understand that a writing career is like building a business. You can’t afford to change your customer base with each new product. If you didn’t build on the base you’ve already won, you’ll be starting over each time. That’s what Will is doing. Instead of giving his parenting readers another book, he dropped them and started over in the business world. And then he dropped both bases and moved to a health and wellness topic. And on he keeps going, spending energy and money to gain readers and then tossing them away.

If one of my clients wants to write in two fields or two genres, one of the first questions I ask them is, “Do you have enough time and money to develop two different readerships? Two businesses? Two congregations?” They’ll have to do everything in duplicate– two websites, two data management systems, two speaker one-sheets, double the mailings, etc. And that doesn’t even address the confusion factor.

When you first start writing it’s okay to experiment— to discover who you are as a writer. But just like in college, you can’t remain undeclared forever. If you want a career— the kind that leaves a lasting legacy—  you need to focus and build.

Whew! I didn’t mean to preach a sermon. Am I wrong? Let me know what you think. And don’t be afraid to defend Will. I’d love to see someone present a good case for the generalist.

42 Responses

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  1. Teri D. Smith says:

    Defend Will? Not after such a clear analogy (stream & river) and then the point hammered home with “two businesses”, “two congregations”!

    I can see why you teach on this topic. We need to hog tie Will and make him sit and listen to your class.

  2. Nika Dixon says:

    Hi Wendy!

    I’m not sure I could defend Will other than to say good on him for finding the time to do that many different projects!

    I barely have time in my life for handling my current writing style. I can’t imagine how crazy it would be if I tried coming up with a totally different direction.

    – Nika

  3. Gina says:

    I have enough trouble just writing about the things that I know about. I can’t imagine the research that it would take to work on that many completely different projects at once.

  4. Jane Jarrell says:

    This IS the BEST description of hummingbird head-ish writers ever! Nailed it Wendy. Unfortunately, this is me and yes I said it outloud. Do you have a road map for re-inventing after 14 books?

  5. Fawn says:

    Isn’t this exactly why we have pen names? 🙂

  6. Jared says:

    Never considered that. I write in two very different genres and I thought that would help me as a writer. I see now that weighing these against each other will help me focus and develop a stronger platform. Thank you for introducing me to Will! Apparently where there’s a Will, there’s a weigh. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

  7. Wendy Lawton says:

    Great question, Jane!

    I’ll address your question– How to reinvent ourselves– in a series when I blog again on June 8th. There are so many ways to do this and some have done it with great success.

    We’ll come up with a strategy!

  8. Wendy Lawton says:

    You are right, Fawn, pen names address the confusion factor. What they don’t address is the cost of having multiple genres– and that’s cost in terms of time, resources and focus. There are writers who do two categories brilliantly, like Liz Curtis Higgs, so it can be done if your brand is significant enough to support a dual focus.

  9. Excellent post, Wendy.

    I agree that when we initially start out as writers we can (and should) test the waters to see where we best fit. It can be tricky, however, when many doors open. I guess that’s where prayer, wisdom and focus come into play. (And this blog post.) *smile*

  10. Carrie says:

    Great post! After a writer builds readership in his/her favorite genre, it should be okay for them to branch out into another, perhaps more whimsical or more serious style, and some readers will follow them to it. And they will gain readers of the new genre because of name recognition from their more prolific genre. Right?

    I know I do that…follow my very favorite writers wherever their writing takes them. I’m almost always delighted to discover new depths, more writing muscles, in these familiar favorites. And while I might prefer the bankable books for which they’re known, I enjoy the side trips much like a refreshing picnic stop taken on a lengthy journey.

    It is possible. Not every writer is capable in disparate genres, and a publishing house risks losing readership. But, it is possible.

  11. Janet says:

    I really wish you were wrong. I do.

    But you’re not.

  12. Bonnie Grove says:

    Websites? Data management systems? Speaker one-sheets? Mailings?

    I need a nap!

    I’m not a Will-ified mess, but I do have a non-fiction book and I do write fiction. The past year has been about step by step listening to God as to where He wants me to focus.

    Yes, focus.

    Good word that – it’s not a box, it’s an oppoturnity to creativity and purpose that will get noticed by readers. Focus is about trust – the trust you ask your readers for and the trust you earn by delivering something they can count on.

    I admit, its been difficult to ‘let go’ of one area of writing to focus on the other. But, with God’s leading I’ve done it. I’ve decided. I’m focused.

  13. This has been a great series, Wendy. You nailed it for me today. I found my niche after trying a few things, and feel like I pick up speed with each subsequent novel I write now. Love the stream/river analogy. I’d like to “slice through a gorge” with my writing. I don’t have time to meander.

