Rochester Teen Book Fest 2017 & What Makes a Successful Writer

Writers are, by nature, curious people. One of the biggest areas of curiosity for us is what is the difference between a successful writer and one that is not. Is it talent? Is it persistence? Is it connections and slippery palms? What better way to answer this question than by meeting super successful writers in real life and analyzing their success.

Last week, I went to the Rochester Teen Book Festival, and here’s what I learned.

Successful writers are:

(1) Not the ones with the most degrees. They are the ones who never stop writing. A.G. Howard, author of Splintered, talked about how she only did one semester of college before realizing it wasn’t for her. Instead, she did her own thing. And she wrote. Like, a ton. She wrote her first book 12 times in two years. She wrote another 6 books after that before she finally got one published. If you don’t have that kind of stamina, and that kind of belief in yourself, you need to find it.

(2) The ones who get carried away by what is possible, not inhibited by what is not. Sarah J. Maas spoke about a book that she had meant to write as a novella–you know, a little 30k word piece, about a side character who gets to be the star of his own story. The result? She wrote a 100k+ novel that may be spinning into its own series. If she had been the “checkbox” type writer, that paint-by-number type writer who only wants to do what will make them $$, she never would have written that book. But she let herself be carried away by something different. As a result, she got to enjoy the act of writing and create something truly unique.

(3) The ones who know how to connect with their readers. Whether it was Sara Shepard, author of Pretty Little Liars, giving props to the fashion sense of the girls on her show, or Renee Ahdieh swooning over girls who kill, all these successful authors knew why readers came to their books, and they harnessed those qualities when speaking. It was a sight to see–watching all of these young girls go all fan girl on these authors because they were exactly the people who, from reading their books, the readers expected them to be. The cynical may call it successful branding. I call it knowing how to connect. Because as an author, you represent something more to your readers than just your book. You are their friend too.

Patience, Fortitude

I recently got a tattoo of a lion on my back. Like, from my shoulder to my hip. Like, seriously huge.

I did it all because of the New York Public Library.

If you haven’t been, there are these two lions out front named Patience and Fortitude. I got the tattoo because these are the qualities I struggle with most as a writer. Likewise, as an agent, these are the qualities that I see writers struggle with the most:

  1. Lack of Patience: We all want our books to be in the hands of agents/editors/the world right now now now. We want someone to tell us we’re good enough. We want our book to have a pub date and a cover and fans. The future can’t come soon enough.
  2. Lack of Fortitude: Many of us think that if our book doesn’t sell, then we will never write anything again. This is it! This is all we are! How silly of us to dream.

 

I got the tattoo because I needed to be reminded that unless I am patient with the development of my manuscript, unless I am strong in the face of rejection, I will never be a writer. Ever. Even if I get a book deal right out of the gate.

Here’s why: I see writers’ dreams come true every damned day. They get the book deal and they feel like Cinder-fucking-ella. But then the pub date is 2 years away. Then their edits take way too long. Then they get reviews and some of those reviews are bad and Good Morning America says their book isn’t good enough to be on their show.

And it is frustrating. And soul crushing. And it takes the joy out of the thing we’ve all been dreaming about since we were kids so that authors wonder why they’re even doing this at all.

Maybe you don’t have to get a lion tattooed over the entirety of your back (honestly, it may have been a mistake??). But develop these skills. Remember that even if it feels like you are treading water, waiting for your “future life” as an author to begin, you are learning how to have a sustainable life as a writer.

And that’s pretty heroic.

Some would call it lionlike.

Sometimes all you want is validation

I grew up in the rural Midwest where people didn’t have “careers” or “callings”; they had (have) jobs.

These were jobs they clocked in and out of every day, jobs that forced them into overtime and gave them two weeks vacation a year. When retirement from these jobs came, it was cause for celebration that–finally–they earned their break.

Having grown up in this world of practical strivings, writing fiction can seem silly. Self-indulgent. Privileged. It’s the reason why, after writing for years, I still haven’t “come out” as a writer. I keep thinking that as soon as I’ve written something good enough to sell, as soon as I can attach a dollar sign to my work, then I can tell my parents and my friends and my colleagues what I do. Because then it’s not silly. It’s a job that pays. That they can understand.

For so long I’ve thought that if I got the Big Publishing Deal then I’d have the validation necessary for me to come out. But what I didn’t realize was that validation doesn’t come from $$ but from connecting to readers.

I recently gave my WIP to beta readers. Which means that besides me, four other people have now read (at least large parts of) my book. Spoiler alert: there are problems. Big you-have-to-fix-this-now problems. But each and every one of them said a version of “you’ve got something really special here. Whatever you do, don’t stop.” And hearing that, after so many years of keeping my writing unshared and often unfinished, was revelatory.

It meant that I’d succeeded ,even though writing has never made me any $$.

