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On Persistence

Crossposted to the Deadline Dames. I particularly liked Dame Toni’s post this week.

First news, then your Friday writing post!

* MetaFilter saves two young women from (highly-probable) international sex trafficking. A drop in the bucket…but so completely awesome, and the best use of the Internet EVER.

* Events! On Sunday I’ll be at PSU for the Ooligan Press Write to Publish event; on Tuesday I’ll be at Beaverton Powell’s with Ilona Andrews and fellow Dame Devon Monk. Details are on my events page! I know some of you have emailed me about the events but I’m swamped, I’m sorry. I won’t have a chance to answer.

And now, onward.

I’ll be speaking somewhat about this at the Write to Publish event, but I also want to talk about it here. Last week’s post was pretty metaphysical, and this one will be half metaphysical and half practical. That’s fair, right?

There are two qualities I believe are essential for a writer, when you strip everything else away. If I were to reduce being a writer to two things, these would be what I’d pick: persistence, and seeing. Today I’m going to talk more about that persistence. (The seeing post kind of cuts close to the bone, so I’m holding that back. For now.)

A lot of the practical advice I give–make time for your writing, do it every day, never stop learning, keep refining, keep writing–have their root in persistence. I find myself often returning to Matthew Hughes’s No Surrender speech, and I can’t for the life of me remember the first person who said writers must have “near-pathological persistence.” Truer words, my ducks. Publishing is a game where the more pieces you have out on submission, the more finished works you have, the greater your chances of someone, somewhere liking something enough to charge money for it.

I am naturally stubborn. (I prefer to refer to it as a survival trait.) When I started aiming at publication, failure was not an option. The situation was dire. We needed money, my kids needed to eat, and I couldn’t afford any type of child care. There are a limited number of things a woman can do in such a situation, so I picked something I’d be doing anyway–writing–and promised myself that no matter what it took, no matter what I had to learn or how hard and fast I had to learn it, I was going to succeed.

The critical components were my willingness to work hard and my willingness to learn. The right kind of steady persistence eats away at hubris. (Besides, one can only be rejected so many times before one figures out hubris is so not a trait that’s going to get you there.) I set out to be taught. I did tons of research on publishers, agents, what separated a good agent/publisher from a scam, how to behave professionally. I wrote steadily and obsessively. I did not really care what I had to write in order to get paid. I only wanted to write as well as I could for as long as I could and get good enough that someone would pay me.

I’ve caught a lot of flak for stating openly my belief in everyday writing, in constant effort. I haven’t cared much, because I know for a fact that without the daily effort I didn’t have a snowball’s chance in Hell. If I gave up on the daily effort, I was dead in the water. And we would starve.

I don’t mind starving, but I’ll be damned if I let my kids go hungry.

I’m going to draw a metaphor here–one I heard, I think, from Malcolm Gladwell. Say you play the piano. You practice hard every day for ten years. Will you become a Chopin or a Mozart? Not likely.

But you will become the best damn piano player in a 200-mile radius, or at least close to it. Which makes it easier to get a gig. The persistent practice prepares you to take advantage of every opportunity to play for cash that comes your way, no matter how small–and each gig you play is a chance to expand your network, impress someone, and get more gigs.

You do not have to turn out a NYT bestseller on your first round. You just need to get good enough, widen your options, and persist one more time than the rejections.

I couldn’t afford to fail, and it gave me the strength to keep going after the rejections reached a stack as high as my knee. I wrote serial stories, I worked slush and submissions editing, and when my chance came–when a small publisher said, “I like your work but I’m not the right publisher for it. Do you have anything else?” I was ready.

Boy howdy, was I ready. Not only was I ready, but when the editor/publisher came back and said, “I can take this piece, but only if you make these revisions…” I was more than ready to learn how to take my revision lumps.

What resulted? A four-book contract and the start of my career. Every hard-fought inch of success I’ve had since that moment, I trace back to being ready when the call came. And I was ready because I’d persisted. True, I did not even allow myself to think there was another option. For this reason I don’t consider it bravery–I don’t think there’s a lot of bravery in having utterly no choice. Privately, I think I was stupidly lucky in not even daring to think of failure; it would have bled off much-needed energy.

You only need to persist one more time than you are rejected. Every book in every bookstore, everywhere in the world, is the product of someone who gave it just one more shot more than the number of rejections they’d received. Sometimes in life you need to learn when to give up–like, for example, when your date says no. (But that’s–say it with me–another blog post.)

Writing for publication, however, is not one of those times. Persistence does not guarantee success. But it gives you a fighting chance to be ready when the call comes, so that you can leap on your chance and grab it instead of regretfully watching it slip through your fingers.

Don’t ever give up.

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