  14. Sharon says:

    Great article, Wendy. Puts it all nicely in perspective. What about the author who writes both contemporary inspirational romance and historical inspy romance? Is it okay to switch back and forth? i.e. one series contemporary and the next historical? Or should the author stick with one subgenre for a few series then try switching?

    Thanks!

  15. Lynn Rush says:

    Great post. Okay, maybe after someone has written their “break out” novel and has a massive following who’d read anything they wrote….then could they cross over? LOL.

    You’re spot on, Wendy. Nice points.

  16. Leigh says:

    Great post, Wendy. I’ll admit to once being a Will, but have done my time and (hopefully) moved on. I started with devotionals and curriculum (and published 2 devo books with a small press), but that was before the fiction bug attacked.

    I hopped around like Will before settling in with historical romance. Once I realized that some of my contemporary themes could be adapted to a historical – and that the different timeframe could even add more conflict – I really felt at home. That’s a nice place to be. 🙂

    Does that mean I’ll never write another devotional? I don’t think so – but I’ll probably just write them for fun on my blog or as part of my e-newsletter, and keep HR my main focus. Couldn’t that work?

  17. Fabulous post and extremely helpful. I loved the broad stream & narrow river analogy… great mental picture.

  18. There’s room out there for only one George Plimpton, it seems. Well, maybe one more, since the dear man passed on. He was a riot. But his M.O. would not work in most cases.

    Thanks, Wendy, for the good analogy of stream vs. river.

  19. Marilyn says:

    Excellent!
    I know I am in a danger zone related to this and it’s on my mind a lot. Thanks for writing about it. You don’t need to apologize for saying it so directly. I appreciate that quality in both you and Janet.

    Blog on!

  20. Phronk says:

    I think Carrie nailed it. I so wish you were wrong, but you have the cold power of reality on your side.

    I’ve found the same applies to most creative ventures, like blogging and even scientific pursuits. Being diverse will win a small and usually loyal following, but it will come slower and reach a ceiling pretty quick.

    At least if you want a career out of it. If doing it just for fun, hell, do whatever pops into your head and there’s still a chance you’ll strike gold.

  21. Nikki Hahn says:

    I’m a Christian romance writer writing fantasy (Tolkien,Narnia), and also has a book outline of a Christian comtemporary-suspense (also romance). Currently, I’m trying to get my name out there by breaking into the Literary World because they have a broader fiction availability than mainstream magazines. It’s still in the genre of Christian romance, but one is fantasy and one is contemporary. They are all fiction though. Julie Garwood changed from writing historical fiction to contemporary suspense fiction.

  22. Nikki Hahn says:

    My focus is on my Christian romance fantasy book series so I can get it done. The contemporary is shelved while I focus on the series and more importantly, finish it.

  23. Rachel Hauck says:

    Great post, Wendy! So true!

    Rachel

  24. Irene Martin says:

    What about Marjorie Holmes, C.S. Lewis, Max Lucado, all authors who write across genres?

    For me personally, there are two questions.
    1. What does God want me to write?
    2. How big is my God?

    Loved reading the blog entries this week. Thank you Wendy.

  25. Janet says:

    Irene, when an author has created an imposing presence, he/she can branch out and bring a lot of their readers along with them. But they have to have that presence first, it seems to me.

    Of course, specializing in a narrow channel is not an absolute rule. It is what works best the vast majority of the time.

  26. We just hate to be limited in any way. It’s silly. If you become an astronaut you can’t be a brain surgeon. Every choice you make limits your future choices. But we are a nation of people who want it all. Right now!

    There are some genres that work well together. Max Lucado and Karen Kingsbury can sell picture books because they have fans with children and grandchildren. But it’s unlikely that either of them, as popular as they are, could talk their fans into buying a book on how to change the oil in the car.

    But there’s an added reason not to do too many genres. The jack of all trades runs the risk of being master of none.

  27. Well said, Sally!

  28. Keli Gwyn says:

    Great post. I made peace with the idea of branding at Mount Hermon this year. I’d been working on a contemporary romance after having completed five inspirational historicals. Even though the historicals had fared well in contests and one had garnered a request, I thought I’d try my hand at something new. I realized my efforts were in vain, and, painful though it was, set aside those 50K words and returned to my niche. I’m now able to devote my attention to the stories best suited to me, and those I enjoy the most.

  29. Keli Gwyn says:

    Great post. I made peace with the idea of branding at Mount Hermon this year. I’d been working on a contemporary romance after having completed five inspirational historicals. Even though the historicals had fared well in contests and one had garnered a request, I thought I’d try my hand at something new. I realized my efforts were in vain, and, painful though it was, set aside those 50K words and returned to my niche. I’m now able to devote my attention to the stories best suited to me, and those I enjoy the most.
    Sorry, forgot to add great post! Can’t wait to see your next post!

