Monday, October 15, 2012

Long-Haul Writing Career: What It Takes To Succeed

We all want to be excellent writers, don't we? We really don't want to be mediocre. That doesn't mean we have to write Pulitzer-Prize-winning prose, and it doesn't mean that one genre is better than another. It does mean we want to be professional and better than work-a-day in our skill set and our skill level. Almost nobody starts off being excellent. As James Scott Bell, a great writing teacher, speaker, and prolific writer himself, points out, talent is necessary, but it's the least important of the skills required to become a successful writer. We can learn what we need to know.

In one of my favorites of Bell's writing books, The Art of War for Writers, there's a workbook chapter on what it takes to make it as a writer over the long haul. Bell lists ten necessary characteristics, which I've produced below. Plus, in his book, there's a follow-up question section of questions/statements where you write in your own personal responses to determine where you might need to adjust your attitude or whether you're off and running in the right direction.

Here are the ten characteristics and what Bell says about them (The Art of War for Writers, pp. 11-13) :

  1. Desire. It's got to be a hunger inside you. You're going to have to sacrifice time and money and endure frustrations galore. If you don't have the desire, you won't last long out there on the battlefield.
  2. Discipline. It's all about production. A quota of words, six days a week.
  3. Commitment to Craft. You can't just dash off a book. Leonard Bishop wrote, "Dramatic characters, inventive plotlines, exciting and intense situations are not achieved through accident or 'good luck.' The writers of great books zealously learn the craft of their profession so they can release the power and depth of their imagination and experience."
  4. Patience. It takes time. But you can cut down the time if you have 1, 2, and 3.
  5. Honesty. Be willing to confront your weaknesses as a writer.
  6. Willingness to Learn. No chip on your shoulder. Check your ego at the door, or wherever else is convenient.
  7. Business-Like Attitude. Develop business savvy and professionalism.
  8. Rhino Skin. Learn from every rejection, and never let any rejection hold you back.
  9. Long-Term View. Don't think: "Do I have a book inside me?" Think: "Do I have a writer inside me?" And answer: "Yes!"
  10. Talent. The least important. Everyone has some talent. It's what you do with it that counts.
So, I know you were measuring yourself against each of these ten points. How'd you do? That business about being honest about your weaknesses, plus, at the same time, never letting rejection hold you back, is where a lot of us get caught up in our own fear of failure. So, of course, actually paying attention to these things and working at them consciously (if these are areas that resonate) can be the key to breaking through from average writing to great writing.

Which of these ten points resonates most with you? Or are there others?

17 comments:

  1. These are all great points. I really like James Scott Bell's books. I hadn't heard of this one.

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  2. Great points. I'm going to be talking with an aspiring writer today, and these are great to run by her.

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  3. Oh...forgot to say I'm going to refer her to your blog so she can read these for herself.

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    1. That's wonderful, Em, thanks. Good to see you!

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  4. Yes, and I'd add - NOW YOUR BUSINESS - as a writer nowadays you have to know publishing just as well as your publisher. Understand your markets and build a plan to market yourself and focus on your audience.

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    1. So true, LM, these days writers have to know their business inside out, even traditionally pubbed ones.

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  5. Linda, this is a powerful post. And all resonate. But the one that stands out the most is "desire." Because...desire alone won't create greatness...or even a book. How many people say they want to write a book and don't? Without dedication, discipline and commitment they just won't get the book written.
    Thanks for a great post. And a reminder on all that we need to do.

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    1. I agree with you 110% Karlene! SO many people want to write a book, but desire is only the beginning, even though it has to be a constant!

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  6. All of these resonate with me. I have the most trouble with rhino skin, because I'm easily discouraged by criticism. My output has lessened because of that. But commitment to the craft means being willing to learn from criticism, which takes having rhino skin.

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  7. Oh, it took me years to develope The Rhino Skin, Lin! (and yes, it does deserve to be in all caps!). You've got the key, though--commitment to craft. Perfect (and don't let the fools get you down!!)

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  8. Yes, to all of those items on your list!

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  9. Each of them resonates with me, but particularly #3. It's vital for us to strive to learn and improve, no matter what stage we're at in our craft.

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  10. Great list . . . having a business-like attitude resonates most with me right now with my debut novel coming out this month. I (and probably a lot of writers) struggle with that part b/c us creative types don't like to think about that side of it. But truth is, we have to in order to be successful. Everyone measure success differently, but I am hoping to do this for a living someday, so my new year comes with a business-like mindset~Cheers to 2013!

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    1. Best of luck, Jamie! That is very exciting.

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