I’d like to begin today’s post by sharing this video clip by Mike Rowe for Prager University. It’s a sort of graduation address to the online students there. Mike makes the very important point that “following your passion” may be exactly the wrong way to address your career. I think that has a lot to say to us as authors, too. Watch the video, then we’ll continue.
I see an awful lot of encouragement directed at writers (both wannabe and already published) to “follow your passion”, “write with a passion”, and so on. I suggest that such advice is actually not very helpful, and may in fact be a hindrance. If you’ll allow me, I’ll use myself as an example.
I’ve already discussed how I came to write fiction. Basically, it was out of economic necessity. I had to learn a new way to make a living after ‘traditional’ doors were closed to me due to injury and permanent partial disability. In one sense, this actually freed me to explore the ‘career’ of writing from an impartial, dispassionate perspective. I could explore genres, subject matter, etc. from the point of view of not just what I enjoyed reading and/or wanted to write, but what the market was looking for. If there was a demand for a book on the domestic life of the Polynesian parrot, what was to stop me writing it? And if I didn’t care about the domestic life of the Polynesian parrot, why should that stop me? If I could research the topic and write authoritatively and convincingly about it, why not do so?
In the same way, I see authors trying to ‘break in’ to the market in a particular genre and getting discouraged. That may be because it’s a crowded genre (e.g. romance and/or erotica) where there are already lots of books and authors and it’s hard to get noticed; or it’s a field where there are relatively few readers in relation to the overall book market (e.g. those interested in the domestic life of the Polynesian parrot!); or it’s a moribund genre which hasn’t attracted interest or support from either publishers or big-name authors for some time (e.g. Westerns). To authors facing such challenges, my advice is: Why not try to write in a genre where you will be noticed, and where you can offer a quality product that will attract reader interest? You may not be passionate about that genre, but is that any reason not to try your hand at it?
I’m trying to follow my own advice as I seek to build my readership. I’ve achieved some success in the genres of military science fiction and space opera, with six books published so far and two more scheduled for later this year. I’ve written one volume of memoir, covering my years as a prison chaplain. That’s been much less successful commercially than my fiction, but it was a labor of love, and I’m not sorry to have put so much time and effort into it. I hope it’ll help those working in or interested in that field. I’ve just published my first Western, and while it’s not (yet) selling as well as my mil-SF, it’s doing pretty well for a first entry into a moribund genre, and it’s attracted more and better reviews than any of my other books during its short time on the market. I’ve got at least two more planned in that series, and I hope it’ll become much longer than that. If the Western genre is moribund, why shouldn’t I contribute to its revival?
What next? Well, I have a space detective novel partway written, which might turn into either a stand-alone novel or a series. I’m trying my hand at a fantasy novel, although I honestly don’t know whether or not I have the ‘writing chops’ to be successful in that genre. I don’t do modern urban fantasy, or Conan-the-Barbarian-style sword-and-sorcery, very well at all. If anything, mine will be a Tolkien- or Lewis-style fantasy, perhaps with a touch of space opera thrown in (spaceships with elves and swords?). I don’t know if I’ll succeed, but that’s no reason not to try. Perhaps, in a year or two, I’ll see if it can attract a readership. What’s more, I have no intention of stopping there. If I can write and sell successfully in mil-SF and space opera and Westerns, why not consider other genres in due course? My objective is to earn a living at writing. That means I need to be open to writing anything that will sell, whether or not it’s a particular interest of mine. If I’m a professional, I need to write like one.
I’m reminded of an anecdote about Noël Coward. The maestro was rehearsing a cast for one of his stage productions in London. He wasn’t satisfied with the performance of one actor, and told him so fairly scathingly. The bored, frustrated actor bristled, and asked,”But what’s my motivation in this scene?” Coward retorted, “Your paycheck at the end of the week!”
That’s exactly the point. If we’re writing as professionals, we need to focus on the end result of our professionalism – earning a living from our work. There’s no room for prima donna personalities in any profession worthy of the name – and that includes focusing on our passion instead of (or to the exclusion of) being professional. Writing is no exception. If we can focus on our passion and be professional at the same time, that’s great; but I suggest the latter is more important than the former.