By Sam Claussen
There I was. I’d just finished reading a best-seller on pretty much every list; New York
Times, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc. I sat back, tossed the book to the couch cushion beside me, cursed as my plate of snacks scattered across the ground, and then, with a heavy sigh of deep reflection, I thought…
Welp, that sucked.
I know for a fact that I’m not the only writer who’s experienced this. How in the world is this book so popular? How did it strike it big with the general populace and why isn’t mine?
It’s something that lovers of the craft have asked themselves for years. Just look at all of the stories of authors whose talents weren’t recognized until well after they’d grown cold.
H.P. Lovecraft comes to mind. He only had a few short stories reach the public eye via some small publications before his untimely and, unfortunately, predictable death. And yet, today, he’s recognized as one of the fathers of modern horror. Eighty years after his death, his creations still strike fear in many fans hearts, including myself.
So what happened?
Personally, I believe he was ahead of his time. His work was so unique and different that it just didn’t click with the status quo.
Every writer comes to this realization at some point in their career; if I want to make it big, do I need to sell out? Do I have to write what they, the uncultured swine that continue to toss money at hack romantic writers, want, or should I continue to follow my vision and dream?
I’d like to take a moment to talk about confidence. A writer needs to be confident in their work. It’s crucial to your success. That being said, some of us need to take it back a notch.
I’ve met so many cocky writers. They bash all those big league authors; Stephen King, John Grisham, etc. Now, I’m not saying that I’m a fan of any of them, I fall into the “I think I’m better” camp as well. The only Stephen King book I’ve ever finished was On Writing, which I thoroughly enjoyed. But there’s something that we all need to keep in mind:
Just because you can write better than the famous, doesn’t mean you can’t learn from them.
I know, I don’t want to hear it either. You have it all figured out. You’re going to beat the social norms and change what is considered literature. That’s all fine and dandy. I love Cormac McCarthy too. But if you’re telling me that you don’t wish for the success that Stephen King has reached, you’re a liar.
Whether you like these popular authors or not, there’s no denying that they’ve learned to connect with a huge audience. Their fan base is vast and loyal, returning for novel after novel, eating up every word they put out.
I’m not saying that you shouldn’t keep to your soul. Chase your idea, and hope that it clicks with an audience. That’s what I’m doing. But keep reading those that have found success. Be happy for them. Sure, maybe you can write better. Thomas Paine’s critics said that his way of writing was amateur, but who remembers their names? Thomas Paine wasn’t writing for those of his own caliber, but rather to reach a large audience that perhaps are too busy to absorb as much literature as a writer does, and so might not be able to relate to difficult-to-read prose.
Of course we shouldn’t write just to be successful. That’s how you’ll end up in those 99 cent romance bins. But make sure to read as many popular novels in your chosen genre. Take note of constant themes across these successful books. It doesn’t hurt to take note of what readers are responding to.
Write for yourself, but edit for them.