To be human is to crave validation.
We want to be understood. We want acknowledgement during our brief lives. Even the most humble among us—the saints and arahants and enlightened people in our midst—desire meaning in their lives. These saints may not actively seek validation, but when recognition comes even such enlightened ones understand its power.
For authors, this validation comes in the form of publishing.
Now, the exact type of publishing varies. Be it publishing through a multi-national conglomerate or an independent press or even self-publishing e-books, what matters is that your story has been released into the world and now lives in the minds of readers. And when you have a ton of readers—when you have found yourself at the top of the bestseller or prize-winning lists—it’s hard not to see that as validation of the years of hard work leading to success.
Because that’s what it takes to become a successful author—years and years of writing. Of toiling in obscurity as you refine your craft and voice.
But that realistic version of authorial validation is not how the public sees successful writers. Instead, most people in the world still believe authors achieve overnight success the moment they publish their first book or story.
Famed fantasy author Neil Gaiman once summed up this popular view by stating that when he started out as a writer, he expected a truck to immediately back up to his house and dump a load of money on him. Naturally this didn’t happen—or didn’t happen immediately, because as we all know Gaiman did eventually receive those truckloads of cash. But Gaiman’s success came only after he’d toiled for years learning his craft.
One recent author whose overnight success was actually years in the making is Paolo Bacigalupi, whose 2009 debut novel The Windup Girl won the Hugo, Nebula, and John W. Campbell Memorial Awards and became a bestseller. But if you think Bacigalupi found success easily, know this—he’d been writing for years, with his first short story published in 1999. He also wrote several unpublished novels and a large number of award-winning short stories before The Windup Girl. This time period allowed Bacigalupi to both find and refine his writing voice, so that when he did write The Windup Girl he was ready to storm the genre world.
That’s how most authors become so-called overnight successes.
Despite this truth, the truckload of money theory described by Gaiman is still how the general public views authorial success. Partly that’s because the general public doesn’t see the long apprentice period most authors go through as they learn their craft. But it’s also because there are instances of authors who are indeed overnight successes. Who sit down, write their first story, and win the author‘’s sweepstakes.
One such author is Stephenie Meyer, whose Twilight vampire-romance novels have sold over 100 million copies around the world and spawned a series of blockbuster Hollywood movies. Meyer’s dabbled at writing over the years but, until 2003, had never really written much at all. But that year she experienced an intense dream about vampires and immediately began writing the first Twilight novel. A few months later she sold the book series for a massive amount of money and never looked back.
Another author who hit with her first story was J. K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame. However, Rowling’s tale is different from Meyer’s in that Rowling spent five years writing the first Harry Potter novel, during which time she continually re-wrote and edited the story. To me this is similar to the apprentice period Bacigalupi went through with his own fiction.
So, what happens after an author hits the literary sweepstakes like Bacigalupi, Meyer and Rowling? My theory on authorial success is that authors often become trapped at the writing level they reached before their big break, meaning they keep the same voice, style and ability they developed before becoming a success.
If an author spends a long time developing their craft, as Bacigalupi did, this isn’t anything to be concerned about. Basically, an author secure in their voice and writing, as Bacigalupi has proven himself to be, will likely continue to create challenging stories after their big success. Bacigalupi has done just this with novels such as Ship Breaker and its sequel The Drowned Cities.
Rowling is another example of a writer whose success has not limited her. In addition to the other books in the Harry Potter books—which grew in literary depth and ability as the series progressed—Rowling has also written a well-received adult novel, The Casual Vacancy, and two crime novels under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. Obviously the long period Rowling spent learning her craft is paying off.
The same can’t be said for Stephenie Meyer. The Twilight novels never showed more depth as the series progressed, and her non-Twilight novel The Host is derivative and unoriginal. Perhaps she’ll develop more as a writer in the years to come, but I doubt it. She’s likely become stuck at the level of writing she showed when she found success.
To my mind, overnight success before an author is ready is rarely a good thing. Yes, the author might find money and large numbers of readers. But if the author hasn’t already developed their own voice and ability, then future stories will suffer. They’ll end up becoming a derivative hack, turning out the same story over and over again.
Maybe that will make them happy. Maybe it won’t. But for anyone who truly loves stories, having an author hit the literary lottery without putting in years of learning their craft can be a tragedy from which that writer never escapes.