MY TEN COMMANDMENTS TO WRITING SUCCESS: A NO-FAIL APPROACH/Part 2
1) Don’t forget that networking is just as important as your talent and computer. It’s a must-have tool in your writing existence. You need to seek out contacts, preferably the power brokers at the top of the masthead or high-level editors, and cultivate them as “allies.” If you ignore this aspect of the business, believe me, you’ll suffer the consequences. I hear all the time from writers, “But I don’t like to mingle. I’m too shy. I’m not a good talker.” My response is matter-of-fact: “This is the way the game is played. If you don’t want to play, don’t expect to win.” Which means: Don’t expect editors to come to you. They won’t. Like Mohammed, you need to go to the mountain. I don’t care how much talent you think you have. It’s not enough to “make your career” all by itself. And remember: If you’re not cultivating contacts, some other writer out there is.
2) Force yourself to work under deadline pressure. Deadlines are what separate the professional from the hobbyist. Pros can’t wait for inspiration, or an act from God, to propel their creativity. They write because they have to, because someone on the other end is waiting for their work. They write whether rain, sleet, or snow, and all hours of the day and night. I’ve tortured myself to hit deadlines over the years, from five-minute ones to monthlies. That’s the nature of the beast. It’s where the tough gets tougher. So, either get assigned to something with a due date or create an artificial one. If nothing else, it’s good practice to see how well you function in such a situation. You may actually find that you’re not cut out to write professionally, that in reality you’re merely a dabbler. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s just good to know where you stand.
3) Build a portfolio before you start hitting the major newspapers/magazines/publishers. Mind you, I’m not even remotely suggesting that you work for free. I’m really not. In fact, I insist on writers ALWAYS getting paid at least something for their hard work. What I am saying is this: You can’t expect to be published in the New York Times or sell a book for a $400,000 advance or get a major assignment from Sports Illustrated or People Magazine with little or no experience. You must pay your dues, like any other profession. You won’t go from singing in the shower to headlining in Vegas. That’s not realistic and you’ll be hitting your head against a brick wall if you try. Instead, moving up the publishing ladder a step at a time, for more and more money, you should get at least 5-8 clips together, sizeable ones that show off your writing ability, before considering the “big boys.” Begin with local papers or small magazines or trade publications. Make your “bones” there, where the competition isn’t too stiff and where you’ll have the freedom—and opportunities—to develop your own voice. And consider each story you write an audition for something better and higher paying. In other words, write the heck out of it. Make it brilliant!
4) Read something every day. Magazines, newspapers, books. But try to be choosy. Read things written by great writers. And don’t be a passive reader, be an active one: analyze what the writer is doing, what the writer does to achieve a certain effect, what the writer does with plot, characters, dialogue, action, exposition, etc. Read, read, and read. The theory: Whatever goes into your brain is likely, in time, to find its way out. It’s called “filling your cup.” By mere osmosis, you’ll absorb the craft without even knowing it. Great writing will be in you, dying to get back out.
5) Write something every day. No matter what. Forget that you’re tired or don’t feel like it. You’re supposedly a writer. So write. Don’t be a pretender. And don’t even think about that dreaded of all things creative: writer’s block. If you’re convinced you have writer’s block, just write about it. Write about why you think you’re blocked. Trust me, this’ll snap you out of it in a hurry. Remember, all writers, from Tolstoy to Hemingway to Stephen King, have written badly before they wrote well.
6) Make friends with other artists, especially with happy, positive, and successful ones. It’ll inspire you to be around other wonderfully creative people and to be able to share ideas back and forth. Afterwards, your energy will fly off the chart.
7) Make sure you spell correctly and are grammatical in your dealings with editors. I can’t tell you how many letters/notes/e-mails I get from “writers” with grossly ungrammatical sentences and a slew of misspellings. I cringe. It turns me off immediately—as I’m sure it will with editors. These are the tools of your craft. Learn how to use them—or else. Buy a grammar/spelling book, for God’s sake. Get a good “spell/grammar check” program. There’s no excuse for sloppy English. One misstep will likely sink you with an editor you’re trying to sell a story to.
8) Know as much as you can about the editor and the publication/publishing house before firing off a proposal. The more you know, the more you can “target” your approach. It’ll likely also give you a step up on the competition, since most writers don’t do this extra homework (at least, they didn’t until they read it here). A great example of someone going that extra yard for success is the great golfer Jack Nicklaus. Before playing in tournaments, The Golden Bear would arrive in town a few days early just to scout out the course. Taking a golf cart, he’d ride around jotting down in a small notebook observations and ideas on how to play certain holes. No wonder he won more major tournaments than anyone else did. One time, playing in the Masters, another golfer noticed that Nicklaus look decidedly perplexed. “What’s wrong, Jack?” To which Nicklaus responded, “There’s supposed to be a telephone pole there.” The pole had been removed a day earlier. Jack knew it was there!
9) Find a mentor. Someone who’s a successful writer who can teach you the ropes and keep you from making the same mistakes he/she did. A tour guide, in a way, who can lead you down this dark, mysterious tunnel called the writing business. It’ll not only save you a ton of time reaching your goals as a writer but will also keep you from climbing the wall with frustration. A mentor can be your answer man (or woman) on all problems.
10) Stay on the case. Don’t be a lazy slug even for a moment. Be relentless in your writing and your search for work. Do everything to improve yourself as a writer and never stop sending letters and making phone calls to editors. Aggressiveness, without being annoyingly so, is the key. That is, don’t stalk your editors. You’ll force them to run for the hills and never look back! Just show editors that you want it. They’ll likely be swept up in your passion, and may ultimately even admire you. Bottomline, fight for your writing dreams with everything you have and never let go!