We’ve talked about talent, luck and perseverance here before, but never quite like Lawrence Block does in his book TELLING LIES FOR FUN & PROFIT. If you have a copy, pull it out now and read Chapter Twelve called “It Takes More Than Talent.” I wish I could reprint the entire text here because it is so important for all writers to hear, both published and unpublished. And, because he says it so much better than I could.
The first thing that resonated with me was Block’s comments that never once did someone come up to him to say, “I wish I had your talent.” They would tell him they admire his self-discipline, his education, his ideas, but never his talent. Block juxtaposed that with artists and singers and actors, which people first and foremost admire their “talent” before their self-discipline or training.
Block continues with the analysis that it takes talent to write. But it also takes luck.
Luck doesn’t hurt. And simple luck has a great deal to do with the fate of an individual submission. When you mail off a story to a magazine, elements that have nothing whatsoever to do with the quality of that story will play a part in determining whether or not it sells. The editor’s mood when he reads it . . . the state of the inventory is another. . . .
But I also think that luck tends to average out over a period of time. The writer who sells his first story provides no guarantee of a second sale. Luck runs hot and cold, and nobody’s lucky all the time.
As an aside, my agent told me a few weeks ago that she panics when she thinks that she may have not read my book and passed on it. Sometimes, agents pass simply because they don’t have time to get to everything and if the first line doesn’t grab them they put it aside. Or so much time has passed they clear their desk. Or whatever. Anyway, my agent brought home my manuscript and told me, “What if I decided to watch LAW AND ORDER instead? What if I didn’t read it that weekend?” So I told her everyone who rejected it or didn’t read it as fast as she did. That made her feel better
The point is, my first sale DID get rejected by agents, and my theory is they either didn’t read it or didn’t see the potential. Or, as the talented and hard-working Stephanie Laurens says, “They were having a bad imagination day.”
So yes, I’m very lucky my agent decided to read my book and not watch LAW AND ORDER that night.
So Block says what, other than talent and luck, does a writer need to succeed?
Will is perseverance, but I find that I like the sentiment of “will” better. Perseverance is a negative word, moving forward over difficult odds, laboring, “sever.” I love the concept of “will.” It’s a proactive statement. I WILL do this, I WILL do that. I WILL write every day. I WILL continue to submit manuscript in face of rejection. I WILL research and learn and become a better writer.
Block shares several stories of friends and acquaintances. The woman who only wanted to write one book because of the subject matter. She had the talent to do it, but if there was no market for the book she didn’t want to write it.
Do you know someone like that? I do.
The woman who had talent, and sold a couple of well-received books, but no will to continue because she didn’t love writing. As Block said:
. . . ultimately, being a writer was just not that important to her. She had drifted into it largely as a result of association with other writers, and she drifted out of it when it proved insufficiently rewarding.
Block compares this friend to the “one-book authors”–those who have talent, might have some lucky in getting published, but really only have one book in them, and no drive–or ideas–for a second.
I think it might be more accurate to say that they have a very strong desire to write a particular book but no real desire to become a writer per se. Having written that book, they have slaked their hunger. Fair enough. Some people climb one mountain and complete one marathon and let it go at that. Others define themselves as mountain climbers or marathoners and go on climbing or running as long as they have breath in their bodies.
And some of us go on writing.
Block continues with his story of a friend who decided to become a writer because that’s what he loved to do. He hated his job, was unfulfilled, and had lots of ideas. This friend may have made some unwise choices (like quitting his job to write even before he sold) but he key was his WILL. He wrote a book that Block didn’t have the heart to tell him was crap. So Block sent it to his agent so his agent could deliver the bad news. That didn’t faze this guy. “I’m halfway through the second book now.” The second book was better. Not great. It was submitted. No sales. By the time the writer got back those rejections, he was done with the third book. Which did sell. As did the fourth. And fifth.
Then that particular market hit a slump (hmm–this looks like a subject for another blog, as Block wrote this book 25 years ago). This writer, with moderate success, a couple award nominations and good reviews, couldn’t sell another book in that genre. He couldn’t even give them away.
What did he do? Did he quit? I know writers who have. You do, too.
He did not quit. His WILL to be a writer was stronger than the obstacles in his path. He got a part time job as a bartender and wrote during the day. He made enough money to pay his rent and eat. He researched and wrote an adventure book on a subject he knew about and loved. Sold for six-figures and a six-figure movie deal. (I really wish Block would have told us who this person was, because it’s a great story about drive and determination.)
Every writer, published and unpublished has faced rejection. It’s part of the business. Some writers can’t face rejection, so they write without submitting anything for consideration. To them, they love the writing, the process, but the business is scary and uncertain and they can’t handle being told their work is inferior.
Some writers don’t have the will to continue. I judged a contest a couple years back and gave an entry a perfect score. It finaled. I signed my name on the scoresheet (something I never do) AND I contacted the coordinator to forward an email to the writer to contact me. The book was that good. The writing popped. The story moved. It was original and fun and had not been done like that before. The writer contacted me and said she was about halfway done, but she had two kids and was a stay-at-home-mom and didn’t know when she could finish it. I gave her a pep talk, confident that my WILL to have her finish this book would get the book done. I even told her I would give her an intro to my agent. AND I found out that she came in first place in the contest and the judging agent requested the full manuscript. (Do I know a winner or what?)
A few months later I was deleting old emails and came across hers. I wanted to know what she was doing–maybe she’d submitted to that judging agent. I just want to know when I could read the whole book because I STILL months later remembered the story.
She responded that she didn’t have the time to finish it, and she hoped to finish it by the end of the year.
She didn’t. This was nearly three years ago. She had talent, tons of talent. And luck (getting me as a judge! LOL). But no WILL.
Now, I don’t know what else was going on in her personal life. Things happen that can derail us for a time. But ultimately, as Stephen King wrote me when I was 13, WRITER’S WRITE. That’s what we do. We continue writing even in the face of rejection. We continue growing even when we’re told we write garbage. We write because that is who we are. We have the WILL.
What is your WILL this year? Some ideas: I WILL continue to submit even though I have 100 rejections. I WILL start my next book while my last book is on submission. I WILL write every day. I WILL believe in myself. What is YOUR WILL for 2007?