“Stealing” Careers

A few weeks ago, while bumming around on Tumblr, I came across a GIF set of Natalie Dormer (she of Tudors and Game of Thrones fame) answering the question: If you could steal someone else’s career, who would it be and why? I immediately searched on Youtube until I found the original video. Her answer is at the 0:15 second mark.

I’m including the video because I love her/she’s brilliant/she reminds me of a cat that lovingly leaves you murder presents, but for those of you who can’t watch, her answer is: “Never steal anyone else’s career. Want your own. Everything for a reason.” Her answer, though simple, has really stuck with me and has gone a long way in adjusting my thinking about my own writing career.

The most obvious application: I would like to step into this author’s shoes because they make a lot of money/win awards/can publish whatever they feel like. But we all know that appearances are deceiving and there’s generally a lot happening–both bad and good–behind the curtain we never get to see.

Another obvious application: career comparison. Thanks to social media, it’s now easier than ever to see how other books and authors are being marketed, what kind of “treatment” that they’re getting from their publisher, and how readers are responding to their book(s)—and, of course, since we’re human, it takes an iron will not to try to line up what your career and see how it stacks up. I’ve known from a young age that I have a competitive streak in me (for everything but sports, apparently–I quickly accepted I would Rather Not when it came to athletic activity), and it’s something I’ve worked on over the years to find a more zen center. And by that I mean seeing firsthand how a rising tide lifts all boats and redefining the “competition” to be a competition to push myself, to continually write better books, find that balance on social media, and so on.

But I boiled the question down in another context, too. Recently, one of my critique partners and I were having lunch and got around to discussing an author whose books we both love; the conversation turned to analyzing that author’s career—how many books s/he puts out a year, the content, the storytelling “formula” they seemed to love, and the seemingly rabid reader response. It was the first time in years that I felt a queasy sense of “Am I doing this wrong?” Am I writing the wrong kind of books? Should I adjust my writing style? Do I need to include more romance/more grit/more of xyz? Do I need to be cranking out more books each year? Should I be self-publishing some stories? Do I need to experiment with writing for a new age level?

Basically: is the way to achieve that author’s level of success to try to mimic their career?

On one hand, it sounds sort of terrible, right? Like you’re trying to Single White Female them a bit. I’m not talking general feelings of admiration and generally aspiring to be like an author whose work you love. I’m talkin’ stone cold analysis that involves actual research. As I was walking home, I realized one of the reasons why my brain got started on that loop was because of my marketing background. When a marketing department is given a new title to brainstorm and market, one of the very first things they do is “position” it within the marketplace. This is where all of those “It’s Downton Abbey meets Star Wars!” type statements come from. They’re zeroing in on a target audience to try to streamline outreach and identifying “comp titles” that are already out in the world. And, yes, they research and study the successes and failures of their competition’s marketing plans to see what works, what doesn’t, and how they can adapt it to suit their needs.

There’s certainly an element of being business savvy in studying other author’s careers, but to Natalie Dormer’s point, I think there’s always going to be something inherently poisonous in doing it. It’s one thing to hear about something they do for their readers and replicate it because you love it and think your readers will, too. (For instance, one of my favorite stories I’ve heard about a Big Time Author is that s/he keeps all fan mail, organizes it by city, and before going out on tour/doing an event, will re-read the mail from that city in case one of those readers come so they can talk on a more personal level.) When it comes to storytelling itself, though, it’s tempting to feel like you could recreate a formula and find that same success–but the truth of the matter is, for the truly successful authors, there always seems to be a bit of a “lightning” element. A little bit of luck. The right timing. Something in their writing voice/plotting/characters that’s just impossible for anyone else to reproduce. And, even if you could put your own small spin on it, are you depriving readers of something that’s uniquely you?

I feel like I’m talking in circles now, so I’ll turn it over to you guys–what do you think? Would you “steal” someone else’s career if you could?


5 Responses to “Stealing” Careers

  1. Julie Aug 18 2014 at 9:58 am #

    Alex, this post really speaks to me! When I was younger, I found myself singling out individuals who I thought I wanted to “trade lives with.” I learned over time that no one’s life is perfect, and even those who seem to have everything are struggling in some way. We all face challenges. I applaud you for your honesty, especially since so many writers would say you yourself have an enviable career! I think my favorite line in this post comes at the end: “And even if you could put your own small spin on it, are you depriving readers of something that’s uniquely you?” That’s what it comes down to, right? Trusting one’s own talents? Thanks so much for sharing these thoughts today!

    • Alex Aug 18 2014 at 1:45 pm #

      Yes! I feel like this definitely ties into the “grass is always greener” feeling that chases you throughout your life. One of the ways I’ve learned to tune out the “Am I doing this wrong?” voice is to step away and think about the things I feel grateful for in my own career. It’s so important to have confidence in your own vision and voice, but I remember the poisonous feelings of, “Maybe I should be more like X author, or Y author” when I was struggling to find an agent with the very first book I wrote and not having any luck at all.

  2. Elissa Aug 18 2014 at 5:43 pm #

    I feel fortunate that I’ve never truly compared myself to others. Maybe I have my mother to thank for this. When I was growing up, she did all the comparing for me: “Why can’t you be more like so-and-so?” My standard response was, “Because I’m not so-and-so.” When I felt snarky (especially in my teen years) my answer would be, “I’ll be like so-an-so when you’re like so-and-so’s mom.”

    This post is a great reminder that we all have to be ourselves, whoever those selves may be.

  3. Becki Aug 19 2014 at 2:44 pm #

    This is a great thing to zero in on, as it’s probably a mistake we can make without even realising it! Wondering why we’re not having as much sucess as X author, what they’re doing differently, if we should be doing the same thing in order to succeed…

    I learnt a little about the publishing industry during my university course, and had the privilage of attending talks by different published authors/members of the publishing industry. One of the main things I took away from it was; every path to success is different. Author X may have done brilliantly when they submitted an idea to Company Y, but would have been laughed out of the door at Company Z.

    As an example, one of the authors said she always sends mail/manuscripts in bright green envelopes to make them stand out. Sounds great!… until a publishing agent said to avoid ‘gimics’ such as gaudy coloured envelopes at ALL COSTS. Different people succeed in different ways. The best way is to do your research and then do what you think will be best. You may have to tweak your personal formula along the way, but hopefully it will eventually lead to a megabucks publishing deal with film rights and adoring fans and… *drifts away into excessive fantasy*

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