We all know there’s a magic formula, quality, secret… whatever you want to call it, that separates the published from the unpublished. When I first joined RWNZ and met published authors I knew they’d cracked a code more important than Da Vinci’s but whenever I asked, (subtly or stridently), they gave me vague, unsatisfactory and often contradictory answers, obviously protecting the secret that was keeping me out of the hallowed club.
On my own I decided it was talent. Except time went by and I discovered a lot of talented people weren’t getting published, including (obviously 🙂 ) me. In the absence of editor/publisher interest I wrote to contest deadlines, and even won a few, which I was sure would catapult me into publication. What actually happened was that the rejection letters got longer, a promising thing I was told by the published writers, bless their sadistic hearts. Personally I couldn’t see the upside of editors taking another page to tell me why my work was unprintable.
I came to believe that craft was the magic ingredient. So I learned what GMC was, and how conflict differed from bickering and how to escalate sexual tension without letting them DO it. My own tension also rose as the years went by.
As a last resort I forced myself to write regularly rather than TALK about writing or STUDYING the writing craft. Forget the magic sledgehammer; I resigned myself to doing it the hard way – chipping away at the coal face with a broken fingernail.
And one day a wonderful thing happened. I got the Call. Somehow I’d bluffed or lucked my way into the secret club without knowing the magic password. I was ‘in.’
First book: Every word I write is precious and perfect; my editor said cut 50 pages.
Never mind, no one gets rejected after publication – my next proposal was rejected… the line had just bought two control freak heroines, didn’t need another. Send us something else.
I sold a second book on sixty pages and a synopsis… worked hard to get it in on time and started to relax. Okay, obviously the magic quality was self-discipline – a quiet steady progression to the Holy Grail of all writers which is (obviously), an easy writing life.
The editor rang and said, ‘partly my fault for approving the synopsis but you have a structural problem – Supers are full of people and you’ve isolated the hero and heroine on the river for 100 pages…bring more people in on the river journey and while you’re at it, change the hero’s motivation and back story. Oh, and do it in two and a half weeks.’
I thought about my choices. I could refuse, complain or bawl which would really help my career. I could say I’m a slow and painstaking writer who produces around a page an hour. Or I could say yes, I’ll do my damnedest.
And at that moment I knew the magic secret. The one thing everyone needs to start and maintain a career in romance writing. It’s GRIT. And strangely that made it easier for me to say yes. Because grit’s a choice, not a gift like talent, or a skill like craft. Grit is a commitment to try… I could do grit.
So I didn’t mention to the editor that my house was for sale and had to be kept spotless OR that I had a workshop to deliver which I’d deferred for months because I thought I was too busy OR that my sister who I hadn’t seen for two years was arriving from Ireland with her new baby to spend quality time with her family. I did say I would have fourteen writing days to achieve a complete rewrite. The editor said ‘great.’ Eventually my agent got me another week. And by challenging every perception I had about myself as a writer I made the deadline.
Grit is the ability to persist with passion despite setbacks and studies have shown that it’s at least as good a gauge of future success as talent, which generally accounts for around twenty-five percent of success.
If you want to succeed it’s just as important to be focused, hardworking and able to bounce back from setbacks as it is to be talented. Experts often speak of the “10-year rule”-that it takes at least a decade of hard work or practice to become highly successful in most endeavours, which explains why the ability to persist in the face of obstacles is so important in major achievements.
Geniuses are the exception, not the rule and because we all love ‘instant gratification’ stories the facts are often mythologised. In his diaries, Mozart wrote that an entire symphony appeared, supposedly intact, in his head, and that’s the part that’s often quoted. But no one ever mentions the next paragraph, where Mozart talks about how he refined the work for months.
At Kara Writing School I remember Daphne Clair and Robyn Donald saying they couldn’t tell which of their students would make it as a writer. Some with a lot of talent gave up; others more moderately blessed honed their craft and polished and persisted and went on to publication. Now I know they were talking about the grit factor.
Grit is good; where do I get some?
The good news is that New Zealand tends to produce grittier people because our immigrant forbears needed to be energetic risk-takers to immigrate here in the first place. But don’t just rely on good genes, here are some other techniques:
- Feed the passion – Attend or do online workshops, read craft books, go to conference, develop a writing support network and read fiction that inspires you. Passion will help you through the hard times. Some great books to tap into for feeding the writer’s soul are: Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way and its sequel Vein of Gold; Stephen King’s On Writing; and Ann Lamott’s Bird by Bird
- Set challenging long term goals – Gritty people don’t say ‘I’m going to write a paragraph today’ but ‘I’m going to have a book finished for the Clendon Award.’ They set seemingly impossible goals – I’m going to have a book on the New York Times bestsellers list within five years. Working towards a BIG goal makes the smaller goals appear both manageable and achievable.
- Develop self-discipline, defined as the ability to refrain from doing something ie: stop procrastinating, get on the computer and write something.
Develop perseverance defined as the ability to keep doing something – stay at the computer until you’ve written x number of pages.
- Develop an attitude of optimism. You have to believe you’re going to win and until you do, you’re going to keep on pushing. The Lord of the Rings trilogy were great movies because all the characters kept going despite every setback. Frodo and Sam crawling up Mt Doom epitomised grit.
- Encourage grit by rewarding yourself for effort rather than result. If you pin everything on this submission or this contest or this contract then if you get a rejection or negative feedback you experience that as a failure. The doing is under your control; reward yourself for the doing – for having the guts to try.
Grit is encouraged by commitment. I became a writer when I started thinking of myself as a writer and wow, what a difference that made to my progress. Now I know that regardless of whether my editor rejects or accepts a book, regardless of whether I place or not in contests, I will be a writer as long as (yes, there’s a catch 🙂 ), I write.
Grit’s the secret, pass it on.