When we look at people like Stephen King and J.K. Rowling who became overnight sensations with their first novels, it’s easy to believe, “That’s how you do it! That’s what I’m going to do—write a great first novel and write my way to the bank!” But those writers are the exception, not the rule, to becoming a successful writer. And it’s important to understand that “success” and “fat piles of cash” aren’t exactly synonymous.
Developing voice and style as a writer takes years for most of us. More importantly, it takes practice and criticism. As I’ve stated elsewhere, we don’t write for ourselves, we write for other people. I’ve got plenty of files on my hard drive that will never see the light of day because their contents are all things I wrote for me and for me alone. It’s not that they’re not good—the audience thinks so—but the audience is limited to one guy and he’s not a very good critic of his own work.
Some things I can write and knock out on the first draft. For example, I’ve recently discovered that I’m a damned good essayist and I don’t need a lot of feedback in order to sell creative nonfiction to a professional market. But everything else—short stories, poems, novels, novellas—requires input from other writers.
I have three critique partners that I call my Infielders. These people don’t pull their punches and will let me know where I’m screwing up. Another seven partners constitute my Outfielders. Their job is to let me know if the piece resonated with them and how it made them feel. The Infield critique partners are brutal but fair, and the Outfield partners tell me if the piece was evocative. Both sets of critique partners are important and when I rewrite or revise, I do so to the specifications of the Infield without sacrificing the response of the Outfield. When I critique others’ works, I strive to be an Infielder—harsh but fair, and a real
Grammar Nazi…um… member of the alt-write…stickler for formality.
All of my critique partners have helped shaped my style over the years. Moreover, they’ve helped me to unleash my voice. Tone is, as it should be, variable depending on what’s being written. But tone comes easily when the style is clear and the voice is strong.
Tone, style, and voice are what appeal to the reader. Developing these over time and through smaller works like short stories and poems will create an audience, a set of readers who take an interest in your writing. As your tone expands, the emotional octave opens up and soon you’re alternating between scenes of tenderness and visceral action with ease (provided you’ve worked on style which means, at its most basic level, working on grammar and the rudiments of good storytelling).
Once you have an audience, no matter how limited, you have a set of kindred souls that will do something amazing for you: advertise. Word-of-mouth is still an invaluable marketing tool, even in the age of Amazon, Goodreads, Twitter, and Facebook. Further, word-of-mouth can exist on social media as unsolicited (even if unprofessional) reviews of your work. Glowing praise for a poem from a teenager in Ottawa may not reach the same audience as a professional review in the pages of Kirkus, but it helps and it may have a greater chance of reaching more sympathetic readers.
Building an enthusiastic audience comes after you’ve learned how to write, receive feedback, prioritize feedback, and incorporate criticism into your work. But once you have an enthusiastic audience, no matter how small, you’re ready to do something big—release a book of poetry, release a collection of short stories, release a collection of essays, or even release your first novel.
No, you won’t knock it out of the park like King and Rowling did their first time at bat (Good God, where are the baseball metaphors coming from?) But you will score a hit because you’ve worked hard, optimized your time practicing, and there are spectators in the stands cheering for you. And, in the end, it’s all about the spectators in the stands.