February 26, 2014 Plato’s Pizza, Edmonton Alberta
What is Success for a Writer Part 2?Question: Here’s a quick review of our topic. Last week, I received this work-spam email from the Educational Policy Institute, that included a list of Richard St. John’s Eight Secrets of Success. Though they do have the flavour of standard business school fluff, the general topic is of “success’ is of widespread interest and this list provides a framework around which to discuss the concept. So, we thought it might be interesting to discuss them at some length, particularly from the perspective of a writer. Obviously, though, any of these thoughts could probably apply to the rest of the creative arts, whether that be writing, drama, painting, music, what have you. And naturally they apply to other career or life goals, in general.
In Part 1 of our blog (on this site), we discussed the first four general items: Passion, Work Hard, Be Good at what You Do, and Focus. In this blog we will review the last four major items, indicated below.Answer: Ok, let’s have a go the remaining items.
Push YourselfQuestion: The first major item is called “Push Yourself” and the first sub-theme is “physically and mentally push yourself to your limits.” What do you think? Is this good advice for a writer?
By the way, just as context for blog readers, I know for a fact that you have written over half a million words in the past two years (Kati of Terra 2, published May 2013 and Kati of Terra 3 soon to be published). If we go back a bit further, you are closing in on a million words written in the past five years (Kati of Terra 1 published May 2012, Witches’ Stones 1 published July 2012 and a collection of short stories, Northern Gothic Stories, published December 2012). So you are no slacker, and are quite well qualified to comment on this issue.Answer: Thanks for the literary synopsis. To be fair, a few of those were based on drafts that I had done when I was younger, as well. That does sound like a lot, but it’s not so hard if you enjoy what you are doing.
Anyway, as for pushing yourself to the limits, it’s probably good advice as long as it is interpreted reasonably. There’s no point in pushing yourself until you have a breakdown. And with writing, it is more of a mental thing than a physical thing.Question: Do you say that because writers just “sit in a chair” while they work, which physically isn’t too difficult. Because that can be tough on the body too, as a lot of people can attest to.
Answer: I suppose that’s true. It’s helpful in novel writing, that you can get up and move around at will, which is not generally true of most office jobs. But I was thinking more about the danger of burning the midnight oil to the point where you just exhaust yourself entirely. That’s probably counterproductive. You have to pace yourself, even as you push yourself.Question: What about the mental aspect?
Answer: You do have to push yourself mentally, because that’s the way you expand your mind, and you need to expand your mind so that it can hold the contents of your book. You want to be able to hold a lot of the contents in memory but it’s more than that - you want to be able to mentally inhabit your created world, really immerse in it. That makes writing easier.
Question: It sounds a bit like how the best actors try to “live their character” while filming or during the course of the play’s run.Answer: That’s probably not a bad analogy.
Question: You have mentioned previously that you felt that your mind really was expanding, as a result of writing long-form novels. What’s that feel like to you?
Answer: I can hold more of the book in my head now. I don’t have to consult notes as much as I did at the beginning. It just feels like there is more room in my head than there was before I got serious about my writing again.Question: That reminds me a bit of studying advanced calculus in my undergraduate days. When things went well, it felt like your mind could hold things that seemed impossible before. It could almost feel effortless sometimes. You were surprised at yourself. Unfortunately it didn’t always go that well J.
Answer: I agree. The feeling of your mind expanding can come as a shock at the beginning. But it is a nice surprise.Question: Ok, here’s the next sub-item: “push through shyness and self-doubt.
Answer: I am not sure that shyness applies for most of the writing process. After all, it’s pretty solitary.Question: Oh, I don’t know about that. What could be more truly the essence of “pushing through shyness” than having the audacity to write a novel or short story, then actually pushing the publish button. Same thing for “pushing through self-doubt”.
Answer: I guess that’s true in a way. You are not speaking in front of a big crowd, so the shyness concept doesn’t apply in that way. But you are expressing yourself and trying to entertain and/or educate. So, you can’t be shy in a certain sense, to do that. You can’t be self-effacing. You have to have an ego and confidence in your right to make your statement.
ServeQuestion: The next general category is called “Serve”. The first sub-theme is “make it a privilege to serve people.”
Answer: In writing, you are trying to entertain and perhaps educate, so in that sense you are serving people. But the way it is phrased has a sort of elitist connotation, like a bit of noblesse oblige. Plus it can be an ego trip - “I serve”. So I have some issues with the terminology. The word serve is a loaded one.Question: It can come off as a little bit “business school goody two-shoes”, though there is something there. The next sub-item is “serve other people something they will find of value”.
