The Writing Life: The Value of Tenacity


A while back, I wrote a post on the value of ambition in which I discussed various forms of ambition and the ways each of them had benefited my art and my career.  I would like to offer a companion piece to that first post, by focusing on a second quality — tenacity — that a) has served me well over the years, and b) manifests itself in different forms.

Tenacitynoun — Persistence in maintaining, adhering to, or seeking something valued or desired.  (from Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed.)

There are actually a couple of other definitions of the word, but this is the one that most fully gets at the essence of what the word means to me.  And hey, it’s my post . . . 

Writing is an endeavor — and a profession — that can be absolutely brutal on those who tend to give up too easily.  The work is constant and slow; its rewards tend to be delayed, in many cases for months or years.  Progress comes in fits and starts; success can be both elusive and illusory.  And even when we reach a pinnacle, we are almost immediately faced with a harrowing descent and yet another summit to climb.  Sometimes the only thing that keeps us working is sheer determination, and a stubborn, almost pathological refusal to give up.  Let me offer a few examples.

Day-to-Day Tenacity: Also known as BIC.  A.J. wrote a terrific post on Friday about the need to take time off occasionally, to recognize that one need not write Every. Single. Day. in order to be a successful writer.  But still A.J., I am sure, would be the first to say that writers write, and that in order to succeed in this business one has to write on a regular basis.  But what about when a project is going slowly?  What about those times in the midst of writing a story or novel when every moment of writing is tortuous?  We’ve all been there, right?  We’ve all found ourselves writing a book that we know we WANT to write, but that is driving us nuts and making us want to do ANYTHING other than write.  What keeps us going?  Only our unwillingness to quit, our resolve to finish the book or die in the attempt. (I may be overstating a bit; or maybe I’m not…)  Butt In Chair IS tenacity, and it is the foundation of any successful writer career.

Project Tenacity:  Have you ever been working on a book and run headlong into a creative brick wall?  This happens to me quite often, actually.  I will be in the midst of writing a story and will suddenly run up against . . . something that stops me cold.  Maybe it’s a plot point that doesn’t work, or a gap in the progression of my narrative that I hadn’t anticipated and can’t seem to bridge.  Maybe it’s a problem with a character or with the interaction among characters.  Maybe it’s simply the realization that the story I thought would fill a 100,000 word novel only seems to be yielding a 65,000 word novel, and, well, I need 35,000 more words.  There are so many problems that can hang up a project, and at one time or another I have probably encountered all of them.  Early in my career, I would often panic when this happened, and it got to the point that my wife would laugh at me.  Because while I often ran into these walls at top speed, once I staggered back to my feet and shook the cobwebs from my head, I would manage to find a way over the walls, or around them, or straight through them if nothing else worked.  The point is, I always found that my belief in the project allowed me to move forward.  My faith that “there really is a book here, despite these problems” was always stronger than the urge to chuck it all and start over.

Market Tenacity:  Right now I am working on a book that I first wrote in 2005.  The book had a publisher, and then the publisher went belly-up and we had to try to sell it again.  No one was interested.  So I rewrote it.  And then I rewrote it again.  A year later, I tore it apart and put it back together as something fundamentally different and far, far better.  But after a friend read it and gave me comments, I realized that it still wasn’t quite ready.  I put it away, came back to it briefly last summer, then put it away again.  Now I’m going through it once more, making some fairly substantive changes, but also finding that I still love the premise, the story, the characters, the writing.  I still believe that this is a publishable novel, and I am absolutely determined to fight for it and see it in print.  Yes, this may be folly.  I imagine that Lucienne, who probably knows exactly which book I’m describing, is cringing a bit at the thought of me working on it yet again.  But I love, love, love this book.  Sometimes tenacity leads us astray; this might well be one of those times.  It may be that the book isn’t as good as I think it is, or it may be that despite being good, there is no place for it in the market.  I’ll just have to see.  In the meantime, though, I will continue to polish it, until it is as good as I can possibly make it.  And then we’ll try again to find a home for it.

