Way back at the beginning of this journey, you decided to write a book and started with a few critical decisions to make that set your professional life as a writer onto a distinct path.
The first decision? Fiction or non-fiction. Followed by selecting a general topic or genre and narrowing it down to a specific idea or plot. In fiction, you decided whether that idea fit a novella, short-novel, trade book, or an epic tale length. For non-fiction, you decided how to organize your information and whether to include application exercises or not.
Of all the available paths to take and unique books to write, you picked one. Then you chose to sit in the chair and get the words written and rewritten. But the process isn’t complete for there are still more decisions to make as you launch your writing career. Each answer you continue to choose will aim your career at a unique destination and determine the next steps you will take to get there.
Tool #1: Have a dream meeting with yourself. Block out a chunk of time and sit down with a pad of paper. Imagine it’s ten years into the future and you are a successful multi-published author.
Where are you sitting as you work on your next book? A rustic cabin in the woods or a beach-front cabana or a classically-elegant home office? You’re a writer, so let’s get specific on the details of this dream down to the color of the paint on the wall and the clothes you’re wearing when you write. (You’re successful, so perhaps you’ve moved past ratty T-shirts and pajama pants.) How many hours a day do you devote to writing? What does your “perfect day” routine look like in this imaginary future?
Is there any evidence around you of the success of your writing? Have you quit your day job because of your advance and royalty income? Do you get email updates from your virtual assistant or publicist? Is there a framed copy of the New York Times bestseller list on the wall? Do you have a trip scheduled to speak at a conference or better yet, attend the premier of the movie based on your novel? Is there a framed family photo on your desk taken during that multi-book contract celebration trip? Or is there a bulletin board featuring a few precious handwritten notes from readers sharing how your words changed their lives?
You glance to the side and see a bookshelf containing your books. How many are there? Are they hardback with glossy dust jackets or a long row of trade paperbacks? Can you imagine the cover designs?
Now take your imagination a little deeper. In your dream future, what are people saying about your books when they recommend them to a friend? More than it’s a contemporary romance, do readers say your books are full of small town meddling, Southern charm, heart-racing suspense, quirky characters, humor, or strong heroines? More than a self-help book, do they say your book is thoroughly researched, easy to read, extremely practical, or thoughtfully explores complex ideas?
What are you known for? When readers line up around the block to meet you in person (yes, we are dreaming here), what expectations do they bring because of your writing?
These last few questions will help pinpoint your brand as an author and help you know if a new book idea fits those reader expectations or not. The bookshelf identifies your genre and speed of output and gives clues as to your route to publication. The place you’re sitting and the evidence of your success becomes a measuring stick of what is truly important to you and how you’ll know when you reach that nebulous destination of having built a successful career. (Assuming of course that none of your priorities change in the next ten years, but hey, this is a dream meeting based on who you are today.)
Tool #2: Plan the steps you will take to get there. Like a GPS that charts a course from where you are now to where you want to go, planning your career is equally important. You won’t just wander into that dream future, but rather will have invested years before becoming what others call an overnight success.
Unexpected roadblocks may come later and require a detour, but planning ahead can give you the professional flexibility to bend with the market. Not to mention, it’s easier to steer a moving vehicle in a new direction than one that is standing still.
Let’s start our plan with the realistic number of books we can write per year. Of course, this number is dependent on a number of factors including the typical length expected in our genre (historicals are generally longer than contemporaries), how much research is required, and how many good words can you write in a typical writing session. All words will need editing, but cleaner copy written in the first draft will cut down the amount of time you’ll need to factor in for the revision stage.
Imagine you can realistically write 1000 words per day five days a week. (Notice I said realistically. You might have young kids at home or a day job which cut down this number. Or you might get to write full time and know that when you get into a rhythm of writing regularly you can churn out 1500 to 2000 decent words per day.) Using our example, at the pace of 5000 words a week, it will take 15 weeks to write a 75,000 word book. Add in time to research and brainstorm the book at the beginning, several weeks of editing at the end, and sprinkle in a few sick days or mental sanity days. At this point, you can probably write 2 solid books per year with a possible novella thrown in for variety.
