I know in my professional life that staying flexible is key to my success. A job I had a few years ago essentially involved being told, “Hey, we have this new development that no one knows anything about and we need to do something about it. Can you put together something by Friday?”
Sometimes the response to the issue was “Eh, not much to it. It’s A, B, and C. If we make this minor tweak here we’ll be fine.”
Sometimes it was “We don’t know enough. But these ten entities do. Let’s write them and ask them for more information. Here’s the draft letter.”
And sometimes it was, “Holy shit, this is a problem. We need to get in there and fix it. Here are the three things we should do and here are drafts to start us down those paths.”
My job is still very much like that. This project I was on basically involved being told, “The client needs help understanding this. How can we help them?”
Sure, each time those issues came up I could look to how we’d handled something before and tweak that approach to deal with the most recent issue. But, each situation was unique and required a unique solution. And falling into the “we can just do this the way we did that last one” trap can be lethal.
I’ve seen people get in trouble when they failed to realize this. The detailed legal analysis of the historical precedents that led to the current environment may be the exact thing to deliver to one client. But a down and dirty how to get your shit done document may be all the next client needs.
Confuse the two and you’ll damage your reputation and find yourself without follow-on work.
Now, I come to the writing world where it’s all different. (Or is it, really?)
See, in the writing world there’s something to be said for delivering to your readers the experience they expect. If you’re a romance novelist, they want a romance. They want the characters to get together.
If you write gritty stories with flawed characters, that’s what your readers want. They won’t know what to do if the next book you write is about a happy, fluffy utopia.
Part of being a successful writer with staying power is knocking out the same thing over and over again.
But then again, it isn’t. (Aren’t I helpful today?)
I know at least one popular novelist (as determined by number of books on the shelf at B&N) who I stopped reading after book two. Because other than a change in gender and occupation, book two was the exact same story as book one. Who wants that?
So, while hitting that solid double every time at bat (sorry, going to a baseball game tonight) a writer also has to deliver variety. It can’t always be A then B then C.
And writers do need to be flexible in the sense that they need to understand that the world is shifting around them and that what worked in terms of narrative and plot and distribution twenty years ago may not work today.
A writer who wants to stay relevant needs to find some weird little middle ground where they are reliable and consistent and deliver readers what they want while also changing over time to…deliver readers what they want.
It’s enough to make your head spin. But the key is to be willing to change. Don’t adopt set rules. Acknowledge that what worked last year may not work this year. Continually adapt.
But don’t change so much that your work becomes unrecognizable.