I gave this keynote last night at When Words Collide in Calgary, Alberta, and it was a blog I posted two years ago…but now relevant again. Ditherers, take note:
Somebody at a book-signing: “I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I could write a novel.”
Me: “Oh? Why haven’t you?”
Person: “I just don’t have the time.”
Me: “Hmm. Nobody gives me the time, either. I have to make the time, set priorities, discipline myself to get my writing done each day, no matter how tired I am. I worked a full-time regular job while I wrote my first novels, scraping out an hour here or there in evenings and weekends. That’s how I’ve become a successful author.”
Person: “Yeah, right. I think you’re just lucky.”
Most Olympic athletes start their training as kids, practicing, competing, clawing their way up year after year. They get up before dawn just to grab enough hours of training during the day. They strive to improve their performance, stretch their abilities, beat their personal bests, and then beat them again. They practice until they’re ready to drop, and then they keep at it. Yet they find a way to do it, as well as maintain family lives, relationships, and countless other personal obligations. Many are injured along the way, and the vast majority of those who try out don’t end up making the Olympic team at all. They may win semifinals and regional competitions, but only the best of the best become part of the team—and only the very best of those will win a medal.
I’ve received dozens of letters posing the same question: “I want to write a bestselling novel, but it seems to take so long, and it’s an awful lot of work. Can you tell me what the shortcut is?” They seem to think that I figured out some simple formula and if I would just share it, then anybody could be a bestselling author, just like that.
But does anyone really say, “I want to win a gold medal in figure skating, but I don’t have the time for all that practice and training. In fact, I don’t even own ice skates. Can you tell me the shortcut to winning a medal?”
To make a short answer long, I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was five years old. I sat in my dad’s study and plunked out my first “novel” on a manual typewriter when I was eight. By the age of ten, I had saved up enough money to buy either a bicycle (like a normal kid), or my own typewriter. I chose the typewriter. I got my first rejection slip by the time I was 13, had my first story published when I was 16 (after I had gathered 80 rejection slips), and sold my first novel by the time I was 25.
I have a trophy in my office proclaiming me to be “The Writer with No Future” because I could produce more rejection slips by weight than any other writer at an entire conference. My files now bulge with more than 800 rejections. On the other hand, I also have 100 books published, 46 of which have been national or international bestsellers, I’ve got a shelf full of awards, and my work has been translated into 30 languages. I’ve written more than twelve million words, so far.
No, I don’t know any shortcuts. Sorry.
If you look at the numbers, there are about as many New York Times bestselling authors as there are members of the various US Olympic teams. The competition among bestsellers is just as tough as the competition for medals, and your chances of success are just as slim.
Where does this notion come from that just anybody can write a novel, if they bothered to get around to it? I never hear the claim that just anybody can be an Olympic athlete, or a brain surgeon, or a space shuttle commander if someone would give them a cheat-sheet. Even if we did “have the time” to raise capital and invest wisely, few people could manage to be as rich as Warren Buffet.
Guys, publishing a novel involves more than stringing a lot of sentences together until you fill enough pages with words.
Every author has heard this one: “I’ve got a great idea for a novel.” Voice lowered to a conspiratorial whisper. ”I’ll tell you the idea, then you write the book, and we can split the money.” (As if the idea is the hard part!) I’m not short on ideas; most writers aren’t. In fact, I’ll never have time to flesh out all the novel possibilities that occur to me on a regular basis.
Because my parents raised me to be polite and courteous, I’ve never actually responded to such an offer with the obvious reply: “Thanks for the offer, but I’m pretty busy right now. Why don’t we try it the other way around first? I’ll tell you an idea off the top of my head, then you can do all the research, the plotting, and character development. You can write a hundred thousand words or so, then edit the manuscript (I usually do at least five to ten drafts), shop it around until a publisher buys it, work with the editor for any revisions, deal with the copy editor, proofread the galleys, then do booksignings and promotion after it’s published. After all that, we’ll split the money since, after all, I did give you the initial idea. Sound fair?”
Now, I’m not comparing myself to an Olympic gold medalist. I can’t even stay up on ice skates. But I do have a pretty good idea how to write a novel. I’ve been practicing and training for most of my life. As a public service maybe I’ll write a self-help book of shortcuts for these would-be authors who live all around us. I could call it, How to Become a Bestselling Author in Twenty Years or Less.
If only I could find the time to write it. . . .