Wednesday, November 28, 2007


This entry is one week in the making. Due to an annual budgeting process at work, and trying to meet a writing deadline for my contribution to a Holiday Story Exchange, my blog has been forced to sit in the back seat and watch the tree line whiz past the windows.

While reading Page After Page by Heather Sellers, I came across this interesting remark:

“But here is what I’ve noticed. It takes three years to get your mind and your body working in concert. I think it’s helpful for beginning writers to know that it is going to take a really long time to feel comfortable and be productive as a writer.”

Every writer wants to put out the most perfect work--the profound poem that causes hearts to swoon, or that great American novel that will be read and discussed within the sacred halls of academia all over the world. We all want this. Truth be told, we secretly loose ourselves in daily reveries of imagined book signings, Matt Lauer interviews, and watching our stories played out on the silver screen with big-named actors (though I personally loathe the way Hollywood butchers books for the sake of artistic interpretation).

Okay, so we all want the dream. That is not earth shattering information the world can catch on the evening news. The problem is, though, many of us don’t set realistic expectations.

All a writer has to do is read interviews, or even talk to authors, to know that book signings aren’t all they are believed to be. People do not always stand in a line running out the front door, eagerly waiting for the autograph and to tell the author what a profound impact she made on their lives. “Oh, and can I have someone take our photograph together?” According to Heather Sellers, author of Page After Page, authors are lucky if bookstore shoppers even know their names.

One time, while visiting a village in another state, I stopped off at an unfamiliar bookstore with the sole purpose of finding something on the Mescalero Indians. I like westerns--I love to read them and write them--and I was interested in learning more about these Native Americans so I could accurately depict them in my stories. On that particular day, an author was holding a book signing event for her latest mystery novel. As soon as I stepped into the store, she handed me a glossy-covered bookmark. Being the dunce that I am at times, and still with my own personal mission of finding the book I wanted without wasting energies, I asked if she was the store manager. “No,” she said, the smile melting from her face. “I’m the author.” How embarrassing, both for me and for her.

Further inquiry also reveals that several writers have penned three, four or even more unpublished tomes before seeing their first book contract. J.A. Konrath wrote nine before he started working on his Jack Daniels mysteries! The reality is that success stories of authors like Christopher Paolini are not the norm in an industry where breaking out is like piercing a titanium shield.

In a day when a perfect bag of popcorn can be microwaved in two minutes, it is hard for some writers to fathom that their work can take enormous energies and be received with little fanfare. It is a reality I have seen played out countless times in the public writing forum on the internet. Authors submit their stories with great enthusiasm, only to be dashed by the ensuing constructive criticism. They want it to be perfect; sadly, it is not.

According to Ms. Sellers, it takes a writer three years of dedicated, day-after-day writing to be any good. Three years! My guess is the number grows larger as the dedication wanes. Her advice to the prospective writer in a previous chapter: Dare to Suck.

I remember my career in public accounting. I had just passed the CPA exam -- a grueling process that typically weeds out those who have the drive and those who simply dream about the license -- and accepted a staff accountant position at a public accounting firm. One of the partners was notorious for the comment that it took the firm two years of work and training to see any benefit from the accountants they hired. Unbelievable. A firm was willing to invest in a salary (plus benefits and taxes) for two years before it could actually shape and mold the accountants into what they needed. Within the first week, I understood why. I sucked. The college courses only scratched the surface of what I learned while spending five years in the field. In fact, it did take a couple years to be more efficient and better qualified to call myself a CPA.

It is the same with writing. I have been writing, reading, studying, exerting myself for almost four years now, submitting a few stories along the way, and only now do I feel like I have something to offer.

Four years. Okay, so I'm on the extended plan.


  1. Very few of us are born with the level of talent required to excel, let alone rise to the top, of anything without hard work. How many free throws did Jordan shoot on a playground? (Answer: More than Shaq). How many wadded up balls of paper has filled the trash cans of everyone from Clemmens to King?
    Persistance does not always pay off. There has to be some foundation to build on. So I think after a few years of doing something you should have a pretty good idea if you are "cut out for it."
    For the record, I think you are.

  2. John,

    Your comments and encouragement are deeply appreciated.

    I agree with what you wrote. It takes more than just persistance; it takes talent, and most often the long hours of honing that talent. Can just anyone write fiction? Comments about the accountants at Enron aside, I believe the answer is a resounding "No!" There has to be something in the writer to begin with in order to create a story which has both the substance and the style that resonates with readers.

    And for the record, you're definitely cut out for it as well.

  3. How lovely to unexpectedly find someone with such a passion for writing through Cousin Ed's latest blog post on tipping.

    I am glad to make your acquaintance, Stephen, and will be checking in on your blog frequently.

  4. And it is so nice to meet you.

    Since meeting Cousin Ed, I have had fun swapping Rock-n-Roll trivia with him. It has been a pleasure to meet someone who enjoys looking at all the cover credits and tracking artists. Up to this point, I haven't met anyone else who does that, too. It's refreshing to know I'm not alone.

    Thank you for stopping by.

  5. Stephen,

    I may not be well-read enough to post on your blog. The last book I read was Conspiracy of Fools and before that I think it was Junie B. Jones goes to Hawaii....

    Good stuff. I will visit often. May I add a link to your blog on Beaten Down Stories?

  6. Cousin Ed,

    Thank you for stopping by. I am honored, and awed that you would want to post a link to me on your blog. If that doesn't pull down the value of what you do, then feel free.

    And here's to hoping that Quiet Riot are the next group to have a RockStar show to find a new lead singer (Raises Glass).