When it comes to being successful in anything, one personal quality decimates everything else. Success doesn’t necessarily go to the rich, the talented, or even the super smart. The truly committed are who dominate the highest levels in…well, everything.
In my experience, ‘winning’ seems to have two camps.
There are those who believe in blind luck (who soon find out how fickle Lady Luck can be and wash out). Then, there are those those who appreciate that the harder/smarter they work, the luckier they’ll get.
I’ve been part of the writing world for almost two decades. Over the years, I’ve learned countless simple, yet difficult lessons and today I’ll share one of the most pivotal.
A smart person learns from his/her mistakes, but a wise person learns from the mistakes of others 😉 . And, since I’ve done all the dumb $#!@ so you don’t have to?
A Tale of Too Dumb to Live
When I was a bright-eyed neophyte, I had a lot of very strong opinions about publishing (and everything else, too).
Idiots usually do.
To be brutally honest, I was full of myself and an unteachable @$$clown. I’d grown up in a family that punished/shamed failure. If I wasn’t the ‘best,’ I’d quit. For me, it was better to drop a project, hobby or a class than to be average or—GASP—to fail.
I was so terrified of failure, I never fully committed…to anything. I’d put off papers to the last minute because, then, if I made a bad grade (a B)? I could blame my poor performance on my procrastination and super-short timeline.
If I got a job and wasn’t immediately the star performer? I’d get all butt-hurt and quit, then claim that the job wasn’t ‘right for me.’ If I started a new hobby and wasn’t an expert within the
month week? I grew bored and started something ‘better.’
I was addicted to the highs of the NEW, and believed in the Santa Claus of the creative community… ‘The Muse.’ So long as my ‘new’ novel was fresh and fun and all unicorns and rainbows? I was fine.
The moment it felt like work? Hard work? That my novel de jour might even be a mess I’d have to work hard and long to fix?
Half-finished books, partially completed cross-stitch/sewing/macrame projects, unopened watercolor sets, barely used golf clubs, etc. riddled my apartment.
My closet was where hobbies and dreams went to die.
Suffice to say, I rarely committed to anything long enough to get good, let alone become an expert. I was a professional amateur.
But, don’t worry. Back then, I wasn’t one to let total ignorance stand in the way of forming super strong opinions 😉 .
Why Writers Failed
When I started out as an author, I had more than my fair share of good reasons writers (why I) failed…and time, experience and maturity have shown me how wrong I was.
This said, we still hear these good reasons writers fail to break out, and—like tales of Sasquatch or UFO abductions—far too many people believe them.
These good reasons are a distraction. They leave writers chasing windmills, which can feel like progress and meaningful action, but really add up to a lot of nothing.
Unfortunately, these writers never get to see what they might have been able to accomplish with just a sound dose of intellectual honesty.
Before we get to the gritty stuff, I need to torch some windmills. So here goes. Might wanna stand back and watch your shoes…
People Just Don’t READ Anymore
We’ve all heard this familiar lament, but how does it stand up against facts and basic logic? For most of human history the average person was completely illiterate.
Reading, like fox-hunting, polo, and wearing giant wigs in the shape of a ship was a privilege reserved for nobility and the very wealthy.
It wasn’t really until the 20th century that regular everyday people had the education, time and disposable income to read books. Before the Industrial Revolution? Books were absurdly expensive and extremely rare.
If we fast-forward to modern times, it’s easy to give this excuse for why our books aren’t selling. What with Fortnite, Netflix, The Real Housewives of Boca Raton all competing for our audiences’ attention.
Yet, strangely enough, all these other distractions haven’t stopped J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone from selling well over a hundred million copies.
Fifty Shades of Grey (as of 2015) had sold over a hundred and twenty-five million copies.
People still read. It just takes something really extraordinary (or radical/verboten) to capture their attention.
Publishers Need to Spend More on Marketing
Don’t feel badly, ads and marketing campaigns don’t work well for most businesses. Sales expert Grant Cardone even mentions this in his NYTBS book If You’re Not First You’re Last—Sales Strategies to Dominate Your Market and Beat Your Competition.
Cardone reiterates a point I’ve made in countless blogs—in the current paradigm, marketing campaigns and paid advertising only seem to reinforce brands that are already household names.
