I know the secret to failure.
If you want your passion project to fail before you even get out the gate:
- Combine “Make an impact with readers” and “Number of readers impacted” into the same goal.
I have a reader-friend, Rachel. She is on her third run through the first three volumes of Marlowe Kana. She loves the main character. She loves the dynamic between Marlowe and her sister, Jen. She loves the involvement of the President and the social commentary provided in his actions. She loves the universe. She loves that I let people figure it out as they read instead of providing massive infodumps and expository footnotes and technical manuals. She’s a fan. She’s precisely the person I’m trying to reach.
And you know what? Having reached Rachel, I am happy. Very, very happy. I have also reached Luca, Jessica, Joseph, James, Justin, Scott, David, Renick, Travers, Meghan, Rowena, Brandon, Chad, Jennifer, Nicole, and a few hundred others who have bought all three volumes of the book, left reviews, and dropped emails giving me feedback, almost all of it praise. This isn’t bragging. This is an admission. I never set out to do this.
Of course, this was a hope. But for the first time in my life, it was NOT the point.
Reach is not the same as impact. Even Steve Jobs knew that, and he changed the entire world three and a half times with his projects. He didn’t set out with the goal of creating Apple computers that end up on every desk right away. He had to iterate. First, build one thing. Make it the best you possibly can. Then, iterate on it. Make it better. And better. And better. Then, scale. Move up in numbers. Get your thing into more and more hands. And this is the most important: Make sure your thing is so good, people don’t drop it once its in their hands (metaphorically, of course… accidents happen, and I’m certain there are people who have physically dropped my books on the floor, but my hope is that they’re decent enough that they’ll pick them back up instead of leaving them there).
When I started Marlowe Kana in 2015, I didn’t expect to quit my job and focus on it full time. In fact, there was a time not too long ago where I thought my days of writing full time were over forever. I was satisfied with this. I was glad to have a good job, happy to have rebuilt my life, and pleased to be able to spend nights and weekends creating and writing about a universe that’s been in my head for years.
I think that’s the difference: I never once tied a metric to Marlowe Kana that wasn’t 100% about the quality of the writing. I simply wanted to learn how to write fiction that wasn’t pallid, hollow, self-serving, or boring.
Now, I am not saying I am the best I’ll ever be, or even great comparative to any other writer in the Cyberpunk genre or any other.
What I will say is that there was a bar I set for myself when I began this project, and I failed to reach it across several iterations. The version of Marlowe Kana that became Volume 1 is the third iteration on the universe and at least seven full drafts after beginning the process of writing it. I learned so, so much writing the first book. And when I was done, I read what I wrote and compared it to my checklist for passing quality:
- The universe makes sense.
- The characters each have their own motivation.
- No one is a vehicle for wish fulfillment.
- Everyone has their own voice, personality, morals, and objectives.
- The tech — arguably the most defining part of Cyberpunk — is not in the way, and has a clear path from something existing in today’s world.
- It discusses, through the plot, all of my concerns with today’s political, social, technological, and logistical concerns in a far more constructive way than blasting Twitter and Facebook ever did
- It’s FUN.
I am super, super proud that I reached those goals. And when I started on Volume 2, I created a new set of goals:
- More clarity.
- Divergent paths for characters and their motivations.
- Interruption of core motivations and surprises.
- Challenges to the genre and to the reader.
- No easy paths to victory.
- No expected endings.
- Constantly challenging my characters — and more, listening to THEM as they spoke in my head and keeping honest to who THEY are, not who I as an author want (or even conceptualized) them to be.
For Volume 3, I iterated up again, and decided I wanted to surprise myself with the ending. And I did. The ending of Volume 3 was a shock to me when I came up with it. I never saw it coming. It just… Happened. Because that’s where the story took me.
Now that they’re written and out there, I have new goals for all three volumes — find new people to introduce them to. Get them interested. Seek out the audience that’s ready and eager for what Marlowe Kana has to say. Sales figures, traffic, and reach are only NOW becoming a part of my strategy, because I want to do this with every hour of my day every day, and I have to be able to eat.
It’s a huge, huge difference. I believe fundamentally that the goals I set were vital to the success of the series, because my definition of success was never, ever once measured by any factor outside of itself. And I assure you, that will be true for volumes four through nine as well. I will concern myself with sales once they’re done and out in the world. For now, I only have one goal for the upcoming books: Make them worthy successors to the last ones.
I honestly feel that judging how important your work is by how many people have it is asking to be punished. If I can’t make this work financially, I’ll go get a job and write nights and weekends. I will not stop telling this story, because it’s saying what I need to say, and I’ve fallen completely in love with the vehicle I’m using to say it. Of course, I hope that I am able to sustain and keep this going as my daily, full time gig (and I’ve leaned up my daily life in order to achieve that. It’s a good thing I love ramen and peanut butter sandwiches…).
But if I can’t, that’s ok, because that’s not why I started. My definition of success for Marlowe Kana is not tied to reach. It’s all about depth. And if Rachel, Luca, Jessica, Joseph, James… All of them are happy with all nine volumes, I’ll have done my job.