Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Does Success Affect An Author?

~Sia McKye~

“LUCK is when preparation meets opportunity.”

Which is a bigger worry for an author, do you think? Being a success? Or being a failure. Actually, both are tied into one package for a published author.

I’ve had several friends who have had a successful first book. A couple have had very successful first books. I’ve seen the pressure in bringing out the second book. The stress to meet the deadlines of the contract. The worries of, “what if people hate the second one? What if I can’t write a second or third one to match my first?” Authors face insecurities even with a moderately successful book. Sometimes, just getting a first book published will do that to an author. Yet many authors rise to the occasion and you can see their growth in the stories they pen. They get better and more refined with each book. The anxiety is real, though. The pressure to keep creating books that keep your reader’s interest enough to buy them, has to be tough.

But what if you were an author who wrote a blockbuster? Like Dan Brown?

Whether you love him or hate him, Dan Brown writes some stories that grab people’s attention. His detractors feel he can’t write worth beans (implausible, inaccurate, mechanical love plots) and can’t understand why he’s made the money or garnered the attention he has with his books. I imagine he’s laughing all the way to the bank despite the critics; although the criticism has to sting. I’d say the greater mystery to solve, was how did Dan Brown become such a phenomenon? Is there anyone who hasn’t heard of Dan Brown? It must be people’s love of conspiracies. It reminds me of looking at one of those hidden picture puzzles. You look at it one way and see only the surface picture. Look at it another way, and you see hidden pictures within the surface. In my opinion, many conspiracy theories are like that. Some are just plain fabricated by plucking straws out of headlines, assasinations, or whatnot.

What I found interesting was that Dan Brown had three other novels out by the time that The DaVinci Code became a phenomenon (over 80 million copies sold worldwide and stayed on the Times Bestseller’s list 136 weeks) in 2003. Of course the hoopla over it caused people to take an interest in those three novels, one of which was Digital Fortress, Deception Point, (neither of which were hot sellers) and of course, Angels and Demons, the prequel to the Code, also became a best seller although nowhere near The Da Vinci Code figures. Both were made into movies and on opening weekends in 2006 DVC made $77 million and Angels and Demons grossed about $48 million. Now we have The Lost Symbol about to be released with a first run of 5 million in North America and another 1.5 million for overseas markets. The contents, other than the clues deliberately released, has been a closely guarded secret other than in general terms—it’s about masons, there is a corresponding thread to a church in Scotland, is set mostly in Washington DC, set with his Langdon character, and a movie is already in the works.

I mention this only because, as a writer, I have to wonder how the pressure of this success has affected Dan Brown. I know from reading various articles, that the pressure to succeed did affect him. This is his first book since the DaVinci Code. He was already writing The Lost Symbol when The DaVinci Code went ballistic. He was quoted as saying, “The thing that happened to me and must happen to any writer who's had success is that I temporarily became very self-aware. Instead of writing and saying, "This is what the character does," you say, "Wait, millions of people are going to read this." ... You're temporarily crippled....[later] The furor died down, and I realized that none of it had any relevance to what I was doing. I'm just a guy who tells a story."

I’m wondering how long that realization took to develop? I can’t imagine writing under such pressure. The strain of having to prove you aren’t a one hit wonder has to be horrendous. Perhaps that’s why he dropped out of sight for a while. The Lost Symbol was originally slated for release in 2005. I’m sure fighting plagiarism lawsuits was part of his absence, but how much of it was to escape the pressure? Dan Brown said that there was a time, during which he “self-aware” he couldn’t write. Imagine that? Here you have contracts for the new book and you can’t write. I’m thinking by saying ‘temporarily crippled’ is another way of saying writers block. It's been six years since he published The Da Vinci Code. Gone long enough for people to start wondering where he was last year. Lots of speculation. Lots of cryptic tidbits released to the press about this upcoming book released yesterday. If you’ve noticed, there has been a deliberate but subtle build up of Dan Brown since April of this year when it was announced that The Lost Symbol would be released September 15th. Less subtle the past three months with the leaking of ‘clues’ via twitter and other social networks.

I curious about Doubleday’s worries, recouping the money invested I’m sure, and how much of those worries has filtered down to Dan Brown. Epecially with the delays in this book's release and the recent layoffs within the publisher's staff. Which would add another layer of pressure to any author.

I have to wonder if Dan Brown worries about such mundane things as, what if the Symbol isn’t as good as DVC? What if it falls flat? I know it would be a worry of mine.

How do you think you would handle such pressure as a writer? As a published author, how do you handle the doubts and pressure?

Granted, we all would love to have a blockbuster book out, but have you ever thought of how it would change your life? Your writing? Could you divorce yourself from the publicity? Would it be hard to write the next book knowing it would be read by millions of people? And by vocal critics ready to rip you apart?