  30. Etta Wilson says:

    The issue you raise is especially pertinent for children’s authors but from the perspective of changing age-level in readers. Should the children’s author who has honed his/her craft for middle-graders begin to write for YAs, assuming that the audience will follow as they grow? The question also applies for the gifted picture book author who wants to write for older kids.
    Etta

  31. Lynn Dean says:

    I majored in architecture, so when you talked about “building on your base,” it created a vivid image for me.

    Years ago in my town, a very good builder set piers in place to support a structure, but somehow lost sight of them and poured the foundation a little bit off the supports. The structure cracked and sagged and had to be torn down and rebuilt.

    I can see how it might be the same in building a career. Every book builds on a base readership. If we suddenly jump over and start building in a different line, we can’t count on our base to support it.

  32. Valerie C. says:

    Wendy, I’ve heard you speak on this and understand your point (really, I do) but I have to ask this – earlier in this series of blogs you commented on the writing advice “not to quit your day job.” Many writers have a career that they must work around and build as they pursue their writing career. But what if writing is your day job, too?

    I am a freelance writer and editor in adult non-fiction but my “niche” genre is children’s picture books. One pays the bills so I can do the other. Do they have to be mutually exclusive? How do I avoid looking like one of these pesky Renaissance writers when my day job and writing goals collide?

    Thanks for the series. As always, great information!

  33. Wendy Lawton says:

    Valerie, you’re caught in a dilemma. You need to figure out how to run two businesses and develop and maintain two different brands if you are going to promote both.

    If you work with an agent, it’s even more complicated. For an agent, managing a dual-focus client is like managing two different writers– double the work with the probability of half the income. And few agents work with both children’s picture books and adult nonfiction.

    About looking like an unfocused writer, there’s no help for it. You do have two distinct focuses. You run the risk of dividing your effectiveness.

    The alternative? You build the brand on your primary focus– for you it would be children– and leave the other to fend for itself.

    On the plus side: you are right in that most children’s authors these days have a need for a second job and if you love to write, then you’ve solved that problem. And, if you have the energy and resources to build two different careers simultaneously, you have twice the chance of success.

    No easy answers.

  34. Valerie C. says:

    And I was hoping for an easy answer …

    It’s good advice and you’ve confirmed what I’ve been suspecting for awhile. Time to get on it. Thanks, Wendy!

  35. Irene Martin says:

    Ok,

    You’re right. Now I just have to figure out where my passion is. Hmmm. 🙁

    Thank you Janet and Wendy.

    Irene

  36. cherylp says:

    Just one name. Isaac Asimov. That said, I think he was more the exception than the rule. I think your advice holds true for 99% of writers.

  37. Wow, Wendy. Thanks!

    Since my husband is a pastor, the comment about two congregations really hit home.

    It would be like having to run back and forth from one house to another, diapering, cleaning messes and cooking. PLEASE, NO!!!

    I have had some success at devotional writing, but am discovering a humor voice as well. Is this okay? Just integrate my humor into the devos?

    Blessings, Jen

  38. Joyce Scott says:

    Well, slap me silly and call me Will. Wendy, you’re the first person whose ever made sense about this issue. Thank you! I will take your advice/wisdom/knowledge to heart. Thank you.

  39. Linda Rue says:

    Wendy, love this post. I am very happy to be a Christian Romance and adventure writer. That doesn’t mean that I haven’t penned a childrens book or two, after all, I own a daycare and write and read my stories to my kids every week. (there’s something to be said for a captive audience)but it’s not my love. It’s not where my brain goes when I try to sleep.

  40. Guess my mama should have named me Willena. But I never switched brands until editors stopped buying that brand. Sometimes a writer has to re-invent herself. Great advice as always, Wendy.

  41. KC Frantzen says:

    These blogs are so helpful.
    I’m yet to be published but already know my passion so I’ll attempt to stick with it.
    Having owned, managed and sold 2 successful businesses, your comments/analogies scored.
    Thanks for making it crystal clear.
    Hopefully I’ll avoid that pitfall. There’s many others from which to choose as it is! 🙂
    Y’all are appreciated!
    Keep ’em coming!

  42. Hi Wendy,

    Your blog post made me feel better. I’d always thought of myself as too focused and worried I needed to broaden my reach. Now I’m just going to quit worrying about it and just write. LOL. No matter what I’ve tried to write in the past, it always turns out to be in the same strange neighborhood anyway. Perfectly normal characters always insist on becoming something…else. Never fails.

    Thank you.