Career Tenacity:  I am a midlist author, and I want to be more.  Some of you reading this are also midlisters hoping for that big breakthrough.  Others among you are aspiring writers who would love to make it to the midlist.  And others still are hoping for that first sale, and just looking to get your foot in the door.  Whatever category you’re in, the fact that you are aspiring to the next level despite setbacks, despite the years of waiting, shows that you possess career tenacity.  I wouldn’t want to try to assign relative value to the various types of tenacity I’ve described.  Without day-to-day tenacity, nothing would ever get written.  Without project tenacity, too many books would languish unfinished on our hard drives or notepads.  Without market tenacity we might never make that first sale, or that tenth sale that proves to be the Big One.  But it seems to me that career tenacity is what drives all the others, at least for me.  This is the one that hurts the most, that manages most often to take me to the brink of simply saying “Screw it; I give up.”  It’s also the one that offers the greatest sense of satisfaction when things go well.  I admit it:  I write because I want to be successful.  I love to write; I would write even if I never made another cent from any of my books or stories.  But I am driven by my ambition; I am tenacious — day-to-day, book-to-book, sale-to-sale — because I want to see my books do well commercially and gain critical praise. 

Your tenacity doesn’t have to be sourced in the same things mine is.  You don’t have to think of your resolve using the same terms I have in this post.  But I do believe that if you’re going to be “successful as a writer” — whatever that phrase means to you — you have to want it, you have to fight for it, you have to be persistent.

So what drives you?  In what ways are you tenacious?  In ways do you need to be even more determined?

David B. Coe

14 comments to The Writing Life: The Value of Tenacity

  • David, you are also a growing, evolving, developing person, and tenacity is part of that. To give up on dreams is to start to die — perhaps only in that one dream/goal area, but giving up does seem to have the ability in infect every area of life, once it is allowed to take root. Like a long finger of darkness. I am glad you pulled that old book back out of mothballs. (Do our young readers even know what mothballs are?) Have fun with it!

  • Great post, David. And yes, you are absolutely right that my post on not writing every day was not supposed to be a call to slack off. I’m completely committed to the kind of butt in chair tenacity you describe here: the need to drive through to the end of a project even when I’d rather be lounging in the sun than slaving away at the computer. I like your term ‘tenacity’ because it suggests an attitude of mind rather than a set of rules: it’s tough minded, thick skinned and resilient, driven, ambitious, and hungry. All good.

  • *resists Tenacious D crack, since “Tribute” is now in my head* 🙂

    I am tenacious because I have stories in me that I want to share with others, and I want to tell them right. For that, I’d rather make changes for the greater good of the story then get stuck on things being a certain way.

    I *stay* tenacious with community, in two ways. First, sites like this, and the people involved (commenters and posters alike) encourage me and give me strength to carry on.

    Second is something I *wholeheartedly* recommend to everyone: goals threads and check-ins. I’ve been participating in monthly goals at the Compuserve writers forum for a few years, but in the past year I’ve gotten involved in the #WIPmadness community on blogs and Twitter. With the latter, members of the community take turns hosting weekly check-ins for the month at their blogs (the #WIPmadness hashtag on Twitter is for daily progress and encouragement). In both cases, these goals help hold me accountable and encourage me to keep at it, because even if I don’t quite meet what I originally set out to accomplish, I’ve always made *some* progress, and the community spirit pushes me farther than I might go alone.

  • Thanks, Faith. I think you’re right — giving up on one thing can often impact other projects as well. Fighting on is, for me at least, far healthier.

    A.J., thank you. I spent a bit of time figuring out which word best fit what I was trying to convey, and chose tenacity for just the reasons you suggest. And I’m glad to hear that I was right about your post.

    Laura, glad you resisted… 😉 I love the idea of using community to maintain one’s commitment to a work ethic. #WIPmadness sounds like a terrific forum for that. Thanks for the suggestion, and for your comment. Hope the work is going well!

  • Thanks, David. It’s going. Realized that there is more to be done, and I have some more work ahead before I can submit. But I’m keeping at it.

    I forgot to add, this month was extra special, because the #WIPmadness community does March Madness for Writers, so the check-ins have been daily. With prizes. *very* intense, but very worth it. 🙂

  • Great post David. I think folks just starting out have no idea how much pure stubbornness it takes to become a writer- even just to finish that first book. Then they (aka me back in the day) finish that book, look up and see all the layers of hurdles waiting for them. Some (it could be argued, the smart ones) run away screaming- the rest of us hunker down and just keep digging.

