Friday, February 11, 2011

The Magic Bullet

My conversations with first novelists almost always run the same way. They've got lots of questions. Before the sale, they want to know how to find a publisher and snag a book deal. Once they've got a deal, they want to know the best way to market their book -- how to get reviews, attention, and (ultimately) sales. And, hey, that's no surprise. Every writer wants his or her first novel to be success, and every one of them is looking for a way to guarantee just that.

What they're after is a diagram of a sure thing, or a career blueprint with an express elevator to the penthouse level. What they want is your basic All-Purpose Dirty Harry Magnum Force-Sized Magic Bullet.

Look at the problem one way, I'll tell you that there's no such thing. Simply put, there are no shortcuts or sure things in writing. Sure, there are a thousand ways to improve your odds of commercial success... and if you do your homework you'll figure them out. I'm a big fan of doing your homework. But there are no magic bullets.

Except one. And (surprisingly) that bullet isn't something that comes up in most conversations with first-time novelists. It seems like it should be the first thing that comes up, but it very rarely does. Fact is, sometimes it's barely mentioned at all.

That thing is the novel itself. And it's the only thing that counts, really. It's also the only thing you really have control over. After all, it's your book. What your first novel amounts to is completely up to you. How high you set the bar is up to you. How hard you work on your novel, and push yourself through the rewrites, and bust your ass to make it as good as it can be is up to you. The rest of it -- the sale to a publisher, the promotion, the book as a finished product ready for market -- that's all another battle... and an important one. But none of that will matter if you haven't done the hardest work of all to front-load your odds for success and set them in your favor.

That's your biggest battle, and you fight it on the page. Not glad-handing at a convention, not on Twitter or Facebook, not texting with that editor who bought you a beer. No. You fight that battle alone, at your desk, writing. As I've said before: a keyboard is built for one. That's how the real work of writing gets done. It's the misery of the job, and the joy. And it's how your novel gets to be as good as you can possibly make it... which is as close to a guarantee as you'll ever get.

So there you have it. Your novel is your magic bullet.

What it turns out to be is completely up to you.

So close the door, turn off the phone, and shut down your email.

Now you're ready.

Fire away.