Preparation is awfully important if you are planning to climb Mt. Everest. If you show up in a t-shirt, shorts, and flip flops, with a sack lunch, it is likely you will perish during the ascent.
The same idea applies to the writer. Preparation is one of the keys to success.
There are No Shortcuts
Despite numerous methods for efficiency, there is still no shortcut in writing a great book. It is rare for anyone to slap together a masterpiece in a few short days. Does anyone actually think that a professional in this industry can’t tell the difference?
Too often I run into writers who want to pull an old manuscript out of a drawer, blow off its dust, and send it our way. For example, last month someone sent me a manuscript that had ©2012 on the front page. It may have been a simple error, but it also revealed how long they had been working on the manuscript. Unfortunately it still needed more work.
Or someone has self-published and the book has not sold well. The book was poorly written and poorly packaged. They send us a copy of this “failed” book asking us to “take it to the next level” not understanding that their shortcut in publishing it before it was ready is a very difficult challenge to overcome.
There is also the potential danger of exposing a lazy streak. “I really don’t have time to do the research.” or “Who is going to notice if I don’t go through it another time?” “Why bother? The agent is just going to reject it anyway.”
This is why it is called “work.” Writing isn’t called “play time.” While it may be a hobby (which is fine!) it isn’t an excuse for shortcuts.
There are No Substitutes
This is your work, not your neighbor’s, not your parent’s, not your friend’s, yours. Yes, you may use the help of a Book Doctor, a freelancer, a critique group, or even a collaborator, but it is still your work. It is your name that goes on the cover.
For example, in 1991 NBA basketball star Charles Barkley claimed he was misquoted…in his autobiography. (link to article here) Barkley admitted that he hadn’t read his 317-page autobiography until after excerpts had been published in the news.
The lesson here is to own your content. Take the time in preparation to make sure what is out there with your name on it is something that won’t need a disclaimer. This is often forgotten with social media posts. Even forwarding a link to something is a tacit endorsement unless you are careful.
There are No Guarantees
You could put in the 10,000 hours of practice Malcom Gladwell says is the minimum time before you are ready. You could come up with a great idea. You might have some natural aptitude for writing. But it still doesn’t guarantee that it is going to break through. Someone else may have just released a book too similar to yours. The execution of your craft may need another 10,000 hours before it is good enough. Many writers fail at this stage because they get a sense of entitlement and are frustrated with rejections.
John Creasy the English novelist kept at it. He kept getting rejected so decided to use pen names to create a new identity. Fourteen of them! Collectively he received 753 rejection letters. But he didn’t give up. His 754th became the first of his 564 published books. What if he had quit at the 700th rejection?
The bottom line is to take the time necessary to truly excel. It will be worth it in the end.
An earlier version of this article was posted in December 2011.
Preparation is key, I believe, but so are the patience and discipline that go along with that. http://bit.ly/s9mpzU
All are related. Sometimes it feels like a struggle to climb that literary Mt. Everest and most times it feels like a sisyphean endeavor.
But, I always ask myself, if I don’t apply preparation, patience and discipline, what’s the alternative? No writing of worth, no chance of publication.
Very few artists in any genre explode onto the stage of success with their first or second try. Art requires time. If Michelangelo had chipped his statues out of marble and then skipped the countless hours of polishing needed to perfect them, the world would consider him a hack, another wannabe.
I’m reminded of the woman who gushed to a concert violinist, “I’d give 30 years of my life if I could play like that!”
“Madame,” he replied, “that’s exactly what I did.”
How funny…I was just talking with my husband about this last night. I know that I’ll receive rejections–know it because everyone does–but then he asked me how many I’d stand before giving up. I said I wasn’t sure that I could ever give up my dream, though it may be delayed for awhile.
Thanks, as always, for helping us to put things in perspective. There could be a number of reasons for a rejection, not all of which have anything to do with our worth or even talent as a writer.
Christina Suzann Nelson
This is a message we need to hear over and over again. Thank you, Steve.
Peter Eleazar Missing
If it was ever left to me I would have long given up. Seven years ago, in the midst of a lifeclass crisis, I felt a call to write and trusted God in that.
What often encouraged me was the way that God prepared souls like David or Abraham or Moses. He pushed them back for decades, hemming them in from all sides, until the timing was ideal. However, when their preparation met the opportunity that only God could have forseen, the timing shook history.
There just is no short cut. We live in an instant world that demands instant gratification, but God is unmoved by any of that. All we can do is follow, generally without any assurance of a specific outcome, for this is a walk of faith. However, the wait will define the difference between a body of work that is just another nondescript addition to a growing junkheap of information – or – something that will make a difference.
I do know that every time I thought my seminal work was done, God added more, extending a basic concept into a robust thesis. He alone knew how much work had yet to be done, but looking back now, I can honestly say it was worthwhile.
This hits close to home, and it’s hard to hear. Especially for someone as impulsive as me. Sometimes, we writers want this so much that you’re right… we forget to prepare. We forget to give it the best that we can.
I’m lost in a quagmire of waiting and wondering and wanting. I’ve done some pretty foolish missteps in what could hardly be called my writing “career”. I just hope I’m learning, perhaps even getting used to rejection, and I pray He cultivate in me a humble and contrite spirit to be able to honor Him even when things aren’t going as I dreamed it would.
I kind of wish I didn’t read this article, but I have. I guess that’s what I need to be doing right now. I need to prepare.
You are in that gray world of the writing life. Neither in nor out…waiting for direction. This is not uncommon. It even affects the long time veteran.
I believe it is part of the creative process. Think about other arts, dance, music, theater, etc. Each is defined by the ebb and flow of steps forward and back. Rejection, acceptance, silence, and clamorous applause.
