Over the past 10 or so years, I’ve tried to get on the book club train three different times. Each time, I left the group after only one meeting. That choice wasn’t because I took issue with the people (they are readers, and therefore inherently lovely😊), their passion for the books, or even the wine. It was because I, as a writer, read so differently than non-writers that I was looking for things in a book discussion that the other members wouldn’t find interesting. Ergo, I had nothing to bring to the book club party (other than the wine, which is important! but not really the point).
The real problem I and many other writers have in joining book clubs is that we’re not looking for book discussions at all. We’re looking for book dissections. Writing craft deep-dives. Story geek deconstructions.
That’s why I’m so glad I agreed to join an online book club with one of my writing tribes. We are all long-time writers, with multiple years and manuscripts-worth of experience. Most of us either are or are in training to become book coaches who work with other writers on a regular and ongoing basis. That training has given us a common language and shared tools we use to evaluate writing. Last week, we had a one-hour online video chat to discuss our first group book, Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens. Our discussion was wonky and geeky and made my little writer heart sing with joy.
Interestingly, though, when I found myself thinking about the book and our discussion in the days that followed, it was usually in the context of current writing career advice and “truths”, how Delia Owens ignored (intentionally or otherwise) much of it, and how none of it is applicable if it isn’t relevant to you and your process.
Most readers and some pre-published authors don’t realize just how much of the current fiction market is driven by e-publishing generally, and self- (indie-)publishing specifically. In many ways, this new book ecosystem has been a boon for readers and writers alike. Some of the authors who have thrived in this environment have been very generous with their help and advice to the rest of us. I’m a huge proponent of learning from other people’s successes and failures, and I’m thankful to those who are so willing to share. And I think many, many authors will benefit from following the advice as closely as they can.
But writing is a tough business. More of us will fail at it than will succeed. Some advice is stale by the time it even reaches us. And believing there is only One True Path to Writing Success will break the hearts of those who follow all the advice but can’t make it work, or who just can’t fit their writing process or career path into the prescribed mold. If this applies to you or some writer you love, I have some thoughts about how now-bestselling author Delia Owens’s success refutes much of today’s writing career wisdom.
To be clear, this is not advice I have ever seen touted by bestselling authors and book marketers. Many of them are actually older than I am, and I am officially old as dirt. No, this discouraging message is brought to us courtesy of our youth-centric culture. We’ve been told that if we’re not a success by x age (whatever x might be, and x gets younger every year!), we will never be a success.
Enter Delia Owens, debut novelist at age 70. You read that correctly. Seven-oh. And she is far from the only person past US retirement age who is selling reams of books. And the older we get, the more of life we’ve observed, the more interesting people we’ve met, and the better stories we have to tell.
Learn to write fast. Set daily word count goals in the thousands. Finish a book every month. Write a book in a week. Sadly, these are all pieces of advice most novelists writing in 2019 have heard multiple times. I think Delia Owens missed that memo (which was probably a tweet). She spent 10 years writing Where the Crawdads Sing. If you finish your next manuscript in less than 10 years, you can bask in the joy of knowing you’ve written a book faster than a NY Times bestseller.
Related to the write fast rule, publishing faster means putting out a new book as frequently as possible. Books over 30 days old are past their prime. Amazon algorithms have increasingly steeper drop-off cliffs at 30, 60, and 90 days. You have to release new books within tight timelines to train those mysterious, hocus-pocus-y algorithms to love your books to keep up their visibility. While traditional publishing works MUCH more slowly than indie publishing, even trad publishers push authors to release at least a book a year. Having a new book ready for publication every 6-9 months is often their stated goal.
Because WtCS came out in August of 2018, market expectations would be for a new Owens book to be released this summer. But, turns out, she is still working on that next book. Even if it’s close to finished now, and she has given no indication it is, the long-lead time of publishing would mean 2-3 years between her first book and her second.
Rule Social Media
You know all the social media sites authors are expected to frequent: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, Bookbub, Goodreads, plus a hundred others I’m too old to know. These sites are not to be used just for drive-by shoutouts about our books. They are where we should share more about ourselves, our writing process, our future projects, our pets. It’s where we are supposed to curate our best lives so readers will love us for more than just our books.
Delia Owens does not appear to have either a Twitter or a Pinterest account. She does not follow anyone on Bookbub and hasn’t reviewed any books (other than her own, somehow?) on Goodreads. Her FB and IG accounts have exactly the same content, every post mentions her book, and most have a picture of it. This is not the way an author is expected to manage social media! Yet her millions of readers seem not to care.
Build a Newsletter List
Author newsletters have been around for a long time. More than 10 years ago, before the indie-publishing explosion, I had a book come out with a small press. That publisher encouraged all their authors to “build a list.” All my author friends were discussing the best book-related giveaways to drive new subscribers to sign up for their lists. With book retailers constantly evolving, large social media platforms arbitrarily changing their rules, and print publishers doing less and less to support their authors, conventional wisdom is to establish a direct line of communication with your readers. Hence, the newsletter. If Delia Owens has followed this piece of advice, I can’t find evidence of it. There is no mention of a newsletter in her book, and no link to one on her website.
None of these pieces of writing career advice is necessarily wrong or intentionally harmful (except, perhaps, youth worship, but that’s endemic in our society). I follow many of these suggestions with varying degrees of success. But if these “rules” don’t apply to you, overwhelm and depress you, or interfere with your own creative process, f#@k ’em. Follow your own path. Make your own rules. Like Delia Owens, you might find your own way to selling millions of books and ranking on the New York Times Bestseller List for ten months (and counting).
I highly recommend Where the Crawdads Sing for so many reasons, including the masterfully layered story- and timeline, beautifully evocative language, and seamless melding of multiple genres. If you want to learn more about the book, visit the publisher’s book page. To watch the author discuss this debut novel, check out this interview with Delia Owens.