Principles for a Great Career

While building SiteArcade, I wrote these tips for our weekly author newsletter. Our readers seemed to get as much value out of reading them as the joy I received from writing them. They were frequently forwarded, posted on social media, and replied-to.

I didn’t want to leave them to bit-rot away in my inbox, so here they are, in a very, very long webpage. Read as much as you like. If they inspire any interesting ideas, contact me. I love to chat.

Let the Right Reader In

In Misery, Stephen King writes of an author who has literally become a captive of his audience, forced to write the next book in a series he no longer loves, about a character he no longer likes. Every working author can relate. Success in publishing guarantees you’ll stub your toe on this issue, and you too will have to decide how you serve your readers, on what schedule.

Some readers simply want you to push the right buttons in the right order. They find interest in slight variation, and it can be difficult to lead them from one small town setting to another, let alone to a different sub-genre. On the other hand, these readers are numerous and voracious, so it’s easy to build a following if you dedicate yourself to the task. However, because they expect an undifferentiated product, they’re more loyal to their favorite tropes than to particular authors. As such, they’re likely to subscribe to Kindle Unlimited and buy exclusively on Amazon.

On the other end of the spectrum are readers driven by uniqueness. They want stories they’ve never read, in styles they’ve never experienced, and they’re willing to pay a premium for it. They may prefer one or two high-level genres, but they nevertheless expect tropes to be subverted, reinvented, and occasionally eviscerated. While less common, these readers will evangelize any author who sufficiently impresses them. And they’ll happily follow such an author to Kickstarter, Patreon, Gumroad, or beyond. Though building a career on these innovation-seekers requires more upfront investment, once you do, you’ll have them for life.

While there is definitely a gradient of readers between the two extremes, the gradient is a valley. Most readers cluster to one side or the other, so your brand should clearly signal where you fall. This goes double for your books. Each one takes a long time to write, so better you spend that time on the right batch of readers. After all, if all goes as planned, you’ll be spending a long time with them—no kidnapping necessary.

Patch That Leaky Grecian Urn

Art is immersive, and the best art is the most immersive. Great work don’t just draw you in, but leaves you no method of escape, because every path turns back on itself like the dozen characters on a Grecian urn, each leading the eye to next, round and round forever.

Contrary to what some might say, immersion is not a function of world-building, but rather of human psychology. Our superpower as authors is to hack our readers brains such that they feel more alive inside our stories than out. Getting good at this trick just takes a willingness to wonder: How does my brain work? Here’s some ideas to get you started…

  1. Humans seize on negative emotion far more readily than positive. Keep readers hooked by tweaking fear, anger, sadness, and disgust in unique ways. Like a sadist might.
  2. Humans respond well to positive reinforcement, so reward readers with joy and surprise at regular intervals. It’ll build up their endurance for deeper experiences further along.
  3. Humans experience life as a single stream of sensations. So keep your narrative continuous, even if you change POVs. Don’t rouse them from dream with a jolt.
  4. Humans see the world as reflections of themselves, as you might in a hall of mirrors. Warp every detail of your story until the whole thing feels preoccupied with your theme.
  5. Humans like to feel respected. If the story allows, initiate readers into the “good guy” tribe. Or leave space for them to feel superior to a flawed and tragic cast. Give them dots to connect—without help. Don’t expect them to swallow nonsense. Treat readers like they know better.
  6. Humans hate to feel patronized. So leave readers free pick their own tribe. Or to empathize with a flawed and tragic cast. Steelman the arguments of your antagonists. Give readers the dots to connect—without help. Never put your finger on the scale of a lazy plot.

Above all, to deepen the immersion of your next novel, keep an eye out for insight into how humans are. You don’t have to look that far. You’re living inside one right now.

Follow the Reader

Do you know your readers well enough to write the books they’ll love?

For many authors, the answer is a resounding “no.” Most of us know what we like to read. Some of us know our genres’ tropes. But few could say with certainty that every page of their manuscript has something on it their readers will love—and nothing on it their readers will hate.

Common knowledge says you can learn simply by looking at what’s selling in your genre today. But there’s two problems with this approach. First, it biases your attention toward the current trends, most of which lack staying power. Second, it confuses what your readers really want with what they’ll settle for. Perhaps the top books today only offer 10% of what readers want. Just think of what success you could have if you unlocked the other 90%.

You need a reader’s-eye-view of the book world. To do so, go where your readers go, and spend time with them chit-chatting about the genre. Subscribe to all the blogs they put out. Read the articles, and read the comments. Join forums on Goodreads, Reddit, and the broader internet. Follow them on social media, and follow the people they follow.

