Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Best Writing Advice I Ever Got, Or: The No-Fail Equation for Writing Success

The best writing advice I got actually had very little to do with writing but everything to do with wanting to be a writer.

When I was just a little baby writer, toying with the idea of writing and publishing a novel, I got coffee one afternoon with the daughter of a family friend, an amazing and kind YA writer who you’ve almost certainly heard of (because I’d like to protect her privacy, I shall henceforth refer to her as LEA--lovely, established author).

After sitting down with our coffees, LEA asked me a few questions about my background, why I was interested in writing, how much work I had done so far. I think at that point, I basically had an idea and was in the middle of writing. I knew about the query process, that I needed an agent, that it would take a long time to get to that point.

LEA talked about her own experiences getting into writing, struggling with finances, the pressures of the writing. In a really gentle, but straightforward, way, she laid out the difficult realities of writing. She pointed out that the YA windfalls (this was right after The Hunger Games began picking up steam) were few and far-between and that breaking out of the slush pile was a stunningly rare achievement.

I listened to her, and when she asked me more questions--how would I pay rent? What would I do about health insurance? How long was I willing to try? What plan did I have if my first book didn’t net me an agent?--I tried to respond in the best way I could. I had accumulated savings. I could go on my parents’ health insurance until I married my then-fiance (and then use his insurance). I gave myself until my husband graduated grad school or until our finances necessitated I go back to work. If I didn’t get an agent with this book, I already had a very different idea lined up for the next book.

At the end of our chat, she sat back in a chair and said, smiling, “Well, I’ve said everything I can think of to dissuade you, but you had good answers to everything, so I think you’re in a pretty good position. So long as you have the talent, I think you can handle the other stuff.”

That turned out to be my saving grace when getting into publishing. That LEA thought I could handle the stress and difficulties of writing, querying, and publishing took off a lot of pressure. It made the problems manageable, instead of insurmountable, because I started thinking of writing and publishing as something to tackle and overcome with careful thought and planning rather than some magical castle locked up with a spell.

I think a lot of people don't realize, when they get into writing, how much of this profession is just managing craziness, disappointment, and rejection, and learning how to adapt and overcome it all. I often hear complaints that agents and editors don't care about talent when it comes to selecting writers. Let me just state the obvious that anyone who's spent more than five minutes talking with agents or editors knows you'd be hard-pressed to find a bunch more devoted to finding and cultivating talent. But there is a measure of truth in that, because while talent is important, talent combined with hard work, perseverance, self-discipline, and the ability to evolve and take criticism is essential.

If you can handle all the craziness that comes with trying to be a writer--the instability, the low pay, the years of stress and discouragement--and have the talent, you will be successful. You just will. It is an equation that I still have yet to see fail: perseverance + talent = success. It is the best advice I ever got and my favorite advice to pass on because it's simple, it's easy to implement, and--most important--it actually works.

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