Should You Be Obsessed With Getting Published?

crea8con pic 5I love talking to writers about writing.

Sometimes I get downright evangelistic about it.  Yeah, that’s me, delivering a keynote at the recent Portland Creative Conference in front of about 500 or so folks who didn’t expect to see a fiction writer pounding the podium like a starry-eyed politician stumping for votes.

I work myself into a lather because I see too many writers who don’t get it.  They say they get it, in the same breath where they say how much they want it.  But when you show it to them, when you explain the odds and what it really takes to climb that mountain, they slink back into their chair and lower their eyes.  

Why?  Because writing is hard

Everybody wants a you-can-do-it! locker room speech.  They want to hear that if you just stick with it long enough, your writing dream will come true. 

Well, maybe.  But the real truth… that’s harder to swallow. 

My whole schtick is to show you what that means.  And if this seems like a locker room speech, so be it.   But the key to getting out of the locker room and onto the playing field is here, too.   It’s not buried, it’s the front and center point today.  In the next sub-head, in fact, coming at you in about two seconds.

The rah-rah is optional.

That key is delivered in one word: knowledge.

I don’t know everything there is about writing or about getting published.   Nobody does.  But I’ve been there, both on the bestseller and best-of lists and under the bus.  I’ve been studying and teaching the craft of writing for two decades, reading the work of both published and unpublished writers, so I know a thing or two about what works and what doesn’t.

Here it is, in a nutshell: you can’t do this thing casually and expect to succeed wildly.  You need to prepare like an athlete trying to make the Olympic team.  You need to sacrifice, to suffer, to pay your dues.

As a writer with a dream, you can’t just imitate what you read without striving to understand what’s really going on behind the page.  That won’t get you there.  You must combine a thirst for knowledge about the craft of writing with a work ethic that exceeds that of your competition.

Just like an elite athlete.

Because like it or not, admit it or not, getting published is a competition.  There are only so many open slots out there.  Being good isn’t good enough any more.

Key words: intensity, passion, commitment, consistency, persistence, faith.

The most key word of all: knowledge.

The Power of the Sports Metaphor

The parallel between writing and athletics is one of my favorites.  Because I’ve been there, too.

I was never an elite athlete.  But I was a professional athlete for five years, and I’ve competed at a high level in several other sports. Including the sport of writing.

I’ve seen who makes it and who doesn’t.  And even when it doesn’t seem fair, I understand why it happens.

Go back a few lines to those key words.  That’s why.

I have a friend who plays on the PGA tour.  He’s barely thirty and has won well over ten million dollars, including two championships and dozens of top-10 finishes.   If you follow golf you’ve heard his name.

He’s not an elite athlete, either.  In fact, where golf is concerned, there really aren’t very many true athletes out there at all.  The game isn’t about that.

Which means, as it is with writing, success isn’t dependent on some gift from God.  It’s dependent on effort.  And not just the quantity of your effort, but the empowered quality of it.

Trust me, God will be on your side once you understand this.

My friend – who is on a first name basis with God, by the way – works harder at his craft than anyone I’ve ever met, in any pursuit. And by working, I’m not just talking about hitting balls – he seeks knowledge each and every day. 

That’s what the game of golf – and the game of writing – is all about: knowledge.

He’s not quite a household name – yet… his best days are still ahead – but by any measure he’s living his dream.

Because Ben Crane remains obsessed with that dream.

When he was a kid he carpeted his bedroom with artificial turf and practiced his putting long into the night.  Every night.  For years.  Until he made his high school team.  Until he got a college scholarship.  Until he won the Pacific Northwest Amateur.  Until he was a nationally ranked junior.  Until he made the Nationwide tour.  Until he got his PGA tour card.  Until he made his first cut.  Until he made his first million dollars.  Until he won his first PGA tournament, and then another.

Until an injury required him to completely rebuild his swing, from the ground up.   

Guess what… he still putts in the middle of the night.   And most importantly, he still seeks knowledge as the centerpiece of his game.

In athletics and in writing, it’s not who you know, it’s what you know.  That’s why both are higher and more noble pursuits than either business or politics.

The Sad Truth

I’ve met writers who have been at this for decades, and who, when you dig deep, still know virtually nothing about what they’re doing.  Sad but true.

