Lisa Brackmann is the critically acclaimed author of the Ellie McEnroe four novels, including Dragon Day–in bookstores August 18. Booklist, in a starred review, calls the new novel “a nonstop thriller, illuminating the Chinese police state in which ‘First they decide you’re a threat. Then they find a label for it.’ Top-notch international crime fiction.” Lisa’s work has also appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Travel+Leisure and CNET. She lives in San Diego with a couple of cats, far too many books and a bass ukulele. And I just love all the terrific advice in her post–not least of all the last line. – Meg
Lisa Brackman: 5 Tips for Any Writing Career
I started writing the first novel that I would eventually sell at the end of April in 2005. I wrote and rewrote, started querying at the end of 2006, got rejected and rewrote some more. A lot more.
I finally found an agent who was interested in working with me in July 2007, and it was my great fortune that he was also an amazing editor. More rewriting ensued. Much more. I learned a lot about structure and what it was like to work with another person on something as complicated and as intimate a creative expression as a novel. I won’t say the process wasn’t stressful at times, but overall, it was fun.
We should have gone out on submission at the beginning of March 2008 (yes, that was how long we worked on rewrites), but there were complications because of my job at the time (longish story), so instead, D-Day was pushed to April 30, 2008.
A year passed.
Pro-tip: It’s really better to avoid going out on submission with a quirky, hard-to-categorize first novel in the middle of a global economic crisis.
May 12, 2009: I got an offer on my book, Rock Paper Tiger.
June 1, 2010: Rock Paper Tiger was published. The book did pretty well: Sold decently, turned up on several year-end Top 10 lists, was shortlisted for a nice award in its genre (crime fiction). Well enough that I have been able to sell three books since then.
It is now August 2015, and my fourth novel will be published in a couple of weeks. With that number of books over a longish stretch of time, it’s beginning to feel like a career.
So I’ve been thinking about all of this a lot and what it means to have a career as a novelist. Here are a few of my conclusions.
First, and especially with the dramatic changes in the industry over the past decade, there is no one way to do this, and for every conclusion I reach, there are numerous exceptions.
As a “career author,” you will work hard.
It is easy to diminish our own struggles and efforts, to say, “well, it’s not brain surgery/ditch-digging/etc.” and “at least I can do this job in my pajamas.” All true. But it is an intellectually and emotionally difficult job to do well. Are there things that have scarred you? A scab that’s still healing? Go pick at it. That’s where your best material is most likely to be.
Also? Novels are long. Though I do know some folks who are capable of writing great amounts of material in short amounts of time, for most of us, writing a book is the result of consistent effort, day by day (I will spare you my drawn-out comparison about how writing a novel is like playing a season of baseball, but, well, there’s your sports metaphor if you want one). Novels are complicated to put together well. And there are a lot of words to wrangle.
Writing as a career is an emotional roller-coaster.
There are many reasons for this beyond the ups and downs of the creative process itself. You face a lot of rejection and you are constantly being judged on your performance, and by all kinds of people, not just the people with whom you work but by reviewers and readers (if you are lucky). And those judgments can be incredibly rewarding— “They like it! They really like it!” —and, well, not so much so. You learn to develop a thicker skin, to shrug it off to the extent that you can, to try and not get too high with the good news and too low with the bad. It is not always easy to do when the thing being judged is a book into which you put a year or years of work, but you try and focus on what matters, the work itself. Where this gets harder to do is when you deal with some of the overarching realities of the publishing industry itself, namely:
More likely than not, you will not earn a living with your writing.
This is a tough one, because the reality of modern publishing is that to produce at a rate most likely to lead to a career and to deal with the marketing and promotion that today’s authors are expected to do, you are essentially trying to work a full-time job on a part-time income. Yes, you might get that rare major deal/lead title, but overall the economics of publishing today favor authors who can write consistently and quickly. It can be stressful and tiring, and generally there are tradeoffs involved: greater productivity versus more income at another job (or just more time to do things other than write and work) being the biggest.
So many things are out of your control.
You can write a good book, you can sell that good book, but you can’t make that good book a lead title. You can hope that your book gets reviewed, but you can’t force reviewers to cover it, nor can you force bookstores to carry it. You can bust your ass promoting your book, pay for your own publicist if you have the budget, tour up and down the U.S. if you have the budget and the time, but your ability to move the needle and sell books is generally limited. This lack of control is what drives many writers into self-publishing, but there are limits there as well. There are elements of capriciousness and luck that are impossible to factor.
So what can you control?
I knew a man who was a former chief recording engineer at a big record label. He gave me a lot of encouragement (I was playing music at the time) and once said to me: “You can’t make them throw you the football. But you can be ready to catch it when they do.”
As usual, I circle back to the work itself. That’s the part I can control. That’s the part I can do or not do, do well or not do well.
So, is it all worth it? I can honestly say:
I have never had a more satisfying job.
Putting aside the process itself, the pleasure that wrestling with a difficult challenge and getting it done gives me, of accomplishing something that took a lot of time and a lot of thought, the sheer fun of putting words together in a way that makes me smile, even pump my fist at times…
I have met such amazing folks. From my agents and editors, publicists, bookstore owners and employees, fellow authors, fellow readers—book people by and large are some of the best people you will ever meet. There’s a special fellowship and camaraderie when you find your tribe, and I found mine.
For those of you reading this who are striving to have careers as novelists, I wish you good luck on your journey. Have fun!
And don’t forget to write. – Lisa