It can be debilitating. It can also be a refiner’s fire.
One key is to not let “success” as a writer/artist define you. For those who are in Christ they are a new creature. And while the world may swirl around with its arbitrary and fleeting measures of success we know where our true treasure lies.
Thank you for the correction. It has been repaired.
Exactly. I just finished reading the books The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game by Michael Lewis. I followed that by Michael Oher’s book, I Beat the Odds: From Homelessness, to The Blind Side, and Beyond. Both books exhibit intense and continuous preparation, from coaches planning offenses and defenses to Michael Oher’s own academic education and his physical preparation for the NFL and beyond. He pointed out that when he entered the NFL his work did not stop, in fact it increased, because there was always someone available to replace him just as he, himself, had replaced someone else. These books struck a note with me because that’s what I’ve done all my life: studied, researched, and followed wherever that research led. If we struggle, our struggle is not wasted whether we are published or not, because the effort changes us, and as we are changed so are those with whom we have contact. Helen Roseveare died a few days ago. One thing she said was that she wanted Jesus to have his way with her. That way happened to include beatings, imprisonment, and rape, through we she entered into Jesus’ sufferings. Then she returned to the same country where she had been beaten imprisoned, and raped. That that is what we must do. Enter into the sufferings of Jesus no matter what form it takes in our lives, and return to the calling to which He has called us.
Well said Diane. Michael Oher’s story is inspiring and a great metaphor for the writing life.
For those who do not know Helen Roseveare, please read this tribute to her life and then read one or two of her books. She was an incredible woman.
It’s kind of like parenting. You put in thousands of hours of time and sweat and preparation and prayer, hoping in the end your kids will turn into successful, godly adults. And most of the time, they do. But there are no guarantees.
So it is in the writing life.
So true! And your manuscript is like a recalcitrant teenager, refusing to makes his bed or do her homework. And then stares at you in defiance. !!!
Last week it was when I read on a blog the importance of 10,000 hours. Reading this post makes the time seem like the preface of a 700 page book.
Preparation simply is inevitable.
The journey of learning never ends. Nor should it. I’ve been in this industry for over 35 years. I’ve been reading and studying (and living) it that entire time. And yet I regularly learn something new. It helps if you love the subject you are trying to learn!
Preparation is never complete for something worth doing.
For a Ph.D. in science, it’s 5-6 years of college classes, 3-5 years of full-time work on your thesis project, and writing a book about that research that runs between 150 and 300 pages in length. How long it takes depends in part on whether the project you picked lends itself to a “quick” solution or not. And that’s only to get the degree that says you’ve shown enough skill as a research scientist to start a career. You keep studying the literature and mastering new lab skills for the rest of your working life… or you fail.
It’s single-minded devotion that brings a scientist success, but it’s so much fun to do research that you think of the many hours poured into it as recreation, not work. I feel the same way about doing the historical research and writing my novels.
Preparation isn’t painful when you truly love doing what it prepares you for.
This reminds me of a story from WW2.
A number of Spitfire fighters were shipped to India in a disassembled state, and the erection manuals were not included.
Having worked with older Spits before, the locals decided to use their experience, rather than request updated manuals…which went well until the time came to install the wings. The bolts that held them on were too large!
What to do?
It was assumed that the bolts shipped were within tolerance but just oversize, so they were carefully worked down with emery paper until they fit, and the aeroplanes were assembled in due course.
Then wings started falling off on test flights.
It turned out that Supermarines, the manufacturer, had gone to the use of shrink-fit bolt; they had to be cooled (and thereby shrunk) before installation. When they warmed again they would expand into the hole and assure good contact all the way ’round.
What an example of why we always need to keep learning about the new best way to do something!
Okay, I am thrilled to have the opportunity to ask this question. I will spare you details of my paying dues, only to say that in the past 20 years, after several years of professional non-fiction editorial experience/writing, this tortoise has read many writing books, taken online courses, gone to conferences, been mentored, and written a novel and corresponding screenplay, the latter of which was recently a finalist in a national faith-based contest. Also, I was hired to co-rewrite another screenplay by a Famous Writer. While researching getting my novel published, I Got The Idea I needed a website and social media presence. Okay, did that. Now, drumroll, despite good feedback from several sources, I’m told by a small publisher to write my second book because agents won’t look at you if you only have one, because “they’re looking for a relationship.” This reminds me of that wonderful line in Body Heat where Ted Danson rebukes William Hurt for crossing a line, and Hurt replies, “They keep moving the little sucker!” Please, forgive the whinge and say it ain’t so. Or is this a well-kept secret? It happens my novel is set up for a sequel and maybe trilogy—or pilot for a TV series, besides the feature film—but must I really promise all this in a query to an agent? I’ve read creditable advice online, not to sound grandiose. Thanks in advance, for this and the valuable service you’re performing here.
Wow, Lori! Congratulations on your success as a screen writer. You’ll have to let us know here when those screenplays turn into movies.
Thanks so much, Carol. In the way of the business, our team rewrite was not chosen. But I learned a ton, sitting at the feet of a master, and have hopes for my own project.:)
Sheri Dean Parmelee
Great advice Steve. Thanks so much!
Love this, Steve: “This is why it is called “work.” Writing isn’t called “play time.”
Because I started (and still) write out of a desire to get a message out rather than because I enjoy writing, I’ve often fallen into the trap of thinking that all the other writers out there have it easy because they actually enjoy writing. I know that’s not true at the intellectual level, but it helps to have someone tell me, “No, Barb, that’s not true. Writing is work!”
Thanks for the good encouragement, Steve! Now it’s time for me to get to work! 🙂
W Ralph Mangum
Steve my manuscript has been professionally edited and I am considering sensing it to you for your consideration and permission. Now what?