As you begin to plan a production calendar, also keep in mind that you will need to factor in additional rounds of editing with your publisher, book launch planning, and continued social media marketing in addition to your regular writing time. You may be an author, but as we’ve learned so far, writers don’t get to just write. Your calendar will include blocks of true writing time as well as blocks for other writing-related tasks.
Now that you have a number of books, start planning what kind they will be. Will you be writing standalone books or in a series? Do you have a central character like a detective who will continue throughout a number of books or will secondary characters from one book step into the limelight for the next few? A series can be developed around a small town, a large family, a group of professionals like a SEAL team, or even a reunion of college friends. Sometimes a series naturally develops when an epic tale is too big for just one book or when that first non-fiction book lends itself to specific application for smaller target audiences. (The nice thing about a series is that many readers from one book will want to continue along plus your initial research and story world building carries over to the rest of the books.)
Beyond the number and types of books you will write, another critical decision becomes how you will publish these books. Getting picked up by a traditional publisher takes time and then you’ll need to wait over a year for the production cycle to run. Independently publishing your work gets the book into the hands of readers faster but eliminates the professional sales team to help get your book into stores. For some traditionally published authors, the desire to build their fan base drives them to put out more than one book per year so they either seek a second publisher or publish additional stories themselves, thus becoming a hybrid author.
There are too many other factors involved in the indie publishing decision to discuss here but a simple Google search will bring up a wealth of opinions and things to consider as you decide what it the best route for you. While I personally had done the indie route for my non-fiction work, I decided to wait for that stamp of approval from a traditional publisher for my first fiction titles, mostly for the boost of confidence to know that my story craft was ready. No one way is the right path for everyone, but you’ll need to decide for yourself because the two routes to publication require different tools.
One last decision to make when developing your career plan is whether or not you can make a living with your writing alone. Many authors either have a different day job or a spouse’s income to cover the household budget while they build their writing business. Unless you are one of the lucky few to garner a giant advance for a book that stays at the top of the bestseller lists before being turned into a movie, well, let’s just say you’ll need multiple streams of income pooled together to make writing a full-time job.
For some, those multiple streams come from many books that continue to sell, especially when new readers discover one book and go on to buy all the rest. Other authors diversify their income with article writing, short stories, being a virtual assistant for other authors (while learning the business better in the process), graphic design or cover design, editing, teaching, or speaking. Since you are building both a business and a career, calculate how much income you need to cover your business expenses and then develop a realistic plan for the next few years to reach that amount.
Of course, you may soon discover the painful truth every author faces: there aren’t enough hours in the day. We’ll talk more about this in the section on time management, but deciding to write a few articles for quick income does take time away from writing that next manuscript. But if the short-term income will keep things afloat while you build the long-term career, the payoff is likely worth the extra juggling, frustration, or lack of sleep today. The main thing is to have a plan.
Tool #3: Re-evaluate regularly and adjust the plan as needed. You may have started out to write contemporary romance and even won a few prestigious awards along the way, but you start finding your story ideas lean toward deeper issues that are best expressed in women’s fiction with a romantic thread.
Or perhaps as you wrote your novels, you kept wondering about the character’s ancestors or descendants and soon found yourself crossing over from strictly historical or contemporary tales into a slip-stream or dual-time genre.
Or maybe you write thoughtful character-driven literary stories but played on the side with a young adult dystopian fantasy that captured your imagination to the point you now want to publish it under a pen name.
Those short stories or articles written for the quick income may have tapped into a wealth of other ideas that push a book-length topic to the back burner. Or that prequel novella you wrote to entice readers into a new series revealed a knack for the shorter tale. Or while doing all the research for your non-fiction book you uncovered exciting possibilities in a semi-related topic.
A gentle slide toward a different genre or related non-fiction topic is easier to navigate than an abrupt change, but there’s nothing to say it can’t be done. However, the more time you take at the beginning of the process to chart your course, the less likely you are to want (or need) to make a huge change later.
If you do find yourself changing paths or starting a parallel journey, know that it will take time to build momentum again especially when it comes to adjusting your fan base. Like following the detour signs through road construction or backtracking after your GPS pointed you to the wrong location, adjusting your career can be frustrating. However, if the destination is worth reaching, the delay can be endured.