I love what I do. But, occasionally, I fear that I will kill what I love.
I was cruising the web the other day, and found this blog entry about how and why businesses, even successful ones, fail. The five stages of decline pertain to almost any profession -- but as a writer, I found them particularly relevant.
STAGE 1: HUBRIS BORN OF SUCCESS
So, let's enter a fantasy world for a moment. Pretend your first book is a critical and commercial success -- you're at the top of the dog pile, and miracle upon miracle, your next book does just as well. And the third, too. You're, like, a genius. Right? You can't not write a gem. Easy breezy.
Uh-huh. Start sweating. Put your feet back on the ground, darlin'.
Look at it this way: You wouldn't expect Michael Phelps to keep winning Olympic gold medals without training. You wouldn't expect, at all, that he could spend a year on the couch eating nachos and jelly beans, and then dive back into the pool and break more world records. You'd call him a fool if he tried.
Don't let success, however you measure it, turn you into a fool. The work never ends. All that changes is how you approach the work -- whether you come to it with dedication, love, a little insanity -- or whether you treat it carelessly, as something you are entitled to and can coast through. You might be able to fake the goods for a while, but eventually you'll slip.
Heck, you might slip even if you write another gem, a masterpiece. Life happens. Sales fall. Readers find some other bright new star.
STAGE 2: UNDISCIPLINED PURSUIT OF MORE
Taste success, and you want more. Makes sense. The problem is when you allow the visceral rewards of success to become all that matters -- when the rush that comes from doing well matters more than the work itself.
Again, step back. As a writer, you must push your limits -- explore the edges of what you're capable of -- but be practical. Think. Plan. Practice. Be disciplined about your expansion. Quality matters more than quantity (excluding, for a moment, a discussion about the practical and monetary reasons for writers to create more than what they're always comfortable with).
STAGE 3: DENIAL OF RISK AND PERIL
This is what happens when the bad reviews start coming in, or your sales figures drop. I could add some other things to the list, but those are the two that kill most writers (figuratively, and literally). Now, in defense of authors, some of that is out of our control. Placement, covers, bad copy, bad marketing -- all kinds of things can affect sales. And reviews -- oh, man -- you can't anticipate what people will love and hate. You do your best, and you move on.
But let's also be practical. If your reviews are bad and numbers are dropping, you need to accept that maybe, just maybe, you're doing something wrong. Seriously, take a look. Some authors can't handle that kind of responsibility. They attack readers when reviews are bad, rather than stepping back and giving their books a good, hard, look. They blame publishers and booksellers when sales figures head down the drain (sometimes the blame is well-deserved) instead of asking themselves whether it's possible that maybe their book just isn't that good.
Are you slipping? Are you self-aware enough to notice? Are you humble enough to listen when people say that you need to work on your storytelling?
STAGE 4: GRASPING FOR SALVATION
At this point, you're no longer at the top of your field. You've slipped. And you're frightened. It's not too late to climb back up the ladder, but it's going to take hard work, and self-reflection.
Instead, you want a quick fix. So you do something crazy. With a writer, that could be anything. Maybe you change publishers, change genres -- but you do something radical that gets you all that attention you've been missing. Maybe it works. Maybe it works for only a short time. But either way, you're motivated by desperation, rather than cold calculation (there's a difference, I assure you).
STAGE 5: CAPITULATION TO IRRELEVANCE OR DEATH
Start thinking of a new pseudonym, friend. You've ruined the one you've got now.
The good thing is, if you've got some heart and courage left over, you can start again. You can always start again, no matter what you do with your life. As George Weinberg says, “Hope never abandons you; you abandon it.”
But don't let it get to that point, okay? A little self-awareness, humility, and common sense go a long way. As writers, we're called out on a long journey that will be full of ups and downs -- but how we approach our work (and our own selves) will determine whether we fall, merely stumble -- or fly.