Do you know how many top-notch singers are never “discovered”? How many talented athletes never make the pro teams? How many talented writers earn a good livelihood without ever putting out a bestseller?
When I am with young people, I love to ask them what they want to be (when they grow up) and the answer these days is fairly uniform: “I want to be famous and make a lot of money.” Many a teenager and college student has looked me in the eye and told me, “I want to be a famous rock singer, a top-seeded tennis player, a highly paid basketball star, a movie star… ”
There are even some who look plaintively at me as they ask, “How can I become… (whatever)?”
My answer is the same as every other adult who has been asked that question. I give them the “practice, build your skills, pay your dues, get experience, talk to the pros” speech. And the juvenile response is universal: “Oh, I don’t need all that – I’m good at what I do. I just need a break. How can I get my lucky break?”
Well, my child, breaks are few and far between. When I interview successful people, the first thing I ask is, “How did you get into this business?” The second question is, “When did you get your lucky break?”
If you define success as “fame and fortune, the answers to these questions by successful people may surprise you.
- The basketball star spends hours and days on a gym floor bouncing a ball and tossing it into the hoop before making it onto a team.
- The rock singer takes lessons and learns the notes as well as the voice techniques while singing with a choir.
- Tthe tennis player pounds a tennis ball against the garage until the door falls off then competes in the town tournament.
- The movie star takes acting lessons, learns to sing and dance, and plays in numberless productions in local community theaters.
All of those “stars” looked at me quizzically when I asked about that “lucky break”. Because, for most, a lucky break is being prepared when an opportunity rises, and grabbing the opportunity if it appears. So playing with a farm team on exhibition tours, participating in an area dance band, singing in local opera and at weddings, or acting in local playhouses are means of collecting experience while earning a few bucks. These are all included in the stories of big-name stars – and numberless non-star professionals. In other words, you don’t have to be internationally famous to be a success. The thorny issue for teenagers is the desire to have it all now, do it without the homework, “be discovered” or fall into good fortune and great wealth.
The writer? Let’s see if any of the above criteria pertains to writers. (I know many more writers than tennis players and rock stars.)
What makes writers think that just because they can put words together, make sentences and sense, and draw oohs and aahs from family and friends, that they can become bestselling writers the first time they try? The answer is simple: others have done it.
My admonition is to ask those lucky ones how long they have been writing, polishing their words, learning new ways to present information, and picking up techniques to produce sparkling text. Ask them!
Ask them too if they went into the writing business as a lark or a hobby, a one-time effort, or if they went into it as a career, a way of spending their lives. Ask them if they have completed manuscripts of books or stories ready to show an agent or publisher that wants to see proof they are writers.
For myself, I wrote six novels before coming up with one that seemed (to me) to be worth sharing with the world. I wrote reports of school board meetings, technical manuals, resumes, brochure text, public relations releases, advertising copy, and so many short stories that my computer groans with their weight, before finding an agent who considered one of my books “saleable”.
“Oh, I’m not concerned with sales,” wails the indignant writer. “I just want to have my book published; the world will welcome it with open arms (and pocketbooks) once they see it.” Sure!
What I am saying is that writers who expect to be published writers have to face the business of writing. They need to write with a market ready for their work. They need to have something to say! They need to study the market for trends. But most of all, they need to have something inside that says to them, “If I don’t write, I’ll wither and die.”
With thousands of books being published every month, the publishing business today is way different from the business in the days of Hemingway and Steinbeck, and probably unrecognizable from the days of Twain and Dickens. (Incidentally, both Mark Twain and Charles Dickens wrote short pieces for newspapers while honing their writing skills, and were self-published.)
Today, you can become a “published writer” fairly easily: write something, find a publisher on the Internet, send in your work, and watch it come up on your computer monitor. Oh, you say, you want fame to go with it? Not likely in this day and age, with publishers spending their marketing dollars on big-name “writers” (read, ghost writers), timely tell-all books, and fluffy pieces about current celebrities. Occasionally a quality literary author will break into print – but count them. You won’t need both hands.
Daily, I receive calls from people who claim to have written “the best novel” or the “next bestselling exposé” or a life story “that will grip you from beginning to end.” When I read some of these promising manuscripts, I usually find a first draft of something that could become a good book with a little work. But who wants to re-write a book that they’ve been working on for 15 years? (Answer: the ones who get “lucky”.)
The bottom line in 21st century publishing:
- know your subject
- have a message
- write it intelligently
- re-write it until you have all the kinks worked out
- attend writing conferences to improve your skills
- write, write, write
- send your work to publishers who may not send back big checks, but who may send back an acceptance letter
- write for local businesses, ad agencies, newspapers, and magazines.
Then, go home and write some more on your own pet project.
Be ready when your lucky break arrives!
©Copyright 2007 Val Dumond