So you've written a gazillion-selling, scandalous or much-adored book. Perhaps you've created a series and drawn it out well beyond its natural conclusion and have wrung out every drop of profit possible. Perhaps your work has become part of the pop-culture firmament, the subject of a craze and no small amount of scorn and satire.
Perhaps your name is Stephanie Meyer or Suzanne Collins or E.L. James or George RR Martin. You've conquered bookstores and the royalties from the movies will no doubt continue to pour in for years to come.
Believe it or not, you have options. You do not have to go back to the same world and produce millions of words until even fans are bored, as Frank and Brian Herbert have done with the Dune saga, or write an Elvish dictionary or skip a generation into the future whenever the narrative possibilities of the rise and fall of kingdoms are exhausted. (Yes, I'm looking at you, Raymond E Feist.) You don't have to write Even More Confessions Of A Shopaholic Again or The Devil Sometimes Carries A Gucci Purse or Foundation And Empire And Earth And Its Bearing On The Development Of The Encyclopedia Galactica Part III.
Having a massive hit does not mean your literary life is over and you will spend the rest of your days dolling out by-the-numbers tomes in the manner of Tom Clancy or Nora Roberts. Here are a few examples of careers to follow, or avoid.
THE ROWLING IMPLOSION
With A Casual Vacancy, J.K. Rowling has proven she can do pretty much the opposite of what made her famous. In many ways it's the antithesis of everything she built up in the Harry Potter saga. Like those seven much gushed-over tomes, a friendship between two high school boys is at the heart of her divisive new novel. Unlike the almost sickeningly good Potter and Ron Weasley, Stuart Wall and Arthur Price are sickeningly awful, selfish and destructive. They take drugs, get involved in unromantic sexual encounters and hack into the parish council website to post vile and sometimes true things about their parents.
The anti-Potter elements do not end there: the equal and opposite of goody-goody know-all Hermione Granger is the dyslexic, learning impaired Sukh-vinder, who routinely and secretly cuts herself. The magic is gone, and without flying cars and giants and goblins and broomsticks there are aneurisms and heart attacks and drownings and heroin overdoses to propel the story along. But don't let that fool you. For all its misery and bleakness, A Casual Vacancy is compelling and darkly comic.
Recommendation: Take this option if you have more money than you will ever need, and don't mind upsetting a few fans for the sake of being able to write whatever you would like in the future.
ADAMS' LONG DARK TEATIME
The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy is almost the perfect sci-fi satire, lampooning the genre, bureaucracy, the British desire for a decent cup of tea and religion with a touch of horrendous Vogon poetry and the existential confusion of a very short-lived whale to boot. The Restaurant At The End Of The Universe was nearly as good, and the series slipped slightly over the next three books before ending where it began.
Douglas Adams never really returned to the heights of his first novel, although there are glimpses. He frustrated publishers with missed deadlines, he delved into computer science and wrote about nature and conservation. Adams never really escaped the spectre of the Hitchhiker's series, and had returned to that world before his death in work published posthumously. His serious attempt to break free, in fiction at least, was two novels about the holistic detective Dirk Gently, which has inspired an enjoyable TV series. The first book is heartbreakingly underwhelming, to be generous, although the second, The Long Dark Teatime Of The Soul, is enjoyable.
Recommendation: Take this option if you have sold enough books to keep publishers keen, but want to torture them by producing only a handful of pages every few years.
DON'T HARPER ON ABOUT IT
Harper Lee's 1960 novel To Kill A Mockingbird has topped "Best novel of the century" polls, sold somewhere in the order of 30 million copies, and came out as the US was in the middle of racial tension and civil rights upheaval. With its deft prose and deliberate use of a child's voice to tell the tale of injustice, it is much loved and widely considered a masterpiece.
Lee, now 86, did not think she could match it, having started and abandoned a few other projects. She says little about her book, and the most notable piece of writing she has had published in the past decade or so is a letter to Oprah Winfrey. She seems to prefer being reclusive and mysterious, even if there has been regular (and routinely rebuked) speculation her childhood friend, the notoriously bitchy Truman Capote, wrote much of the book for her.
Recommendation: If you think you've written a classic and can live happily being considered a one-hit wonder, this might be for you.
ONLY THE GOOD DIE YOUNG(ISH)
If you are at the height of your fame and power as an author, worse fates could befall your career than your death. This may not work out so well on a personal level if you have other plans for your life. However, death can often improve reputations and book sales. George Orwell was 46 when he died in 1950, living long enough to see his last and greatest work, Nineteen Eighty-Four, published, but without knowing how "Big Brother" and "doublethink" and the "thought police" would enter the language.
Only three of Jane Austen's five novels were published before her death at 41. Oscar Wilde was in his mid-30s when he published his only novel, he went on to greater acclaim as a playwright then was cruelly jailed, lived in exile and died in agony at the age of 46. Stieg Larsson keeled over at 50 after climbing seven flights of stairs, and his Millennium trilogy was published posthumously, so the Swedish author never saw a krona for his work, although plenty of others have been prepared to fight over the proceeds.
Recommendation: If you'd like to leave your loved ones with either a fortune or a protracted and bitter legal dispute where only the lawyers win, this is the way to go about it.
REVOLVE WITH IT
Terry Pratchett's Discworld probably started as a whimsical piss-take of the fantasy worlds of JRR Tolkien and copycats: it's a world on a disc on four giant elephants on an even more giant turtle flying through space, so don't take it too literally. But 39 novels and millions of sales later the Disc is a fully fleshed out world with racial and sexual politics, a benevolent dictator, thieves, assassins, witches and the spectre of Death who decides to take a holiday. Pratchett's world is so broad he can play with genres, mixing the magical fantasy with coming-of-age young adult fiction, detective stories, and more. Among the best is Night Watch, a time-twisting tale of conflicting principles and political intrigue, and Making Money, a satire of banking and the economy with a dash of malevolence.
Recommendation: Even Pratchett needs a break from the Discworld occasionally, so even if you have an equally wonderful alternative universe to write about, step into the real world every now and then.
ANY WHICH WAY BUT HEMINGWAY
Ask not for whom the sun also rises. Ernest Hemingway had a profound influence on 20th century literature, won the Nobel prize for The Old Man And The Sea and was much in demand as a journalist throughout his life. He also became seriously ill, received shock therapy and after one aborted attempt blew his brains out with his favourite shotgun weeks before his 62nd birthday.
Recommendation: Don't do this.
About the author
Writer: Michael Ruffles