Saturday, March 13, 2010

What does it take to succeed as a novelist?


Awhile ago Meghan posted about the role talent plays in getting published. That got me thinking about what it takes to have a successful career as a novelist. Meghan was talking about getting published from an artist's point of view -- but I think that's different -- when you're starting out and later, too. For one thing, it's easier to get editors to look at picture books!

What do you think it takes to succeed as a novelist -- not just to get that first contract, but to have a successful career? In order of importance, here's what I think:

1. Talent -- without this spark, you won't get anywhere. Hard work can make you better, but without SOME talent, you won't write novels anyone will read to the end.

2. Hard work/discipline -- that talent does have to be supported, consistently supported, by what Jane Yolen calls BIC (butt-in-chair). I've known talented people who don't work consistently enough to even finish novels, let alone make them good.

3. Good judgement -- about yourself, your talent, the business: knowing where to put your energy. Some people don't need this -- what they're best at and most interested in writing and the marketplace all align nicely; but (I think) many of us face hard decisions....and even those fortunate few need to decide whether, say, promoting their books is a good or bad use of their energy and time.

4. An editor who really loves and GETS your work.

5. The fortitude to conquer your demons or the good luck to not have any.

6. At the beginning, some luck (or the patience and persistence to try for years plural) to get your novel read by an editor who falls in love with it. These days, that probably means having an agent -- and even then, it can take time: my agent told me that the books that have won the most accolades took the longest to place.

And if you aspire to making it big, luck will definitely be needed. This essay isn't about making it big, but the story of how his first book became a bestseller is a good (and unusually frank) example. I'm not saying that all it takes it make it big is luck -- the book needs to appeal to lots of people, too! -- but which of the good books published each year become blockbusters does depend as much upon luck and timing as merit and promotion, particularly if the author is unknown.

7. The support (if financial, so much the better!) of family or friends or both.

8. If you want your work to last: something to say. By "something to say" I don't mean a simple lesson, but the sum of what your novel says/means -- something only you could have said in that way. I put this last not because I think it is the least important but because I think it's quite possible to be published, and even build a successful career, without it. But the books that people are still reading a hundred years later all have it -- and maybe many we AREN'T reading a hundred years later have it too. Luck again? Or do all the best books survive?

And just for fun, how would you rate YOURSELF on each of these?


Meghan McCarthy said...

I like that you put talent as #1! Go talent! I'd love to do a poll on #7. How many novelists had financial support starting out?

Libby Koponen said...

a LOT. At least, in the writers' autobiographies I've read more did than didn't.....even if the support was just moving back in with their parents. Or never leaving in the first place.

I'd like to do a poll on that too. Maybe we could do one on the blog? Tell the truth about ourselves and ask our readers?

Meghan McCarthy said...

I'm down with that. Let's do a poll. How many people need the support of their spouses, etc. Or their parents. I wonder if people will answer?

Wendie O said...

or need to keep their day job?

Meghan McCarthy said...

Hmm. Keeping the day job is different for me. I will have it f-o-r-e-v-e-r. I need the health insurance. Besides, we non-supported (and by we I really mean me) need to feel bitter and jealous of other people and their support systems.

Brent said...

If this list is rated in order, although I hate to say it, I think talent may be a bit overrated.

Instead #2 would be #1 for me as getting SOMETHING done is probably an an ending only 1% of people who set out to write a novel actually complete.

I think a good editor can't be overlooked.

And I have/had no financial support, but am taking donations...