Fail Fast

tl;dr

Write as many different types of work as you can, as quickly as you can.

Every writer I know has a precious, precious project–distilled from the bosom of the gods and dripped into their dreams at night in a steady flow of intoxicating visions or something. For me, that project was, and continues to be, The Gearheart.

I started writing it in high school in 1999. Then again in 2002. Then again in 2006, when I actually finished a novel. I love the setting and the characters, and I’d happily write new Gearheart books all day if given the chance. Certainly, the podcast listeners would be pleased with that outcome.

But that’s not how publishing works.

They don’t care that your book is the book you’ve always wanted to write.

Thing is, the markets change from month to month, year to year, and the target you have isn’t necessarily what they want. You can self-pub, and there’s always a group to be served there, but self-pubs still have to labor under the same need for productization as the rest of us.

Like I would imagine no one will buy your over-awesomed novel about zombies, Sriracha and bacon. I’m sorry, but the market has had enough for now. Maybe check back with it in five years or so.

That’s the thing about very successful authors, no matter the stripe. Their works appear at a time when people hunger for them. Maybe you were at the head of the Sriracha Bacon Zombie trend, and that’s great for you. However, by the time you can react to a trend, it’s too late.

I’ve seen some self-pub authors aim at a genre center-mass, and serve a niche admirably. I want to congratulate them and make it clear that I have no idea how self-pubbers work their incredible black magic.

I’m in continuous awe of anyone who can eke out a full-time living as a writer, much less one with no infrastructure backing them up. You guys are heroes.

This post isn’t for people who have hit their marks. It’s for people who feel like their work isn’t selling, in spite of their passion.

You don’t know what the public wants.

Well, I mean, unless it’s your job to know. I guess I could see some media buyer saying I’m full of shit… and that’s fair.

But if you’re a normal loser like me, a mere mortal in a sea of mere mortals, you don’t know what’s going to make a hit book. Maybe you wrote a good book. Maybe you even wrote a great book. That’s awesome! That’s your job, so good going, friend-o! All your books should be great books.

But that doesn’t mean you hit at the right time.

The public might not want your work. You might be too similar to something else that’s WAAAAAAY more popular. You might write some incredible tragedy, only to have a real-life national tragedy eclipse you and render your book tasteless. You cannot fight these things, nor can you predict them.

But you can fail fast.

In Lean Software Development, the big picture says, “Think big, act small, fail fast; learn rapidly.” How does this apply to you?

You are going to fail as a novelist. You’re going to write beautiful, unsellable works that forever inhabit your hard drives like hidden coves filled with magical fucking fish. And yes, I am complaining, but I also want to give you advice.

Move on–when it doesn’t sell, or when it does. Who cares? Keep moving. Broaden your horizons. Write outside your comfort zone. Diversify in every possible way. Did you just write a space opera? Write a weird family drama. Did you write some Mil SF? Stop. We don’t need any more.

(Just kidding! I don’t care what you write.)

Here’s the deal, though: Don’t be like me. After I completed¬†The Gearheart in 2008, I kept trying to sell some version of it until 2013. Don’t spend almost six years on the same idea, hoping that the next revision will make it fly. That’s like buying the same raffle ticket over and over again.

You might win, but you’re putting in an investment without raising your chances.

2 thoughts on “Fail Fast”

  1. Hey, Alex! I don’t know whether you really want people to respond to these, but I feel compelled to say – If you did anything wrong in 2008-2013 – and I’m not sure you did – but *if* you made a mistake, it was writing the same Gearheart novel 6 times instead of writing 6 different Greatheart novels, either as related stand-alones or in series.

    A new novel will almost always be better than a rewrite of an old one. In addition, a body of work can be marketed with strategy. A single novel or a pair of novels – not so much. Marketing singles is mostly about luck.

    It’s hard to get readers to follow you across genre lines. Hell, it can be challenging to get them to follow you across sub-genre lines. If you’re having no success, it might make sense to just throw things at the wall until you see something stick. I get that. However, if you’re having even a little success, for godsakes, nurture that seed. Each time you move to a new genre, you start over from scratch. Each time you move to a new medium (say, audio to text), you start with only a fraction of your previous audience, and in some instances, you start from scratch.

    Anyway, don’t beat yourself up about the Gearheart. Most authors rewrote their first novel(s) too many times. And don’t stop writing in that world if it makes you happy. Perhaps all you need to be successful in that world is a body of work. Each new book or story is an ambassador that goes out into the world and finds new fans. One ambassador can’t do it all by himself. Also, why is the Gearheart not on Audible? Do you know where my biggest checks come from these days? ACX.

    1. I love it when people respond!

      I understand what you’re saying, and after all, you’ve made that strategy work for you! However, I have always been looking to go through the standard trad-pub route, and that means I have to try a bunch of different stuff.

      For me, a diverse portfolio means I don’t have to predict the market–I’ve already got something for it. I’d also like to think my books have a certain “Alex-ness” to them, so readers will follow my work into different territory… but I don’t really get to judge that, do I? Only the readers can tell.

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