Today, Nathan Bransford asks on his blog, “You tell me: What is your greatest fear as a writer?”

Among the many fears readers name in the comments (success, obscurity, expectations) is this: “That I’ll be a one-hit wonder.”

And I wonder, now, “What’s wrong with being a one-hit wonder?”

I had a literary agent, once. Before having an agent, when writing, I worried about silly little writer-y things like compelling and realistic dialogue, creating evocative images, conveying a thought or a mood as perfectly as I could, and telling the story my way, using my own style and my own voice.   And I used to love worrying about those things.

But suddenly, once I had an agent, I was thinking about things like “commercial appeal” and “marketability.” I was worrying about so many new things, so many less important things, that I forgot how to write.

I freaked out. What if I never wrote another book I was proud of? What if I couldn’t write one a publisher would buy, and I continued to flounder in obscurity?

After about a year of reflection, which involved a writer-life crisis combined with an identity crisis combined with a crisis of confidence, I discovered that it really didn’t matter if I never wrote another book. If it wasn’t in me, it wasn’t in me. Who would it hurt? (No one.) How would it affect the world? (Not at all.) Would it destroy me? (Only if I decided my happiness was dependent on whether I wrote another book–and how foolish is that?)

I’ve already written something I completely love (the book that attracted the agent in the first place) – isn’t that enough? If I can do it again, great. If I can’t, so what?

I would probably refer to myself as a one-hit wonder if I never produced another book I was proud of – even if I’m just a one-hit wonder in my own mind.

But what about the other one-hit wonders? The REAL ones, I mean. The Awakening was Kate Chopin’s only real hit (unless you count a few of her short stories, but let’s stick with novels). To Kill a Mockingbird was certainly Harper Lee’s. Tim O’Brien has written several books, but can as many people recall any of his titles as quickly as they can the brilliant and beautiful The Things They Carried?

Other one-hit wonders:

J.D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Jack Kerouac, On the Road

William Golding, Lord of the Flies

Etc.

To have designs on being a career novelist and fearing only one book will sell is one thing–obviously, that would destroy the career-novelist dream. But those novels by the one-hit wonders in the list above are better remembered, more studied, shared in more high schools and universities, and analyzed more frequently than anything written by most career novelists.

Maybe the one-hit wonders wrote The Thing they had to write and had no need to write anything else. Maybe they put everything they had into The Thing. But The Thing they created is magnificent. Better than that, it’s lasting.

I’d consider it damn fortunate to be a one-hit wonder.

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Join the conversation! 2 Comments

  1. And you would be right to feel fortunate. I would think being a one-hit wonder as a novelist would be tough on the pocketbook, though if it’s really a hit people will continue to buy the book.

    The Muse can be around a lot or she can be fickle and disappear on you like a bride with cold feet. Certainly, it does become “work” for a musician to play the same hit over and over. Take Rick Derringer for example — the guy has to play that Rock-n-Roll Hootchie-Coo song at every show despite now being a million miles away from that sound in his ongoing career as a performer.

    Steve Forbert has “Romeo’s Tune” (meet me in the middle of the day let me hear you say everything’s OK, bring me southern kisses from your room) … He’s stuck with that song at every show despite a huge body of work that rivals or improves upon that 1970s hit. He certainly plays lots of other songs, but he generally closes with Romeo before any encore.

    Both Forbert and Derringer certainly have continued to do justice to their respective hit songs in the performances I’ve seen, but as a musician myself I can barely stand playing my own work now. It’s the main reason I gave up playing out.

    Very few people work professionally as songwriters these days, but those who do – and did – will tell you that you have to work at it every day, exercising the writing “muscle,” otherwise you lose it. Others – like Bob Dylan – say it’s not necessarily something that can be forced and it can be finite. Dylan has said in the last few years that he had a creative period many years ago, but that he can’t recapture it.

    So for sure it’s wonderful when the Muse arrives and you’re able to capture her message and package it in such a way that seems original. If you’re in the creative business you realize that it’s rare. But you also might find yourself producing novels or songs that are so bad as to taint your first work that actually had value. (That’s not to suggest your second work is bad, I haven’t read it yet).

    Peter Benchley comes to mind without looking closely at a list of his books. As far as I know through my limited pop culture knowledge, he had the one great novel and film in “Jaws,” and then simply went downhill further and further as he couldn’t find his way out of the ocean monster genre.

    It sound to me like you wrote the second book without the Muse and applied practical publishing industry lessons along the way. Maybe try again with a happy medium of Muse and industry, or ignore the industry and happily face the prospect of rewriting portions of your next book after you’ve hooked a publisher with your original Muse-driven creative effort.

    Reply
  2. I’d be happy being a one-hit wonder too!

    This is a very thought-provoking post. I guess ‘to thine own self [and writing] be true’ applies here.

    Reply

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About Kris Tsetsi

Kristen J. Tsetsi is the author of the novels "Pretty Much True..." and "The Year of Dan Palace" and the short fiction collection "20 Short Stories," all published under the name Chris Jane. Website: http://kristenjtsetsi.com

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