What kind of fiction are you best suited to write? It is an intriguing question. If you are interested in writing as a hobby, then the literary world is your oyster. There are no guidelines for you but to follow your heart. But if you harbor aims of writing professionally someday, then IMHO, you need to think long-term.
CAREER-PLANNING FOR THE NOT-YET-PUBLISHED
If you’re serious about achieving your goals, it’s never too soon to start forming a good strategy, and that’s what this section is all about. Nothing I’m about to tell you is an ironclad rule, just some general guidelines that hopefully will save you time, frustration, and wasted work.
First off, it’s a good idea to specialize—pick one (or at most, two) types of book(s) and set your sights on becoming a master of that particular type(s). By “type” of book, I’m not referring to a plot line or theme, but to genre or sub-genre. Some examples are: romantic comedies, legal thrillers, paranormals, time-travel, chick lit, erotica, family dramas, light/frothy Regency historicals, dark/dramatic Regency historicals, medievals, Westerns, heartwarming small-town contemporaries, Christian romances, etc. There are many more, as a stroll through your favorite bookstores will reveal; also, many authors have had success by combining two subgenres in clever new ways.
If the first step is choosing your subgenre, I have noticed that it’s here where many people get off track. Some aspiring authors choose to let the market dictate what they write, i.e., what the editors are buying, but I see this as a recipe for frustration rather than success, for numerous reasons.
One: It’s almost impossible to achieve excellence in a genre or subgenre that does not genuinely inspire you; and given how incredibly competitive the current market is, mediocrity cannot long survive. So, to me, writing what you love is not only an issue of integrity and personal happiness, but a solid business decision, as well.
Secondly, by the time a trend is identified as such, you’re going to be way behind the curve. It can take a year to write a novel, another year to sell it, and another year for the publisher to process it for publication (cover art, typesetting, proofreading, etc.) Your target trend could be totally passé by then.
The third reason not to write strictly to the market is that it takes five books to establish a career, according to The Career Novelist by agent Donald Maass, and if by some miracle you break into the business writing something you don’t love, in all likelihood, you’re going to be stuck here. For that reason, the concept of “just doing this to break into the business” is a faulty one. Going back to the need for excellence merely as a career survival strategy, it’s hard to master any one milieu, style, or length of book if you’re bouncing around all over the place. Furthermore, the readership won’t be able to get a handle on who you are or what sort of books you are offering. For this reason, to build a viable career, those five books should ideally all be in the same field. That requires a commitment of several years so, obviously, you’ll want to spend that time doing something you enjoy.
So, what kind of book will you choose with which to make your mark on the world?
Oftentimes (but not always) what we most love to read is what we’ll have a natural talent for writing, because we’ve already got an affinity for it and are familiar with its conventions.
It’s also practical to make a few observations about one’s own personality and how that could play into the writing process. For example, story length.
If you are a high-energy type person who always has ten projects going at once, you might want to think about doing the shorter-length (150-300 pages) category books offered by Harlequin/Silhouette. This company, a veritable bastion of romance fiction, offers a “line” in several different length formats and every imaginable topic and tone, from Christian romances, to borderline erotica, to family stories, to female action-adventure tales. I’m not an expert on series writing, but from what I can see, going the Harlequin/Silhouette route offers one of the most viable, stable, long-term career strategies available to new writers. It worked for Nora Roberts!—and Sandra Brown, Debbie Macomber, Jennifer Crusie, Suzanne Brockmann, and countless other Big Names who later moved into the mainstream.
Writing the shorter length books, you can also finish more quickly and move on to the next story, if you’re someone who gets bored easily. More books coming out onto the shelves in rapid succession means that the public will learn your name faster by sheer repetition: Creating a “brand name” is the one thing that every author must do. Building name recognition is harder for people who write and publish more slowly. It’s something worth keeping in mind. Slower, more ponderous thinkers, on the other hand, probably won’t mind as much spending a whole year on one book. These people may be drawn to the longer (400-500 pages) type form known as single-title.
Another consideration is what tone of stories you want to write. You could have a mismatch on your hands if, for example, you happen to have a fun, zany temperament and decide to write dark, brooding Gothics. It might not be the best fit. On the other hand, if you do feel drawn to a type of book that seems to be the opposite of your personality, it might be your psyche’s way of balancing you out!
Play to your strengths. Do what feels natural. Have fun with your explorations into the various sub-genres and don’t be afraid to try dreaming up plot premises in a whole slew of different categories to see what grabs you. If you find one sort of story that seems to come particularly easily to you, then you’re probably onto something.
Keep your eye out for that one kind of story that you know you could be happy writing over the long haul. You’ll know it what you find it. Then the only challenge will be learning how to write it!
DEVELOPING A GAME PLAN
Once you know what kind of novels you’re interested in writing long-term, it’s time to sketch out your career game plan, and the most sensible way to do that is to find out what has worked for the best people in your field. I’m a big believer in modeling the success of those we admire, people who have already achieved what we dream of doing. They help us remember that our dreams in fact are possible with hard work, smart strategies, and the inner strength to persevere through adversity. So: Make up a list of the top people in the genre or subgenre you wish to write in and do some online research to find out how they got to where they are now; how long it took them; how quickly they write; who publishes them; what they’ve learned along the way that they wish they knew when they were just starting out; what they see as the most important aspects of that type of book, etc. You’re not going to mimic their writing style or steal their plots, heaven forbid, you’re just going to study them to learn whatever you can in order to achieve your goals.
This information is readily available in this age of the internet, and most authors are very happy to share. Many romance-reading sites on the ’net have archives full of Author Interviews where you can learn about the people you are using as your ‘models.’ Indeed, these days most authors have their own websites where they’ll often discuss their career path and related issues. Look at the people who have your dream-career and compare the various paths they took to get there. This is a great way to formulate guidelines for how you, too, can arrive at your destination.
SETTING A DEADLINE FOR YOUR GOAL
Like many authors, I have a love/hate relationship with deadlines, so this one will have to be a judgment call for whatever works best for you. All I know is that with no deadline, tasks never seem to get finished, while too harsh of a deadline can shut down creativity.
Your very first novel is really going to be your learning book, so depending on how busy you are in general, it would not be unreasonable to set a deadline of a year, year and a half, or even two years to write it (at the single-title length of 100,000 words). Add another two to six months for revision.
The variation here is very wide, however. I know writers who finished their first manuscript in six months, others who are still working on it nine years after they started. If you can train yourself to write quickly, that will be an advantage later, once you sell, but quality is much more important than quantity. Most people have to write several manuscripts before they finally finish one that’s of saleable quality; I wrote four that went into the trash before I started The Pirate Prince, which became my debut novel. (That book, incidentally, took me about two years to write, and then my editor asked for revisions that took another few months.)
Similar to writing deadlines, some people like to set deadlines for achieving their goal of publication. Again, this is iffy in my view because a lot of the factors involved are beyond our control. Common wisdom says it takes about five years on average to sell one’s first book. It took me nearly six, but again, the variation is huge. One of my favorite authors, a very Big Name, took over ten years to sell her first book, while another one of my favorites sold her first manuscript in a month. Anything goes in this business! There are advantages and disadvantages to either route. The one who sells her book only after a long, grueling period of years has to fight discouragement and the temptation to chase the market, while the one who sells quickly is often caught off guard by success and may not feel solid yet in her skills, so she faces an even larger amount of insecurity than the rest of us do.
Perhaps the best compromise is to set realistic deadlines, but only for the things that are within our direct control—finishing a book, a chapter, a certain number of pages per day, etc. Whatever you decide to do, your time frame should be part of the overall map you are sketching that will lead you to your ultimate success.