“Find something worth dying for… then live for it.”
Originally published here on Storyfix June 1 and 2, 2009.
Writing at a professional level is much like any other pursuit in which professionals are on public display. They make it look easy.
Ballers glide effortlessly through the air to slam dunk, yet the average gym rat hasn’t touched the rim since the Clinton years, if they could ever get up there at all. Celebrity dancers float across the floor in the embrace of double-jointed, hollow-cheeked mentors who seem to barely touch it at all – hey, you’d write better, too, if Elmore Leonard hung out at your PC for ten hours a day.
And perhaps less analogous, John Grisham has inspired millions to write a novel because of nothing other than the fact he makes it look so damn easy, a quality often mistaken for the belief that he’s just not all that good at it, stylistically-speaking.
I don’t agree with that, by the way… Grisham is a consummate storyteller and a fine narrative stylist. And he owns a jet. But I digress.
You think this is easy? You think it’s unfair that folks who don’t write as well as you are rich and famous? Think again. And then go back and reread Grisham after you’ve moved to the other side of complexity, which is where simplicity resides.
Athletes and artists, including many of our bestselling novelists, are some of the primary reasons so many unpublished – and unpublishable — novels aren’t good enough. Because professionals make it look easy. And it sure as hell isn’t. But we dive in anyhow, unaware that we are indeed swimming with literary sharks who will eat our manuscripts for lunch.
My Favorite Publishing Analogy
Consider the game of golf. If you can draw a parallel between a writing workshop and a golf clinic, you’ll see what I mean.
At my writing workshops I ask for a show of hands from those who aspire to publish their work. Everyone, always, is in. Then I ask how many would like to make a career out of writing, to actually turn pro. Again, almost everyone fesses up to the dream.
Everybody at a writing workshop wants to turn pro. They may not have thought of it that way — they want to publish — but it’s the same thing. Unless you are self-publishing, landing a contract is turning pro.
Then I ask how many golfers are in the room. Usually only one or two – golf isn’t the traditional game of choice among writers. not sure what is… cards, maybe. Nonetheless, the approaching punch line is invariably a hole in one.
I then challenge the group to notice what just happened. Everyone in the room wants to be a professional writer. Everyone. Now, I say, imagine a golf clinic with dozens of aspiring players wearing their country club best, gathered around the practice green as the guest touring pro appears, and that the same question is asked: how many of you here today aspire to be a professional golfer?
I submit to you that nary a single hand would appear. Why? Because these folks appreciate just how good their professional heroes – the ones who make it look so easy – really are, and because this isn’t their first fairway rodeo, they know how hard the damn game is. They’ve come to this little golfing workshop to learn something and to get their game in shape, but that’s it.
Would they like to turn pro? Of course. But do they expect to turn pro? Never in a million tee times.
And yet, every butt in every chair at a writing workshop fully expects to turn pro. To publish.
At the risk of being a buzz kill, let’s get real.
We need to understand just how high the bar is in the publishing world, and just how deeply we must dig to reach that level. Too many writers with casual affection for writing and an equally soft work ethic still maintain the loftiest of goals. They hope to publish, as if such a level is a casual aspiration. It’s not.
This violates a law of the universe — you have to scratch and claw your way to the top.
Here’s the really scary part. The odds of getting your book published by a legit New York house, the kind of contract that gets your work on the shelf at Borders, are about the same as someone setting out to play on the PGA or LPGA tour. In a word, miniscule. When you add up the new tour cards awarded at the pro schools, then add the new club pros hired in a given year, that roughly equals the number of never-before-published writers who land a New York contract for their first novel.
Or, even more roughly, about one in a thousand submissions. The number goes up with small press publishers, and skyrockets when you count publish-on-demand, which you shouldn’t if it’s a bonafide writing career you’re dreaming of.
Are you that one in a thousand?
That’s the tough question all of us at a writing workshop, or simply sitting in front of a blank screen with an idea and a dream, need to answer. And with the answer, while daunting, resides hope: you could be.
All of those professionals who make their craft look so easy, be they artists or athletes, know one thing better than all of us sitting in the next writing workshop. Not to mention that every last one of them was where you are right now, fantasizing about seeing their name on a dust jacket. They know that writing at a professional level is about more than a killer idea and a knack for whipping out nifty little sentences.
It’s all about craft. A craft that is deeper and wider and more challenging than you can imagine (the astute reader will realize that in that sentence lies the key to everything you want). And yet, a craft that can be packaged and taught, and therefore (unlike professional-level golf), learned. When practiced, it can even be mastered. Even if you aren’t blessed with athletic ability or the sensibility of an artist.
What you need — the ante-in to this businesss — is a willingness to learn and to work at it, to go deep and wide, and evolve your killer ideas and clever prose into something that becomes a symmetrical, structurally-sound, compelling story.
I’ve nearly been lynched for speaking this truth at a few writing conferences — other than the agents and publishers in the audience, who more often as not hugged me after my comments — but it’s the most precious gift I can bestow: the gift of truth. And, the gift of hope that the dream is real if, and only if, you’re willing to do the hard work required.
Dreams are just that: they remain in your head. So let’s get real about turning your writing dream into your career reality, or at least (because the career part of the equation is largely out of your hands – more on that later), into the moment in which the book you hold in your hands has your name on it.
That moment is worth every sleepless night, every rejection and every new start, I promise you.
Next up this week — another early Storyfix post, while I cram to meet my book deadline.