Monday, March 27, 2006

What a Successful Writer Needs

I'm a fan of J.A. Konrath. I own the three books he's written and regularly read his blog. There's a link to that blog among the links on the right side of this page.

Recently, Joe had a post that really struck home with me. He talked about what it takes for a writer to succeed, and he suggested four things: talent, craft, persistence and luck.

I've thought about what he said quite a bit over this weekend, and I agree with him.

For want of a better word, talent is what makes a writer, a writer. It's the storyteller's urge, the need to dream up characters and plots and worlds and then commit them to paper. When writers get together, you'll hear the same things again and again: "I've been a writer all my life," "All I've ever wanted to do was write," "I NEED to write."

But Joe is right. "Talent alone won't make you successful." How many people have you met who say, "I've always wanted to write a book." Wanting to and actually doing it are a chasm apart. As anyone who has ever tried to produce a 400-page manuscript can tell you.

Craft is your mastery of the professional trappings. It begins with writer's tools such as grammar, sentence structure, vocabulary and spelling. It continues with more advanced devices such as story hooks, character motivations and plot conflict.

However, even mastery of all those things is not enough. Your craft includes the fixtures of the publishing industry such as the proper formatting of a novel and how to write a query letter. And, finally, craft also encompasses knowledge of the industry itself. You must learn terms such as "remainder," "sell through percentage" and "trade paperback." You must learn how to find reputable agents and publishers, and the red flags to look for in a contract. And you need to learn to build a brand name and how to market both yourself and your work.

Knowledge of your craft is a moving target. Just when you think you've achieved one plateau (selling something, anything!!), you find that there's another milestone still waiting ahead of you. But talent and craft aren't enough.

Luck. It's been called Fate, Destiny and Chance. It's the one part of the equation over which you have no control. Even so, it can't be discounted. A writer becomes pregnant and gives up on her dream of penning a novel, another writer marries someone with connections in the industry and a third joins the military and begins a journal of the experience. There's an element of luck in every one of these scenarios.

And, finally, there's persistence or perseverance. How long is too long? When do you give up?

The answer is never. Joe has a motto on his website: "There's a word for a writer who never gives up -- published."

Perseverance is continuing to plug away, continuing to work every day at honing your craft, at submitting manuscripts, at writing. Persistence is never getting so cocky that you think you no longer need to be edited, or ignore suggestions about your work-in-progress. Perseverance is plodding on, sending out query after query despite rejection after rejection.

Joe said, "In my experience, writers place too much value on talent, not enough value on craft, give luck too little weight, and often use persistence as an excuse not to improve craft." I suspect he's probably right.

In looking at his list, I think I would add one more factor: Networking. Perhaps Joe would include that under craft. I wouldn't. I think networking deserves a heading of its own. Don't ever ignore an opportunity to network: with critique partners, with chapter members, with conference attendees, with agents, with other authors, with publishers. Network with suppliers, with reviewers, with bookstore employees. If you're not good at schmoozing, LEARN. Like anything else, it's a skill and one you'll need in this industry.

Keep writing. And never give up. Never give up. Never give up.

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