    And yeah- having other writers around, both friends, and folks like you all here, does help in the just keep moving department. And things like this post :).

    There’s a concept in Psychology called future time perspective, it usually refers to the ability of putting off current joys for a future pay off. I’d say most writers who make it have an AMAZING future time perspective ;).

    Thanks for a great post- scary in that it never ends- but reassuring in that there are others out there doing the same thing.

  • Laura, I hadn’t heard of #WIPMadness, but I will begin following it now.

    I’m in that spot right now with one of my WIPs. I’m at the first big revision stage, where I’ve torn out everything, cut out the new pieces, organized it, and now am looking at the task of stitching it all back together. As my dad would say, it’s one of the big rocks (he’s always trying to remind me to move the small rocks first, because I never think about them).

    I’ve got a couple rocks at the base of my metaphorical hill right now, and despite being happy about getting one to the top (FINISHED A SHORT STORY, DAVID!), there are two or three boulders waiting for me at the bottom. I’m still in the process of psyching myself up to start pushing one of them, and I think a post about being tenacious is just what I needed to keep me from stalling.

  • I’ve been practicing being tenacious. When my top two agents bounced my queries, I sent out more to other agents.

    Today I got one rejection and sent out two more query letters. I shoved aside trauma and terror in favor of tenacity today. Yay alliteration. 😀

  • Tenacity – I has it.

    Usually I read these posts and think about how I could be doing what it says, or how I could be doing better, but this time I’m giving myself a pat on the back and moving on. I was too (&)@#$% stubborn to quit my PhD program when my committee went insane, my advisor died (yes, really), I ran out of employment, and my anxiety/depression almost drowned me. I’ve been writing steadily and determinedly for years now and I’m not giving up. Em and I sent our novel out to 50+ agents. When it didn’t sell we ripped it apart, redid the plot and are in process of rewriting. I don’t know if I’ll ever succeed in this business, but if I don’t, it won’t be for lack of trying.

  • mudepoz

    Tenacity? Let’s see. Putting an obedience trial championship on a breed not known for doing well. Working on a master’s with a plant that turned out to be a fixed tetraploid. The first angiosperm. I was insane to continue. Though I was PhD candidate at the time. And continuing to write even after two different writing workshops told me I should really continue my gardening. Oh, and flayed the skin off my back. That’s neither here nor there. Must get puppy out of my dinner. I think anytime you feel strongly about something, you have to be tenacious about it. Very few people just come with the toolbox and skill set to do something perfectly the first time or find the right people at the right time.

  • Glad to help, Laura. And yeah, the March Madness sounds . . . well, mad. 🙂

    Marie, thank you for the comment. Glad this site helps you, and glad as well that you liked the post.

    Scribe, congrats on finishing the story. Tenacity is always good for pushing those boulders, and especially for getting them moving, which is always the hardest part. Best of luck!

    Emily, yay for alliteration, and yay for you! Great going. Sorry about the agent rejections, but that is exactly the right response.

    Sarah, that’s very cool. Tenacious is good! And yes, it definitely sounds like you’ve got that quality in spades.

    Mude, yeah sounds like you have it, too. And yes, mastering a craft — any craft — is an exercise in what sportscasters like to call “stick-to-itiveness.” I always cringe when I hear it, but it is what one has to have.

  • @Laura: I saw when you tweeted recently about #WIPMadness… I didn’t respond mostly because I don’t have a lot of time for twitter (I’m on it, but only rarely). But I’m intrigued by the blog-side aspect of this little group. How does that work?

  • L. Jagi Lamplighter Wright

    >Sometimes tenacity leads us astray; this might well be one of those times.

    Or, maybe, once it is done, it will be the best book you’ve ever written, because you’ve given it so much. 😉

  • Owllady

    I’ve returned to a story idea that first came to me more than thirty years ago. I’ve worked steadily on it for the last three. I’ve taken online writing courses (wrapped up my most recent one a week ago), I’m active in an online writing/critiquing site, I’m active in a local writers’ group, and now I’ve joined MW. How’s that?