Wanting isn’t enough

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I’ve been taking classes in Middle Eastern dance since 2003. When my teacher first began training us to play zills while we danced, I just couldn’t get it. Every time she told us to get our zills out, I would sigh, knowing I was about to clank them together like a toddler beating on her mama’s cooking pots. My hands were slow, and even though I knew I was supposed to play a rhythm different from the one my feet were following, it was bloody hard. Trouble was, there was no way around it. Short of leaving the class, and giving up on something I really loved doing, I had to try. So I put on my zills and suffered through the lesson. This went on for a long time, until one day when I was practicing, and I realized I was getting it right. At some point in the months of trying, I’d finally figured it out, and was playing zills the way my teacher wanted me to. No one gets anything right the first time, or even the fiftieth. It takes practice and determination, and there are no real shortcuts.

Josh Olson, writer of A History of Violence, recently wrote a column about all the would-be screenwriters who approach him to read their work, and famed science fiction writer David Gerrold chimed in as well. The response from a great many would-be writers was angry and ugly, accusing them (and the rest of us who agree) of being cruel and exclusive. This is hardly the truth. God knows we’d be thrilled to see some of our readers achieve publication as well. In this business, there’s always room for one more at the party! But you have to do your own work – no one can do it for you.

The angry would-be’s real desire is a shortcut. He doesn’t want to submit work and be rejected, even though the rejection is a valuable learning tool. He doesn’t want to send out a thousand query letters – he doesn’t want to bother writing one at all. He’d prefer to skip to the part where he gets all the success, and he feels that published writers who say no to his demand are all conspiring to keep him down. Have you ever watched a reality show? Survivor, Big Brother, Project Runway, or any of the eleventy-zillion others, doesn’t really matter which one. Every time they bring in a new crop of competitors to talk to the camera, there’s always one thing they all say – “I’m going to win because I want it so badly.” This is the mind-set of the angry would-be writers. They seem to think that all they have to do is want hard enough. “I want it, so you should give it to me.” Wanting is important. Not long ago, Faith mentioned talking to Kim Harrison, who wanted the success she has achieved from the beginning. Setting your mind on a goal you desire is the first, most important step. But it has to be accompanied by doing. None of us will achieve any level of success if we stop at the wanting.

Does this mean you shouldn’t ask writers for help? Heavens no! All four of us are right here, posting every day for just that reason. I know for a fact Faith has two or three people under her wing right now, just as she once had me, and I have offered help to a couple of folks (who are patiently waiting for me to get back to them – I haven’t forgotten, I swear!) But none of our readers and our proteges are asking us to do their work for them. And when the day comes that our readers and proteges have books on the shelves next to all of ours, we’ll be overjoyed.

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16 comments to Wanting isn’t enough

  • >>He doesn’t want to submit work and be rejected, even though the rejection is a valuable learning tool.<<

    Yes! This is the hardest thing I've had to convey to my student. When I send back critical comments on his work, this is not a sign that he has "failed" but rather that he still has things to learn. None of us got this perfectly right the first time through, or the tenth, or even the most recent. We learn by getting it wrong, reworking it, and getting it right the next time. That's not a step anyone can skip. Or rather, they can, but their work will suffer for that lack of trial and error.

  • I’ve wanted to be a writer for longer than I can remember. My grandma used to tell me stories where I would walk around with a notebook and pen, making squiggly lines in it and then “read” what I had written to family members.

    The more I learn about the reality of the situation–of the pay, the lack of benefits, the limited glory, the more I ask myself why I want to keep doing it. I can’t come up with a reason–but I can’t shake the need to write and the yearning to share it with the world.

    Makes me wonder if “Authorly Compulsions” will ever be part of a DSM diagnosis, but I think that’s definitely what I have.

  • Misty, this is spot-on. (picture me clapping) Thanks for saying this!!!

    I have worked with writers who wanted it so badly they literally ached with the need to be published. The ones who were willing to do the work had a shot at it, and some have gotten there. But there were several who weren’t willing to do the homework. They are still aching. Kinda masochistic, you know?

    It is a freaking hard business. You have to be willing to be shot down over and over, and most people are not willing to suffer. They think because their mamas told them they are great, then, by god, they are. But the publishing world aintcher mama. It has no memories of you in your diapers looking adorable. You have to want it, yes. Most of us have to suffer for it too.

  • Faith said, But the publishing world aintcher mama. It has no memories of you in your diapers looking adorable.

    *laughing hysterically* That’s perfect!

