The debut novel of a writer can make or break a career (not true, but that’s how it often feels). Writers work hard to get their first deal, so it appears as rare as ambrosia. This means the book launch is a massive ordeal. Numbers generated from this first book set a metric, largely at Barnes and Noble but also Amazon and elsewhere, that saying how much you sold. These numbers determine other metrics—such as ranks, recommendations, and returns—which forever control your destiny. Sell poorly (say, not earning out your advance, which is most books), and less of your future work is stocked or promoted. Sell worse than your last book? Might not get to book three. Even ebooks that are “new” or from “new” authors have a sheen and magic compared to crap covers from the year the ebook revolution failed to finish, before fading into the void of obscurity. Your first shot feels like your last chance. Fuck it up? Better to create a thousand pen names to fool the publishing world you’re new. Or young. Or a different gender. Or maybe co-opt a minority identity that you think will sell and prove just what kind of asshole you really are.
Mostly, people think there’s only one chance of “making it” (AKA: big porn-dream success where wishes come true because you worked hard and are talented and other lies we often need). Therefore, being a successful first time novelist matters most! Which makes me think of rockstar debut novelists as akin to the people who made high school their golden years. Seeing these idiots at reunions is bad enough. Imagine living like that . . . FOREVER!
Wait, it gets worse!
Once you have an audience, you’re frozen by success. You’re encouraged to stay in the same genre, the same mode, the same medium, to keep your audience. “The same, but different” is the oxymoron dejour novelists grapple with during their sophomore effort (even Joss Whedon had to make the same Avengers movie twice, just with a different villain). So, what’s worse than being a nobody? Being a nobody with something to lose! Perhaps it’s not so bad if you only love one kind of story, genre, mode, etc., then maybe “the same, but different” forever is great.
Here’s the flipside.
By only doing one kind of novel, say, “high fantasy adventure stories set in secondary worlds that appeal to young adult readers, especially the grown-ups who read young adult and dislike swear words and love the social dynamic of high school re-written a million times but with elves or demons or whatever as the beautiful “misfits” who finally get to win”, you will deny yourself the chance to become different.
Why would you ever want to be different?
Gosh, this really is high school analogy season!
You must be different to get better. And I know I am assuming a fuckton right now, especially that a writer might want to get better, beyond becoming competent enough to get published. But let’s all agree, for the sake of argument, that as much as you want “success” as a writer (the porn-dream you shouldn’t have), you also want to get “better” at writing. Herein lies the rub.
You can’t get better by doing the same thing in perpetuity. To improve and innovate is to mutate. You need change to be creative, and external judgement, including how your work will do commercially or judged by audiences, can cripple creativity (except mall test audiences: they are always right). Big changes over time can be mondo good for your writing, and maybe even your career (see? I’m not anti-success at all!). But only if you ignore the “must get it right the first time” mythology, and consider two things most people avoid: viewing your work in terms of a long career arc, and taking risks, especially when you have something to lose.
Sacrilegiously, our case study today is comedy instead of fiction.
Comedy is a harder gig than writing fiction. Odds of even limited success are horrific, and the cost of travel (integral to most comedians) makes it a losing proposition for years. And as awful as author readings are (and most are heinously bad), they pale in comparison to the immediate rejection and iron skin needed to learn your craft as a storyteller in front of drunk audiences and bachelorette parties and angry locals who just want to hear Kid Rock butcher awful songs by Lynyrd Skynyrd because they had a shit day at a blue collar job you’d probably sneer at. Even with the differences between a performance and solitary art, similar foibles, creative traps, and allures abound. Plus, I think it’s valuable to view other arts so we don’t get calcified into thinking of writers as so different, so special, so unique that we need the same old advice from the same old sources (see previous FXXK WRITING post!).
Now cram it and read the story of George Carlin (1937-2008).
“What I found over time is that I’m a writer who performs his own material.”
George Carlin began his performing career as a DJ for the US Air Force Strategic Air Command. You know, the frontline of nuclear armageddon! Having zero time for military discipline and rules, he was discharged and became part of a nightclub act with fellow Air Force washout Jack Burns. They did goofy and snappy comedy just as “Boomer Humor” took off: comedy about the self, issues, and ideas that were pioneered in fifties with the likes of Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce. Burns and Carlin fit in, did well, and made good scratch. Carlin knew he could make serious dough if he stuck with nightclub racket and early TV hits like the Tonight Show, but after two years his heart dropped. He started identifying with the counterculture audience in coffee shops, not the starched shirts and high balls of The Copa. And he wanted to do it solo.
The duo split. Carlin took the last of their momentum for some TV spots, and he did well, but he hadn’t found his new material. His career drifted. To be successful in “mainstream” comedy meant adhering to fixed boundaries, and for three years he bounced around TV and national spots doing “Vanilla American” guffaws, including some successful bits and characters. But the counterculture was growing, and spoke to Carlin’s attitude. In the late sixties he’d had enough and actively dissed the old racket at the Howard Hughes Invitation Golf Tournaments and its ilk by doing sets that peed in the cornflakes of the rich and powerful that had nothing in common with him, or their long-haired, reefer smoking kids. Bridges burned, he told his wife that if all he ever played was coffee houses from now on, he’d be cool. So long, big money.