Dana Fredsti said...

Dang. I guess you just have to proceed as though you CAN live up to your first book. I'm certainly not a success yet, but I do have performance anxiety just based on the positive reviews for my first couple of books. I always wonder if each one I finish is a fluke. And I always go through writer's block for a brief time during each one. SO I can only imagine what it must be like for someone like Dan Brown.

Linda S. Socha said...

This is so well written...I got lost in the translation and found myself analysing your writing style...:>)

annmariegamble said...

It sounds like worrying your mother will read your sex scene times (how many copies was that, again?).

I'd like to think I wouldn't worry about living up to the past, but do what I can on the present. But there's a point beyond which you'd have to be a hermit not to be aware of the eyes on you. Another kudo to those who show grace under the microscope!

~Sia McKye~ said...

AnneMarie, I STILL haven't let my mother see my sex scenes, lolol!

I'd like to think that I wouldn't become self-aware. I like to think I would write what I feel and what the characters are demanding rather than worrying about the many eyes that will be reading it.

But I also know myself well enough to know that it would have to be a conscious effort to do so and get lost in my story as I need to be.

~Sia McKye~ said...

Thank you Linda. What a nice compliment.

Other Lisa said...

I'm feeling it already. I mean, to some extent, I've always had a little bit of that, "Okay, can I do it again?" when I've started a new project. Having the agent and then having the book sell, it's definitely magnified.

Adina said...

Success is as tough to deal with as failure is.

Should any of them surrender me,I figured I'll make something up as I go and deal with it. LOL

Ken Coffman said...

When I was young, which was a long time ago, the pressure of success might have been debilitating, but as I race toward the grave, it's easier (I think) to keep things in perspective. Even with more success in the business, there's pressure with earning out an advance and a natural, desperate worry over sales. I suppose the biggest wisdom of advanced age is knowing that my life is what it is and I am who I am, no book contract or popular acclaim will change my life much. You'd better like who you are today because largely, that's who you will be tomorrow.

Judi Fennell said...

Oh, I can definitely relate (as I sit here, twiddling my thumbs for reviews for Wild Blue Under to come in). Will people like it as much as In Over Her Head? I didn't have any trouble writing it, but the edits got to me. Same thing with Catch of a Lifetime. I will say, however, that getting that next contract alleviated the "what if my editor doesn't think I can do it." Not having those kinds of thoughts with I Dream of Genies.

But, yeah, he has admitted he worried about those things. At the end of the day, it's still his name out there, his ego. I'm sure the money takes the sting out of it, but no one wants to be thought of as a joke.

Kat Sheridan said...

I'm going to agree wth Mr. Coffman (since we're both on the that downhill slope!) I've been both a spectacular success and a spectacular failure in a field other than writing. The success can go to your head and the failure can debilitate you. The trick is to simply pick up the next project and do the best job you can with it and stop letting other people define you, or what success or failure means. I would hope, if I ever had Mr. Brown's success, I would have good friends around me who woulnd't let me get too full of myself, and who would remind me to just keep writing the best book I know how to write, to put it out into the world, let it go, and to move on to the next one. Over and over.

VA said...

Sia I think it would depend on why one writes. If for glory and money then I would expect to be concerned, especially if I endured the technical writing whippings that Dan Brown got. Unless it is a diary all writers are engaging in a dialogue. Is my conversation interesting or will it get passed over? I can see it being worrisome.

Honestly, everyone gets judged on what they produce, whether one is a writer or a administrative clerk. One gets critical reviews the other, performance reviews. Life is judgment.

Jill Lynn said...

Every time I've finished writing a novel, I've had the worry that I'll never be able to come up with a plot for another novel. And I'm a non-published writer. So, no, I don't think I'd handle the pressure DBs talked about very well.

Sisters-in-Sync said...

Hi Sia,

I like Dan Brown's books a lot. Angels and Demons is by far my favorite. I much preferred out over DVC. However, I never thought about the pressure that he must be under. Pressure from others as well as pressure w/in his own mind.

I think it takes a very strong person to be able to handle that type of pressure and still be able to function in the "normal" world.

Usually I think..."man, I'd love to have that problem." but sometimes, I think..."man, I've got problems!"

Great post! This ones a thinker!!

Elle J Rossi

~Sia McKye~ said...

I'm glad you enjoyed it Elle.

I had read some stuff about him and saw his quote on being temporarily cripple and got curious so I did some research and wrote the article.

I read a lot of Christine Feehan's work, too. She's very big. I can't imagine writing three different series. Three books a year may not seem like much on the surface, but from three different series? Three different well developed worlds? Keeping all those details and characters straight. It impresses the hell out of me.

