The Common Traits of the Successful Writer: Part II

If I wanted to be an architect I should not be satisfied that I only had grand visions of what the design for my buildings should be.  Nor would anyone be impressed with my visions if I couldn’t put them into the proper format.  Nor would anyone be interested if my design was so impractical that it couldn’t be built.  I would have to learn the craft of design and also the business of building and then apply my vision to that.  I would also need to understand how the people who actually construct the building operate, and interact with them in a professional and knowledgeable manner.  And, perhaps most importantly and most often forgotten, I would not have any success if no one wanted to buy my designs.

Remember something about the art of writing: It is the only art form that is not sensual. You can see the colors and strokes that make a painting, feel a sculpture, and hear music.  The manner in which each individual piece in those fields impacts on the senses is different.  But every writer uses the same letters on a piece of paper.  You have twenty-six letters that combine to form words, which are the building blocks of your sentences and paragraphs.  Everyone has the same words, and when I write that word and you write it, that word goes into the senses of the reader in the same way.  It’s how we weave them together that impact the conscious and subconscious mind of the reader that makes all the difference in the world.

A book comes alive in the reader’s mind.  You use the sole medium of the printed word to get the story from your mind to the reader’s.  It is the wonder of writing to create something out of nothing.  Every book started with just an idea in someone’s head.  Isn’t that a fantastic concept?

Writers learn by writing.  And before that, by being voracious readers.

In essence, writing is no different from any other profession.  It’s a simple rule, but one that every one wants to ignore:  the more you write, the better you will become.  Practically every author I’ve ever talked to, or listened to, or read about in an interview, says the same thing.  I saw Stephen King on C-Span and he said the most important thing to do to become an author is to write a lot.  One writing professor said you needed to write a million words before expecting to get published.  I’m currently around word five million and still learning so much.

Let’s look at the positive side:  The odds are strongly against getting published.  But simply by taking the time and the effort to learn from these words, you are increasing your odds.  By continuing to write beyond your first manuscript, you vastly increase your odds.  Many writers gush over the amount of money John Grisham made for The Firm but they forget that A Time To Kill was published previously to lackluster sales and failed.  What is important to note about that was that Grisham realized he hadn’t done something right and worked hard to change.  Note that Grisham did not sit still and bemoan what his agent/editor/publisher etc. didn’t do to help the novel.  He didn’t complain that the reading public didn’t understand his brilliance.  He worked on the one person he knew he could change:  himself (a tenet of Warrior Writer).

From talking with other published writers, I have found it is common that somewhere between manuscript numbers three and six, comes the breakthrough to publication.  How many people are willing to do that much work?  Not many, which is why not many succeed and how you can vastly increases your chances of beating the odds.  Publishers do not want to make a one-time investment in a writer.  When a publisher puts out a book, they are backing that writer’s name and normally want to have more than one book in the pipeline.  Multiple book contracts are very common; with their inherent advantages and disadvantages.  As soon as you type THE END on your first manuscript (and I mean THE END after numerous rewrites), the absolute first thing you must do is begin writing your second.

As someone who wants to be in the entertainment business, you have to study those who have succeeded and failed in that business.  Read interviews with people in the arts and entertainment industries and you will find a common theme:  a lot of years of sweat equity put in before the big “break” came.  I’ve read of and heard actors and comedians talk about spending decades working in the trenches before they became famous.  Musicians who sang back-up for years before becoming lead.  Painters who toiled in squalor (and often died) before their work was recognized.

Study the lives of writers.  Read interviews with authors and see what they say.  Go to conferences and talk to them.  Listen to them talk about several things:  how they became authors, how they live, how they feel about writing, how they write.  Many worked very strange jobs before getting published.  Almost all struggled and spent many years of suffering before they succeeded.  I say suffering in terms of financial or career terms, not in terms of the writing itself.  Most writers enjoy writing.

People seem to think that writers are different and, while in some highly publicized cases they are, most published writers have spent many years slugging away before even their first novel was published.

