Don’t kill your chickens.

“Our greatest weakness lies in giving up.

The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.”

Thomas Edison

There’s no such thing as a bad writer, only one who hasn’t written enough.  The failed writer is the one who kills his chickens before they’re hatched – who has incorrect expectations about the process, and when those expectations aren’t fulfilled, gives up.  Invariably, the last push needed is the one just after you quit.  I’m talking about two things: good writing and success.

Good Writing.  Good writing doesn’t come from innate talent, intelligence, extensive studying of classic literature or an understanding of narrative structure and prose.  Good writing comes from much writing.  Your first novel always sucks.  Not necessarily compared to other writers’ first novels, but when what you’ve written is contrasted with what you could have written, your first novel always sucks.  When I see a poorly crafted story, filled with description and languid pacing, I don’t think “This writer is horrible!”  Okay, well I do, but I shouldn’t.  The fact is that the writer is not a horrible writer, they simply haven’t written enough to be able to reflect on and learn from.

There is a difference between writers who learn and writers who wallow.  Writers who learn will finish their first novel and think it’s the best thing ever written.  Then a year will go by, and they’ll be working on their second novel, and they’ll by chance pull out their first.  They can see now, it’s pretty bad.  Still, they think their second novel is great, but in the back of their minds they start to realize that they thought that about the last novel.  A year later and they’re working on their third novel.  They look back at the first and it’s horrible.  The second, and it’s pretty bad.  They realize as they’re writing their third novel, that it’s probably not the best thing under the sun, but they don’t want to give up.  A year later, their fourth novel.  The first is an abomination, the second is horrible, and they see now that their third novel is pretty bad.  They know that their fourth is not great, but they also know that they’re getting better with each novel.

Five years later, their tenth novel is pretty good, even in hindsight.  It’s got problems and flaws, but they’re working on it.  It’s been a long journey, and they’re still a long way from the finish – complete masterdom of ninja writing monkness – but they’ve come a long way and they’re proud of where they are.

The writer who doesn’t learn either continues to peddle their first or second novel as the greatest thing in the world, or sees that it’s not the greatest thing in the world and infers from this that they are, in fact, a bad writer.  Ten years later, they’re working a nine-to-five, and when they get off work, they go home and they sit down in their recliner and they turn on their sitcoms and zone out, muttering to themselves “Someday, I’ll publish my book.”

Success.  Whether you’re picked up by a traditional publishing house or you self-publish, many writers think their first work will get them on the Today show, and Regis & Kelly (does that show even still run?), and have bookstores clambering to get you to agree to do a book-signing event.  The fact is, unless you’ve spent twenty years doing absolutely nothing but writing and writing and writing and then spent another five years working on this one single book, with a fantastic concept and perfect execution, you’re not going to be famous straight off the bat.  You probably won’t even be able to quit your day job.

It takes years to break into the public eye.  Think of the A-list actors of today.  George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise… they all got started in the 80’s or 90’s.  It took years, sometimes a decade or more, for them to reach the status they have today.  Spielberg directed his first feature, a TV movie called Duel, in 1971.  Stephen King’s first novel was published in 1974.  For some few, fame and fortune is just a submission away.  For the rest of us, it’s a long, long haul to the top.  Even to the point of being able to sustain yourself entirely on your writing.  If you count on ten years, and it only takes two, you’ll be incredibly happy.  If you count on two and it takes ten, there’s a good chance you’ll give up.

If you truly believe in your writing – in your stories and your characters and your prose – then keep pushing.  If you self-publish, don’t publish one novel and then sit back and wait for the money to come in.  Neither should you publish one novel and then spend the next year and a half devoting your every minute to “getting it out there.”  Publish, promote and move on.  Write another novel.  Write two more, three.  Publish them.  The funny thing about self-publishing is that it’s more about “shelf life,” as J.A. Konrath excellently puts it in his blog post, Why You Won’t Succeed.  You can push one novel and hope it sells like crazy, or you can pound out four great novels and make returns on each.

Even if you go the traditional publishing route, you still can’t rely on one, single book to help you “make it.”  One book is only one chance for a reader to hear about you or become a fan.  Four books is four chances.  Five is more.  The more books you have published via any method – traditional, indie or self-published – the higher your name will appear on search engines, and the more people will know about you.  And the more you’ve written, the more you’ve learned.  Unless you’re a one-hit wonder, and it’s all downhill after your first success (see: Orson Welles), then you’ll get better and better.  Each book will (hopefully!) be better than your last.

Perseverance is not a good thing to have when writing, it is the only thing to have.

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6 thoughts on “Don’t kill your chickens.

  1. Absolutely fantastic article. So completely true, wonderfully said. This is the factor that’s missing from so many would-be authors (and filmmakers, and artists…) – lack of perseverance. A lack of JUST DOING IT. Just do it.

    Thanks for a wonderful blog, Michael!

  2. Great advice and well-articulated. Especially the part about self-publishing. We indies need to consider the effects of the Long Tail on both our profitability and betterment as a writer.

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