Thursday, July 9, 2009

Two good ways to kill a writer

Recently, I heard a podcaster on the Dead Robot’s Society Podcast advise people to only work on stories they were passionate about and to switch projects when their passion fades. This may work for a few people, but for most people, especially the new and aspiring writer, this is a bad idea, one likely to lead to failure.

Over the years, I have watched dozens of aspiring writers stop writing. Several of these people were very talented (some far more so than me), yet they stopped writing after just a few years, sometimes just a few months. I also know a number of writers who have struggled for an inordinate amount of time with little or no success, people with stacks of unpublished stories and incomplete novels.

There are two behaviors these people have in common. The first is only writing when they feel like it (or when they feel inspired). The second is only working on a project they are passionate about, which leads to starting many projects but finishing few or even none. From what I have seen, both of these behaviors are surefire, almost inevitable paths to failure.

For a writer, especially someone new, the hardest part is simply getting the work done. You have to write, and you have to write enough to learn how to tell a good story. Even ignoring the learning curve, it takes most people a year or more to write a novel, and a month or more to write a short story. After this, they have to edit it and market it until it gets published. Anyone who stops mid way through is left with nothing. Nothing at all.

I have also observed two behaviors that correlate with success better than any others. These two things enable aspiring writers to complete the work they start, and, over time, lead to publication. The first is to write every day (or nearly every day). The second is to write to the end, finishing each story or novel that is started--and I don’t mean finishing a rough draft, I mean finishing a polished, professional, saleable draft.

Of the successful writers I have talked to and heard talk, 95% write on a set schedule (most writing every day) and many talk about working each project to the end with about 60%working only one project at a time and about 40% working multiple projects simultaneously. I happen to be a multiple project writer, but never more than one book at a time.

So the two habits of failure are:
-- Write when you feel like it.
-- Write what you are passionate about.

And the two habits of successful writers are:
++ Write every day, no matter what.
++ Work each project until it is finished.

Two more for the advanced class:
++ Submit finished work until it sells.
++ Hone your craft with short stories, when they start selling, move up to novels.

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