Thursday, October 26, 2006

Keys To Writing Success

While I was at the Writers League of Texas meeting on Monday night, another writer commented to me that she thought the timeline from my completed manuscript to contracted sale had occurred very quickly. She pointed out that there are writers with twenty years' experience, but no sales to show for it.

Without stopping to think, I responded, "There's a difference between twenty years' experience and one year of experience twenty times."

I'd like to talk about this a bit more.

If I were asked to point to the two qualities in my opinion that a person must have in order to succeed as a writer, without hesitation, I would answer "flexibility and the willingness to really listen to feedback."

I do critiques all the time--both in person and online. Over the last three years, I've critiqued at least a dozen writers who've made their first sales during that period. And I've noticed that all of those dozen writers share both of these qualities in common. They truly listen to what is being said to them during a critique. If they don't understand, they ask for clarification. They NEVER argue or try to defend their manuscript. They exhibit a flexibility of thought and a willingness to entertain other possibilities.

On the flip side, I've seen writers who really don't want a critique. They're just going through the motions. What they want is to be told how great their manuscripts are. You can spot these people because--ten chapters after they've received similar feedback on problems from multiple critique partners--they're still writing exactly the same way. Nothing has changed. Either they didn't hear what was said, or they didn't want to hear what was said. Hence, my comment about one year of experience twenty times. They're doing the same thing over and over, but comforting themselves with the thought that other writers are getting published because they're just lucky, or writing in an easier genre, or have the right connections.

And I'm not suggesting that all those things might not be true. Joe Konrath said that a writer needs four things to succeed: Talent, craft, persistence and luck (see my blog of March 27, 2006). We should never underestimate the value of luck, of simply being in the right place at the right time. However, the longer I live, the more convinced I become that people make their own luck. They pay attention, they adapt to fit the environment in which they are operating, and they take the time and effort to network with others to build those connections.

I've suggested that when you query, you send out letters in small batches and then make adjustments according to the feedback you get. This doesn't mean that you immediately change an entire manuscript because ONE agent makes a suggestion. It means you pay attention to the suggestion, ask your critique partners if it's a valid criticism and watch to see if other agents say the same thing. That's flexibility and the willingness to listen to feedback.

While I'm at it, let me add: DO NOT take criticism of your manuscript as criticism of you personally. What you write has NOTHING to do with who you are. If you are going to go into a depression every time someone critiques you, you'll never survive this business. Develop a tough hide and ask for tough critiques. That's how you learn. My manuscripts frequently come back to me from my CPs bleeding red ink. Sometimes I don't feel strong enough to read the comments right away. I wait until the next day when I'm fresh and tackle them then. That's how I grow--even if I'm being dragged to growth kicking and screaming the whole way.

One final thought: In addition to being a remarkable physicist, Albert Einstein was a wise man. Although his quotes often seem simplistic, they contain a world of wisdom. Among my favorites is, "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."


Emjay said...

This is one of your best columns ever!

ORION said...

Good job here - I couldn't agree with you more. I feel that this all is so obvious yet I see writers asking the same questions over and over and deaf to all suggestions and critiques. I made the mistake of honestly evaluating another writer's manuscript when they just wanted validation. I go to the same retreat and conference each year and see many of the same writers having no clue again each year. I find myself addicted to responding to miss snark or the rejecter offering my advice to new writers and finally have to sit back and wonder whether it is all worth it - Your last quote by Einstein was right on -

Maya said...

Thanks, ladies. Appreciate the validation. :)