Being A Professional Writer No.1: First Impressions
I thought I’d start an occasional column on this particular career choice, as there are some things I’m always asked or told.
Here’s something to bear in mind; your first splash sticks to you forever. I’ll go to my grave being described as ‘the author of ‘Roofworld’. In fact, it was the fourth book I wrote but the first that came with high expectations and a big budget. It wasn’t very successful in the grand scheme of things – an ill-advised cinema campaign went wrong after the commercials went out with the flop ‘The Fly 2’, and many readers did not know where to look for it – was it SF? Crime? Satire even? Or just an adventure.
Bette Midler says that after starring in a zillion films and having endless hit albums it will say on her tombstone ‘Started career in gay bathhouse’. And in Hancock’s Half Hour, Hancock is told ‘We thought you were at your peak five years ago. You were very funny in those days.’ It’s generally assumed that your first is your best.
It’s a curse of the job. As your writing becomes more refined you disappoint the readers who simply like a plainly worded romp. Film directors do the same thing, honing their craft until they lose their original audiences. So the first perceived hit stays there at the top of your CV no matter what you do. Whenever I have a new Bryant & May book out, the sales of the first volume rise most – and yet it’s in many ways atypical of the series, and an earlier part of my learning curve. I personally think the later books are better, but readers like to return to beginnings.
There’s another problem. You’re meant to stay where you’re put. Branch away from your usual subjects and you compromise the brand (I hate myself for even writing that). With the exception of the Bryant & May series, which has stabilized me, I’ve never written the same style of book twice. When I recently delivered my new thriller, written in a very different style, my editor asked ‘Will there be any others like these?’ because he needs to know he can sell something that’s more than a one-off.
So – think about the first book carefully; it may be stamped on your career card for the rest of your life.