by Mary Burton
Remember the moment when you sat down to write your first novel? Do you remember? I remember mine. It’s hard for me to believe but that moment was over twenty years and 26 books and four novellas ago. Along the way, I’ve learned many valuable lessons and I thought I’d take a moment to share some with you today.
Surround yourself with like-minded people. Early on in my career I joined a writer’s critique group. We met at my house on Fridays and while my children napped we exchanged chapters and critiqued each others work. It was exciting and encouraging to have time with folks like me who wanted the same dream. These gals not only taught me a lot about writing and the business of publishing but also a great deal about friendship.
Writing is hard work. Thomas Edison once said, “Genius is 1 percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration.” He could just as easily have been describing writers instead of inventors. Inspiration or that initial spark of ideas is very exciting. It is what gets us through that first blank page and dares us to step outside the box. But in the end, it takes hard work and lots of time at the computer to bring a story to life.
Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers refers to the 10,000-hour rule. What makes some of us good and some of us great? What makes some of us hobbyists verses people with careers? Basically he said: practice makes perfect. He reported it takes 10,000 hours of practice to reach proficiency.
I tried to estimate when I hit that 10,000-hour mark. I started writing in 1994 and I’m thinking I didn’t hit my 10,000 hours until about 2004 or 2005. I’d written 5 books by then and I was also beginning to feel really comfortable with my writing. My point is that becoming a good writer takes time but becoming a published or great writer takes a lot more time.
Challenge Yourself. Part of growing as a writer is to reach for the edge and push yourself creatively. When I started writing I wrote historical romance novels set in the American West. I loved writing these novels and wrote ten novels and two novellas for Harlequin Historical. But I started to grow restless and wanted to try something different. So I wrote my historicals in the morning and tinkered with a short romantic suspense in the afternoon.
It took over 18 months and a few rejections but I came up with a proposal for IN DARK WATERS, which sold to Harlequin Romantic Suspense. I ended up writing four romantic suspense novels for Harlequin before I got the itch to try single title. Again, another year or two would pass while I wrote the contracted work in the morning and the new ideas in the afternoon. I sold my first single title romantic suspense, I’M WATCHING YOU, to Kensington in 2006 and now I am working on my eleventh novel for them. I love the genre and can’t imagine not writing it. However, along the way I got the idea to try women’s fiction. It was one of those stories that just wouldn’t let me go. It would take a couple of years, lots of rejections and rewrites to get the book just right, but I sold my first women’s fiction, THE UNION STREET BAKERY, under the name Mary Ellen Taylor to Berkley Trade.
Why do I keep reaching for something new? It’s hard to explain but I know each time I reach for the edge I learn so much about myself as a writer. Challenging myself not only keeps me sharp creatively but also hones my writing. For me keeping it all fresh means challenging myself whenever I can.
Stick to a routine. I learned early on that if I didn’t write every day my skills quickly became rusty. If I took a week or two break in between books I found it tough to sit down and get the creative muse talking again. So I decided I’d write every day. During the week, I set regular office hours from about 9 to 5. At the beginning of each month I pencil in daily page goals on my calendar because those daily deadlines keep me on task. And on the weekends if I’m not at a conference, I touch base with my story. Even if I only have a few minutes I sit down and devote my mind to the book.
Take care of yourself. There have been times when I burned the candle at both ends. I realized it got harder and harder to be creative when I was tired, not eating well or missing my daily gym workouts. For me, creative energy is akin to the dove in the mine. You know that story about the dove? Hundreds of years ago before ventilation systems in mines, the miners would put a caged dove in the mine. If the dove wobbled, they knew the air was bad. If it died, the air they breathed was killing them. These days, I still work hard but I’m at the gym six days a week and I eat very clean. Taking care of yourself physically nurtures your creativity and keeps the words flowing.
Rejection is part of the business. It’s easy for me to look back at the 26 novels and four novellas that I’ve written and forget that the road was bumpy at times. Though I never liked rejection I appreciated that just the thought of it kept me on my toes. It still not only keeps me alert but forces me to always dig deep and put all I have into the current book.
Jim Collins in his book Good to Great analyzes what makes some companies good and others great. He speaks over and over again about hard work and constancy. “Greatness,” he said, “is not a matter of circumstance. Greatness is a matter of conscious choice and discipline.”
