Author Melanie Benjamin Reflects on the Pleasures and Perils of the Writing Game

 

As a person who, in real life, doesn’t like change (I’ve driven the same kind of car for decades), I’m proud that my ability to pivot has saved my writing career more than once.

My first two published books were duds. I say that lovingly. I had a very tough time staying published. So—pivot! I changed my name, I changed my genre. It worked for me, as my goal, then and always, is to have a career, not a one-off. It’s a marathon, not a sprint; I tell myself that daily. And after having pivoted into writing historical fiction, I’ve had to pivot again. And again, and again.

Many aspiring authors think that after you’ve published a couple of bestsellers, life will be easy. The early obstacles—the agent dance, the rejections—have been overcome. You’re set for life.

Wrong.

You can still write bad books. Trust me on this. You can spend a year writing something that, no matter how much you wrestle with it, simply doesn’t work. You, the author, have a choice: If the book is contracted, and it’s good “enough,” you can insist that it be published anyway. Rarely will your publisher refuse it, unless it’s really, really awful. But here’s the thing: If you, the author, are the one who decides, “No, this isn’t good enough, I can do better, let me start over again,” you’re going to survive this. In other words, your ability to pivot from one book to another, without whining, without throwing tantrums, will save your career. I’ve had to do this with not one, but two contracted manuscripts, and you know what? I still have a career. They’ve been my choice to put aside—not without some barely subtle signals from my editor, but still—and so, I’m still in control. And the books that I’ve pivoted to have been some of my most successful.

 

 

I’ve had to pivot before books were completed, too. My editor and I, just this past spring, agreed on the subject for my next contracted historical. I happily went off to do the research—I traveled abroad to visit pertinent locations, ordered dozens of books, outlined it. I invested not only money and time in this exciting new novel, but emotion. And then—

Something happened. The market for fiction caved in. It’s more tough than ever to break a novel out. And the more I thought about this new one, the more I realized that it might be a difficult sell. When I hesitantly mentioned this to my editor, she nearly sobbed with relief—she’d been thinking the same thing, too. Not that we both didn’t believe the proposed book would be intriguing, the story worth telling. We just feared its marketability in a challenging climate.
Now, you might think that this time, I did throw that tantrum. I loved the idea of this book. But no. I filed my research under “maybe another time.” And I pivoted. Once again. Twenty-four hours later, my editor and I had agreed on another subject, and now I’m beginning the research. I can’t wait to start writing it. I love the idea of this book.

I can’t predict, of course, how it will sell. The only thing I can predict is that I will always come up with more stories to tell. And that I will give my heart to each one—but never lose it. Because I may need to fall out of love at some point, too, for the good of my career. But I will pivot once again, into another lover’s arms.

 


MELANIE BENJAMIN is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of The Swans of Fifth Avenue and The Aviator’s Wife. Previous historical novels include national bestseller Alice I Have Been, The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb and The Girls in the Picture.  Her novels have been translated in over fifteen languages, featured in national magazines such as Good Housekeeping, People, and Entertainment Weekly, and optioned for film. Her latest novel is Mistress of the Ritz. Melanie lives in Chicago with her husband, where she is at work on her next historical novel.


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