Sun 18 Apr 2010
When I tell people I’m a novelist (which even now, I still feel a bit odd/gleeful doing), their reply often goes something like: “Cool. I’ve always wanted to write a book.” Indeed, I have a suspicion that just about everybody who has ever read and enjoyed a novel has thought about someday writing one. Here in the States, it’s part of the American dream: right up there with owning a house, winning the lottery, and becoming a Hollywood star. I know that I dreamt of writing a novel long before I actually did so. And while I was writing it, I couldn’t help but think how unbelievable it would be to someday hold the published version in my hands.
Well, it turns out that I should have been thinking about other things. Writing a novel is all well and good, but if you want to be a novelist, then you will have to write more than one (writers like Harper Lee, notwithstanding). If you even want to get your first book published, then it will help immensely to have a second book up your sleeve. Agents and publishers are always looking for the next great book, but even more so, they are looking for the next great career.
So while writing your first novel, be thinking about your second. In fact, you should have a good idea of what you are going to write next before you start writing your first novel. Why? Because whatever you write first will influence what you write second. As a beginning writer, you will need to carve out a niche by writing several books in the same genre and style. This is how you build an audience. Better yet, you can write a series—the most effective way to get readers hooked on your writing.
This means that you need to have thought about your career before you even write your first line of your first book. Let’s say you have two great ideas: an historical fiction novel about the fall of Constantinople and a dystopian sci-fi mindbender set two-hundred years in the future (to pick two not-so-random examples). Well, these are not going to be your first and second novels. If you write the historical fiction novel, then you’ll be putting your sci-fi epic on hold—probably for several years—while you write more historical fiction. And vice-versa. And if you are choosing between a great stand-alone story and a series, then you should know that it will be easier to find a publisher and sell books if you go with the series. All that said, the most important thing is that you be passionate about what you’re writing. Still, it never hurts to plan ahead. So don’t just pick the story you most want to tell. Pick the genre you most want to write in. And pick the story that is easiest to sell.
I was lucky in this regard. I have more book ideas—from all genres—than I will ever have time to write, but I’m happy to have started in my favorite subsection of my favorite genre: mediaeval historical fiction. I love writing these books. But I have to admit that it was luck more than planning that got me here. I just as easily could have started with that futuristic dystopian epic and landed in the world of sci-fi. And while there is nothing wrong with sci-fi… I’m still very glad this didn’t happen, if only because while I have dozens of book ideas for historical fiction, I have exactly two for sci-fi. I’ll write those two books someday, but that day likely won’t come for many years now. And I’m fine with that. But just know that when you sit down to write your first book, this is the sort of choice you are making. You’re not just selecting a story; you’re selecting a genre and a tone. So plan ahead, and make sure you pick the right one!