Monday, July 27, 2009

Unlocking the Secret to Writing

© J. D. Webb 2009 all rights reserved

I’m often asked what is the most important thing you can do to become a successful writer. First determine what is meant by successful. If you mean winning the Nobel or being selected by Oprah, well, I’m not there yet. But if you mean have I finished a novel, the answer is yes. And yes I’m in print by a publisher who doesn’t charge me for publication. Having three novels on my shelf with my name on the spine qualifies me to be an author, as opposed to writer. That’s how I differentiate the two. If you send an e-mail, you are a writer.

But back to what is most important. As a selector of words, I search for the one that exactly depicts my meaning. Talented, educated, grammarian, literate, well-read, arrogant, egoist. A bit of all of these apply. But there is one word that sets “successful” authors apart. Perseverance. The successful person will sit down, slap those words onto the paper and finish the book. There is no substitute for such determination.

After a Fortune 500 company purge left me jobless, I promoted myself to author. My primary goal was to finish a novel. I didn’t care if it was good. I wanted to see if I had the fortitude to finish. With encouragement from a supportive spouse, I did. So what? Could I do it again? After all, I wanted to make this a career. Let’s face it; we want to make money at something even if we love doing it. If no one reads your work you merely have words sitting on the page. They don’t have a chance to jump out of the book and grab a reader, forcing them to stay up past bedtime engrossed in your novel.

Think about Mary Higgins Clark. Her first novel received this inglorious statement from a prospective publisher, “We found the heroine just as boring as her husband did.” I wonder what that fellow thinks now? The point is to grow a cast iron skin that will not allow rejection to pierce your heart. Persevere and send that manuscript to the next publisher/agent on your list.

All authors get familiar with rejection. Has anyone read H. G. Wells? His novel WAR OF THE WORLDS endured this biting rejection: “An endless nightmare. I do not believe it would ‘take’ and I think the verdict would be ‘Oh don’t read that horrid book’.”

And when he tried to market THE TIME MACHINE, A rejection stated: “It is not interesting enough for the general reader and not thorough enough for the scientific reader.”

Irving Stone’s manuscript, LUST FOR LIFE was rejected with these words: “A long, dull novel about an artist.” I guess that meant no thanks.

One of my favorite rejections was given to Samuel Johnson, although I don’t know which of his books it was about. “Your manuscript is both good and original. [So far so good.] But the part that is good is not original and the part that is original is not good.” Those of you unfamiliar with Samuel Johnson should know that in the 1700s he wrote the DICTIONARY OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE. One of his quotes you may remember: “Tis better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than open one’s mouth and remove all doubt.”

Learning the craft of writing should be an author’s main goal. You are never too accomplished to learn. Reading is the key that opens the door to improvement. Not only books about writing, but also books in your genre. See how someone else turns a phrase, shows style, develops plot, and creates an unforgettable character. This, too, requires perseverance. You must find time to study the craft.

What does all this mean? Your book or poem or short story has to hit the right person at the right time, and he or she must love it. Otherwise a rejection follows. David Baldacci, one of my favorite authors, carries a folder when he goes on tour. It contains over 100 rejections of his work. When you think you have written something worthwhile, have someone you know and trust give you an honest opinion. Everyone could find something wrong with it, if they are honest. Get past the kudos they throw out. “That’s really good” or “you’ve got something great here,” might be what you want to hear, but it will not improve your writing. Persevere. Push them to find where you need help. And you will. We writers look at what we have written and swell with pride until a spouse or best friend finds a glaring error where the hero does something really stupid or in chapter one has flaming red hair and in chapter 10 his hair is coal black with curly locks. It happens to all of us. It will happen to you as well.

