Sunday, March 12, 2017

How to Get Good (Part 1)

It’s probably safe to say that nothing you read here on EftBB will ever help you achieve outstanding financial success as a writer. For all the hard work I’ve done over the decades, the secret to authorial fame and riches remains maddeningly beyond my muddled ken. I have ultimately come to the conclusion that it is indeed possible to do everything “right” and still come up short. One can pursue a dream to the end, obdurately believing in the greatness of one’s vision, hoping with all one’s heart to strike that magic chord in the soul of the reading public, yet simply lack the luck to be in the right place at the right time, even as some demonstrably less-gifted writer strides the best-seller list like a snot-nosed colossus, snickering all the way to the bank.

This, alas, is life, arbitrary, cruel, perpetually unfair, and always out to lunch at the complaints department. We may whine and kvetch about talentless slop artists, ass-kissing arivistes, and upjumped hacks with more aptitude for schmoozery than literary sense, but, in the end, that’s just the way things work out. It doesn’t mean that we should not continue to work hard every day, dedicate ourselves to doing our best in spite of the odds, and strive towards greatness; it means we should probably develop a set of realistic expectations about life in general, and this, our chosen profession, in particular. What it all boils down to is; we do this work because it is the work we are meant to do, no matter what.

Here are a few thoughts on the subject:

(1) Nobody will ever care about your work as much as you do.

Oh, some people will certainly care, often quite intensely, about what you do; but, in the end, it’s not their life or their work, it’s yours, and if you of all people aren’t passionate about it, how can you expect others to be? A writer’s commitment and passion shines through on every page—readers can tell—and there’s very little that turns readers off more than a writer who clearly doesn’t have their heart in the endeavor.  Authors who write in genres they clearly don’t like—an all-too-common phenomenon in erotica—cheat their audience and themselves.

(2) It is futile (and self-destructive) to compare yourself with other writers.

Lawrence Block makes this point in Telling Lies for Fun and Profit. We waste a lot of time and potential creative energy obsessing about our place in the scheme of things—why we’re so much better than this writer, or will never be as good as that one—always looking outward with envy or stubborn defiance, scorn more often than not mingled with self-loathing. The fact, whether we are willing to admit it or not, is that we are most miserable when we try to be something we are not. When we try to fit in, or change to please another person, or be like someone else instead of being true to ourselves. A writer needs to develop a balance between healthy self-love and honest humility.

(3) On the other hand, a healthy competition with oneself—comparing your present work with things you’ve done in the past—can be a key to growth.

To paraphrase Tolstoy: you can’t become a better writer if you already think your writing is perfect. If you understand that you are not in competition with other writers, you will be free to develop the self-confidence to perceive not only how good you are, but also how good you are not, and when you understand that, you will find the space in which to strive, grow, and improve.

(4) To be great at something, you must concentrate solely on that one thing.

This doesn’t mean that you can achieve greatness simply by setting your mind to it. Malcolm Gladwell famously posited that one must put in 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field—and that’s still no guarantee of one’s 15 minutes of fame. Talent and inspiration are not enough; you have to be willing and able to back those things up with real sweat equity and single-minded commitment, pouring yourself—your mental and physical energies—into this single endeavor, if only to see how good you can become.

Near the end of his life, Norman Mailer said that every book he wrote killed him a little bit more. And it’s true: we die slowly for our art. Writing is a less-messy form of self-murder, and the work we leave behind an elaborate suicide note.

I think, too, of  the film Quills in which Jeffrey Rush portrays the Marquis de Sade: imprisoned, condemned as possessed or insane, nothing stopped de Sade from expressing himself, to the point where, after having his tongue cut out and being placed in solitary confinement, he continued to write with his own feces... THAT is the madness that drives a true creative! THAT is the commitment that greatness demands.

Remember, though, that great things do not always have to be big or extravagant things. Nor is it necessary to be the center of attention in order to achieve a great thing. It is important, however, not to spread oneself too thin.

(5) To this end, cultivate a work ethic.

Anyone who says that writing is easy is a liar. If writing is easy all the time, you’re not doing it right. Indeed, what so many people don't get is that writing is genuinely hard work, often physically taxing and mentally draining. It can be frustrating as often as it is rewarding, and there are times when it's difficult to justify the input of labor and time by the usual metrics of conventional success. To optimize one’s efforts, treat writing the way you would any serious work; develop a daily writing schedule and discipline yourself to stick to it, especially if you have any desire to earn more than a hobbyist’s income from the endeavor.

The best way to produce a steady stream of high-quality work, is to observe regular writing hours with defined daily starting and quitting times. Such a schedule can conform to the needs of your life, whether early in the morning or late at night, or in the middle of the afternoon, but it should ideally be the same time each day. Getting into the regular pattern of writing, the quotidian habit of work, does wonders to lubricate the mental mechanisms of craft. The difference between an amateur and a professional is that the former believes they can sit and wait for inspiration to pay a mysterious and unscheduled visit. The professional knows that inspiration is drawn from within by the regular exercise of one’s mental faculties.

It’s OK, by the way, to be a "difficult person" where defending your work time is concerned. Make it clear that you expect others to respect your schedule—but be just as adamant that you respect it yourself by sticking to the hours you have established.

(6) Don’t spend your royalties before you’ve finished the book.

I don’t care if you think you’ve got a story inside you. Come back when you have a dozen on paper—or, better still, fifteen or fifty. Get into the habit of writing everything down, and soon enough, you’ll have more stories than you can tell in a lifetime. Build up a body of work you can be proud of, and don't keep it to yourself.

(7) Be the kind of professional you yourself would like to deal with.

Believe it or not, editors, agents, and publishers like dealing with people who are easy to work and get along with. You can stick up for yourself and your work while still being agreeable, and, in fact, other professionals will respect you for being true to yourself; but you don’t have to do this by (1) putting other writers down, either overtly or passive-aggressively, (2) behaving like a spoiled prima dona, believing that you are above constructive criticism or too great to take advice.

Remember that a smart, thoughtful consistency is the essence of professionalism. If people have had good experiences with you in the past, and expect the same in the future, that is an asset more valuable than almost anything else.

There are, of course, exceptions to every rule...

To be continued...

(Read Part 2 here)


  1. Great advice. Especially the work ethic. I have a strong work ethic and it has taken me places I never thought I'd be.

  2. Some great advice, TAS. There are writers (like me) and there are GREAT writers (like you) and I wish that the work of the great writers was more widely seen and rewarded. I look forward to part 2.