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.

What’s Next?

You could say I spend most of my time in an alternate reality (as writers do) in order to escape reality, but actually, it’s to understand reality.

Reality is HARD. BAFFLING. Often it’s ridiculous enough to seem like fiction. Lately, reality has been pulling me away from my beautiful fiction. Yeah, I’m using the word ‘reality’ as a stand-in for ‘politics’. You guys are smart.

One of my cures for politics (other than being a pain-in-the-ass to elected officials) is to watch THE WEST WING. Martin Sheen is my TV dad. Watching him in anything is a joy. But watching him as the president. It soothes, it really does.

I love when he says, What’s Next? If you’ve seen the TV show at all you know that means “What’s next?” and ALSO means “I’m done talking about the other thing, we’re moving on.”

THIS IS HARD when you are a writer. Moving on to another book when you’ve spent months if not YEARS on that book is freaking HARD.

But there comes a point where your job is over. You need to pass your baby off to the next stage of it’s development. It could be to beta readers. It could be to agents you are querying. Whatever that pass off looks like, it will be painful. How do you know you are done? How do you know it’s ready? How do you know it’s the right time?

You don’t.

Or rather, you can’t know that, until you pass the word-baby along. And because people aren’t (yet) robots, it will take time for them to get back to you with any kind of feedback. You cannot wait for them. Time is a finite resource, friends. You need to ask yourself, “What’s Next?”

Even if it’s half-assed, even if you only have the vaguest notion of what you’ll write next, or if you LITERALLY have not even thought of it, Think Of It. You’ve been stuck in the alternate reality of your book for a very long time. It seems realer to you than any other story you can conceive of. You may even feel like any other ideas are flimsy in comparison (of course they are; they’re embryo-ideas). Regardless, you have to pull your head out of your fully gestated book and start noodling around for the next book.

Maybe your goal was to write ONE BOOK. If so and you did it, go ahead and knock off. Drink a beer or a Red Bull or a White Lady, you’ve earned it. But if you plan, as I do, to have a Sustainable Writing Life, you need to say, in your best Martin Sheen voice:

giphy

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.

“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.