In bars and coffee houses he tried to use characters and ideas from his “middle class” set, but crashed into a new look: long hair, hippie style with goofy clothes shooting first-person stories and critiques from the hip. New material that was antithetical to his other work hit the scene. He was finding his new voice.
The immediate result?
His career income dropped an estimated 90%.
His new look killed TV bookings, a major source of income for his peers. He was back to playing tiny clubs while Burns was doing guest spots on TV.
Carlin had worked with two talent managers who warned him this initial loss was unavoidable. But . . . the losses could be recouped over the long haul. He had to revamp, reach out, and win his new audience with new sets, tours, albums, media coverage and more, and let the new material generate heat.
The comedy album FM & AM is a transition. Literally. He mixed both styles of his work, older polished stuff, and newer, edgier material, on each side of the record. While not heralded like his others, that album needed to get made. He needed a transition album to shed one skin and find another. And it set the stage for CLASS CLOWN in 1972, which was 100% new Carlin, and gave the world “Seven Words that You Can Never Say on Television.” OCCUPATION FOOL the next year released “Filthy Words” which produced a Supreme Court Ruling on obscenity and free speech and made him a rockstar of comedy.
Carlin didn’t rest on his laurels much, even in the wake of this success. The counterculture petered out, the indulgent disco era and greedy eighties were on the rise, and he needed to change. Again. He kept growing, though much of that was fueled by his heinous fiscal situation. In debt to the IRS, Carlin had to keep working to pay off decades of taxes and penalties (took him twenty years to shake it). But it was a godsend, since he focused on making his act better, trying new things on the road, banking the best on the next HBO special, a form he pioneered. He couldn’t afford less than his best, in his chosen field. Compared to other successful comics, he didn’t delve too much into film and TV work-
“But wait, wasn’t this about taking chances?”
It is, heroes. And this is the most impressive aspect. Carlin tossed out his new material after about a year. No greatest hits tour. No best of. No classic Carlin. Yes, minor homages and moments to the past, but that’s it. He made a special, tossed it out, and kept doing new material.
Please recall the original premise: audiences and promoters hate new material. They want the same but different. They don’t want to bank on a horse that might not win.
Not Carlin. New material was what he needed to do his best. And that risky approach influenced others to do deeper, more meaningful work, and keep doing it, including current mondo comedy hit Louis CK.
Granted, all Carlin’s material was carried through his own unique voice, but he refused to be the same performer. He kept trying new angles and views and never stopped developing his voice as a performer. He grew into a position of elder statesmen of comedy commentary, a cynical critic of politics and pop culture through the eighties and into the nineties, including books as well as bit parts in TV, theater,and film. At his death in 2008, he created a legacy of impressive work in a brutal field best known for failures, bad gags, and a sliver of success for the minority.
And how did he do it?
He killed his old rep.
He lost steady money
He lost an audience.
He made new material that actually spoke to him and found an audience that listened.
He took advantage of technological changes when they happened.
He enjoyed plateaus of success, but kept looking to find his own voice, kept finding new material, kept taking a chance within his form.
For Carlin, change wasn’t the enemy, different wasn’t the enemy. In fact, they were the roots of his greatness and produced a body of work that makes him among the best comedians of his generation.
Writing novels and stories and making anything even resembling a career in publishing is hard, too. So, much career advice is naturally conservative. And yet, for most the money isn’t great (though I don’t begrudge those who need the small amount of dough vs. hours put in) except for the 1%; many of whom have high school level popularity online via great PR and fan service and enjoy the hell out of it. Which is fine. You know what’s also fine? Knowing that your best work is in the future, that it will not be a dead ringer for your best-known work, knowing you may lose fans and coin if you dare to reach for “best” instead of “next”, and doing so anyway. Because getting better, doing one’s best work at any one time, is a worthy goal for an artist. And if you get paid to get better, awesome. Just don’t bank the house on it (Carlin had a lean on his house for two decades).
To get better, you have to grow, fail, change, endure. As Ta-Nehisi Coates recently noted, if you do, you’ll end up with a powerful skill set that newbies cannot have. That all those “debut” authors or pen names don’t fathom.
And with such skill comes the capacity to do something bigger, bolder, and better.
Not everyone can fiscally succeed like Carlin (he was astoundingly lucky to have the the birth of network TV, the counterculture and cable TV emerge as mediums for his kind of work), but imagine a career of work that spans forty years and changed some of the landscape of your artform. Now imagine you barely made any scratch at it. Would you take Carlin’s way, or the one of the perpetual first time author, desperate to hold on to a fickle audience who wants “the same, but different”, with just as miserable a chance of making any coin?
Choose your own adventure, heroes.