A Lifetime Process
If I have any theme to these musings about my life as an editor and writer, it’s the necessity to continue growing and learning about the craft and the business of writing. In my view, there is no season of the journey without this trait. We never arrive and simply crank out wonderful prose. Every sentence can be improved and writers profit, learn and grow from the input of others.
In my time of interacting with authors, I’ve met a few who act like they have arrived. They add clauses to their contracts where the manuscript has to be printed as it’s turned in (seriously I’ve heard about these arrangements). I find this attitude contrary to what I’ve experienced in the journey and what I continue to experience in this business. My belief in this key ingredient was affirmed a couple of times this week in some things which crossed my desk with a couple of well-known authors.
This week I was reading the Romance Writers Report (August 2006) and it includes an interview with mega-selling author Nora Roberts. The word “best-selling” just doesn’t seem to be enough for someone who has more than 280 million books in print (not a typo). The well-crafted interview from Eileen Putnam begins asking her for the secret to her success. She says, “Sorry, no secret. Unless it’s believing storytelling is magic, in addition to hard work. Regular, habitual do-it-every-day work, and the discipline it takes to keep the butt in the chair. Loving what I do certainly helps.” I know many people looking for a quick fix but according to Roberts (who has done had huge success) there isn’t one.
I’m only giving a short quote from the actual interview but the second question related to the six unsuccessful manuscripts she wrote before she was first published in 1981 and the lessons for aspiring authors. In part, Roberts answered, “The lesson is not to quit. How much do you want it? How hard are you willing to try? How many of your glorious words are you willing to kill to make it really sing? I unearthed the story in five out of six of the early manuscripts (one was just DOA) and sold them…And 25 years or so later, I’m still learning my craft. You should never stop learning.” (My bold on the quote to make it stand out for you.)
I’ll confess that I’ve not read a single Nora Roberts book (or J.D. Robbs which is the other name she uses). I admire her commitment to the craft and her encouragement for us to continue learning.
The second bestselling author to come across my desk this week was Dean Koontz. According to the Random House site, Koontz has sold more than 175 million copies and this figure increases each year by a rate of 17 million. He’s also in the mega-selling category from my view. I’ve met Dean Koontz on a couple of different occasions. I’m certain that Koontz will not recall meeting me but it was in the mid-80s at a one day writer’s conference at Chapman College. Koontz was one of the featured speakers. During the coffee break, I spotted him standing alone and looking awkward. I walked over and struck up a brief conversation with him.
Koontz came into my mind when I wrote a few words of review on Amazon about his long out-of-print book for novelists, How To Write Best Selling Fiction. At age 20, Koontz won an Atlantic Monthly fiction award and sold his first short story that same year. Here’s a bit of irony for you. This how-to book was published in 1981 and marked Koontz second how-to write book with his first one Writing Popular Fiction released in 1972. He hasn’t written another how-to book since my 1981 book.
In the introduction, Koontz writes about why he’s putting out a second how-to book saying, “My knowledge of both the art and the craft of fiction is greater than it was in 1972. That doesn’t mean I’m terrifically bright and clever. Any greater understanding that I’ve acquired has come about because I’ve remained open-minded and self-critical about my work and because I’ve labored hard since 1972–-an average of seventy hours a week, year after year. I’ve written, rewritten, and re-written, polished, sanded, buffed, and repolished quite a few books in a variety of categories and styles. I’d have to be exceptionally thick-headed not to have learned something from all those hours at the typewriter.” Koontz is likely using a computer now and the emphasis in this last sentence was in the book—not me. Over the years I’ve read a number of Koontz books and I love his commitment to storytelling and the craft of writing. It shows in each of his books. Many books pass through my office but How To Write Best Selling Fiction is definitely a keeper and much loved book.
My learning process about this business and the craft of writing continues. It’s a journey and not a destination.