"I want to be great at writing books"
Ok but why tho?
Love notes from Siel is a weekly newsletter from Siel, who’s currently traveling around Europe. If you love it, subscribe for free.
Once a month or so, I answer a question from a reader. Have a question? Ask!
Hey Siel —
I’ve been in hibernation mode longer than the pandemic by a year…since moving to Florida. I’ve decided — of the million and one things I’m good at — I want to be great at writing books.
One thing I’m lacking is a mentor. Someone that has sold books, has an agent, and is comfortably writing book after book. I wrote a sustainable fashion shopping guide. We sold out each event we sold them at. It’s currently at the top of a reading pile at an established literary agent in NYC. In the three years since it’s been published, the shopping guide deserves to be a full-fledged book.
As most creatives I have ideas for other books, possibly children’s books, and could use some guidance to figure out what to put my energy towards to become a successful author.
Dear Taryn —
If you’ve already written a well-received guide that’s at the top of a reading pile at an established literary agent, I’d say you’re already doing pretty well! Do you really need a mentor?
Or let me rephrase my question. What is it, exactly, that you hope to get from a mentor?
What do you imagine a mentor can do for you? Because many different types of mentors await, especially if you’re willing to pay them. There are mentors who’ll help you turn an idea into a book proposal. Mentors who’ll help you structure the writing project you have in mind. Mentors who’ll guide you through the business side of the publication process. Mentors who’ll coax you over writer’s block. Mentors who’ll give creative feedback on your writing. Mentors who’ll act as coach-cheerleaders to keep you writing when you don’t feel like it
One popular way of finding a writing mentor is by taking a writing workshop, either in person or online, in the genre of your choosing. These workshops are generally led by teachers whose bios you can browse before signing up. Find a teacher you feel is a successful author you can learn from, take their class, and, if it seems right, work on building a mentor-mentee relationship from there.
But at this point, I have to ask: What is your definition of a “successful author”?
Is authorly success connecting with readers? Meaning: would you consider yourself a successful author if you connected soul-level with a passionate audience — a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens, let’s say — even if that group is just a few dozen people?
My guess is that you would not — because you’ve already sold your guide to crowds, yet you don’t yet consider yourself a successful author.
What qualifies as success to you? Is it wealth on the level of J.K. Rowling? Literary prizes? Film adaptations of your work? Is it the publication of at least a dozen books? Is it hitting the New York Times bestseller list?
You say you want a mentor who has “sold books, has an agent, and is comfortably writing book after book” — so perhaps that is your definition of success. Which is well and good — so long as you’re aware that many, many agented writers with long publication records do not make a living through book sales.
That’s right — even respected, prize-winning writers who’ve authored a string of books generally rely on other sources of income to make rent or pay the mortgage. That’s why so many of them serve as instructors and professors and editors and writing mentors — because helping others write what they want to write tends to be much more financially remunerative than writing what you want to write, even if you can write what you want to write really, really well.
Writing is a strange occupation. I’ve often joked that the more time and effort and blood, sweat, and tears a piece of writing requires of me, the less money I can expect to come from it. The reverse is true too, which is why I’ve so often taken (and quit) jobs in marketing. If you want to make six figures as a writer, it’s a lot easier to do so by churning out white papers for tech companies than by crafting heartfelt environmental guides, personal essays, novels, or god help us, poems.
So what is it that you really want?
You say you want to be a “successful author,” and that you want to be “great at writing books.” Note that these are very different desires from, say, actually wanting to write, or to share your stories, or to inspire a shift toward a more sustainable world.
Not that you can’t have many desires for your writing. You can certainly desire to express yourself creatively through your writing while inspiring others to make the world a better place while expecting to be well-compensated for your labor. I’m just pointing out that if your primary motivation is financial security or fame or even a more sustainable world, there are likely easier ways of furthering those goals than through the pursuit of a writing career. After all, you say there are a million and one things you’re good at, so you’ve got other options —
So I’ll ask again: What is it that you really want?
And does pursuing that want require you to write?
Do you simply love the act of writing? Or, even if you can’t exactly describe what you feel about writing as love, do you find you’re happier, more content, more peaceful, or at least less unhappy when you write regularly? Do you have stories and ideas that you want to share with the world that can only or best be communicated through writing? Do you long to entertain and amuse and educate children growing up today with books that you’ve already dreamed up snippets of, in your mind or on paper? Do you have a strong desire to challenge yourself creatively and aesthetically by playing around with words?
And do you want one or more of the things I mentioned above enough to spend your brief time on this earth writing, despite the fact that writing what you want to write will be hard, heartbreaking work full of rejection — that almost certainly will have to be done in addition to whatever other work you do to actually pay the bills, even after you reach that nebulous point at which people begin to consider you a “successful author”?
If so, get writing. And a writing mentor could help, especially if you hit snags in the process.
Just remember: Being a “successful author” is not the same thing as being a writer. And assuming writing is what you want to do, focusing on the latter tends to be more fulfilling and rewarding and doable than obsessing after the former.
Love from my writing desk to yours —
Three links you might love:
No, the vast majority of authors do not make a living off book sales. Lincoln Michel breaks down the numbers: “In the entire industry of book publishing, where over a million books are published a year, a mere 2,500 authors can be found making median US wage.”
What’s the point of writing if you’re not going to succeed? Don Lee takes on the question many serious writers have asked themselves. “The truth is, there’s little that is gratifying about this business. A few people — the golden, the anointed — seemingly have everything go their way. Big advances, rave reviews, major prizes, SRO crowds at readings, movie deals, the luxury of not needing a day job. For the rest of us, namely for so-called midlist authors like me, it’s a different reality.”
For more on writing, money, and success, I recommend reading Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living — a collection of essays by writers about the writing life.