Don’t promote yourself—not yet. Simply communicate. Read a lot. Ask questions. Find ways to help. Be a pal. And in the meantime, do your research. Your goal is to discover what really makes your readers tick. What emotions do they like to feel? Which characters resonate the most? Where do the bestselling books miss the mark? Which classics are consistently recommended?

Use what you discover to craft a novel just for these readers. If you’ve done your work well, they’ll rave about your book just as much as any other. This is the kind of word-of-mouth that makes or breaks careers, and this is the hands-down best way to get it.

Do More of What You're Good At

We’re all authors, and we all have different gifts.

Some think this means compete in every arena. She writes great descriptions, and so must I. He’s killing it with Facebook ads, and so must I. They’re writing vampires now, and so must I. On and on, this week in the Colosseum to battle a lion, next week in the frozen north to battle a bear.

But you just don’t have to be great at everything to have a great career. Yes, you do need to be great at a few things. But there’s only one thing we’ve all got to be great at, and that’s picking which battles to fight. The question is, how can you put your best qualities to their greatest use?

What are you best craft skills? Which genres prize those skills? What story structures will allow those qualities to shine? Which forms of marketing come the most naturally? Are you better with people? Go to conferences. Do you have a head for numbers? Get good at ads. What skills do you have that most authors don’t? Illustration? Wood-carving? Programming? Whatever they are, by all means, use them!

At the same time, avoid any death-matches you’ll lose. Write books that make the most of your talents. Enter competitions that reward your strengths. Participate in marketing channels, social media platforms, or group initiatives where the odds are in your favor. And in those battles where there’s no choice but to fight, conceal those Achilles’ heels and outsource!

Keep in Contact With Your Contacts

Every author is busier than they want to be. We have to balance our creative work, our marketing, and in most cases, our day job, families, and splintering sanity.

With so many drags on our attention, we often let our industry friendships fall by the wayside. These relationships really only last as long as the lines of communication remain open. Go too long without touching base, and you’re no longer top-of-mind when an opportunity opens up. Somebody else ends up getting invited to that mastermind, that anthology, that event. Somebody else’s career advances. Not yours.

The good news is staying in touch takes very little. Just keep a record the people you meet, and reach out every few months to see how they’re doing. Best is if you can offer them an opportunity when you do. Still-good is if you send them a link they might be interested in. And totally a-okay is if you just inquire about what’s new. Whatever you choose, keep it short and kind. That’s it!

Sometimes, the person in question won’t get back to you. Unless it happens multiple times, think nothing of it. People are busy, and even if they forget to write back, they’ll still be happy to see someone’s interested in what they’re up to. But more likely than not, they’ll reply with a status update and ask for the same from you.

If you’re like most authors—an introvert at heart—the idea of spending fifteen minutes a week shooting off emails might seem like a stretch. Just remember that building friendships is without question the easiest way to advance your career. And as those relationships grow, it becomes easier and easier. Don’t let those relationships wither.

Build a network, and build a career.

Whose Itch Can You Scratch?

There are eight billion people on planet Earth, and every single one of them has an itch that can only be scratched by an author. Some readers want to be humored. Some haunted. Some tickled, tweaked, or twisted. Some want it light and airy; some dense and dark. But everyone wants something, and it’s your job, as the author, to figure out whose itch you can scratch.

Many author gurus will tell you to look for the itches the most people have, and figure out the best way to scratch them. But I find there are too many authors in this game. They race from trend to trend, competing to sell the day’s hot topic before the market moves on. They write like Vin Diesel acts—2 Fast 2 Furious—and their books burn out just as quick.

But with eight billion people on planet Earth, every niche is large enough to build a strong, enduring career. All you’ve gotta do is boldly scratch a specific itch, over and over again. The riches are in the niches, as they say.

To get started, ask yourself:

  1. What tropes get you the most excited every time you read them?
  2. What are your interests outside of writing?
  3. What kind of people do you love spending time with?

No matter who you are, there’s a community interested in what you have to offer. You just have to put in the legwork. Use the search bar on Amazon, Goodreads, Reddit, and other online forums. What do readers in that community rave about? What do they complain about? How can you help?

Which Beholder's Eye?

When Notre-Dame burned in 2019, a friend said she didn’t really care because colonialism. As if the architects, artists, and artisans that took 183 years to build it (and centuries to maintain it) were the same people that set up trading posts in Senegal.

We cherish friends who disagree most of all, but I did wonder: Who is Notre-Dame for? It’s one of the greatest works of all time, yet even Notre-Dame isn’t for everybody. Some prefer St. Paul. Or St. Basil. Some would burn down all three if they could. Notre-Dame is certainly not for them.

