Wednesday, August 27, 2014

How To Be A Successful Writer

We see articles every day on the things you can do to be successful in the business of publishing. Some articles rave about the uses of social media. Others go on and on about marketing strategies and book placement. Then there are those that take the approach of using specific writing tools and structures. Let's face it, there seems to be an expert at writing around every corner. What I find is interesting is that most of these articles seem to think that if you use "their approach" you will suddenly find yourself making a living at writing.

I am sorry to say this, but the odds are it isn't going to happen that way.

I started thinking about the authors out there that seem to be doing really well as writers. There are many out there that seem to ignore all of those strategies we hear people proclaiming as being the only way you can make it in this business. For these people, they are often successful because of their attitude about this business. They are doing what all writers should be doing - they place the "skill of writing" and their craft ahead of "the business of writing."

Even in workshops and at conferences, there seems to be this implied message that "If you do X you will find yourself being a published author." What all of these things seem to miss is that success is not just selling one book, it is the ability to keep doing what you are doing. We all know there are a ton of "one hit wonders" out there. It happens in everything around us. Hey, VH-1 runs shows pretty frequently about the one-hit-wonders in music (Remember Dexys Midnight Runners and Come on Eileen?). We see them in sports. These are the people that everyone turns their attention to because of one hot season, and then they disappear. What happened?

For many, it wasn't the talent. It came down to those other skills that we don't talk about. It was attitude. These aren't necessarily skills that can be taught, but individuals do have the ability to make these changes on a personal level to be successful. As I made this list this morning, it really narrowed down to 5 traits. What you will find is that all of these traits look at the individual. They aren't looking at how they stack up against other writers. It is all about the self.

1. A Constant Commitment To Learning
Success comes with an ability to always want to learn to get better. Successful writers are not going to be happy with finding that one niche and then simply saying they have it. They know there can be ways to improve and figure out stronger tools to make their writing better. These writers are dedicated enough to want to read up on what other people are doing. They continue to take classes and explore new techniques with their writing.

I think it is easy for writers to say they are all about wanting to learn, but the learning seems to be more about those skills to sell the book, and not so much about the skills to be a better writer. Socrates once described learning this way. If you draw a circle, everything inside of the circle is what you know. Everything touching the edge of the circle are the things you know of but don't understand. Everything on the outside of the circle are things that you don't even know yet. Now when you learn those things touching the outside of the circle, what happens to the circle? It gets bigger and the surface area on the outside of the circle increases. In other words, the more we learn, the more we find that we have to now learn. Successful writers don't just limit themselves to the information inside that circle. They focus always on the outside of that circle.

2. A Willingness To Change And Grow
This is a big one for editors and agents when we sign on new authors. We are not looking for just someone who can write well, but someone who understands the need to change and grow. Successful writers find ways to constantly evolve over time. They can change when the climate and readers change. They can change when they find themselves with new publishers, agencies and editors.

Success is again, not a matter of saying you are good at something, but being able to say, I can and will change if something is not working right.

At the recent Grand Prix Swim Meet in Irvine, we saw a great example of this. I am a big fan of the swimmers here and I certainly don't this to come across as a slam, but a learning moment. Michael Phelps had an OK meet, but it certainly wasn't his best. In fact, one of the first events he was in, he ended up taking 7th and getting his clocks cleaned. It seemed his turns weren't what they were supposed to be. Apparently, the coaches were saying that due to the conditions of the water, it was important to get out there and practice the turns to make sure they got them right. He decided to work on something else.

Now I don't know the reason for this, but he knows, as well as the rest of the world, that his turns are pretty dang amazing. But sometimes, what you are doing is not always going to work and you have to change and grow. In fact, that is part of the reason we saw a rise in the quality of swims by Ryan Lochte. He saw what he was doing and was willing to change his approach to swimming and grow in a new way.

3. A Sense Of Humility
I looked this definition up today because I think it said a lot more than I could say. According to one of those great online dictionaries, humility is "the quality or condition of being humble; opinion or estimate of one's own importance, rank, etc."

I do think there are far too many authors who, after making that first sale, suddenly struggle with finding a hat that will fit their head. They have reached a status that, "only those as talented as they are could ever hope to achieve." Do you get a sense that I really don't like their attitude here? They take the word DIVA to an all new level. You know who these people are. They are at every writer's conference and walk around with their own entourage that seems to wait on them hand and foot.

I know most national writing groups out there have a designated group like this. In the Romance Writers of America, we have PAN or the Published Author's Network. Now don't get me wrong here. We do need groups of people that are at the same common level in terms of their progress. However, when the individuals within one of those similar groups starts to think they are somehow more special than everyone
else, they have missed the point. Let me give you another example of this one and I think you will understand the point. Can you say Sneeches?

But start to think of those writers (or any of those other people successful in other sports and activities). It isn't just about the money, it is about knowing who they are and being comfortable with their own success. In romance, I like to always toss out a couple of names that I believe truly exemplify this - Brenda Novak, Cherry Adair, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Nicola Cornick, Cathy Clamp, just to name a few.

4. Being A Listener
This one goes back to that learning aspect of things. These people are willing to listen to other people. They listen to their editors, they listen to their agents, they listen to their readers. You never see these people wandering around telling you what they think. Sure, if you ask, they will tell you, but it is always in the context of following it up with, "but what are your thoughts?"

Being a listener means you are someone thinking outside and not inside. We learn through listening. We grow from hearing other's perspectives and opinions. We can see new ways of doing things.

Isn't it interesting when we see individuals leaving one group to form a new group? Often times, it is not a pretty break up and more often than not, the reason is always "the previous group didn't do what we wanted them to do for me." Do you hear how self focused this is.

5. An Ability To Look At Your Writing Objectively
This is probably one of the toughest things to do. You will also notice that this is really one of the only areas I speak of in these traits that looks at the actual skill of writing. We have to be able to look at our own writing from an objective and unbiased view. We cannot look at it as our pride and joy. We have to look at what we do with a clear perspective.

What makes this skill so difficult is to be able to say that there is truly something wrong with our writing and then to objectively think about ways to make the improvements. We cannot make excuses because it is "our writing". No one else put those words on the page.

If the writing is not strong then we have to accept it and then move on. Now I do know there are some people out there that I believe feed on telling the world how bad their writing is (or whatever they are doing) in the hopes of getting someone to say it is really not that bad. I don't think they do this intentionally, but it has become something they have to do. My daughter rides with a young lady who is always doing this. Don't get me wrong, she's a great person, but hearing constantly how she struggled on that last ride, or how she almost fell off gets tiring after a while. But she does it and sure enough, people around her will always follow up with "Oh, you are really a good rider, there was just (insert an excuse) that caused the problem."

But this is not just a matter of saying your writing is good. We can also look at our writing objectively and say this is the best damn thing we have ever written. If it is objective and true, then say it.

There is an implied message here that we need to understand and it relates to a line from Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare: "Some are born great. Some achieve greatness. And other's have greatness thrust upon them." Being successful is really something that the first two clauses in Malvolio's comment connect with directly. Some people are naturally born with the right attitude and brain for being successful. The skills of writing are just a way to express that success. As far as the second element, some achieve that success through leaning more about who they are as a person. They learn to be successful and the writing skills just follow.  The last clause, really describes, unfortunately, so many out there who find immediate "success" but never go on to be successful.

This is all a matter of looking at yourself. We cannot blame Amazon for our sales. We cannot blame the publishers for not putting the right cover on our book, or marketing our books the right way. We cannot blame our families for getting in the way of our writing. We can only look at what we do. We have the control over our success.

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