Sunday, November 11, 2018

What qualities do you need to be a successful novelist?


I was asked to explain how to be a fulltime writer and thought I'd start with my take (after 30 years of knowing many of us) on who a fulltime writer is likely to be, focusing on their personality and behaviors. This is only my take, one person's opinion as of November 2018. Your experience may well have led you to another opinion.

While there are other pleasures to be had in writing a novel--knowing you did your best, finishing a book (no small feat), and having a critical writer pal say it’s your best yet--most writers have a dream of doing this for a living. For the purposes of this article, "success" means a full-time income for indies, and something a bit less than that for trade-published authors.



I have noticed a few things about the people who make it--and this applies whether I’m talking about people who get a trade contract for a few books (the lower royalties make it harder to be a full-time trade-published author), or people who run their own publishing businesses and make six figures a year as indie novelists.
  • They are hard workers. If they have a day job, they get up early to write or come home and write after supper dishes are done. They get up on Saturday, play with their kids, mow the yard, clean the house, and then when others might collapse to watch sports on TV, they roll up their sleeves, shut the door to their office, and write. If they are FT indie writers, they often work seven days per week, splitting their work hours between their writer role and their publisher role.
  • They are organized in their business lives. Most of the full-time writers I know not only outline their novels, they outline their entire lives! (Perhaps Monday-Saturday, 9-2 is for writing, Friday afternoons are for detailed examination of the best-seller list in their subgenre, Saturday is promotion and catch-up-on-admin day, and Sunday mornings are for networking with other writers) The successful ones who do not outline their novels, by the way, seem to write in a genre that has a distinct formula, which they use over and over and have no doubt internalized. So there’s an outline there--but it’s in the writer’s mind, not on paper.
  • By a nose, the plurality are morning writers. A smaller number are afternoon writers. Only a minority of pro writers I know fit the movie stereotype of the writer up in the wee hours. But any writing habit seems to work so long as it is a solid habit, pursued regularly.
  • Similarly, some can crank out 10,000 words a day. I write at about 1500 words per hour when it’s flowing, I know full-time writers who write at 500 words per hour and still others who can dictate at 3,000 words per hour. So there’s some flexibility on this per hour production rate. If you’re a slower writer in first draft, don’t despair. You may need to write more hours, but perhaps a slower rate gives you a cleaner first draft so you can still write more than one book per year.
  • The successful writers almost all write sober. The stereotype of the author boozing his way through a work day is a movie myth, not a reality. Some do drink or smoke pot when the work day is done; some don’t. But all the writers I know treat writing as a job, and you don’t go into your job in a big-city office or elementary school classroom drunk at 8 a.m., do you? (I hope not!)
  • They understand accounting. They may hire an accountant or business manager if they make enough money to afford offloading that burden, but even then they understand the topic well enough to supervise and make sure it is being done right. They learn to read contract language. They are like any savvy business owner in this. If they didn’t know these skills going in to their successful years as writers, they study the skills and come up to speed on them.
  • They hit deadlines and they answer emails in a timely manner.
  • They daydream very little about wildly higher levels of success. If that’s a goal for them, they work for it, rather than interrupt their precious work time to have fantasies about it. (Also, by the time they’ve made it to fulltime status, they have learned that the realities are not very close to the dreams anyway.)
  • They keep trying when faced with obstacles and disappointments, knowing them to be inevitable. And they keep trying when faced with the high of a success, knowing that to be temporary. They plod along, chin down, and try not to let either good or bad news yank them away from their goals and schedules. They don’t have time for “writer’s block” or artistic angsting. They write if they are in the mood, and they write if they are not in the mood.
  • Do successful writers have an “artistic temperament?” I’m not even sure there is such a thing. I hope they listen to people well in real life, for it’s in understanding and appreciating other people that we learn much of what makes our characters good and believable. But I don’t believe writers have more brain chemicals that allow them to see or smell better than non-writers, and I’ve never seen scientific studies to suggest this is so. I suspect without being able to cite data that the average successful writer is reasonably intelligent, but one hardly has to be a record-holding genius to be a good writer or a hardworking writer.
  • They do, however, have a personality characteristic we might call “stubbornness.” One has to be stubborn to put up with the years of rejection and failure writers live with and keep on at it. I have long suspected this is the most important quality.
  • Are full-time writers creative? By definition, yes, but then so are a lot of people. I know people who are creators of beautiful flower gardens and original quilt designs and abstract watercolor paintings as well. Novel-writing is merely another craft, not a superior one to those others, and you really needn’t be so impressed with this one expression of creativity if you don’t have it, nor feel overly proud if this is how you express your creativity. Fulltime writers don’t seem to me to have any excess dose of creativity. Yes, they have hundreds of ideas for books, but getting ideas is also a matter of craft that they’ve improved by practicing it.

If you think about this bullet-point list, it’s the same list of qualities you might find for a successful ________ (name a profession). A professor, for instance. A human resources professional. Any business owner, certainly, like the dapper fellow who lives down my lane and fixes appliances. A full-time parent who homeschools so well that his/her kids end up winning full-ride scholarships to top accredited schools has these qualities. A good tax assessor. A popular small-town insurance agent. All are probably hard-working, creative, dogged, and so on.

Oh, but those aren’t sexy-sounding jobs, are they? Writing has this strange mystique about it, one that is at best inaccurate and at worst harmful to people who think they want to be a writer without understanding the least part of what being a writer truly is.People end up thinking suffering or booze or some other ludicrous thing is what it takes, and that's just not so.

I’m not sure where the job picked up this romantic aura. Any successful writer could debunk the myth. Writing is work, some of it fun (ahhh, first drafts when the words are flowing are the best!), but some of it as dull as any office job. There’s no glamour to sitting around all morning in your pajamas or undershorts that need a good washing and typing while your posture gets worse and your wrists start to ache.

In short, success at writing novels requires organization, stability, commitment, stubbornness, and hard work.


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