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 I’ve been studying and teaching the craft of writing for two decades, reading the work of both published and unpublished writers, so I know a thing or two about what works and what doesn’t.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