What about you? Do you feel “successful” as a writer? Why or why not?

“The higher a monkey climbs, the more exposed is his backside.” ―Jamaican Proverb

I know that Writing is Hard, but what I sometimes forget is that it is humiliating too. This is especially true the more you write and the better you get at it because now people are actually reading your work! They are giving you feedback! And they have opinions. So many opinions. And you have to fight against those opinions or accept them or shut them out. And it is hard work.

But, as with anything, the thing that keeps me sane is to remember that everyone feels exposed like this, even the best writers I know. Here is a gem from an interview with Sabaa Tahir:

Washington Post: Where did you get the confidence to go forward with your idea?

Sabaa Tahir: I didn’t have a lot of confidence. It was almost like it was stubbornness more than anything else. If you are willing to sit down and spend time on a story and make it work, no matter how unconfident you are on the surface, deep down somewhere you think this story is worth telling [so it’s] worth the effort, the blood, the sweat, the tears, the embarrassment, the humiliation.

And even if its total schadenfreude, I got a secret thrill out of reading that. By writing and by exposing my truth, I too am engaged in this act of bravery, armored with the feeling that even if my words fail me, even if they expose me, even if they humiliate me, the point of what I’m trying to say is so important that it will protect me. Though with every word + word, with every request for feedback, I reveal more for public scrutiny, I am also closer to expressing my truth.

That makes it worth it.

That’s what makes us writers.

Writing with Friends

We all know it–that fog we go into the minute our manuscript transforms from a tiny shapeless embryo blob into a magical creation with a life of its own. Suddenly our WIP has plot lines and characters and–ooh baby!–did our protagonist just show some sass?

We soon find that the only thing we care about is writing. Word counts creep up. Pages go from single to double to–oh god–TRIPLE digits. Our manuscript is a living, breathing thing, and all we want to do is to keep writing. Forever and ever and ever . . .

It is so damned easy to live in that WIP Black Hole forever, and with good reason. There, we are surrounded only by characters of our own creation. No one tells us our plot has holes in it, or that our sentences are cliche. Our manuscript is perfect. It is loved. WE are loved.

But, as much as you don’t want to, you need to get out of this WIP Black Hole. Here’s why:

(1) It is not sustainable to stop exercising, eat only peanut butter, sleep four hours a night, and to have blisters on both of your thumbs so you can only tap the spacebar at your peril. You are going to burn out. And be unhealthy.

(2) Your book is meant to be read. So you need to show it to people. As you’re writing. Before it’s ready. Before you know what it even is really. You need to see what people think. The fear is that this destroys your creativity (people *sniffle* told me *sniffle* my writing was baaaaad!), but it doesn’t stifle anything of the sort. When these conversations go well (and getting feedback is a conversation!), they offer you new perspectives on your work, exciting ones, that will only make you a better writer.

(3) Say the best thing in the world happens and your book is published, and it is on that bookshelf at B&N and there you are, at your folding table, Sharpie in-hand, ready to start signing. No one, at this point, will have read your book. And no one will want to buy it. So you are going to be holding that Sharpie aloft for a long time, and you are going to sign five copies.

UNLESS your readers already know you. Unless you contribute to their blogs. Unless you review their books. Unless you give ’em a damned retweet now and again. And that brings me to the final, most important reason why you need to re-enter the world and don’t become totally, can’t-think-of-anything-but-writing kind of writer:

(4) You have a responsibility to the people around them. To love them. To pay attention to the things they care about. To support other writers just as much as (you hope) they will someday support you. It’s not a strategic thing, folks, it’s a human thing. It’s a part of being a good writer member of the writing community. Because writing is hard and the pay is terrible and everyone who tries it–no matter their success–deserves your kindness. And your re-tweets.

Louise Penny’s Writing Advice

It takes us so long to find the right story, to be at the right place in our lives to be able to tell it, and then to have the time (and the community!) to make that story everything it can be. So it often takes authors by surprise when (1) Getting an agent is really hard, and (2) Even when they get the attention of an agent and their book gets published, it doesn’t actually give them the validation they were looking for. In A NOONDAY DEMON, Andrew Solomon recounts his greatest depression, which occurred after he’d published his first novel. For so long, he’d been living under the illusion that once he’d finally gotten his book in print, his life would stop being so damned hard. Then however, once his book was published and his life was still difficult, he had to confront the realization that publishing a novel wouldn’t bring about any magical restoration of his spirit.

Louise Penny is a great reality check for all of us.  Below is this talk she gave at Politics & Prose, which you should play in the background every time you open Facebook or Twitter or look at one more montage of Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher as you are “thinking about the next scene.” Getting an agent, getting your book published, and then getting people to actually read your book is a truly absurd process. But Louise takes you through all that absurdity with joy, with a sense of humor, and with a belief that what we, as writers do, matters, even if it doesn’t feel like it at the time.