Friday, October 28, 2011

Set Your Career Goals


When we start writing, we may simply want to write good stories, or get published somewhere. As we find our strengths, we narrow our focus. We like fiction or nonfiction, books or magazines, one genre or age range.

Writers need another kind of focus as well. Where do you want to go in your writing life? Do you want to make a steady income? Or is it more important to write what you love, regardless of the market? Do you care more about winning awards, or getting laughs from reluctant readers? In my next few posts, I’ll talk about my personal journey, feature some other writers, and offer tips for setting your own goals.

From the beginning, my focus was professional. I got my MA degree in Professional Writing and Publishing and worked for magazines. For fun, I wrote a historical adventure set in Mayan times, The Well of Sacrifice (Clarion, 1999), which is still used by schools when they teach Mayan history. But after that I couldn’t sell historical fiction.

I wrote for children because I loved it. But I also wanted to live off of my writing, not hold down another job and write on the side. I pursued articles, work for hire, teaching, anything that might pay the bills.

The jobs improved over time, both financially and in terms of enjoyment. I also got to work with editors and learn from their feedback. Ghostwriting a book about a popular girl sleuth taught me about cliffhanger endings. Writing fictionalized biographies on Jesse Owens and Milton Hershey let me practice fast-paced action and dialogue for young readers. Analyzing students’ stories for the Institute of Children’s Literature showed me vividly what worked and what didn’t. Best of all, I could support myself through writing, teaching, and critiquing.

I kept working on my own projects as well. I developed a series about a brother and sister who travel with a ghost hunter TV show. It was fun to write, but it also hit the market—a quick, easy read for ages nine to 12, a contemporary story with a spooky supernatural element and some humor.

Aladdin paperbacks launched this series, Haunted, in 2009, with The Ghost on the Stairs. I wrote something I loved and made good money from it.

Unfortunately, the market changed, my editor lost an internal battle at the publisher, and the series got dropped (in other words, normal publishing upheavals). My editor became my agent, and together we brainstormed ideas that might hit the market. One of those is under development at a book packager.

I also started writing for adults, under the name Kris Bock. This was largely motivated by the fact that I wanted a change. I found myself reading more romantic suspense, while the middle grade novels sat on my shelf until I had to return them to the library. But I also considered my career. Genre fiction was, in general, selling better and paying more money than writing for children.

I didn’t have to choose between what I wanted to do and what someone else might want to buy; the two matched. I did, however, study the genre, both by reading books in the genre with a critical eye and by studying advice on writing romance. I needed to make sure I hit the proper word count, used the required basic elements of the genre (such as a satisfying happy ending), and matched a tone and point of view that readers would find comfortable.

I also considered both my career and my preferences in terms of creating my “brand.” As Kris Bock, I focus on action-packed adventures set in the Southwest, often (at least in part) in the wilderness.

So as I’ve shown, you don’t have to choose between writing what you love and building your career. You can combine the two, although it may mean adjusting or adapting to the market. It’s been a tough journey, with ups and downs over the years, and a lot of variety in the work I do: fiction and nonfiction, writing for children and adults, articles, books, teaching, critiquing, and more. But I enjoy it all, so it’s worked for me.

Next week, I’ll let some other authors share insight on their career decisions.

3 comments:

  1. Good post, Chris - nice to see the progression and your thinking. I googled and tweeted.

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  2. Thank you, Chris! Your journey and work always inspires me.

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