Yet so many authors let any stray passerby’s critique throw them into fits. As if every opinion is equally valuable. But how important is the opinion of a person who doesn’t even read your genre? Or the opinion of a big brand author, if you think their work is better fit for garden mulch? Should our friend get a say in if Notre-Dame is rebuilt?

No! And we should all have the strength to say so. To ourselves, in the mirror. And to the world, through a megaphone. Your greatest work could take a 183 years to build, and if you listen to every stray passerby, you’ll never have the strength to finish. But if, on the other hand, you surround yourself with architects, artists, and artisans that understand your vision and you heed their critique, you’ll find that not even fire can keep your book from its audience for long.

Stay the Course for Compound Growth

chart demonstrating compound growth

By now, we’re all familiar with exponential growth. Exponential growth is how COVID grew, how Bitcoin grew, how Facebook grew, how Harry Potter grew. No one knew what they were for a long time, then suddenly they were everywhere. It turns out that the chart you see above is a fundamental rule of nature. Wherever there’s growth, there’s exponential growth. Scientific discovery follows this curve. So does technological advancement. So does global wealth.

And so does your career, if you stick it out long enough.

The trick is keeping your eye on the prize, the peak of the chart, up and to the right, where the hockey stick meets the heavens. As Shakespeare said, “it is the star to every wandering bark.” The North Star, that is, by which you can trace a path to wherever you seek to go—so long as you keep your endpoint constant. If you wake up every day with a new goal in mind, you’ll never reach any of them.

So the trick is two-fold. First, know exactly what you want out of your author career, and keep that North Star constant. Second, devote yourself entirely to the pursuit. Don’t waste energy on weighing the pros and cons of giving up. After all, if you give up on this mountain, you’ll only have to replace it with another. One you know nothing about. So just sit down and do the work. Write the words. Market your books. Master every skill of your chosen profession. Complete your tasks with quality and speed. And above all, never stop!

It may seem pointless today, or this month, or this year, but keep at it, and someday soon you’ll see the stars.

Look Outwards to Shift the Paradigm

In the small world of publishing, the danger is not whether you can keep abreast of current trends, but whether that’s your only source of inspiration. New ideas enter our nook infrequently, and when they do, the nuance is quickly lost to the game of telephone that carries them from author to author. It leaves too many of us trying to cook with only flour, salt, and water. Yes, it’s enough for matzah, but not much else.

In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn argues true innovation comes from outside the field. This is why we celebrate chefs that bring in new ingredients from foreign cultures. The same with authors. Chris Fox brought the audience-first mindset from the tech sector and sold gangbusters. N.K. Jemisin brought literary experimentalism to epic fantasy and swept the charts. Whether in as a creative or an entrepreneur, it pays to think outside the box.

But does this mean you shouldn’t take advice from other authors? No! Seek wisdom wherever you can find it. Just don’t limit yourself to your telephone book. Rather than only reading author business books, read all business books! And read about what’s working in neighboring fields like indie music, YouTube, or paid newsletters. Pay attention to what’s happening in “the creator economy” more broadly. There are a million great ideas out there publishing knows nothing about.

To shake up your genre, read everything. Everything. Read as far outside your niche as you can. And also read history, poetry, psychology, biology, economics, anthropology, mythology, and everything else too. Bring that wisdom and freshness to your future projects. Life is a tapestry, and to find success beyond the ghetto of your subgenre, read it all. Don’t merely react to paradigm shifts—create them.

Use All the Crayons in the Box

We all remember the horror of Misery, the awe of The Neverending Story, and the romance of Wuthering Heights. But we often forget just how many other emotions those novels made us feel along the way. And too many authors don’t realize, in hindsight, just how important those secondary emotions are to creating the immersive blockbusters we all aim to create.

Human beings just can’t sustain emotions for particularly long. Even if you reflect on your very worst day, you’ll realize you still had bursts of joy, of self-awareness, of relief, or of comfort along the way. Our emotions work in cycles, up and down as our biochemistry allows, inter-spliced with whatever chemical reserves are available in between.

The greats draw from a wide palette, recruiting every single crayon in the box, each and all in service of their primary emotional goal. By doing so, they draw the reader down deeper, allowing her moments of reprieve without ever putting down the book. And even when she must, since the book has tickled oh-so-many regions of her brain, she’s eager to get back to it.

The challenge is balancing just how much relief you give to readers from start to finish. Your genre will inform this to some degree, but in general, you’ll want to narrow the breaks as you approach the end. Allow your primary emotion to gain in intensity and duration over time, so that your climax sends readers away remembering the entire work as if it were all as potent as we remember Misery, The Neverending Story, and Wuthering Heights to be.

