I recently celebrated the publication of my 50th book, and someone asked me what I thought were the most important qualities of a writer for success in today's market. I'm not sure I gave a very coherent answer--I'm not really that good at off-the-cuff responses! But the question has been bouncing around in my mind since then, and I've come to a conclusion: the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Not very original, I know. But cliches become cliches precisely because they contain that kernel of truth that all of us know but seldom want to acknowledge. True, the ways in which stories are delivered have changed and continue to change at an alarming rate. I suspect all of us feel a bit panicked at times when it seems technology is racing ahead, leaving us behind! But what hasn't changed is the longing and need of the human psyche for stories which help us make sense of the world nor the qualities required for the development of a writer who can keep on producing those stories year after year, no matter whether the delivery system is a rock and a chisel or next year's latest leap forward.
With that in mind, I venture to sound off on the qualities I've observed make for success, no matter how you define it, as a writer:
Preparation. If I decided tomorrow to take up painting, I wouldn't expect my first effort to hang on the wall of an art museum. If I learned to play the cello, I wouldn't expect symphony orchestras to be pounding on my door, begging me to join them. Why then do aspiring writers assume their first efforts are worthy of publication and hasten to slap up a self-published e-book before they've learned their craft? I'm convinced that every writer has to write a certain amount of drivel before getting down to the truth that really matters and learning the most effective method of delivering that truth. When the only option for publication was to submit one's work to a publishing house, we learned the sad facts of life at an early stage of our careers. And if we stayed around to acquire enough rejections to paper a wall, we'd proved the value of my second point.
Persistence. I've been writing for more years than I care to mention. Along the way, in workshops, in critique groups, at conferences, I've met writers who were far more talented than I...the sort of writers who seemingly without effort produced beautiful prose and vibrant characters. I usually went home discouraged, convinced that I didn't stand a chance of being published when other newcomers with their talent were knocking on the same doors I was. But a few years down the road, I looked around and discovered that many of those people had vanished. They'd taken up watercolors, or scuba diving, or organic gardening. They'd had an opportunity and lost it because they refused to change their golden prose. They'd become disheartened at the first rejection, or the tenth, or the twentieth. The books they might have written disappeared into the neverland of unfinished novels, and their writing dreams went with them. They lost, because they gave up, unwilling or unable to muster the will to get back up each time they were knocked down. They lacked not only persistence but another important quality...
Patience. Making it in publishing is not just about keeping on keeping on. It's also a matter of preparing and learning and waiting for the right opportunity for us. It's so tempting, each time we learn of a new sub-genre gaining in popularity or a new publishing venture starting up to exclaim, "I can do that!" and rush off in a new direction. And maybe it's true. Maybe I can do that, at least well enough that someone will buy my work. But is it the right direction for me? Is it an area I know about, feel deeply about, and have the empathy to write from the heart? Or is it, we imagine, a shortcut to what we really want to write? If we're writing romance or inspirational or Amish or anything else because we think it's easy, we'd best think again. Phyllis Whitney, the grand old lady of romantic suspense, compared it to waiting at a train station. All the while we're waiting and learning and stretching our writing wings and preparing ourselves, and trains are pulling out, taking other writers to their dreams. But finally the train comes along that's meant just for us, and we're ready to hop on board and grab that opportunity.
Now that's writing for success!