I started writing my first novel when I was twelve years old. I was thirty-three when I completed my first rough draft. That’s twenty years of wanting to do something and not knowing how. Twenty years of failure and frustrations and giving up.
A big part of the problem is that I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I didn’t know which questions to ask, much less who might have the answers.
These days, people write to me as if I know what I’m doing. Or like I have a shortcut to success. I’m not sure either is true. One thing I’ve learned is that luck plays a massive role. But what I do have are some insights today that I wish I’d had twenty years ago, tips and pointers that might’ve saved me a lot of headache and heartache if I’d known them sooner. Maybe it’ll help some aspiring writer out there if I jot them all down now.
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Insight #1: Anyone can become a successful writer; the only person who can stop you is you.
I spent twenty years stopping myself from becoming a successful writer. The biggest obstacle I faced is thinking success meant selling a ton of books, which meant writing something that millions of readers would enjoy. As I began writing my first attempts at a novel, watching the sentences form on the screen, I knew the words weren’t good enough, and so I stopped in order to spare all those readers from what I was writing.
The problem is that I had the definition of “successful writer” all wrong. A successful writer is one who finishes what they start while striving to improve their craft. It’s as simple as that. And the only one who can stop you from doing this is you.
Imagine if NBA all-star Steph Curry attempted to learn to play basketball with a million people watching. Or if the first pickup game he ever played was his only chance to land an agent and get signed to an NBA team. This is the pressure writers put on themselves, and it makes no sense. Basketball players will put all the hustle and energy into a thousand practice games before they ever get a shot at turning pro. Most will spend a dozen years playing almost every day of their lives before they make it onto a high school or college team. Writers should have the same expectations. Perhaps you write a dozen novels before you write one that blows you away or becomes a bestseller. The point is to finish them all. Play all four quarters. Steph Curry played a thousand games to the end before he turned pro. Every game he finished was a success. He didn’t stop himself, and neither should you.
Insight #2: You can’t compare your rough draft to any of the books you’ve read.
If you’re just starting out as a writer, there’s a good chance that you’ve never read a rough draft in your life. So don’t compare what you’re working on to what you’ve read from your favorite authors. Their rough drafts were nowhere near as wonderful and polished as the final product that you loved as a reader and that made you want to become a writer. Just like you, they had to get the words down on the page first. And then they had to go back and rewrite much of what they wrote, several times. At this point, they probably gave it to their spouse or a friend to read, and that person saw lots of room for improvement. Which meant another revision. The same process took place again with their agent. And then their editor. Each time, the rough draft got better and better. So will yours.
The books that made you want to become a writer were rewritten and revised as much as a dozen times, with the input of several other people. You don’t get to see all of the mistakes and boring bits – all of that has been cut away. It’s just like when you take a thousand photos on an epic vacation and only share the thirty or forty very best ones. This is what it takes to be a successful writer: You have to learn how to write the good and the bad all the way until the finish. Trust the revision process. No one will have to see your rough draft but you. And you can’t revise a work to perfection until it already exists. So make it exist.
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Insight #7: Competition is complicated
It might be true that there are a limited number of readers, and that you have to outwork your peers to turn writing into a career, but that doesn’t mean we’re all in competition with each other. We’re only competing to a certain degree, and then we’re in cahoots. Believe it or not, this is a team game.
Steph Curry played for Davidson College, not far from where I grew up. I watched him play college ball. Steph was competing with every player on his team, and every player in his division, for a spot in the NBA. But once he made it to the NBA, he was now reliant on not just his teammates but on his opposition to advance his career. The better Lebron James played, the more spectators and the more money Steph Curry enjoyed. And vice versa. Every NBA superstar grows the pool of viewers, hence advertising dollars, and so all NBA pros benefit.
I see a lot of writers get this wrong, claiming it’s a zero-sum game and we’re all competing with each other. This is nonsense. None of us can write fast enough, or a wide enough variety of material, to please all readers. We rely on our fellow pros to keep interest in the hobby high. JK Rowling did so much for all writers when she increased the number of young avid readers. I rely on my colleagues to keep people reading while I’m working on the next book. Just as Steph and Lebron both work to keep ratings high, advertising dollars flowing, and salary caps increasing.
The biggest fear NBA players, team owners, and executives should have is that viewers might change the channel. The real competition at this level is the NFL, MMA, CNN, the great outdoors, and so on. The paradox is this: You compete up to a point, and then you rely on each other. This means it’s never too early to foster great relationships with fellow writers. Which leads me to the next insight…