Use the Right Tactic at the Right Time

We often hear six-figure authors on podcasts and panels, talking about how much money they made from merch or translation rights or pay-per-click ads or shared-universe collaborations. This leads many young authors to think, “if I manufacture plush toys, then I’ll be a six-figure author too.” But for most of us, most of the time, plush toys won’t do a damn thing save distract from what’ll really move the needle.

The fact is, different tactics work well in different contexts. And given the huge gap between a pre-published author and a household name, or the market trends between sweet romance and hard scifi, or the temperamental differences between any two creatives, it’s incredibly unlikely that someone else’s hot new thing is going to work for you.

So take on new tactics thoughtfully. Aim to maximize the likelihood of success. Look for what’s working right now (1) for authors in your genre (2) with similar strength and weaknesses (3) at roughly the same level of success (4). Even if not every new tactic works, these heuristics will help improve the odds.

Above all, remember to chronicle your experiments. After trying each new tactic, journal a few paragraphs about the results, in what context you would try it again, and what you would change to improve the outcome. You may not ever refer back the doc, but the few minutes you spend in retrospection will transform you, in the long run, from a pupil into a true tactician.

Brand Minimally for Maximum Impact

Too used to writing novels, authors often overcomplicate their public persona, thinking if only they squeeze in a few more details, they’ll finally be understood. But in truth, the most evocative and memorable brands are often the cleanest. Think of the Twitter bird. Always the same shape; always the same sky blue. How many eyes does the Twitter bird have? How many legs? Clarity is the essence of communication.

Just as you wouldn’t plant signs in the ground before you knew which direction to point, you shouldn’t pick brand elements before you know what they describe. And even then, you need to make sure those signposts are clear in their directions. Does your headshot, logo font, and brand color all make the same promise to potential readers? Do your tagline, bio, and pen name all say so specifically?

When in doubt, think of the Nike swoosh, the Target target, the Apple apple. Ask why. As in, why is the swoosh so smooth? Why is the apple always silver? What does every detail promise about that brand? Then go back to your own elements and revise. Crop everything down to the essentials, until all that’s left is a single promise: What do you specifically offer readers that no one else does?

Let your brand do the talking… so that you can do the writing.

Respect If Ye Would Be Respected

For the entirety of the 20th century, we pushed to enlarge the canon. To seek out hidden gems and add them to the ever-growing list of essential written works. This wasn’t a political project, but a creative one, encouraging people to read more widely and more deeply in search of treasure.

Yet some people now push to destroy the canon rather than to enlarge it. To pretend as if all books are equally interesting, illuminating, and enjoyable—and yet also that their books should be prioritized. “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” This idea is poison to ambitious authors, voracious readers, and our beloved, small-world industry.

Thankfully, there’s a way out. It’s easy. Just believe in quality. Believe in merit. Believe in hard work and self-improvement. Keep reading widely and deeply and voraciously. Never forget that there are true gems out there, and fools’ gold alike. Respect the great works that have come before you, and aspire to add one or two to the collection. Believe in your ability to master your trade—and master it, whoever you are!

Grow Courageous in the Process

An author in the digital age must balance improving their craft, producing new work, growing a network, and building a platform all at once. Oftentimes while working a day-job. Sustaining these four additional full-time jobs has lead too many great authors to quit, damning us all to a less imaginative world than we might have had.

But isn’t hardship like this exactly what we evolved to confront, day after day? So that our minds and bodies grow stronger, wiser, and more courageous in the process? So that tomorrow we can face even greater challenges than today?

  • Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote the Nobel-prize winning The Gulag Archipelago, a brutal critique of Communism, from within Soviet Russia, even after serving eight years in labor camps for criticism levied in a single, private letter.
  • Viktor Frankl kept secret notes for what would become the international bestseller Man’s Search for Meaning while inside Nazi concentration camps, where he lost his entire family.
  • At 17 years old, Paulo Coelho was committed to an asylum for three years of electroshock treatment and drug cocktails by his parents, only to become the bestselling Portuguese author of all time with his novel The Alchemist.

If these authors (and so many others) were capable of facing adversity with courage, temperance, wisdom, and clarity, then maybe so can we. Instead of seeing our mounting todo lists as a burden, perhaps we can see each task as an opportunity to improve. To gain experience. To develop the skills we’ll need to seize the tantalizing future that, in our darkest hour, falsely seem so out of reach.

Heap Your Efforts to Reach the Sky

You build a creative career like sandcastles at the beach. In your limited time on the coast, you can construct many smaller keeps, or one large fortress. The choice is yours, but so are all of the results that follow from it.

With smaller structures, all it takes is one errant footfall, or a tiny wave, and you’re beat. None of those tiny towers have mass enough to thwart competition or bad luck. Moreover, it’s unlikely that a string of modest manors will attract attention from a distance. Not if they can barely be seen.

