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