Imagine you had a goal to turn professional at your sport.  To make the tour, to compete in the Olympics, to get drafted and wear a professional uniform.  To go up against the very best.

What would you do to make it happen?  How hard would you work?  How obsessed would you be?

I’m thinking that if this were the case, you wouldn’t be remotely casual about it.

It’s defining the word hard that’s the problem here.  Because it’s too easy to spin your wheels in the name of hard work, but without getting anywhere.

Would you talk about it more than you practice it?  Would you work on your game every now and then?  Fit it in when you could, when you felt like it?  Put other things first, yet in the same breath tell everyone that this is your fondest, dearest dream?

Ask an audience at any writing conference who would like to turn professional, and virtually every hand in the place goes up.  Way up.

Well, guess what – the odds of turning pro at the game of writing, of making a career of it, are about the same as turning pro as an athlete. 

Too many writers don’t seem to understand this.  Sure, they practice.  But they don’t combine practice with the seeking of requisite knowledge that will allow them to emerge from the masses to reach their goal.

The real question is – are you obsessed? 

How badly do you want this?  Are you really working hard enough?  What are you sacrificing to make it happen?  Are you writing smart, or are you still doing it your way, by the seat of your literary pants, because that’s just how you roll?

Obsession without a plan, without knowledge, is a formula for madness.  But obsession in context to a plan… that’s not crazy, that’s hope.

You can’t have a plan without knowledge.  Make of that what you will.

That’s why I pound the podium.  That’s why I’ve created Storyfix, and why I get up at 4:00 am most every day to work on it and my other writing projects.

There is only one thing we have control over in this business – our effort.  Both in terms of intensity and focus.  That’s it.  Everything else is out of our hands.

You can sleep when you’re dead.  Right now, you’re alive.  You’re a writer.

The knowledge is out there.  In fact, it’s right here.

The putter is ready and the night is long… what are you waiting for?

Find something to die for.  And then live for it.

Photo credit: Scott Huber


Filed under getting published

21 Responses to Should You Be Obsessed With Getting Published?

  1. after reading this, i would love to hear you speak about writing. The analogy between athletics and writing is so true, and the effort side is something that i’m just beginning to understand.

    What would you recommend to those of us just getting started in order to increase our knowledge of writing? i’m assuming that you mean practice alone won’t increase your knowledge, and i’d love to have some suggestions on how to improve this area.


  2. Patrick Sullivan

    First, this sort of post is why I love your blog so much, you don’t sugar coat things, you put your opinion out there plain as day and let us take from it what we will. Not enough of that in the world these days, and not just in writing.

    Secondly, it certainly has me asking myself how serious I am, and how serious I am going to be about this. I’ve let writing fall to the wayside while a combination of work and house hunting/moving has kicked my ass. But you remind me that if you really, truly want something, you make as much time as you need for it, other things can wait.

    Tough pill to swallow, but it’s given me a lot to think about, and I appreciate that.

  3. Sharon

    Great post. I agree with Adam. Would love to hear you speak And would probably be wishing I had two sets of senses, so I could pay attention to you and to the effect it has on the audience.

    Thanks for doing this blog.

  4. Dale

    I absolutely agree. I’ve written for a number of years without success, finally sitting down back in mid-2008 and reading my second novel and realizing there was really no conflict there. The same for numerous short stories. That started me on the path of studying the craft and technique of fiction writing, taking several private classes on fiction writing, as many workshops as I could (including one of yours at this year’s WWC) and practicing what I am learning. And will continue to learn.

    Thank you for reiterating this!

  5. One of the best speeches I ever read. Bravo Larry.

    ‘Find something to die for. And then live for it.’

    Plus a super quote.

  6. V. J. Wilcox

    Obsessed is the perfect word. It’s often how I described myself when writing my first novel (and the second, third, and now the fourth). Writing and learning about writing go hand in hand. If you want to grow and develop as a writer, you must do both. Thanks, Larry, for putting it all in perspective–again.

  7. Thank you SO much for this post, Larry. I just started receiving the second round of edits on my book back from my editor, and I’ve been procrastinating hard-core. Yet I spend hours of my day thinking about what it will be like when my book is published. Um, hello! It’s exactly what you just said…you can’t think about it and make no effort and expect it to happen.