So rather than build horizontally, build vertically. Devote your full attention to one titanic construction. Sure, it’s more difficult to commit to a singular aesthetic for a whole day at the beach. After all, they don’t make cookie-cutter buckets for castles of note. Instead, every heap is intentional; every extension a challenge. To build high, you need a vision. A mission.

But but what you lose in ease, you gain in durability. A stray volley ball or the ceaseless tide might tumble a portion of your work, but the rest will remain. What’s more, your continuous toil will inspire interest. Many have flipped a bucket in their day, but few have built a kingdom. They’ll want to understand why you’re so passionate about this one heap of sand and so disinterested in all the rest. And when they arrive, they’ll gladly offer up their most prized possession—their time.

So build tall, not wide.

Play With Rules, Not Within Them

Routine is crack to the human mind. We like the structure. We like the simplicity. Routine wraps us like a womb, comforting even as it confines. We create systems to live by, and we chastise anyone who doesn’t do the same. Publishing is no different. When you read, you begin with A-B-C. When you write, you begin with 1-2-3. And when you publish? Everyone has a version, but it all sounds like Do-Re-Mi.

Thing is, publishing is not checkers. Over time, the rules change. And they don’t get changed by some big-wig who suddenly decides, “vampires are out, love triangles are in.” It’s the little guy who changes the rules. And he changes them by revealing new ways to play. Like in make believe, when the robber says to the cop, “No, but I’ve got slippery wrists!” The point of the game isn’t to win, but to keep playing.

Stephen King is famous today because he thought it’d be fun to write about menstruation. Andy Weir is famous because he brought hard sci-fi back from the dead, on a blog, then published it for a buck just as it was going viral. And try telling Bella Forrest “vampires are out.” Who was recommending these strategies before the authors changed the game?

So go back to first principles. Get as close to the hard facts of reality as you can. What do you really know about the publishing world today? And how does it differ from what the gurus recommend? Whatever you see that no one else sees—that’s where you break the rules. That’s where you change the game. That’s your gift to the world.

Good Authors Provide, Great Authors Provoke

Look, not every reader wants Lolita and The Satanic Verses. We get that. Some want nothing more risqué than cozy mysteries and sweet Christian romance. No swearing, no gore, no diddling. That’s fine.

But no matter who your readers are, or what their genre expectations, they don’t want you to play it safe. They want you to lead them right down to the border and edge them nearer and nearer the unknown. This is, after all, how every story works, guiding a reader from the comfort of everyday experience toward thrills, wonders, fears, chills, blunders, tears, and explosive, elusive, inexplicable reactions. Not the kind they’ve had before either, but somehow new.

You don’t need to swear to do that, not unless that’s where your reader starts from. But you do need to provoke. Sometimes in quiet ways, like a therapist. Sometimes emboldened, like a sea captain. And sometimes with unspoiled rage, like a villain. But always, always, always, a great author must aim to provoke.

Write Like You Don't Know Who's Reading

The jury is in: Stories don’t change minds, but they do open them.

When we humans sit down with a good book, our brains flood with oxytocin. This miracle molecule is responsible for the feelings of universal love and belonging, enhanced empathy, increased sensitivity to social cues, and bonding with others. It’s triggered in small doses by long, deep hugs and breast feeding, but in large doses by shared orgasms and MDMA.

Pay attention the next time you read a good story or have a good lay for the feeling you get. Hang onto that memory when writing the next book. It can transform both what you say and how you say it. The oxytocin feeling (agape to the Greeks) is not the kind that makes you think, “I’m going to think differently from now on.” but rather, “I can love those who think differently from me.”

Build on that. Agape is a far greater power than persuasion or exclusion. In so much as you read with oxytocin, write with oxytocin. Love all of your potential readers, and help them to experience belonging in your work. Even the ones who it’s not “for.” Not only will you expand your readership, but you’ll also create fans who love you as much as you have shown you can love.

Absorb Feedback Like a Black Hole

Praise and criticism are equally dangerous. When they first arrive, your emotions flare. Pride, anger, endearment, anxiety, euphoria, despair. None of them are to be trusted, because all those emotions can say is if the feedback confirms what you already believe or not. Confirm your self-confidence, and you’ll only limit your ability to grow in the future. Confirm your self-doubt, and you’ll only prevent yourself from trying.

The best thing you can do, in that first moment of feedback, is to breath deeply, to smile, and to swallow that missive like a black hole swallowing entire planets, stars, galaxies. Draw it down, without swaying you one way or the other. It has mass, but you are supermassive. It has importance, but only in the context of the galaxies you’ve absorbed already.

