The Writing Tip That Changed My Life

As I sit here and pound on my new ebook, “101 Slightly Unpredictable Tips for Novelists and Screenwriters,” there’s one tip that haunts me, and has for the last three decades (yeah, I’m that old).  It was a milestone and a perspective that changed everything, and a reminder that sometimes the little things we offer to others can make a profound difference in their lives.

And isn’t that the real reason we write in the first place?  If it isn’t, then pause and ponder yours.

Before my “overnight” success with my first novel (Darkness Bound) in 2000, I had written six novels that failed to find a publisher.  Because they sucked.  All were based on what I thought were killer concepts, and as I figuratively wandered the New York publishing jungle, getting the bejezzus beat out of me at every turn, I discovered that an idea does not a novel make.  I submitted those manuscripts all over town, and thanks to one very generous and personal rejection letter the first time out, I continued to submit the next five to that same same kindly editor.  He turned down all six submissions, but in each case he wrote no less than a six page single-spaced letter offering both encouragement and constructive criticism, this in an age of manual typewriters and White Out (remember White Out?  If you’re under 30, probably not; it has nothing to do with blizzard conditions).  In a time when everyone else was sending out  photocopied rejection letters with all the warmth of a tax audit.

His name was Dan Wickenden, a senior editor at what was then known as Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (today’s Jove paperback imprint is a descendant of that organization).  I remember several things he told me over the course of those six letters, including that he believed I would never win the Nobel Prize for literature, and that he also believed I had the chops to make it as a thriller writer, if — and only if — I continued to evolve my writing.  Considering how badly I truly did suck at that time, this was an amazing gift of hope.

But that’s not the tip that changed my life, encouraging as it was.   This one did: “In the life of a real writer, nothing is ever lost, no word you write is a waste of your time or energy.”

The implications of this are stunning, not only for writing, but for living.  Which to me are synomymous, by the way.  It means everything you write moves you closer to your goal, including everything that brings yet another rejection slip.  It means that writing, like life itself, is a cumulative experience, a whole in excess of its parts, a vehicle with momentum that must be maintained and fortified with more energy, and that without noticing you will become the writer you hoped you’d become.

That challenge to evolve my skills has defined my writing journey.  It is why I teach workshops, because I learn more with every class before which I stand.  It is why this blog exists.

In his letters Mr. Wickenden made veiled references to his declining health.  After my sixth unpublished novel I took a 20-year break to write screenplays and make a living writing corporate media, and I thought of him often during that time.  But not as often as his gift deserved.  When I finally did publish in 2000, I tried to contact him and thank him for his gift of hope.  But Harcourt Brace Jovanovich was gone, and I feared, so was Dan Wickenden.  I still wonder how many naive, wide-eyed writers he saved from the junk heap of abandon, and if he knew how much his kindness and wisdom really mattered.  I hope he did.  I hope someone with more sense than me got to tell him that.

Our heroes come unexpectedly, and often long after the moment they touch our lives.  Dan Wickenden, wherever you are now, you remain in my heart, and I thank you from the bottom of it.  If I can pay it forward with only a fraction of the impact you have made, I will die a successful writer.

Hopefully, though, a long, long time from now.  Because I’m not there yet.  The evolution continues.

9 Comments

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9 Responses to The Writing Tip That Changed My Life

  1. Great story and advice, Larry. I had a similar experience with a fellow writer a number of years ago. She took the time to tell me what was wrong with my character development. Before I got her comments, I knew who my characters were and thought it would be evident to my readers–guess not! I took her suggestions to heart and make my characters as real and believable as possible.

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  3. Larry,

    I wasn’t sure if you knew this or if your readers came to the conclusion from your post, but here’s a relevant link.

    http://www.nytimes.com/1989/10/29/obituaries/dan-wickenden-author-and-editor-dies-at-76.html?pagewanted=1

    Take Care,
    Chris

    P.S. – He knows you’re grateful.

  4. @Chris — thanks for this. No, I’d never learned about Dan’s life after those six letters, and as I said in the post, I think of them, and him often. He’d mentioned his “continuing affliction” several times in his letters, and I never thought it my place to ask. But I’d gleaned he was “older” than me at the time, and therefore assumed that as the decades passed, at some point along the way, on some anonymous day while I was going about my stupid business on the other side of the country, he had also passed.

    I’ve always wondered, when, and how. And marveled at the way in which seemingly innocent kindnesses can outlive us and change us.

    Now I know. Thanks for sharing this with me. I’m saying a prayer for Dan Wickenden tonight, wishing him a happy new year, a happy eternity, in heaven.

  5. Larry,

    I just want to say that was an excellent post. How often we don’t fully appreciate the help we are receiving until way down the road. After reading your post I took a minute to sit back and think about some of the people who influenced my life the most, how they had come and gone, sometimes with my thanks and sometimes without. Those who I am still in contact with will be receiving an email soon to let them know the contribution to my life.

    Thanks, Michael

  6. CR

    Larry,
    Dan Wickenden’s daughter, Dorothy Wickenden, is executive editor of the New Yorker. And she has just had her own nonfiction book published You might want to send her a note to tell her how much her Dad helped you….

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  8. Laura

    I had never heard of Dan Wickenden until I picked up The Wayfarers at a thrift store a few days ago. I’ve really enjoyed reading it. The advice he gave you is so relevant to me, and I would think to anyone. Thanks for sharing, and I’m glad I stumbled onto your blog.

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