Simple perseverance counts for a lot.  I think many people with talent lack the drive and fall out of the picture and people with maybe not as much talent but more drive take their place.  It’s the difference between having a growth mindset and a fixed mindset.  People with talent often believe they know all they ever need to know, so therefore their mind is fixed.  Those who believe there is always something more to learn, have a growth mindset.

Write It Forward

About Bob Mayer

Bob Mayer is a NY Times Bestselling author, graduate of West Point, former Green Beret (including commanding an A-Team) and the feeder of two Yellow Labs, most famously Cool Gus. He's had over 60 books published including the #1 series Area 51, Atlantis and The Green Berets. Born in the Bronx, having traveled the world (usually not tourist spots), he now lives peacefully with his wife, and said labs, at Write on the River, TN.

Posted on January 21, 2011, in Novel Writer's Toolkit, Write It forward and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. Your words are absolutely true, Bob. Perseverance is important but WRITE A LOT is where it worked for me. My first non-fiction book may have received 60 rejections but every one gave me the challenge of fine tuning the book until it was accepted. Along the way to my first published book, I didn’t write two or three other books, I wrote and published hundreds of articles and kept reams of journal entries. The point is to write a lot. Every word doesn’t have to apply specifically to a plot point in your current WIP. Every word you write is like raising a barbell with your brain, what I call your writing muscle, and the workouts make your writing muscle stronger and stronger until you’re published. Love this post. Joy

  2. Great post! Like everybody else in the entertainment industry, fiction authors are often judged by the few celebrities of the author world. It’s easy to read about “celebrity status” entertainers and then forget about the many thousands of actors, singers, artists, and writers who struggle in obscurity for years. Writing well is not a quick and easy process. You have to love writing to keep writing.

  3. This is wonderful! I love your comment about John Grisham. We’ve all heard the moans and cries of “but they just don’t understand me.” That may be true. And they won’t read your work until they do. And You can’t do your best work until you do your first work and really understand the craft as well as yourself.

    And you have all said it. It is a process, not a product. Great Post!

  4. Bob, you are right on the money as usual. Have you really been abducted 14 times? You post reminds me of a great quote from Tom Stoppard: “Skill without imagination is craftsmanship and gives us many useful objects such as wickerwork picnic baskets. Imagination without skill gives us modern art. “

  5. Writing is a journey of lots of writing. My writing now is a result of starting out at age 5 knowing I was a writer. I hand-wrote and bound my own books at age 8. Then hitting various walls like my first novel attempt at 16 and the lonely path of discovering various plot truths and unworkable facts which drove me nuts. I still write a journal which dates from when I was 14years old. Then study knocked the writing out of me. Then kids, then I took time (and left two partners who were not supportive) to think and try out words again. Met other writers, wrote heaps of poetry, wrote a published biography, had other historical work rejected by every publisher in my country. Wrote stories, wrote a novel. had one published, was asked to write a novel by a publisher. Wrote three novels which were published. Then had the rest of my work rejected. Got large file of rejections from all over the world.
    Bestselling author unable to sell the books she wants to write. Yep – just because you are a published author does NOT automatically mean any publisher will beat a path to your door for your next work!
    NOW – I can sell my own books, written how I want to write them and I now have this lifelong apprenticeship behind me. All my partially written books (Approximately 10 of them) can find a place in digital publishing and readers who will love them.
    Fortunately for me I got my digital rights back before the trade publisher thought they had any value. Big grin. I set up my own publishing house just like Bob has.
    It is great to have my power back in my hands and to be able to empower other authors to do the same thing.

  6. Bob, as usual, you are SO right. Back to writing…
    thanks again,
    Lizzi, now writing as Lizzi Tremayne

  7. Great post. Bob. Thanks for reminding us how important perseverance is. I’m as yet unpublished and about to tackle book no. 5. Thanks for giving me the extra inspiration to keep going.

  8. Such a practical and wise post, Bob. It’s the first of your blogs I’ve read, because I’m too busy writing three novels a year to do much surfing the Internet. I’m glad I came, however. Even after 55 novels published it’s good to have one’s own beliefs re-affirmed, and to know that other people find something to learn with every novel written.

    Good on yer!

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