You Write The Next One

Like many musical theatre fans, I recently watched the Netflix version of Jonathan Larson’s tick… tick… boom. It is the story of a frustrated young artist, who we viewers nonetheless know from the beginning will grow up to be the brilliant author of RENT, winner of every imaginable accolade for his work, a genius tragically lost far too young, in just a few short years after this story. That can make it hard for me, an often-frustrated artist myself, to enjoy watching narratives about unsuccessful artists, but I heard this one was great, and, y’know, musicals, so I watched it anyway.

It’s a great movie, but this isn’t about that, not really. This is about a scene near the very end, when Larson is on the phone with his often-reclusive agent. She is delivering the good news (everyone loved your workshop!) to cushion the bad (but your musical is unmarketable). He is in despair. What can I do? Why is this happening to me? How could you let me get so far? The failure feels like a betrayal. He did it, after all these years he did it, he finished it and got it up onstage, and the promised rewards didn’t come. His friends and loved ones were there. Stephen Sondheim, of blessed memory, was there in the flesh and told him it was brilliant. And it wasn’t enough.

He asks his agent, “What do I do now?” And she says: You write the next one.

You write the next one.

I don’t want to compare myself to the brilliant Larson, but I think I know how he felt at that moment. Like him, I worked for years on a passion project. My novel, Queen of All, was twelve years in writing. It took another five to get it published, and the publishing process looked less like the big Broadway debut Larson dreamed of for his work and more like the small workshop at 10 on a Sunday morning he actually got. A lot of people really liked the book. My personal Sondheim, my own favorite childhood writer, even gave it her stamp of approval. And, well, it didn’t matter very much.

Relatively few people have bought the book. The end of year best-of lists have come and gone and my name isn’t on ’em. Those movie deals are not pouring into my waiting lap. The awards are not being handed over.

I did it! I did the thing! After all this time! And the world’s response can feel like a big “so what,” as it must have for Larson in that scene.

But today, when we ask our agents and publicists and editors “what now?” there’s a different answer. Try reaching out to that TikTokker because the kids are all on TikTok these days, spend more time on Instagram Live because the rumor is that moves the most copies, email all the bookstores in town to see if they want to do events, oh you’ve done that all? Do it again. There’s a never-ending list of ways we’re supposed to promote our work, whether we’re self-published or traditionally published. This is supposed to make us a success, but it has nothing to do with the work of telling stories, not really.

What if we gave ourselves the answer Larson received? What if we remembered that our real job as writers, if we want to be successes or storytellers, is not to market ourselves but to write? What if when one book went out into the world, to find its audience or not, we let it go and went on to the next one?

We viewers have the advantage of knowing that the next one is tick… tick… boom, and the one after that is RENT. Success is around the corner for Larson, as is the end of his tragically short life. We can’t know that for ourselves.

But what we do know is that Larson spent eight years working on the project depicted in tick… tick… boom., which never saw full production. He wrote his brilliant masterwork just before his sudden death. How much more could he have done if he’d had more time? How much could he have done with the time he’d had if he had been able to spend it, not (as he said in the film) calling every major and minor producer in New York, but writing the next one, and the one after that, and the one after that?

How much could we all do–and how much do we risk losing if we forget our job is to write the next one?

No day but today, and all that.



  1. Been working on my main book since 2018- as in writing it

    But can’t continue my other WIPS until I finish that first one


    1. Anya Josephs says:

      Obviously, that doesn’t seem like too long to me–it takes years to write a book, especially a first book. But I wonder why you feel like you can’t continue until you finish that one.


      1. Well, Tale of the Cattail Forest is about done with its 6th draft.

        About the other WIPS- as in writing their drafts. I have worked on them in another way- on their brainstorming and development stage. My 2nd WIP (Lizzy the Lizard) is on its 1st draft—–just stuck

        Greatest Discovery and my Expansive World Idea are tricky childs


      2. Anya Josephs says:

        That makes sense! Good luck with your projects–I hope you’ll see great success soon, whatever that means to you.


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