Don’t be swayed by praise or criticism, but wait. A black hole eventually emits all the mass it absorbs as energy, and you will too. Ideas for how to improve will come to you, and when they do, act! Without self-confidence or self-doubt to blind you. These will be the truly good ideas, the actionable ones, the ones that will help you to grow.

Receive Help Like a Pro

Most authors are really good at asking for help. They’ll go up to the most successful person they can find and pick their brain for hours. These pros are typically happy to dole out their hard-won wisdom. In our industry, no author can produce books fast enough for their audience, so we all have every incentive to help one another help our readers out. And thus, the author looking for advice is very likely to get it.

Thing is, asking for help is easy. Applying the help is hard.

The next time you find yourself the recipient of sage advice from an author you admire, take a moment to jot down a plan for actually putting the advice into practice. You owe it to yourself and to the pro to at least give it a try. It may turn out the advice doesn’t fit you as well as it fits them, but you’ll nevertheless come out of the experiment with a stronger career. You’ll have discovered something about yourself, about your niche, or about the world that you can apply in your next experiment.

At the bare minimum, you’ll have earned a mentor, because out of the hundred authors who asked for advice, you were the one who respected the pro’s time enough not to have wasted it.

Dazzle Your Reader Like a Will-o-the-Wisp

Every story is a straight line from start to finish, each word leading the reader unerringly to the last. The greatest danger we face as authors is not providing readers enough material to slow down, to stray from the path, and to explore the realms our straight line cannot cross.

Immersiveness. This is the sole difference between a good book and great one. And it’s as simple as flickering lights, far off, in the dead of night. So dig into that authorly bag of tricks and dazzle them. Shine those lights in the distance. Riddle your pages with clues, different kinds for different readers. Tempt them with allusions only they would catch. Fragments of song, paraphrased quotations, parallels to cultural figures. Plant signs and symbols, references to pop culture, classic myths, religious parables. Play with metaphor, with language. Hyperlink your work like a webpage. Hint at your other works, your favorite authors, your personal history.

Give your reader a thousand ways to read your book. A million places to stop and puzzle over those lights, out there. Tickle them, taunt them, trigger them. Dazzle them until they lose track of real time and real space, until all they can think of is the will-o-the-wisp. Because, as James Joyce once said, “…that’s the only way of ensuring one’s immortality.”

Only Commit to What You'll Complete

How many people on planet earth can scale a plateau without tools? And how many of them without practice? Yet the average author comes out of the gate expecting to write a perennial best-seller, if not a sprawling story multiverse the likes of which it took hundreds of Marvel creators to make (and rather poorly, overall).

Authors like these won’t be authors long. If trying to scale that plateau on the first go doesn’t kill you, it’ll put you off to the whole endeavor right quick. Every time you give up, you send your brain a signal that you should be doing something else. Rack up enough aborted projects, and you’ll stop creating new ones.

If you want to take on big challenges, take on small challenges first. Start with projects you can and will complete. Stop banging your head against the plateau, and make for the foothills quick! Learn to write excellent sentences, paragraphs, scenes. Then try your hand at flash fic, short stories, novellas. Doctors train for a decade to make the big bucks—you can spend a year mastering the basics. And when you’ve proven to yourself that you have, then write that standalone novel, that series, and eventually, that sprawling multiverse you dreamed up.

Make it easy to succeed, and you will.

Run With the Best Idea, Not the First

The Brothers Grimm wrote over two hundred fairy tales, but we mostly remember Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood, and Cinderella. Why?

Cinderella wasn’t written any better than the other tales, nor was it promoted any differently (pre-Disney, anyway). Though both craft and promotion are important, neither a blockbuster makes. What truly decides whether your story is read and remembered is the idea. A good idea writes itself, just as a bad ideas limits how well you can apply your craft, how easy it is to market, and how many people are likely to buy it.

There’s over a billion readers worldwide, and you should capture as many as possible. So ask yourself: Does your story tap into primal human emotions like love, fear, revenge, and jealousy? Do you features multiple plot types, like romance, action, drama, or suspense? Do you engage readers in practical, psychological, moral, and spiritual questions? Do you present unique characters with compelling and distinct mindsets? And of course, do all of these threads fit together thematically in a single unified pitch?

To get an idea this good, you can’t just run with the first one you come up with. Doing so is an act of profound delusion. Even if your first idea out of a thousand turns out to be your best, you can’t know that from the start. So before the next book, devote a few weeks to generating hundreds of distinct, interesting pitches. Then choose the one that everyone will want to read, even if it’s outside their genre, and especially if this is the only book they’ll buy this year.

Keep Your Feet on the Ground

Authors dream big. The next great American novel. Sprawling, interconnected meta-verses. Top of the New York Times best-seller list. HBO and Disney in a bidding war. Respectful peers and devoted fans. More money than JK Rowling.