    I need to get myself back into the fiction-writing mindset. It’s what I need. I miss it.

    Thanks again for the awesome post, I appreciate your knowledge!

  8. Whew!

    Man.. that makes me feel better. I thought maybe I was going crazy. I can count on one hand the amount of time I don’t work on research or writing each day. If it weren’t for my kids and husband I’m not sure I’d ever really stop except to eat. Obsessed was a term my husband described me with not long ago. He said it because, I sent in one manuscript and already I’m researching for my next.

    Thanks for this post LB….This site is still the best. I read and reread your posts to make sure I didn’t miss anything.

  9. Shirls

    I am presently reading a novel by an author I admire. It’s one of her early works and it shows. There’s nothing WRONG with it: it just doesn’t have the polish that her later books have. I find this immensely cheering.

  10. Mary E. Ulrich

    ‘Find something to die for. And then live for it.”

    Did you write this? Amazing quote.

    Enjoyed the pep rally.

  11. Aw jeez.
    I hate it when someone kicks me in my lazy butt.
    Very inspiring.
    Thanks for doing that.

  12. Chris Miller

    Should we call this scared straight? I love it. Keep it up Larry; I can’t wait to see what you post each day.

  13. The odds of turning into a pro writer are the same as turning into a pro-athlete? I’m not sure that’s true. If you define “professional athlete” as someone who earns a salary playing some sport, well, I came up with all the paid sports I could think of, estimated the number of people employed at the highest levels (NBA, NFL, MLB, etc.) and multiplied by ten to account for lower echelons and less celebrated sports. I came up with a number around 100,000.

    I think that, between novelists, textbook authors, pro bloggers, web content developers, and the five people still writing stories for newspapers, the number of writers has to be higher than that.

    (I looked for census data on the question, but all I found was that there are 2.4M people in “Arts, design, entertainment, sports, and media occupations.”)

    The message some will take away from this is that you (yes *you*) have about as much chance at being a pro author as you (yes *you*) have of being a pro athlete. After all, the odds are about the same for a random person. Since a lot of us have keen memories of being terrible at sports, this may be more discouragement than is warranted.

    But we’re not random people. Anyone who has any aspiration or ambition as a writer is automatically better positioned for success than at least 70% of the population. If you have a bit of aspiration and a bit of raw talent, you’re more likely to succeed than 90% of people.

    Yes, there is much hard work to do. I don’t want to detract from that point at all. But when you present the analogy this way, you might remind the listener that, in the analogy, most of us in the audience are at least second stringers on the high school football team.

  14. Great post, Larry, and so true! I “broke up with” my previous writers’ group because the majority were hobby writers. They didn’t want to face the fact that things have changed since they were teenagers and first fell in love with books; that it is no longer sufficient to be merely competent. As in so many other walks of life, it’s easy to be held back by fear of failure.

    Me, I refuse to settle for second best. I’m now with a smaller, more dedicated group of writers who are either already published or working obsessively on it!

  15. WOW talk about a pep talk!

    Thanks for this. Sometimes it’s hard to push oneself so hard for something that SEEMS like it should be easy. (Just ask any non-writer: Writing? EASY!) But you (and my sports-loving boyfriend) are right on: the odds are rough, but if you wanna play in the big leagues, if you wanna be a pro, an Olympian, then you gotta train, and you gotta practice, and you gotta win.

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  18. Loved this, Larry! I’m also enjoying seeing your comments boxes swell.

    “…success isn’t dependent on some gift from God. It’s dependent on effort. And not just the quantity of your effort, but the empowered quality of it.”

    This inspired me. I work hard, write for hours and hone my skills. My writing has raw quality, but as you may have read in my comments to folk who read the review I did of your book, your work and mentoring make me feel energised and empowered. That’s why I send folk over here. All I need now is laser focus, and the bravery to cut loose the activities that are preventing me from powering it up.

    Thanks, Larry.

  19. Kathleen

    I agree: this is pep talk Larry!
    Just found out your website and ordered two e-books.
    You are so inspiring, reading your blog stimulates me to write more and better.

    Thank you.

  20. Robert Altman

    Again, I love this site …