Thursday, March 4, 2010

Having What It Takes

As I've mentioned before, I'm something of a writer myself. Due to this (and due to my habitually sharing my opinions regardless of whether they've been solicited), I occasionally pontificate on what I think it takes to succeed in this industry, or at the very least, what's necessary for setting oneself up for success. Luckily for you, I can only think of four things.

1. Discipline. You can be the most talented writer in the world and still utterly fail as a professional author if you don't maintain a writing schedule and treat your writing like a business as well as an art form. It's important to set aside time to write each day, even if it's only fifteen minutes. Consistent progress is also key; if you write for a half hour here and there and never commit to a formal schedule, you'll probably never finish your novel.

2. A desire to learn and improve. If you aren't reading, you aren't learning how to write. And, as much as I want you to buy books and keep me employed, it bears repeating that you do not need to spend money to improve your craft. Borrow books from your local library, join a critique group, attend free lectures and readings in your area, and practice, practice, practice. If you ever reach a point in your career at which you're convinced you can no longer improve, it's time to retire.

3. Skill. I do believe there is an element of skill involved in writing, but as in most endeavors, discipline and a deep desire to learn and improve can often make up for a lack of innate talent. Some people are naturally excellent writers; some people are not. If you fall into the latter category, you're going to have to work extra hard to raise your manuscript to publishable quality.

4. Luck. Unlike skill, which (though largely uncontrollable) can be made less crucial through hard work and dedication, luck is a factor in your career as a writer that you generally won't be able to affect or account for. It's often a very large factor, but there are a few things you can do to minimize bad outcomes and increase the likelihood of good ones:

· Network. The more people in the industry you know (from fellow authors to agents to editors), the better. Attend conferences if you can. Even if none of them directly lead to the sale of your manuscript, someone may think of you and refer you to an agent/editor who may be perfect for you and your work.

· Earn yourself a good reputation. This sort of ties into the above, but you don't want any factor apart from your work itself to give an agent or editor a reason to say no. Having a reputation as a likable author who's easy to work with won't get you representation by itself, but having the opposite reputation may make it hard for you to find an agent.

· Follow agent guidelines. Simple. Don't get your novel thrown in the proverbial circular file because you couldn't follow directions.

· Don't give up. Remember Jacob Appel? Yeah. 'Nuff said.


  1. *shudders* I just posted about author saleability, and then you post this, which is the perfect companion.
    I think I've been following your blog too long. Haha. Good stuff, though.

  2. This is a great list. A pontificator myself, I would only add to the luck section: by adhering to the other attributes on this list, we make our own luck.

  3. Great list. Just posted something similar regarding discipline/schedule...

  4. 1. Check
    2. Check
    3. Check
    4. Where do I get some of this? :)

    Seriously, wonderful post. And I've always believed in making your own luck, through the first three items on the list.

    Good luck to you and your writing!

  5. Well, I think luck could be divided into several smaller categories that are more controllable, but otherwise, a bloody wicked breakdown.

  6. Spot on advice!! It never fails to amaze me how many writers do not follow agent guidelines and then wonder what the hell they did to get their work rejected. And the agent stalkers who send the same query every single day...what the heck is up with that?? What do they think they will accomplish by doing that???

  7. Great post!
    My addition: limit self-indulgence in social media by 1)Being interesting! Post things others can either learn from, laugh at, or that provides a pop of recognition.
    2) Avoiding being snarky. Jeez folks, this is open to the world. Best face, okay?

  8. Great advice! I'd add - You need to have thick skin, tons of patience and a sense of humor.

  9. Number one is my saving grace. For years, I've kept a log book and log in when I'm writing and log out for everything not related to writing (including 10-minute email breaks and trips to the toilet). If nothing gets done that week, adding up those weekly totals tells me exactly why. Since I teach full time, I aim for 15-20 hours a week. When I close in on a deadline, that gets bumped up to 25-30.

    I've been applying number two for three months now, reading a wide range of short story anthologies taught in universities -- it's been great, each day I get sucked into a whole new world that often blows me away. Something to shoot for in my own writing. Three months ago I was thinking, maybe I'm missing something...

    Two years ago I networked myself into a two-book deal here in Malaysia. Now I'm trying to do that for back home in the USA, while still based in Borneo. Others have done it from other far-flung corners of the world, and that's all I need to know to keep at it.

    Great stuff...and toss me a little luck now and then, while I get back to work on the rest of your wonderful list.

  10. Right on. Thanks for the advice. So many of these tips are what we're painfully discovering in a slow way, but it's great to hear that these discoveries are true!