  • I’ve wanted to be a writer for a pretty long time, but never considered myself good enough when stacked up against Moorcock, Anthony, Offutt, Feist, Brooks, or the multitude of others I was reading back when I started seriously writing. I’ve come a long way since that time (I know, I still have the first thing I wrote at 16…ick) and I feel I’ve made all the mistakes in practice and hammered them out. No, I’m not saying I don’t think I make mistakes anymore, that leads down the path to the darkside…or, just the path of vanity…I get those confused. Anyway, the mistakes I make now are those that any author might make in the first draft, and I can pick them out and realize them for mistakes and correct them.

    Over my time on planet Earth I’ve come to at least a couple realizations that have pretty much jump-started me, put a fire under me, put a burr under my saddle, or any other of those analogies that speak of putting something under something or making you move forward. The first and most important is that if you have a dream, a goal, if you know without a shadow of a doubt what you want to do with the rest of your life, go out and do it, with everything you have, do it. Life’s too short to worry over whether you’re good enough or whether you’re embarrassed at showing your work, or whatever else you may fear about moving forward. Took a near death experience and then a few years of contemplation and a little more age for me to figure that one out, but it’s true. As Misty said, wanting it isn’t enough, you have to go out and do. You have to conquer those fears, rise above them and go after what you want with all you have. If you want it bad enough you’ll find ways around those rocks in the road or find ways to kick them out of the way to keep moving toward your goal.

    The second thing was pretty much our daughter and providing for her. I have no illusions of getting rich in the market (though I am going to strive toward that bestseller goal), but between writing screenplays and novels and working on films it could happen. My eventual goal is to finally be able to live comfortably and provide for our daughter’s future. I’m not necessarily looking for that dee-lux apartment in the sky, but buying a house instead of renting one would be nice. Being able to get a second car would be nice, being able to purchase a dishwasher would be nice, as would actually being able to take a small vacation every once in a while and not have to worry about what bills we’ll have to ignore to do it. Our daughter is very smart. I thought I was back when I was a kid, but she does most things at three that they say kids don’t do until they’re five. I think that given the chance she’ll be able to become something great and I want her to have those opportunities, the ones I never really had. She’ll probably want to follow in her Dad’s footsteps and make monsters and write about ’em, but whatever she wants to do, I want her to have the opportunity to be all she can be instead of learning it in the school of hard knocks like her Dad did.

    Third, I’ve come to the realization, the almost metaphysical realization, that writing was what I was always meant to do. I’m good at it. I’ve been told I’m great at it, and not just by parents and siblings. I actually have people asking me for advice on how to write better…which I don’t mind saying is a little embarrassing and humbling, but heartening and further proof that I’m on the right path. I’ve been visited by Heron quite frequently the past couple months and I figured out what it was I was being told. I had to focus, to finally drive toward my goal. It’s time to soar to the heights I dream of achieving. So I buckled down and got the first draft of my first novel finished within a couple months and pushed aside my nervousness and sent the manuscript to several people to help me proof. A part of me is dreading responses, that little pessimistic part of me that I’ve been working hard to quell lately, but the rest of me can’t wait for the feedback. I can’t wait to get this first book done and out to a publisher or agent. I feel real good about it. Never in a million years thought the first one would be a romance novel, but life’s crazy that way.

    Another part of the metaphysical aspect and feeling that what I’m doing is the right path is that it’s the perfect job for my Crohn’s disease. I can write even if I’m not feeling quite up to snuff. Heck, I have a laptop now so I can even write in the bathroom if I had to. I was in retail for a while and it tore my body up. So I frequently ache from various joints and such, but I don’t have that problem while I’m sitting and writing. I also don’t have the stress of people yelling at me over the phone like I’d have in a collections or telemarketing or other office job. Aside from an editor and deadlines, I’m my own boss. The only one to look over my shoulder to make sure I’m doing the work is myself. Deadlines aren’t a problem for me. I work better when I have a deadline. And it’s an editor’s job to make sure you’re giving your audience your best work, so it’s almost more like a collaboration between you and the editor.

    Honestly, if you believe in choosing your path before being born I think I saw the writer box and wore a hole through the paper marking that one as what I wanted to focus on. It’s taken me a while to get here, but I’m not gonna falter now. It’s what I was meant to do. Time and past time for me to get serious about it and start doing it.

  • (Actually, I sad pedantically, Josh Olson is the writer of the *screenplay* for A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE. Graphic novel author John Wagner wrote the original story.)