We have to appreciate the sheer vastness of cyberspace. If we (writers) solely rely on marketing and ads to sell our books, we’d easily need tens of millions of dollars.
There is simply so much content on-line that to even make a blip is cost-prohibitive. Oh, and a blip isn’t a sale…so don’t get too excited.
Even IF marketing and ads alone could sell books, history has proven no amount of promotion can sell a product people don’t want or like. If massive marketing budgets alone were the key to success?
Then we’d all be drinking New Coke while driving our new 2019 Edsel and scrolling our Facebook Phone.
Writers Don’t Have Enough Training
Back in the Dark Ages (when I started writing) this could seem like a legitimate argument.
Creative writing classes and MFA programs were (are) extremely expensive. These programs seemed better designed for training future MFA professors than successful commercially published authors.
Those who didn’t go the MFA route, defaulted to the DIY plan. I remember tearing articles from issues of Writer’s Digest Magazine, checking out craft books from the library and struggling to piece the information together in a meaningful way.
Then, we had writing conferences. Conferences, though valuable (even to this day), were expensive and only held once a year per location.
Writing retreats costed thousands of dollars, thus for someone subsisting off Wendy’s .99 menu and praying the lights weren’t cut off? Not an option.
And conferences back before 2006 rarely offered classes about the business of the writing business (which was largely why I began blogging).
‘If ONLY writers had easy and affordable access to professional training,’ I lamented.
Yeah, about that.
Along comes the Internet. Though the information was sketchy in the beginning, it didn’t take long for the quality of training to improve exponentially.
Today, the web is JAM-PACKED with blogs about craft, branding, and the publishing business. We (writers) have unprecedented access to craft instruction via paper, digital, audio, video or all of the above.
Many experts offer classes that cost about the same as a Friday night dinner at Applebee’s (I know I do). There are on-line writing groups, NaNoWriMo, etc.
Yet, in spite of all of this?
The overall quality of writing has plummeted.
I’ve seen it myself. I started out as a developmental editor, and the worst samples I encountered in 2004 are easily ten times better than some of the best samples I see today.
Suffice to say, I was ridiculously naive.
Writers didn’t have a staggering failure rate because people weren’t reading, there wasn’t a big enough marketing budget, or because they couldn’t find quality training at an affordable price.
Writers failed and continue to fail because they aren’t fully committed.
Committed to FINISH
I know there are plenty of folks who write simply for a hobby, and that’s wonderful. For the record, not talking to y’all, so relax.
Plenty of writers want to know the secret to selling a ton of books. Lean in close. Want to know how to sell a lot of books?
*whispers* Finish the book.
As far as I know, there has never been a half-finished ‘perfect’ manuscript that sold millions of copies and went on to be made into a half of a ‘perfect’ HBO series.
Ah, but a lot of sucky ‘finished’ books have gone on to sell millions of copies and be made into ‘complete’ HBO seasons.
***Sucky being subjective (mostly).
Plenty of writers claim they want to be mega-authors, because NY is just publishing crap anyway, right? *hair flip*
This said, how many writers get committed? Truly committed? Like ALL IN committed? Committed to start the first book and finish it, regardless how ‘bad’ it is?
The committed understand storytelling has a learning curve. Sure, talent plays a part, but not nearly as much as we like to believe.
Committed to Go Again and Again
It takes an average of three completed manuscripts for a writer to start getting any ‘good’ at writing novels. Like anything in life, the more we practice, the better we become.
I will add in a caveat here, though.
Word count alone isn’t enough. We must be open to critique and to honest reflection. How can we do better? Improve? Repetition alone won’t cut it.
If I swing a golf club ten thousand times, that won’t make me the next Tiger Woods. It will, however, make me a prime candidate for a blown disc or three.
Same with writing. If I keep writing sucky books (and get no feedback as to why my books aren’t selling and have no reviews) then I risk getting really good at writing bad books faster. Speed is the only skill that improves if I’m unwilling to ask the hard questions.
***I do think this is a phenomena unique to the digital age, now that we have the option of self-publishing.
As we’ve talked about over the past few posts, there are a million plus books being self-published every year, and climbing.