And yet most authors will never have any of it. Not for lack of talent, but for lack of effort. If you want to build an empire, you can’t even start by laying bricks without first mining the quarry and mixing the cement. And before that, learning how to mine and mix and lay. Sure, gaze into the clouds from time to time, but keep your feet on the ground.

Don’t merely tolerate grunt work. The wise know the grunt work is the dream. Learn to love the sweat, the struggle, the toil. Find the joy in every unpleasant task. And only relinquish one responsibility when a greater responsibility presents itself.

Good authors dream. Great authors make their dreams reality.

The Four Rules of Dreaming

A good story is like a good dream. When the sandman sprinkles his pinch of dust, it’s all we can do but to sink into sleep. Yet that magic is only so powerful. One bad beat is all it takes. Then we wake up, rub our eyes, and never return to that dream again. As sand-smiths ourselves, the question is ever: How do you keep your dreamers from waking?

Well, the first rule of dreaming is you don’t talk about dreaming. The second rule as well. Do nothing to remind dreamers your set only has three walls and no ceiling. Rewrite cardboard cutouts. Reinvigorate tropes. Don’t pause for a laugh track either—never try to convince your reader how to feel. Use your illusions, and let your story do the work.

The third rule of dreaming: Someone yells “Stop!” and the dream’s over. Give them no such reason. Don’t make dreaming painful, tedious, or boring. Reread slowly, and check your gut often. In every sentence, does your story engage? Does it engross? Does it enchant? Cut what bores. A good sentence is worth a thousand bad words.

The fourth rule of dreaming: Only two people to a dream. You and the dreamer. Not your mom. Not your critics. Not twitter. Just you and the person who pays for all that dream dust.

Above all, leave your dreamer wishing they could have that dream again.

Speak, Friend, and Enter

Whatever your personal brand or private character, when it comes to your career, be a friend to all. Never leave a bad review. Never badmouth a colleague. Never refuse to cooperate because of personal differences. Never, ever burn a bridge. Not only because you may need that bridge in future. But also because there are others who may benefit from such a bridge, even if you find it too narrow, too wobbly, too risky.

Our industry is a watering hole in the savanna. If you piss it in too much, sure, you’ll kill some squawky birds you think the world is better off without. But you’ll also kill a few who didn’t deserve it. Worse, it won’t take long for the other animals to stop comin’ ‘round. And soon they’ll be no one to drink all that piss but you.

Primum non nocere, tunc esse liberalis.

First do no harm, then be generous. Demonstrate to your readers and your fellow professionals that you’re magnanimous, cooperative, and reliable. Build bridges, and others will do the same.

You Are More Than School Lunch

Many authors will tell you if you want to make money, you’ve gotta follow the market. Lob two scoops of tropes and expectations, like they were nothing more than ground beef and kidney beans on a lunch tray, and you’re good to go. And those authors are right, to a point. Middle school lunch contractors make money—about two cents for every tray they serve.

But here’s the thing: Kids only eat school lunch because they’re starving. Because there’s no other game in town. You don’t want to be that! Yes, readers read Romance for a romance and Horror for a horror, but what they really want is more exciting, more inspiring, and more delicious than they’ve ever had before.

Every single scene you write, add a fresh twist. Every single trope you serve, spice it, slice it, and dice it. Deconstruct your story, then reconstitute it from its parts. And I’m not just saying go literary. After all, somebody, somewhere invented the pizza bagel, the cronut, and the meme-worthy avocado toast!

Moss Doesn’t Grow on a Rolling Stone

Our industry reinvents itself every five years. Trends change. Marketing strategies change. Social media platforms change. Superstars come and go. Get-rich-quick gurus rise and fall. Your network expands and contracts with the purge of one-hit-wonders and the bloat of new talent.

Thankfully, it isn’t hard to keep ahead of the curve. It just means living like a rolling stone. Don’t get stuck in a rut. Don’t blindly follow advice. What worked last year very likely won’t work next year. Don your explorer’s cap. Learn from other’s maps, but remember you’re going to have to draw your own. If their map says, “here be dragons,” go looking, because dragons guard treasure.

No matter what you do, keep tumbling. Wear away your jagged edges. Try new things. Measure your results. Map your course. Seek out new strategies. Heck, invent some of your own. Pick up momentum and, as you rush down that hill, take to the air.

Keep Your Workspace Clear

Writing is a task as big as the world, and you need all your mental real estate to manage it. The trouble is, your mind is a mirror for your environment. What you see, hear, and feel impacts what you think, how you think, and how much attention remains for the task at hand. Cluttered desktop? Cluttered mind.

