Wednesday, December 24, 2014

How to Get Your "Big Break" as an Author

There's a myth you hear authors talk about, particularly when we're in our cups. We call it the Big Break; that mythical, mystical time when our careers will somehow transform from tapping keys at the kitchen table and jotting notes in tiny, ragged spiral bounds to interviews on morning TV shows and cashing fat royalty checks. Like all big fish stories the idea of the Big Break is mostly bullshit, but like most legends there's a nugget of truth in it.

Your career can take a sudden turn for the better. But more often than not this transformation is going to come as a result of hard work and good planning instead of the fickle finger of fate.

Getting a badass book cover helps, though.

Step One: Produce Good Work

While this sounds like a no-brainer it's a step that over-enthusiastic writers who are eager to reach the big time might forget. There's no substitute for hard work, and writing is no exception. If you want to get yourself a big break then you need to make sure you're producing work that will wow readers; especially the critics. In a perfect world all you'd have to do is write good stories to be successful, but even in this imperfect world you need a solid foundation for your career.

Step Two: Publish

Again this sounds self-evident, but as an author you've got the worst of both the temp and contract employee worlds. Editors and publishers see dozens of authors a day, and thousands of them a year more often than not; if you want to stand out then you need to publish and publish frequently. Now you only have so much control over this (unless you're self-publishing, in which case the onus is totally on you), but the more publications you work with the bigger your reach will grow. The more times you see success with the same publisher the more valued you'll be and the more likely you are to get more attention. Either way your stories will be read by a bigger audience (statistically speaking) and you will develop relationships with more editors, publishers, etc. Which leads us to...

Step Three: Network

We've all heard the phrase, "It's not what you know, it's who you know." Well I hate to say it, but these words are just as important for authors as they are for stock brokers. This is why even if you're an introvert it's important to get out there, shake hands, give away business cards, get interviewed, and overall add people to your roll-a-dex.

I'll give you a first-hand account of this. Several years ago I'd published my first few short stories (which are out-of-print, though you can still get copies in this month's free fiction giveaway!) and I was looking to get a little publicity. A friend of mine introduced me to a friend of his who worked for a local magazine. I got a piece run on my story, and that piece was seen by the public radio station. I was invited in as a guest, and read some of my story on the air. Much to my surprise I met several people over the next few months who had heard my reading, and who were floored that I was that author.

On the one hand this one incident didn't skyrocket me to bestseller status. It did get me a few moments in the spotlight as a direct result of good networking, though.

Step Four: Volunteer

While this might seem like it goes directly against my credo of never work for free, open up your ears and listen for a moment. Volunteering doesn't mean giving your stories away for free, or manning a booth at a show for no compensation. In this case it means that you need to reach out and help others if you expect them to help you. Did you meet a cool artist at a convention? Exchange pleasantries with another author from an anthology you were both published in? Made the acquaintance of a publisher who has an open call going on right now? If you want them to help you make it big then you need to step up and take action by helping them out first.

How much you can do will vary. For instance you might just be able to write a good review of a book and put it out on the net. Maybe you stop by to give a good rating to a book on Amazon and Goodreads as well. Perhaps all you can spare is sharing that author's post on Facebook. That kind of effort can go a long way, and it is appreciated. You might have more resources though. Maybe you have a cousin who works at Random House and you could hook a friend up with a direct line to a big-name company. Maybe your roommate runs a really popular podcast, and you could get your new acquaintance a place on the guest list. Maybe you know a Big Name, and you could make the introductions for someone whose talent and drive you believe in.

Networking is good, but if you help others then they will come back and help you. Don't keep score though; if you act like someone's in your debt then they might not do you any favors at all.

Step Five: Repeat

So you got a phenomenal short story out in a collection. The anthology gets a little bit of press, and then it drops off the radar. You didn't win any awards, and your royalty statement is barely enough for a celebratory ice cream cone at McDonald's. Know what that means chief?

Time to get up and do it all over again.

Success can come at any step of the formula. You could write a book that shoots straight to the top of the bestseller list for no understandable reason. You might write five novels, or ten, before getting endorsed by someone with a huge fan following which turns your work into gold. The point is that your word processor is not a high-quality sniper rifle that's able to take precision head shots which earn millions of dollars a pop. It's a machine gun with no support, spraying your words all across the reading public. Maybe all you'll do is make a lot of noise and get people's attention. Maybe you'll wing a few people. Maybe if you're extremely lucky you'll slam your story right into the hearts and minds of those who needed it. But if your first book doesn't get the job done then it's time to reload and try again.

Unlike bullets though a single big hit can retroactively make a lot of your previous attempts into hits as well! Every new business contact, every new fan, and every new book is an opportunity for that big break... just remember that.

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  1. Excellent advice - particularly Step Five - 'Repeat'. Success is a process and not an event and those who keep on producing great material and can stick at sticking at it will win out in the end. Hopefully, your love of the creative process and being totally immersed with your characters in the plot of your book will carry you through again and again, but if not - just grin an bear it. Success belongs to those who can keep on keeping on!

  2. Your machine gun metaphor was most amusing.