Most novels don’t get any reviews. Others? Friends and family chime in as cheerleaders, but that isn’t always helpful for growing our skills.
These days? Claiming discoverability is a nightmare is like saying leprosy is a lot like eczema.
Thus, in the absence of helpful feedback, many writers struggle to know if their work is any good.
Not that this is a good excuse. There are ways to get a sound bead on the quality of a book. Ah, but there are so many ‘other’ reasons for failure that are far more appealing.
Lackluster sales can easily be blamed on too many other reasonable alternatives—-too many other books, algorithm issues, keyword debacles, Amazon is biased, sun spots, Mercury is in retrograde, etc.
To be blunt, most writers lean toward blaming their book’s (or books’) poor performance on anything BUT the quality of the writing.
I’ve received sample pages where the writing was SO bad I wondered if the writer even owned a copy of Strunk & White (for grammar and punctuation alone—forget story).
When I send back the pages, dripping red, what response do I most commonly get?
Oh, I see why you were confused. This sample is the beginning of Book 12 (5, 7, 18, etc.) in my series.
Yep, that was totally it. Had nothing to do with the fact that there were fifteen characters introduced by page three and each had his/her own POV (point of view).
Committed to Learning
When I started out? Sure I saved the articles and bought the craft books. But, I wasn’t committed to studying them and learning to write better books.
I dunno, I guess I thought owning them was enough. Maybe I thought I’d learn via osmosis or some crap.
Regardless, since I was a know-it-all? I couldn’t grow. FYI, you can’t teach a person who already knows everything.
Finally, after enough rejection, I started getting a tiny clue. Maybe I wasn’t as amazing as I believed. Tired of spinning my wheels, I hired a pro to tell me
why others couldn’t see my genius what I was doing wrong.
And it went something like this:
For those who’ve been following my blog any length of time, I’ve told the story of my first critique
massacre meeting. I literally sat in the parking lot and cried…as in ugly crying.
But, I’d hit a point in my life where I was tired of starting and stopping and living on emotional highs. I wanted to get committed, to see if I really had what it took to succeed…and to even be willing to see if I didn’t have what it took to succeed.
Committed to Do What Others Won’t Do
All this boils down to one core principle. If we’re in it to win it, then we have to be committed to do what others won’t.
This is true in everything. To be successful in anything we must be all in. Amateurs and wannabes try to ‘fit in time’ or ‘find the time’ to do whatever. But that isn’t how it works.
Can you imagine starting a business and ‘fitting in time’ to run that business? You do all the other things—clubs, PTA, housework, book club, yoga, taking kids to and from soccer—then pop by and open the store and hope to make money?
When I give this example, it’s easy to laugh. But wait…
How many writers (myself included) want to be top tier authors? As in household name, make loads of money and the author who gets the movie deals?
Maybe that is too much. I’ll reel it in a bit. How many writers want to sell enough copies of their books to simply write for a living? To give up that day job?
In a marketplace that’s straining to absorb a million plus NEW BOOKS per year, we cannot hope to make a scratch unless we’re all in and totally committed.
Our GOAL must be the center of our universe. Everything else orbits the goal.
When I started seeing a shift was when I stopped playing patty-cake with my goals and decided to go all in. I had to be willing to do what others wouldn’t if I hoped to breakout ahead of the masses (which is why I’ve posted over two thousand blogs, published five books, taught hundreds of classes, and spoken all over the country and now all over the world).
Despite ALL this? I can do better, or rather I must do better. The current climate demands it.
Committed to Climbing Higher
I hate to break the news, but the low-hanging fruit is all gone. Publishing is not special. Everything evolves, grows and improves. We, too, must evolve if we want to remain in the game.
Whether we want to be the best baker, the fastest runner, design the fastest car, build the tallest building, the metrics and demands are always moving up, up, up.
A hundred years ago, if you earned a degree from a university? You were set for life. Now, you’re set for an assistant manager position at Chili’s until you can earn that masters (and even then).
When I was in college, anyone who knew how to turn on a computer, let alone use one proficiently was viewed as some sort of a demigod with special knowledge.
Now? If you can’t use a computer, others want to know what hole you’ve been living in since Beverly Hills 90210 was cool.
