Think of the last entry, “5 Undying Myths About Published Writers And Their Eerie Powers,” as, not the bad news, just the bracing slap of cold water. At its core, the takeaway is this:
It’s up to you. You are responsible for your own success. Nobody else can do it for you, even if they wanted to. It’s your mountain to climb.
Now it’s time for the upside.
There are things you can do to boost your chances of getting to yes those first few all-important times, be it from editors, publishers, or an agent. Some are attitudes, others are habits. Some are obvious, others less so.
But they’re all under your control.
In looking back, these were the 5 things that made the biggest difference in taking me from a place of no publishing credits (outside of school) and no connections, to publication. From my first story sale, to 2 back-to-back book deals with New York-based publishers, in about 4 years.
Other writers may have different lists. I’d be surprised if they didn’t. I’d also be surprised if there wasn’t some overlap.
And yes, the landscape is different now. There are e-book and other DIY options that didn’t exist when I was starting out. But that’s secondary anyway. Work ethics still come first, and those are timeless.
(1) No middle ground, no half measures. You’re all in or all out. So as long as you’re in, work your ass off.
In his novel Factotum, Charles Bukowski put it as succinctly as it can be:
“If you’re going to try, go all the way. Otherwise, don’t even start.”
There are no shortcuts — most people who’d like to call themselves writers hate hearing that. Most hate contemplating the part about Lots Of Hard Work, and get comfortable at the idea stage. Go to a barbecue and ask around, and you might be amazed at the number of people who will tell you they have an idea for a book, a screenplay, something. But ask them how much they have done on it, and you’ll find that they’re usually a lot more prolific about making excuses.
If you make friends with the Lots Of Hard Work part, that automatically puts you ahead of legions of dreamers.
In recent years, the 10,000-hour rule has seeped out of academia into mainstream consciousness. It maintains that to become really, really, really, really good at a demanding pursuit takes about 10,000 hours of focused practice. Which breaks down to roughly 3 hours/day for 10 years. That takes an enormous amount of long-term dedication. It may look like part-time work, but it’s a full-time mentality.
Put in the time, the effort, and you will get better. Hey, it worked for Stieg Larsson.
(2) Be careful who you tell your dreams to. Share them only with people worthy of hearing them.
I first got truly serious about writing while still in college, and pretty much clammed up about it in general conversation. Good friends, people I could count on, sure, they knew what was going on. For everybody else, it was none of their business.
Part of this was a put-up-or-shut-up mindset, and I wanted to put up. I didn’t want to be mistaken for someone who merely talks about doing something, someday.
The rest of it? I only wanted supporters around me. I wanted the writing to come up solely in the context of believers, people I trusted to have faith in me to make it happen. I wanted a cheerleader squad.
What I didn’t want? Detractors. Anyone who might pick away at my confidence with “Yeah, sure” cynicism or “That’s nice” condescension. Anyone who’d let themselves get poisoned by their own dormant dreams … and they were out there.
Early on, self-confidence can be about all you have to rely on. And there are armies of people who, deliberately or unwittingly, will make it their life’s mission to erode that. If they’re all you’re hearing, they might even get through.
But they can’t attack what they don’t know about. While the support of good people can be tremendously sustaining while you’re putting in the hours.
(3) Put yourself in places and positions that can lead to good things happening.
If you were to ask what enabled the single biggest quantum leap I ever made, I wouldn’t even have to think about it. It was going to a weeklong intensive in Boston, called the New England Writers Conference, a year after graduating from college.
The lure was that Stephen King was going to be a guest presenter one day. While he lived up to expectations, that turned out to be the least of it.
That week changed my life by such an order of magnitude that I can’t imagine how differently things might have gone if I’d stayed home, wishing.
It gave me the idea and impetus to write my first novel, Oasis. It led to my getting the agent who sold it. It introduced me to novelist Robert B. Parker, whose work I’ve loved ever since, and who later provided an endorsement of my third novel, Nightlife. The icing on the cake? I made two lifelong friends whose impact on my life has been such that, again, I can’t begin to fathom never having met them.
Here’s the thing, though. You don’t always realize your life is changing while it’s happening. That only becomes clear in hindsight.
Which leaves you to follow your gut, and look for those things that send a bolt of lightning to your antenna, and do whatever you can to show up where it’s telling you to be. Then capitalize on whatever happens.
I drove 1000 miles to Boston, straight through, after working a 10-hour day, because something in my head yelled at me to be there.
You may have something similar. A destination of your own, be it physical, geographical, virtual — the right place at the right time. I can’t tell you what it is. Maybe you don’t even know what it is. Maybe it doesn’t even exist yet. But if you’re paying attention, you’ll feel the magnetic pull when you see it.
(4) Do whatever it takes to fall in mad, passionate love with the rewrite process.
Early on, I heard the great Robert R. McCammon say that rewriting felt to him like beating a dead horse. The tale had been told, and now he was just flogging it. Obviously that hasn’t stopped him from generating a shelf’s worth of wonderful books.
But I had a different take. Polar opposite, actually: I love the rewrite process, because that’s when the horse really starts to snort and stamp and come alive.
This would serve me well, McCammon assured me.
It did, and has ever since. Even after all the work simply to make it presentable, I rewrote Oasis four times before it sold, as my agent brought it back with a maybe, and the notes of one editor after another. Every time, it got a little closer, until it finally broke through. My second, Dark Advent, went through not just a rewrite, but a significant conceptual overhaul.
Between the two of them — which sold to different publishers three months apart — it was like getting a college education in the basics of how to write a novel.
Which wouldn’t have happened without the willingness, even eagerness, to keep going back to page 1 and starting over, again and again.
There’s a corollary tucked in here, too: Don’t get so caught up in the preciousness of your every word that you refuse to believe editorial attention can make it better.
(5) Mindset is crucial. Cultivate whatever outlook will serve you best. Even if it’s a lie.
On paper, the odds are long — I always knew that. Whenever you see the stats on how many submissions a publisher receives, and compare that with how much they actually acquire, it can be … well, demoralizing is putting it gently.
So I knew the odds. I just developed the outlook that they didn’t apply to me. I rejected the entire notion. I viewed myself as outside this entire numbers game, and instead adopted an attitude that making the right breakthroughs and getting published was an inevitability.
Delusional? Probably. But it worked. It served the cause, because it left so little room for doubt.
Playwright George Bernard Shaw was onto this special kind of thickheadedness a long time ago:
“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
So be unreasonable. Be as unreasonable as you need to. There’s a method to this madness.
Whatever you tell yourself, though, tell it with conviction. Convincing the rest of the world always starts with convincing yourself.
So there you have them: 5 ways of shaving down the odds so they’re less stacked against you, and maybe even in your favor. They’re what made the biggest different for me.
But your path is your own, and so is your timetable … and so will be your triumphs, great and small, along the way.
[Photo by Images_of_Money]
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