    My favorite part of Olson’s article was the bit that said (paraphrased), “It rarely takes more than a page to know you’re in the presence of someone who can write, but it often takes less than a sentence to know you’re in the presence of someone who can’t. Hint: if that pissed you off and you believe it’s wildly untrue, you’re not a [good] writer.”

    The basic truth of that, and the sheer rage it inspires, bemuses me. Writing well is not a God-given right. Just because we are all taught to form letters does not mean we are all capable of gracefully telling stories. Nobody seems to think they’ll be a maestro the first time they sit down to play the piano. It never fails to astonish me that people think they’ll be geniuses at writing stories their first time out.

  • It is a rather odd and unfortunate quirk of the craft of writing, that so many folks believe they can be fabulous at it on the first try. Is there any other art or craft that functions like this? Is it the simple fact that typing words is easy? Is it the belief that having put all the time and effort into creating a novel that one somehow deserves the recognition of publication? Do painters believe their first painting deserves to be put into a gallery? It seems to me that people don’t put value to words like they do to brush strokes or any other art/craft one can care to mention. People can understand the skill of a painter, the years of practice it can take to become good, and the sheer difficulty and “something else” it takes to be a master. Why is this notion not applied to words? Because everyone uses them? Perhaps. Regardless, it is sad that people don’t view writing with the same eye as other forms of art. Consequently, they don’t understand why their first novel gets shot down or receives no recognition.

  • Amy

    How exactly do you become a published author’s protege without being an annoying wannabe? :)

  • Alright–to suck it up–i’ve set up a system on my LJ account to try and hold me accountable and force my hand to be more than a wanna be. I wanna be more than a wanna be, I swear.

  • Amy, for one thing, avoiding being annoying is a good start! :) I can tell you how it happened for me. I joined a writing critique group, one which had a published author in its ranks. I brought my pages and learned from the criticism (some of which made me cry now and then) and slowly became a better writer. After a few months, the published author started taking a special interest in what I was writing and what my plans were, because she could see something in my work that I hadn’t really thought about myself.

    Surround yourself with writers, people who will push you to improve and grow. Read this blog! If you have the chance to attend cons and meet writers whose work you admire, go. Talk to the writers, ask questions and listen to the answers, but try not to be desperate or needy. If one of those writers offers to look at your work, get her email addy and follow through.

    Remember, though, that lots and lots and LOTS of people achieved publishing success without being someone’s protege. You can, too.

  • Amy

    Cool! Thank you. At this point, I’m still plugging away at my rewrite so I have a ways to go before I worry about publication. But this blog is a major help. Thank you.:)

  • I’ve looked at some of my earliest writings and I can see the long road I’ve travelled as a writer since then. And, as I continue my journey, I suspect the road ahead before publication may be just as long and laborious and fruitfull.

    All I can do is keep moving along that road by working on honing my craft. Write, write, write…read, read, read…write, write, write some more.

    While the song isn’t about writing, I can’t help but hear Eddie Vedder and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan singing that one line: “We all walk the long road… But I keep reminding myself that only by writing and hard work can I create the road in the first place. Dreaming and Wanting are stagnant things without the Doing.

  • Here’s the beginning to the first thing I ever wrote back when I was maybe 15-16. It’s word for word, punctuation for punctuation.
    ***
    He awoke, the sounds of morning were not there. He had been praying to God that he would not die, when he fell asleep. He pushed the mattresses off of his body. He was still laying on the remains of his bed, only thing different was, he was in the basement. He looked up through the hole and saw the remains of his charred bedroom, two stories up. Danaro was a man of about eighteen years of age and very smart. Also, he was part owl. He slowly got up, rubbing his neck, and walked up the basement stairs.

    Upstairs was a shambles, and the second floor was hardly even there. He now knew it was the morning of D-day.
    ***
    Ah yes, pure poetry! Makes me wonder why I continued trying. I was so proud of that back then too.

  • Daniel, the earliest thing I remember writing was a four page story based on The Wild Wild West. It was pure fanfic (long before there was such a thing). overwrought and purple as can be. You are WAY braver than I am, because there’s nothing on this earth that can make me share those pages! *grin*

  • Heh! Yeah, I’m confident enough in my ability now that I can look back at the old stuff and kinda snicker at it from time to time. I look at it when I feel down on my writing ability to see how far I’ve come. It usually does the trick.

  • Beatriz

    Thank you for this. Just the motivation I needed to go check on the dance class schedule.