Answer: As a writer, you want to offer for peoples' consumption, the products of your imagination. Naturally you hope they find it of value. But it should be a transaction among equals, so again “serve” seems like the wrong word for that.Question: The third sub-item is “think more about the needs of your stakeholders than your own needs”. It sounds like Spock's famous line from The Wrath of Khan -“the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”.
Answer: Well, then I will counter with Kirk's quote in the next movie, The Search for Spock. In writing, “the needs of the one must outweigh the needs of the many”. Your production comes from your own innermost intuitive self, so you have to give that first priority. If you are going to cater to anyone, it has to be to your own muse. You have to assume (or at least hope) that your audience will follow you to the places where your imagination leads them.Question: So, don’t try to slavishly write to some intended audience, because it will just get in the way of your creativity.
Answer: Well you do want to keep your market in mind, but you can’t really know for sure what they want, so you should offer what comes from within you. That way it’s sincere and genuine.Have Ideas
Question: The next major category is called “Have Ideas”. The first sub-theme is “you must find the time to think.”Answer: Well, that’s self-evidently true for writing. Even bad writing requires some thought.
Question: That brings up the question of how much time you should devote to thinking versus how much time you should devote to writing versus how much time you should devote to editing. There is a school of thought current now, that says writers must push out a lot of product in order to have a reasonable chance of commercial success. Conversely, in the old days, there was perhaps too much emphasis on re-writing, re-editing and re-polishing. Obviously there is a trade-off inherent in the quantity versus quality argument. Where do you stand on that?Answer: I can’t speak for others, but I have never tried to measure the amount of time I spend on one versus the other. But a good book does require a lot of thought and creativity, in my opinion. And that does take time. Writers shouldn’t stint on that for the sake of publishing some set amount of product per year. You can’t get too rule-bound about productivity - that can interfere with the natural rhythm of creativity.
Question: The next sub-item is “seek inspiration from whatever and whomever you can: books, TED, mentors, gurus”. This is another one that seems self-evidently true for writers. You have to beg, borrow and steal from everyone you can.Answer: That’s true, but footnote and cite and say thanks. And try to respect copyright, unless you have a lawyer in the family. But seriously, you want your ideas to be respected, so you have to respect the ideas of others. And always remember, the depths of your creative self are the best source of material that you can come across. Try it, it’s really amazing.
Question: Obviously in all endeavours, we borrow from the past and lend to the future - that’s Newton’s “standing on the shoulders of giants”. The last sub-theme of this category is “listen, observe, be curious, ask questions, problem solve, make connections”.Answer: I would just add: If you are a writer, create, create, create.
PersistQuestion: The final major category, and perhaps the one most salient for the arts or indeed many careers is “Persist”. The first sub-item is “persist through failure”.
Answer: As a writer, you will get the chance to practice that a great deal J.Question: Of course, leaving aside money as a scorekeeper, you never really know when you are succeeding or failing.
Answer: And you have to accept that. If you throw in the towel, you might do so just before the book or short story that breaks through for you. It may be the tenth or twentieth book that makes you an overnight success.Question: The final sub-item is “persist through CRAP: Criticism, Rejection, Assholes, Pressure”. That sounds like submitting query letters to agents.
Answer: Doesn’t it though. That’s assuming you could find one that was even willing to give you the courtesy of paying attention to you long enough to reject you. Yes, that’s the beauty of self-publishing, at least at the moment. Nobody can stop you from expressing yourself.Question: But there is still criticism, rejection, assholes and pressure out there.
Answer: True, but that is all easier to ignore now. I LOVE self-publishing.
- do it for love not for money.
- if you do it for love the money will follow.
- passions are the first thing you thing of in the morning and the last thing you think of at night.
- Work hard
- the harder you work the more you will achieve
- success rarely comes without hard work; lucky winners are few and far between.
- Be good at what you do
- work long and hard to be good at something
- practice; practice; practice
- when it comes down to it if you aren’t good at what you do you can’t be a success and sustain it
- concentrate all your efforts into one or two goals.
- without focus your resources will be too thinly stretched to achieve real success.
- Push yourself
- physically and mentally push yourself to your limits
- push through shyness and self-doubt
- make it a privilege to serve people
- serve other people something they will find of value
- think more about the needs of your stakeholders than of your own needs
- Have ideas
- you must find the time to think
- seek inspiration from whatever and whomsoever you can: books; TED; mentors; gurus
- listen; observe; be curious; ask questions; problem solve; make connections.
- persist through failure
- persist through CRAP: Criticism; Rejection; Assholes; Pressure