Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Attitude of a Successful Writer

Article by Jim Denney.



In his book Telling Lies for Fun and Profit, Laurence Block wrote, "It continues to astonish me what a widespread and enduring fantasy 'Being a Writer' is for the population at large. It's a rare day when I don't encounter some misguided chap who expresses the desire to trade places with me. And it's on those not-so-rare days when everything goes wrong, when the words won't come but the rejections fly thick and fast, when the bank account's gone dry again and editors don't even bother lying about the check's being in the mail, that otherwise sane folks tell me how much they envy me."

I've noticed that, when people find out what I do for a living, they often say, "I always wanted to be a writer," or, "I bet I could write a book if I put my mind to it." The people who tell you such things might be pizza delivery guys or doctors or astronauts, yet they all admire writers. They all have a secret wish that they could write. They all think they could do what you do if they had the time or the opportunity or if their lives were different somehow.

But you know what? I've never met a writer anywhere who wanted to be anything other than a writer. Take any person who says, "I am a writer," and I don't care how penniless he is, how long it has been since his last paycheck, how much he struggles with self-doubt, writer's block, and unreasonable deadlines--he does not, even for a moment, consider changing jobs. Why? Because writing is not a job. It's a mission. It's a calling. It's more essential to your soul than a career. It is not just your profession--it's your identity.

A computer programmer can go to seminary and become a preacher. A school teacher can tender her resignation and become an exotic dancer. But can a writer give up writing and become something else? Unheard of! Writing is not what you do, it's who you are! If you are a writer, there is nothing else to be.

If you know in your bones what I'm talking about, if you know that you have to be a writer, then you must write. You only get one life, and the life you've been given is made up of a finite number of heartbeats. Between your first heartbeat and your last is a brief span of time in which you are permitted to write your books and speak your piece. When your time is up, they will put you in a box and throw you in a hole to make room for the next writer waiting in line.

So now is your time, my friend. If you're going to write your books, you'd better get at it. Here are the keys to maintaining the attitude of a working writer as you pound your dreams into reality:

• Stay cool under pressure. Writing requires intense mental concentration. Pressures are distractions, and distractions are corrosive forces that can stop the flow of your writing. Marital and family strife are deadly to your inspiration. Financial stress can make it hard to put two coherent thoughts together. Deadline pressure can make you freeze like a deer in the halogen highbeams.

Understand, I'm not telling you to eliminate pressures and distractions from your life. It can't be done. The problems and pressures of life are inevitable, so you must learn to cope. One of the best survival skills a writer has is the ability to remain cool under pressure. There may come times when you are under intense deadline pressure and intense financial pressure at the same time--way too much work and no money at all. It will seem massively unfair and unreasonable--but you still have to finish the work in order to collect your next check. Money or no money, stress or no stress, you've got to write.

My most important asset in the early days of my freelance career was a sense of perspective. I looked at things this way: Okay, there's no money--so what's the worst that can happen? I put off some bills and make my apologies to a few creditors. The check will eventually get here.

Meanwhile, I can still write, I still have my health and my family, and life goes on. On the scale of bad things that can happen to a person, a little short-term financial stress just doesn't even budge the scale.

• During bad times, avoid self-pity. Unless you somehow manage to write a best-seller right out of the box (and I'm not sneering at that--it has been done), accept the fact that it takes time, patience, and persistence to build your career and achieve your goals. That's the way it should be. If writing was easy, everybody would do it.

At times, you may be tempted to look with envy upon your workaday friends with their secure jobs and regular paychecks. You'll be tempted to feel sorry for yourself. Don't. You have a lot of things going for you that they don't have:

1. Unlimited upside potential. Sure, the money is lean and the checks are slow at first. But your friends, the nine-to-fivers, top out at a certain level. They reach a point where they are making as much as they can make, and they can't advance any higher. A talented, focused, determined writer has unlimited upside potential. If you can write as well as Stephen King, Tom Clancy, or J. K. Rowling, you can become a one-person publishing empire and deforest half of Saskatchewan with your brilliant words. And why shouldn't you?

2. You're doing what you love. How many of your friends can say that? Most of the people you know are just marking time until retirement. Few are doing what they really love to do. If your friends won the lottery today, most of them would quit their jobs tomorrow. But if you won the lottery, would you stop writing? No way! Sudden wealth would just give you more freedom to write what you want.

3. You are a writer. You aren't mowing lawns or delivering pizza. You aren't cold-calling on disinterested prospects. You don't have to wear a pager to the opera, be on call at all hours of the night, or answer to a mean-tempered, autocratic boss. That's not to disparage the people who do those jobs, because all honest work is honorable. But you have something better than a job. You have something nobler than a career. You have a calling. You have a purpose in life. You are a writer.

• Think like an editor. If you want to write books, then ask yourself, "What sells?" Become acquainted with trends, bestsellers, and niche markets. Spend time in bookstores, checking out the racks and the displays, figuring out what sells. Read the trade journals, like Publishers Weekly. Know what editors are looking for, and make it your business to deliver it.

I continually encounter people who want to write a book about their own life or the life of someone close to them. Unfortunately, such books rarely get published. Your grandfather may have been a fascinating man who led an interesting life, but the truth is, if your grandfather didn't win a war, a Super Bowl, or an Academy Award, it's going to be tough finding a publisher for your grandfather's life story. Non-fiction book publishing today is celebrity-driven, event-driven, and publicity-driven. Competition is fierce. If you want to sell your book, you've got to think commercially.

Magazine publishing is another thing altogether. There are thousands of magazines filling hundreds of niches. Even the story of your grandfather's adventures as a ringmaster with a traveling flea circus--if the story is well-written with just the right slant--will sell to one or more of those magazines. You just have to do your homework and familiarize yourself with the markets. That means you must research potential markets in Writer's Digest and on the Internet. If a magazine doesn't post writers' guidelines on its website, then invest in some stamps and ask for them (send an SASE). Most important of all, read the magazine. Get to know its content, focus, readership, editorial personality, and slant. Study the contents page--and study the actual content.

Select a few publications you'd like to write for, then make it your goal to crack that market and keep selling articles there. After you conquer one publication, use your credits to impress editors at other publications, so you can sell to even better-paying markets.

• Finally, have fun! Novelist Piers Anthony once told me, "I hardly need to generate the motivation to write because I love to write and I do it all I can." And writer-editor Robert Darden told me, "My most exciting moments as a writer occur when I'm working on my fiction. It's like a drug--I crave it. Writing fiction is the greatest joy in this business--and when writing is fun, you can't keep from writing!"

So do what you love, have a blast, and write!


Brian M Logan

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