Do You Want to Be the Next John Steinbeck, or the Next Stephenie Meyer?

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I saw a question posted the other day in the Writer’s Discussion Group on Google+.

“Would you rather write the next hot bestseller or a classic that will be studied in classrooms for years to come?”

I found this question so intriguing because my reaction to it was so fast and strong. I thought, “Of course I want to write a classic. Who doesn’t?” And then I read the comments. Turns out, some writers want to write classics, and some want to write the next hot bestseller.

This might seem obvious. And after I took a few seconds to consider it, I realized it was obvious. But because my personal feeling about my own writing is so strong, I was blinded for a moment to any different view. I think every writer has intense feelings about their own work, and because we feel so passionately about it, sometimes we miss the chance to think about what we really want out of our writing career.

What it really comes down to is that each of us has an objective behind our writing. This objective not only affects the way we approach our writing career, but also the way we approach the writing itself.

If you want to write a classic, a book with a meaningful message for humanity, your perspective on the time and effort you put into that book will reflect that. It wouldn’t be unusual to consider spending five years on such a book. Or to write the book, decide the message isn’t clear, and write another book with the exact same message as the first. Because your primary goal is to express this individual message, the amount of time and energy you spend in that pursuit doesn’t matter, it all counts as progress.

On the other hand, if your goal is to write the next hot bestseller and you spend five years on a book with a storyline that just isn’t working, that’s time wasted. Instead of focusing on any one story for a long period of time, it would be much more helpful to move through idea after idea until you hit one that works as an awesome story and also draws in a mass audience.

Your personal objective also applies to how you seek feedback. A solid writing community can give you the support, advice, and connection you need to move forward in your work. However, if you want to write a classic and all the other writers you know are focused on the next hot bestseller, it could push you in the wrong direction.

If your book falls into the “classic” category because it’s based on your personal philosophical views, there might be only a few other people out there who get it. But even if you’re writing for the few, nowadays you can actually find a lot of the few out there, online. As you’re working on that classic book with a message for humanity, the key is to be selective about who you choose to include in your writing circle. Look around in the literature and philosophy communities, and if you only find a couple people that seem to be a good fit, be content with quality over quantity.

Now if you’re trying to write the next hot bestseller, it will be way more helpful to build up your Rolodex with a long and varied list of valuable writing contacts who can further your cause. Reviewers, columnists, people in the entertainment business, bloggers, editors, everyone and anyone highly informed about what’s hot right now, and who also might be interested in helping you down the line. Tapping contacts such as these can give you essential insight into how to turn your novel into the next Da Vinci Code, and hopefully an opening to promote it.

The classic vs. bestseller question doesn’t have to be an either/or situation. It’s not a black-and-white definitive dividing line. It’s just a useful tool to open up some questions about what exactly you want out of your journey as a writer. After all, if you’re writing a classic it can’t hurt to build a large and varied network in the writing world. And for those who want to write hot bestsellers, you also need an inner circle of trusted writing confidantes. The real goal is for you to be conscious of where you place your focus, because the direct outcome is how you spend your precious time and energy on your writing.

Examine your personal values, consider what you want out of your writing, and never stop asking questions.

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2 Comments

  • Reply Lynn 10 August, 2013 at 12:33 am

    This *is* an interesting question. I’d go with classic, too, simply because I’m always thinking about my work ‘standing the test of time’ (although I suppose some new hot fiction could do the same). It’s also funny to me that I think so much about work that will really carry on when I have such a hard time even finishing writing a novel.

    I was trying to think of what’s out there today that might be considered a classic in later years. Any ideas? I don’t read a lot of classics, so I was just wondering about what’s out there currently that may ‘stand the test of time’.

    A friend recently gave me a copy of The Complete Novels of Jane Austen. It’s huge! I’ve never read any of her work, so I have no opinion, but as I flipped through the pages, I thought ‘this is going to be fun to try to read all of this.’

    Always fun to revisit your site!

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 14 August, 2013 at 1:59 pm

      I would say Middlesex by Eugenides is a modern-day classic. Not only is it beautifully written, but it deals with complex issues of gender and sexuality in a sensitive and insightful way. One thing that does occur to me is that there are so many writers in our present time, there are bound to be so many more “classics.”

      Also, I loved this line of yours:

      “It’s also funny to me that I think so much about work that will really carry on when I have such a hard time even finishing writing a novel.”

      I have felt the same way so much of the time!

      And thank you so much for visiting again and again. Your presence brings so much and is so appreciated!

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