Monday, May 17, 2010

How Badly Do You Want the Carrot?

Remember the idea that you could get a donkey to keep pulling a cart because there was someone holding a carrot out in front of his nose? He really wanted that carrot, dangling juicy and orange in front of him, so he'd keep on trying to get to where the carrot was.

The writing life bears unnerving resemblances to the donkey and the carrot. Publication is like the big, juicy carrot right in front of your nose. You, the writer, get to be You keep on plodding along after that carrot, day in and day out, sometimes getting a nibble, sometimes a big crunch, but you keep going. You feel like the journey is stupid and pointless. You have nothing but paper cuts, carpel tunnel, and postal bills to show for your hard work. There is no guarantee you'll ever make a dime. At this point, it feels like by now you could have made a mint flipping burgers at McDonald's instead.

Yet the carrot drives you on.

I was reading Randy Ingermanson's excellent monthly e-zine, and he addressed the issue of success in writing. Scads of people think about writing a book. Fewer attempt it, concluding thinking about it isn't quite enough. Fewer still stick with it long enough to finish the first draft, and very few make it to the final round of publication. This month Randy's e-zine was particular helpful in reminding a writer that if he wants to succeed, he's going to have to schedule time to succeed. So the next question is, how much time?

In order to acquire a level of expertise in an area, you study in college for four years at least. Writing is the same. Do not feel bad if you've been writing and studying for a couple of years and don't think you have anything to show for it. You do. You have information you didn't have before, plus experience. The only way to become a better writer is to read, write, and study. If you commit to doing these things consistently, you're going to improve. The people who give up don't get the diploma at the end of college, so don't give up.

Reflect on this when you feel like giving up. Randy Ingermanson said an editor once told him that 90 percent of success comes from just showing up. This is very true. If you just keep showing up, day after day, you will get better. Randy kindly quantified this time commitment for writers by saying that it takes about 2000 hours of work for a writer to develop his craft and a minimum of 10 hours a week to write a book in a year. (I'm assuming he's including rewriting in that 10 per week, because that's close to what I put in when I wrote a 50,000 word novel during Nanowrimo, and it took me just over three weeks for the first draft.) Everyone writes lousy first drafts, by the way, so give yourself permission to be lousy with the best of them. As James Scott Bell says, everything can be fixed, so fix it. That's what second, third, fourth, etc. drafts are for. But give yourself time. It takes time to learn a craft.

In the end, it comes down to how badly you want the carrot. Are you willing to set aside the time it takes to write at least ten hours a week so you can improve steadily? Are you willing to keep moving when you receive multiple rejections from agents and publishers? Are you willing to study so that you don't make the same mistakes over and over, trapped forever in the slush pile? Are you teachable? Are you willing to sacrifice even when there are no promises?

If the answer to all of these is yes, don't lose heart. The carrot will never really go away, because each success brings new challenges. Sad secret for you: no one ever arrives. But at least that carrot won't be hanging in pristine beauty anymore. It'll have some nice-sized chunks taken out of it because you wouldn't quit.

So get out there and get that carrot!


  1. YES! Never give up! Keep plunging onward! Keep making the effort and put in your time. Love it Beth!

  2. I am taking my own advice. Researching will not make me a better writer. Blogging will not make me a better writer. Reading about other writers can only do so much for me. At some point, I have to actually WRITE!!!!!