This isn’t meant to discourage you, as much as it is to offer an honest assessment of what it takes to ding the universe. If we go into this writing thing committed to do everything it takes, KNOWING it will likely cost much more than we ever imagined or could have possibly anticipated?
Then we stand a better chance of doing well.
We can manage our expectations better and thus stave off crushing depression that might make us prematurely throw in the towel.
Our world dismisses how HARD our job really is, and as backwards as this may seem, that’s actually a compliment. See, great storytellers make what we do appear easy. Those who excel at anything make what they do seem effortless.
Top actors, athletes, salespeople, designers, bakers, artists, musicians, surgeons, illusionists, dancers, IT professionals, chefs, and carpenters ALL make their craft seem like no big deal.
We (onlookers) are merely enjoying the results/fruits from years (even decades) of remaining committed.
Committed to Commit
Why am I talking about commitment at all? Well, last post I blogged about how Amazon has now pretty much taken over publishing. I don’t expect the old paradigm publishers to remain viable for long, not that it matters.
See, the reason they contracted then crumbled was all because of a failure to commit. Or rather, they committed to the wrong things. They committed to keeping things the way they’d always been…but that’s never happened in human history.
Everything changes and evolves and we have to do so as well or end up fossils.
I get that many writers ‘just want to write’ but that’s a ridiculous statement for anyone other than the pure hobbyist. Don’t you think Beyonce might ‘just want to sing’? That Tom Brady might ‘just want to have fun and toss around the pig skin?’
If you get to know the top-earning authors, they work their tails off doing more than ‘just writing.’
Committed to ‘Just Writing’
Let’s take branding, social media, training, and business out of all this for the moment. I cannot count how many times I’ve heard writers lament they ‘just wanted to write’.
Okay…DO THAT. Today. Write five pages a day no matter what.
***For the record, I’m taking this challenge up as well so y’all are not alone.
Stephen King writes roughly six pages every day, except for his birthday. Dean Koontz, initially, wrote at a typewriter sixty hours a week. Isaac Asimov wrote sixteen hours a day. On and on.
From J.K. Rowling to Neil Gaiman to Ray Bradbury we see that, while all these authors have a unique pace and approach, they’re consistent. They write. Day after day they get words on the page. They’re committed.
We can learn a lot from that.
As for Moi?
Now that I’m finishing up here? Going to take my own advice and complete the edits for Dead Line. This was a short mystery-suspense that was published as part of a box set in 2017.
I have rights back and am re-releasing it on my own. I’m also…*shaky breath* committed to finishing the next book in my Romi Lachlan series by December.
I’ve spent far too long putting off what should have been a priority.
See? I struggle with the same stuff! I’ve just learned to be honest with myself. Every day is a chance to do it better. We’re not perfect and never will be. Just live, learn, dust off and do better.
Dead Line is set in the same town as my mystery-thriller The Devil’s Dance.
What are your thoughts? I LOVE hearing from YOU!
Hey, I KNOW how tough this job is. We ALL struggle, which is why we have to get up DAILY and prioritize what we want out of life. I have to remember that laundry, dishes, organizing my sock drawer are necessary chores…but they aren’t the PRIORITY.
Do you need to get committed to your writing? Have you been more committed to scrolling Facebook and feeling overwhelmed than to simply writing the story DOWN?
Is your brain in knots worrying over how to sell books you haven’t even FINISHED? Mine is. Or was. Hey, we are all works in progress 😉 .
A Quick Announcement
For anyone who wants to meet me in person, I’d LOVE to meet YOU (unless you don’t like me and then don’t you need to clean out those closets? #JustSayin).
Now that my parole officer finally agreed to extend the range of my ankle monitor…I’ll be speaking ALL DAY at these two incredible events!
…yes, they DO know it’s me. RIGHT? Anyway…
Y’all can check out Facebook for more details.
Right after Houston, I’ll be zooming to the other side of Texas to keynote for the Permian Basin Writers’ Conference. Come join the fun! We’ll talk shop, play with duct tape and glitter, and maybe get kicked out of a Walmart.
It’ll be FABULOUS! (Note: Bail money not included in conference fee).