I’m so fortunate to have my own personal first editor, my wife. She’s excellent at catching errors. When I asked her to read the first chapter of my first child, (uh, excuse me, but that’s what I feel about my books. They are my children and are as close as I will ever come to birthing children.) novel, SHEPHERD’S PIE, (I just knew my writing was really good) I sat back and waited for the compliments to roll. On the very first page she asked me for a pencil so she could correct something spell check had not found. I had written passed when I should have used past. From then on, when I hand her any pages, I also hand her a pencil. I’m continually sharpening that instrument.

In the last chapter of my latest book, SMUDGE, a member of my writing group directed me to an error. The heroine was describing the color of a fabric. When a woman wants to say purple, it’s never purple. It’s fuchsia or orchid or lavender. Purple is for guys. Bless these ladies when they shout at me that a woman would never say that.

So my advice is to plant yourself in the chair, sofa, or wherever, and write. Don’t stop, except for meals, and finish that book. If it needs revising – and it will – it can be done after it’s finished. Plan on revisions taking almost as much time as writing the darn thing. But be tenacious, persevere, dedicate yourself to that novel. One more thing - stick to it.
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About the author:
J. D. (Dave) Webb resides in Illinois with his wife (41 years and counting) and their toy poodle, Ginger, losing all family votes 2 to 1. Dave served in the Security Service of the Air Force as a Chinese linguist and weather analyst in Viet Nam and the Philippines prior to spending 25 years in corporate management. A company purge promoted him to cobbler and he owned a shoe repair and sales shop for 11 years. During these careers he wrote short stories and suppressed an urge to write a novel. After making a conscious decision to live at the poverty level, those novels began forcing their way out.

Becoming a full time author in 2002, Dave has garnered several awards. A short story called The Key to Christmas placed third in the 2006 La Belle Lettre literary contest. His first novel Shepherd’s Pie won a publisher’s Golden Wings Award for excellence in writing. His second novel Moon Over Chicago was a top ten finisher in the 2008 Preditors and Editors Poll in the mystery category and was a finalist in the prestigious 2008 Eppie awards by the Electronic Publishing Internet Connection. He is also the Owner and Moderator of the Publishing and Promoting Yahoo group with almost 900 international members.

Short stories are available through:
Amazon Shorts


Marta Stephens said...

Dave, I thoroughly enjoyed reading your article because I could relate to nearly all the things you've mentioned! Where would we be without our trusted critiquers?

The important thing is to keep at it with a focus on constant improvement. Thanks so much for joining us on Murder By 4!

J D Webb said...

I was thrilled to be included and I hope this will help an aspiring author accomplish a dream. Happy writing to all.

Kim Smith said...

Excellent advice, JD. Love the rejections you posted. Whoever rejected some of those authors probably wanted to shoot themselves.

Nancy Famolari said...

Excellent advice. I'm applying glue to my writing chair!

s.w. vaughn said...

Some great stuff here! I love that Samuel Johnson rejection story. Too funny. :-)

Thanks for the inspiration!

Sheila Deeth said...

Wow Thanks! I'll keep these rejections handy to cheer me up. Looks like I've a long way to go before I'm an author though.

Aaron Paul Lazar said...


I thoroughly enjoyed your piece today. Thanks for blogging with us! I also call my books my children, and am forever defending myself against them when they claim I have a "favorite!" No way! ;o) It's too hard to choose. LOL.

Jacqueline Seewald said...


An excellent article. I love the humorous rejections and like all authors, I can relate to them.
I'm certain I could easily wallpaper my entire with those I've collected over the years.

Jacqueline Seewald
THE DROWNING POOL, Five Star/Gale 2009
PMS: Poison, Murder, Satisfaction, L&L Dreamspell anthology 2009

THE INFERNO COLLECTION, Five Star hardcover, Wheeler large print

Denise said...

Great post Dave!
The demo of well-known authors getting their rejectsions really is heartwarming and an inspiration.

BTW - David Baldacci is one of my favorite authors as well.

Congratulations on being an author!

Amber said...

Wonderful advice!

Shirley said...

I loved reading the part about David Baldacci's rejection notebook. I think I may start one. You've given me new inspiration.