I've watched how she's handled it. While all her books are good, she has a few exceptional ones. But I can also see her struggle to do so in some of her writing. I'm not sure what she does to keep her writing fresh, but she manages. Things like that fascinate me.

cmkempe said...

Well, I suppose I am fortunate in never having to worry about this question, but I can't imagine at this point (like Mr Coffman, being past the age of giddiness) that success would go to my head, just because I am not impressed by anything anyone says about me. Then again, failure and bad reviews prove more crushing to me. Good reviews (even ones that I feel are not accurate or incisive) elate me and fuel the happy muse.

On the other hand there are many, many days where the lack of response -- more so than criticism, indifference I find cripplingly painful -- makes me wonder at the peculiar and masochistic habit of putting pen to paper (so to speak) when it all goes into a void, unnoticed and ignored.

But I do it because I must (and now wonder which identity to tag this response with).

~Sia McKye~ said...

You give it your best shot regardless of what comes at you. :-) And really, that's all you can do.

I hear you on indifferce. Apathy is more crippling, IMO, regardless if we write books or whatever our endeavor is.

Thanks for stopping by Margery! BTW, when's the next book? Soon isn't it?

Sun Singer said...

I've wondered about the "success problem" as well. In a BTR interview, I said I would like to do a sequel to my last novel. If the novel doesn't sell well, I won't need the sequel. If it does, perhaps I'll feel to a lesser extent what Brown felt as he was working on "The Lost Symbol." It must take an extraordinary amount of discipline to ignore good and bad publicity and stay focused on the next book.

I enjoyed "The Lost Symbol" and think it moves a long with the same kinds of thrills and chills as "The Da Vinci Code." In my view, the roller-coaster ride is the thing--I just said something like that in my review of the book on Sun Singer's Travels.

Maybe Brown needed the extra time to feel grounded enough to finish the work.


Karen Walker said...

What a thoughtful post. I guess I never thought about the down side of success, although it makes sense that there is one. I know I've had just as big a fear of success as I've ever had a fear of failure. I think I'm old enough now that I could manage it if it happened. But frankly, I don't see that in my future. I just want to keep reaching people one at a time with my memoir.

Nancy J. Parra said...

Hi Sia,

I can understand the pressure thing. Its hard to work when everyone's looking... Like stage fright. No matter how big or how small your success, there will always be people who say you don't "deserve" it. I'm glad he was able to work through it.
Great post! Cheers~

Conda V. Douglas said...

I think it was Asimov who said (I'm paraphrasing), "Yes, as a writer I ALWAYS worry about my next piece of writing and will it be as good as the last."

Aren't we all, as writers, neurotic, no matter what our success?

Lesli Richardson said...

You apply a$$ to seat and fingers to keyboard (or pen to paper) and...write. While I sometimes "worry" about how a book will be read, I realized after seeing reader comments (one saying a book was too hot, one saying it wasn't hot enough, about the SAME BOOK) that if I write to a particular reader, I'm not being true to the characters and the story.

As writers, we have to stay true to the glue of the story -- the characters. If we try to superimpose our own ego or fears or desires on the manuscript, it will suck.

I see my job as a writer to look at the characters and the story and record it for others to see, in as accurately a way possible for the reader to "see" what I'm seeing in my brain. Do I help it out sometimes in terms of plot points? Of course. But I can't think, "Oh, that character can't do THAT because readers will hate me!" if that's what the character HAS to do because of the story and because that's the way the character was going to go anyway.

I think a lot of complaints about some writers who have lots of books out and those books are sounding "the same" have forgotten to stay with the basics. They are writing to outlines for ease of production instead of staying with the characters and getting to know them and telling the story through their eyes and experiences rather than from the author's.

And yes, I know that might sound crazy, but I'm only a third of the way through my first cuppa coffee this morning. :)

~Sia McKye~ said...

Leslie, that's very true, it all about telling stories through our character's eyes and experiences. When we lose sight of that then we lose sight of our story and our role in crafting that story.

~Sia McKye~ said...

Conda, I had to laugh at the paraphrase you used. Yes, we are a neurotic bunch, aren't we? I tend to think most artists are, regardless of the medium they use. :-)

~Sia McKye~ said...

Karen, I suspect that's a healthy way to look at it. Reaching one person at a time and try to forget about success or failure and consentrate on the story to be told. :-)

Sometimes that's easier said than done, yes?

~Sia McKye~ said...

Malcolm, I've had several friends that said they thorougly enjoyed The Lost Symbol. One told me she lost her *editing witch* somewhere around page 80 and just enjoyed the ride the story provided.