We’ve got to choose every day to find our way to the computer and work at the trade we all love so much. We’ve chosen a tough business. We are trying to pull value from our imaginations and that is difficult.
But difficult doesn’t mean impossible. It means hard work. Dedication. And a willingness to stick with the job even when the words aren’t flowing.
After a career in marketing MARY BURTON shifted gears and became a full time writer. Her latest suspense novels include THE SEVENTH VICTIM (January 2013) and NO ESCAPE (November 2013). Under the name MARY ELLEN TAYLOR she also writes women’s fiction including THE UNION STREET BAKERY (February 2013) and SWEET EXPECTATIONS (November 2013). Mary is a member of Romance Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and Mystery Writers of America.
Thank you for this post, Mary. I found it so inspiring. You didn’t say anything I haven’t learned in my own brief (relatively speaking) time in creative writing, but to have someone as successful as you point out the need to have a writing group, have a routine, take care of yourself physically, keep working to master the craft, accept – and push past – rejection. It is, as I said, inspiring! Now to put in another 8,000 hours!
Oh Mary, thanks for the encouragement – as a debut author, I’m so glad to hear I have a chance of settling in eventually, and feeling proficient! And I don’t have to worry about challenging myself…my brain seems to do it subconsciously. I feel like if I’m able to master it, it must be easy, so the next one has to be harder…
I can’t decide if it’s a gift, or a curse!
I’m so glad to be here today! Laura and Carol, thanks for your comments. Keep writing!
Great advice here, Mary! I think the general public has no idea how much blood, sweat, tears, and TIME go into writing! And determination – you hit the nail on the head there. “Endeavor to persevere!” as my husband always tells me 🙂
Love the quote! Writing require a lot of perseverance.
Mary, Your post is both encouraging and inspirational. It’s great to know that once a person achieves a level of success, they are as determined as they were before they had their first story published. Thanks so much 🙂
Thank you so much, Mary, for a great post!
I love the quote by Jim Collins – “Greatness,” he said, “is not a matter of circumstance. Greatness is a matter of conscious choice and discipline.”
Thank you for this, Mary. I just finished my first proposal for a book, a cookbook, and am getting down deep into the discipline, constancy, and hard work. Your piece today is encouraging and reflects the reality of the path to strength and success!
Maureen, good luck! Getting published might be hard but it’s not impossible.
Mary, thanks for the post laying out so succinctly your path to writing success. The part about writing from 9 – 5 each day is the most challenging and important part of the process – the one I find excrutiatingly hard to do. Discipline is that part of the process one must develop to be successful. Thanks for sharing.
Discipline is very hard. When I started freelancing full time I struggled with the boundaries between work time and home time. And with writing it’s that much harder because each time a word gets stuck in your brain, the temptation to change the laundry load or water another plant or chase a dust bunny around takes over. I finally learned to separate and allow myself to ignore the home things without guilt for a few hours a day.
Orly, I struggle with the same thing. In fact, there is a pile of laundry waiting for me right now but I’m ignoring it until five. 🙂
Temple, remember the 9-5 works for me but you have to find the schedule that works best in your life. It doesn’t matter when you write as long as you write.
I’ve discovered that if I can sabotage my routine, I can prevent myself from writing altogether.
I’ve also discovered that that’s a BAD thing, not a GOOD thing.
Routine. Vital to stay sharp. Hearing it again from an experienced voice is the noggin-wallop I needed today.
Hear-hear on setting a writing routine. I think it’s the only thing that keeps us writing like we mean it.
Mary, part of why we started Writers In The Storm was for posts like this. This is wonderful, and these are six lessons that definitely will help writers step from “good to great.” 🙂
Reblogged this on Considerable and commented:
Important points, all, and lessons every writer should learn!
Thank you for this amazing post! I’ve found it especially important to take care of myself, especially when I notice I am ignoring needs like sleep and food because I’m too into what I’m writing or revising. I try to make sure to pile supplies around myself and set strict bedtimes even if I don’t want to sleep.
Surrounding myself with like-minded people is the one I consider most important. It’s easy to be motivated knowing my friends are doing the same and we’re all going to get to share with and help each other. The variety of interests friends have is also a perfect resource!
The other points are all ones I will keep in mind or continue to keep in mind, and I thank you again for the advice and reminders. Writing is hard work, but it’s the best work.