So treat your workspace like a temple. Let it be serene and austere, so that you can focus entirely on your work. Put everything on your desk in a drawer. It’ll be just as organized or disorganized if it’s also out-of-sight. Next, do the same to the icons on your computer desktop. And close all those dang browser tabs. Better yet, create a separate digital profile for writing.

Then when you write, maximize the windows you need. Disable notifications. Silence your phone. If you must listen to music, listen to ambient music or binaural beats low enough that it blocks out your surroundings, but doesn’t attract your attention. Go to the bathroom before you start work, grab a glass of water, breath deeply, then begin.

Train Like an Athlete

Professionals of every type, from programmers to basketball players to chess champions to painters, all face the same challenge: doing the work requires synthesizing countless sub-skills into a competent—sometimes masterful—whole.

Authors alone are thrown in the deep end and encouraged to “write more books.” But writing a novel is like juggling flaming batons. At best, you drop them, and at worst, you set yourself on fire, never to try again. Even a short story demands attending to dozens of skills and hundreds of story elements. It’s hard, and even if you learn to churn them out, finishing work will only make you a master of finishing, not of any of the sub-skills that separate mediocre writing from great.

So in addition to finishing work, train like an athlete and drill yourself in isolated skills. At the start of each week, pick a skill, and every day, devote 15 minutes to practice. Become a master of one-sentence character introductions, of sexual innuendo, of hooky chapter endings, of dialogue-only scenes, of no-dialogue scenes, of describing location, and so on. Become the Serena Williams of Urban Fantasy, the Gary Kasparov of Cozy Mystery, the Michael Jordan of Regency Romance.

You will be stunned by how much you improve, week after week.

Remember Why You Write

The writer’s path is long, winding, and steep. It can be hard—very hard—to see even a single project to completion, let alone the dozens of projects that comprise a career. So while there’s still some light in the sky, remember why exactly you set out in search of the most fickle of muses.

Was it a book you read? One so deep and wide and thrilling that you couldn’t escape its pull? Did it inspire in you the greatness you now pursue? Did it help you through the brambles of a difficult time, and lead you to want to do the same for others? Or was your first love not some budding beauty, but a pen a paper? Did that tidal wave of creative energy rush you out into Wonderland? Were you surprised by how boundless your creativity truly is?

Whatever that initial spark, capture it in a jar and place it on your desk. Totemize it, as the art you place on the walls. Objectify it, as a coin or card and keep it in your pocket. Iconize is, as the wallpaper on your desktop and the “new tab” page of your browser. Ritualize is, as a reoccurring calendar event or todo list task to “remember, for a moment, why you write.) Universalize it, in every nook and cranny of your life. Because writing is hard, but if you remember why you do it, you’ll never ever stop.

Your Community Is Your Career

We’ve all heard it said. Authors are an introverted bunch. They don’t like large crowds. They keep to themselves. But make no mistake: Your network still matters. The fact is, strong social connections are worth double in our industry, simply because so many authors are too anxious to build those connections themselves. Authors are indeed an introverted bunch, but they crave community.

Start small, and reach out to other authors in your genre, your sub-genre, your local county. Be curious about everyone you meet. Ask questions. Discover what they’re good at and what they need help with. And make no bones about what you’re doing. You aren’t networking; you’re building friendships.

And as you develop those friendships, think of ways you can help. Play matchmaker for authors with interlocking strengths and weaknesses. Start writing groups or business masterminds with a Captain Planet-like range of personalities that “fit” together. Organize events (in-person or online) that match the needs of your author allies.

Sooner than you think—and with far less work than you’ll think—you’ll find yourself at the center of a vibrant community looking to help you like you helped them. That’s what friends are for… now go make some!

Start Slow, Finish Fast

Start slow, and finish fast.

Start slow, because ideas are cheap. A dime a dozen. Too numerous to novelize them all. I know, I know. They all seem so promising at the beginning. You need to chew on them a little to know which have the potential to become great, and which are better buried in the yard behind the shed.

But finish fast, because ideas are fleeting. The muse is fickle, and if you don’t attend to her, well… she’s got better things to do than wait around for you. Waste no time between your first draft’s first word and its last. Every wasted hour is a chance for the project to lose your interest, to become yet another in the pile of corpses we authors all string up in the basement. Someday you’ll go back, you say. And maybe for the rare Lazarus, you will. But all the rest stay dead, no matter how much they haunt you.

Start slow, because you’ve got to be sure an idea will hold your interest until the end. And finish fast, because you’ll never really be sure. Start slow, because you can’t know the new idea is better than the one you’ve already got. And finish fast, because some ideas are too seductive to ignore.

Finish what you start, and only start what you’ll finish.