One of the first things most people realize after they’ve sold their first novel is that, contrary to expectation, they haven’t reached the top of the tree. Instead, they’re now on the bottom rung of a whole new ladder.
This comes as a great shock to some people, though anyone who’s actually thought much about it can surely see that there are plenty of achievements beyond “I can write well enough to get professionally published.” Still, even if you know intellectually that publishing your first novel isn’t the end of working hard, it’s usually a goal that the writer has been working toward for a long time, and one would really like to bask in the glory of reaching the top of the first ladder for a bit before taking that deep breath and starting to climb the next one.
Some folks, though, never seem to switch ladders. This is fine if you’re perfectly happy sitting at the top of the fan-and-unpublished-writers ladder while ignoring the professionally-published-writing-career ladder, but if you actually want a professional-publication-career, you have to work just as hard at climbing that ladder as you worked at climbing the first one.
Climbing that professional-career ladder takes more work, and different kinds of work, than the first. Most ambitious new professionals realize they’re going to need to do publicity work, and that in this day and age, that will mean having some sort of Internet presence (whether that’s heavily weighted toward social media like Facebook, Twitter, Livejournal, and the like, or whether it involves lots of guest blogging and activity on other people’s sites). There are lots of other things that the Internet makes easier, from ordering publicity bookmarks and postcards to doing specialized “pump up the buzz” contests and promotions. Lots of other things.
Unfortunately, there’s no reliable way of telling what things will actually have an impact on sales, and it’s far too easy to get so caught up in planning and executing one’s publicity campaign that one forgets (or can’t squeeze out the time for) writing the next book. (I’ve seen more than one instance where someone has spent so much time promoting their great new novel online that they haven’t had time to finish the thing. Do not make this mistake.)
The other difficulty is that having produced one publishable novel does not mean that the writer can stop worrying about the skill and craft part of writing and concentrate on their production-and-publicity responsibilities. No, it means that one has to do all the publicity and administration and production stuff (like revisions and copyedit and page proofs) while also writing the next book and trying to get better as a writer.
And it turns out that improving one’s craft does not just happen. You don’t improve your tennis backhand or your golf swing by whacking a huge bunch of balls at random for an hour a day. You improve by deciding to aim for a certain spot or location, hitting one ball, checking to see how you did, and then making an adjustment before you hit the next ball…and hitting a huge bunch of balls that way. Or by having an expert watch you hit one ball and then tell you how to correct your stance and your swing before you hit the next.
In other words, you get better by consciously and deliberately working at getting better. There are various ways to do this – working at exercises or prompts allows some writers to concentrate on specific problem areas, while other folks prefer to shoot for incremental overall improvement in their pay copy. Reading how-to-write books and blogs, or playing writing games with friends, or taking classes works for others. Critique groups are popular and helpful for a lot of folks. Studying other people’s work comes highly recommended (some advocate studying the classics, or the acknowledged “top hundred” works in one’s chosen genre; others advocate just as strongly studying the worst writing, because it’s often much easier to see what the writer is doing wrong).
I get a fair amount of mileage out of figuring out which areas and skills I need to improve, and then working out some way to improve them on my own – the figuring out and working out are important parts of my improvement process, just as much as actually doing whatever work I’ve decided to do. Other people like a more formal or more structured approach. The main thing is to do it – to work deliberately and consciously on improving one’s writing skills.
Because you never run out of room for improvement.