So you want to be a writer, Part 2

We got the ball rolling in part one of this guide with an aspiring writer contacting me to review some of his fight scenes. It got me thinking about the last couple years, ever since I started writing books and what kind of ride it’s been: the good, bad and ugly. Let’s move on now to some of the common myths people believe about the job. Again, this is just my personal opinion, feel free to disagree if your journey has been different from mine.

Myth #1: I’ll write a bestseller and get rich in no time.

In truth, this could happen and it does. Every year, a handful of writers make it to the big time with a hit novel or non-fiction book. For instance; JK Rowling had an insane success with her first Harry Potter book. The sequels, movies and merchandising made her one of the wealthiest women alive today. Excellent! But, it also took her six years to write that first bestseller and many publishers turned down the manuscript.

For every success story like hers, there are millions of writers who either don’t get published or they make virtually no money at all in comparison. Sit down, have a cup of tea and repeat to yourself: “It may never happen. It may never happen. It may never happen.” Does that mean you shouldn’t try? Not at all. Only that you’re better off with both feet on the ground if Lady Luck never favors you.

Myth #2 I’ll write the ultimate book on (insert topic).

This is a variation on the above, mixed with some personal experience. When I wrote The Fighter’s Body with Loren, I got overexcited. I wanted to write THE ULTIMATE GUIDE TO MARTIAL ARTS TRAINING AND DIET!!!  So I dug my heels in and did tons of research. All of it looked real interesting to me so I added lots of it to the manuscript. If I thought it was interesting, it would make the book more complete and that’s a good thing right? Not really. Loren had to slow me down most of the time and even though he explained it well enough, it took a long time for me to understand the simple truth:

You can’t write a “complete” reference book unless you’re willing to make it an encyclopedia. But encyclopedias don’t sell well so you better think hard about your chances of getting published.  If you don’t care, there are plenty of vanity publishing options, which we’ll cover in later parts. The kicker is this: even encyclopedias need revisions to incorporate new data and research as it becomes available. So even if you write a 25-volume reference work, you’ll be out of date by the time your second volume hits the stores.

Over the years, I’ve talked to many  friends who started on their first book. More than half of them were psyched like me when they started out. Almost all of them are still stuck in revising their manuscript, adding and deleting (but mostly adding) paragraphs and chapters in pursuit of writing the definitive work in their field.

I’m not criticizing them, not at all. My only point is that this is one of the traps you can fall into early on. It can paralyze you into never sending out your manuscript and when you finally do, the odds are against you ever getting published.

Myth #3 Talent is all it takes.

If ever there is a myth that needs to be taken down, this one is IT. There is raw talent all over the place. Everywhere. All over the world. Yet only a fraction of these talented people actually make a living from their writing skills. There are a number of reasons for that:

  • They suck at promoting themselves. Been there, done that. I always figured self-promotion was against some sort of martial arts code of conduct. Much to the frustration of my ex-wife, who has a marketing degree. And she was right, you need to promote your work or it won’t sell. If you’re not the most active promoter of your work, who else will pick up that job? And in the end, it boils down to this: if your work doesn’t sell because nobody notices it, your next manuscript won’t get published.  This doesn’t mean you have to go overboard though. No need to spam the crap out of people to tell them how great your latest book is.
  • Crappy interpersonal skills. You might be an amazing writer but if you’re an asshole to everybody in the business, you’ll soon be isolated. Insist on being unreasonable or arrogant and no publisher will want to work with you, despite your talent. If you act like a know-it-all bastard to your colleague authors, they’ll have little praise for you as well. Which can hurt you in many more ways than you might imagine.
  • It isn’t their time. Some writers are too early or too late with their works. Dracula by Bram Stoker was written in the style of that era and had a good reception. It even got lots of positive reviews when it was first published. But it still took decades before the book became the icon it is today. From a martial arts perspective: a book on Gracie ju jitsu wouldn’t have sold much twenty years ago. Ten years ago it would have sold like hot cakes. Today, there are almost too many of them. As with everything, timing is essential.
  • Bad luck. It can be as simple as that. You send your manuscript to dozens of publishers and they’re not interested. Why? They might have a full publishing schedule. Or they might already have a similar manuscript about to come out. Who knows? You’re just out of luck.

There are many more possibilities as to why your talent isn’t recognized but listing them all would take too long. The main message is that talent doesn’t automatically translate into book deals. You need a lot of luck, that’s for sure. But you also need to approach it as a job, as a business. You’re a company of one: creative soul, workhorse, accountant and CEO. Until you hit the big time, you’ll have to fulfill all of these roles. If you only focus on the writing and not on these others, you set yourself up for failure. It’s not that you can’t have success that way but more a matter of stacking the odds in your favor of it happening.

On a personal level: I never intended to write, nor have I ever thought of myself as being talented in that area. English is my third language and I’m not as familiar with it as my mother tongue, Dutch. But I try to be better at the craft. I try to learn what works and why it does. It’s a slow process but what’s the alternative? Not doing the best I can to improve? Where’s the fun in that? Just because you know you’re not the most talented guy out there, you shouldn’t accept it and not give it your all to hone your skills. On top of that, I write because I enjoy it. It’s fun, even when my grammar and zpellink zux.

That’s it for part two. As always, feel free to leave your comments and give some feedback from your own experience.

In part three, we’ll look at the mental aspects of writing, the “inner game” to use one of the most overused clichés.

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Comments

  1. Danny Young says:

    Great stuff Wim! Very honest and true!

  2. Danny Young says:

    Great stuff Wim! Very honest and true!

  3. Nice post, Wim. I agree that talent isn’t everything, especially when it comes to writing (look at Dan Brown or Jeffery Archer). The most successful writers are those who simply did not give up and persevered until they broke through. Your own talent is evident and all the more remarkable given that English is your third language. I don’t think I could write as well in Dutch!
    Nice post.

  4. Nice post, Wim. I agree that talent isn’t everything, especially when it comes to writing (look at Dan Brown or Jeffery Archer). The most successful writers are those who simply did not give up and persevered until they broke through. Your own talent is evident and all the more remarkable given that English is your third language. I don’t think I could write as well in Dutch!
    Nice post.

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