An Author in Waiting: How a Gun Knows

Back in September, I asked author Steven Pressfield (The War of Art, The Legend of Bagger Vance) about grappling with our own resistance to writing, and he mentioned something that's stuck with me.

Turning pro" is still the best answer--at least for me. And it helps to associate with other pros, whom we recognize if we ourselves are doing our work. As someone once said, "A gun recognizes another gun."

I've been a member of various writers' groups for more than fifteen years, and I can tell you it's true. Those who are serious about going pro recognize each other and frequently form alliances to the benefit of all, sharing craft tips, information about the business side of writing, and encouragement. Many such alliances (often critique groups) see member after member go on to achieve their goals.

So how does a gun recognize another gun?

1. Natural talent
This is critical. If there's not at least a native spark, there's no chance. Still, it's only a small part of the equation.

2. Dedication
The writer must put her money where her mouth is, making the work a priority in terms of time and energy. The world is full of people dedicated enough to attend meetings or classes and talk about writing. When it comes to putting in the sweat equity, however, the field thins considerably.

And the dedication can't stop with the actual writing but must extend to a systematic study of the craft of writing, the business of writing, and competitive books within the targeted market area. If you aren't voraciously reading in your chosen area, you aren't absorbing reader and editorial expectations, and that lack of knowledge will brand you an amateur when you make your submissions.

All the meeting/conference/academic class attendance awards in the world won't serve as a substitute for doing the reading.

3. The Kernel of Arrogance

It takes just a tiny bit of arrogance to believe you have something to say that's worth the world's time, that you're good enough to merit the dream that you're pursuing. Think of fighter pilots, star quarterbacks, and those testosterone-drenched business tycoons you love to hate for their swagger. You're going to need a measure of it, not on the outside, where it will be deemed obnoxious (especially and unfairly if you're a woman!) but in your heart, where it will steel you for the coming battles. A pro must have enough confidence to face down rejection and keep fighting.

4. Tolerance for Risk
Writers' workshops are brimming with those who spend year after year (sometimes running into decades) overpolishing the same darned opening chapter. A pro finishes things and takes the next step, risking critiques from unbiased readers (not ammother or a sister!), entries in contests for blind feedback, and (gasp!) submissions to appropriate editors and/or agents.

After a few rejections, the dilettantes go cry in the corner and find another hobby. The pros just lick their wounds and get back up, blood in their eyes, to continue the fight.

5. Business-like Attitude
Writing is a hobby, publishing a business. Those who move beyond the amateur stage treat it as such by learning about agents, publishing houses, and book contracts. This step held be back for a long time (I wanted to be about art, not filthy lucre!) but two resources that got me over the hump with Richard Curtis's How to Be Your Own Literary Agent (read it, even if you already have or plan to get an agent, so you can intelligently discuss important issues with him/her) and agent Donald Maass's The Career Novelist, which is now available as a free PDF download from Mr. Maass's website.

6. The Stubbornness of a Mule, the Hide of a Rhino, and (Insert Your Own Cliche Involving Persistence)
For the vast majority, the quest for publication is no sprint but a mega-marathon. Chat with any group of traditionally-published novelists, and you'll generally hear stories of those who wrote three, four, even six or more full manuscripts before selling. With each effort, something new was learned.

As Calvin Coolidge reminds us:

"Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan 'press on' has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race”

So there, in a nutshell, are a few ways professional writers, and those with the potential to go pro, recognize others who have what it takes. Look at the list and think about areas you may need shoring up.

Then go find yourself some other guns and make some art.


Christie Craig said…
Great, great post, Colleen. And so very true. Thanks for kick in the butt today.

Brandie Nickerson said…
Two words...thank you!

jbrayweber said…
Great post, Colleen. Thanks so much for sharing!!
So glad you all stopped by!

Now I'm off to walk the walk... after taking a walk. :)
ShanaGalen said…
I remember when i was an aspiring author and I met Julie Ortolon at a conference. We were chatting at a reception, and she said, "You're going to make it." I had no idea how she knew as I certainly didn't feel like I was going to make it. But now that I've been published for a few years, I have to admit that some aspiring authors do have a certain "something."
Tessy said…
You're always so insightful, Colleen!!!
Thanks, Colleen, for sharing your wisdom and summing it up so well!

What a great day to take my nose off the grindstone and read your blog! What a great post! I may have to print it, tape it to the side of my desk and reread it next time I'm having doubts...
Thanks so much, everyone!

Shana, I can definitely relate to that. I often have the feeling that certain people are about to sell before I ever read their stuff. And several published authors who'd never read my work were kind enough to single me out and offer serious advice when I showed I was serious. I've never forgotten their kindness and try hard to pass it on as I'm able.
Thanks for this, Colleen. While some of it is daunting, much is encouraging, and makes me feel better about the last sixteen years of my life. It's hard sometimes to keep going when you feel like you're constantly on the verge of breaking through, but never do. I can't tell you how many short stories I've had rejected with very NICE rejection letters that were encouraging and constructive and gave me a glimmer of hope. But there's a part of me that always says "If you liked it that much, then why didn't you publish it! Darn it!"

But thanks. And it gives me courage to keep trying, to keep falling in the dirt and then to pick myself up and start all over again.
It's so frustrating, being left on the knife's edge of anticipation by the "almost" sorts of rejection. I, too, started out submitting short stories. Accrued a lot of "almosts," too. Then I started experimenting with other forms: poetry, playwriting, etc. But what I loved to read were novels of all sorts, and I cut my reader's teeth on genre. It wasn't until I moved past my fear of writing something "long" and "difficult" that I began to make real progress. But I had to first write what seems like a million pages of other stuff (I've tried my hand at nearly every one of the genres) to get where I needed to be. (Killing people - at least in fiction. LOL)

I consider none of these "million pages" I didn't publish a waste. I needed every one to find confidence in my writing voice.

So keep experimenting, and keep an open mind. You've definitely got a pro's attitude, and that's half the battle.
Suzan Harden said…
As a recipient of your "paying it forward," thanks bunches, Colleen.

And with tax season rapidly approaching, I can't stress No. 5 enough! A few years back before I actually started making money, our accountant called me concerned about how the IRS would look at the Schedule C for my writing business. I faxed him the spreadsheets of all the pitch appointments/queries for each book I'd written so far. He hasn't questioned my seriousness since.

And it's realy hard to get accountants to look outside the box. LOL
A spreadsheet! Good idea, Suzan. And enough to warm the cockles of any accountant's heart!

My organization skills lag far behind...
Teri Thackston said…
Persistence is definitely the key. I say that as someone who almost gave up once...but I gave it one more shot and succeeded. I wonder how many people give up just before that "one more shot"?
Donna maloy said…
Well, I've got a persistent, stubborn hide. One out of eight...
I know for a fact you're rocking on more cylinders! And two good legs by now, I hope! Glad to see you here.
P.J. Mellor said…
Thanks for putting it all into wwords, Colleen! Do you remember telling me, years ago, at the RWA conference, that you felt i was "so close"? You ahve no idea how many times I replayed your wowrds in my mind. As for "guns knowing other guns"--way back in 1998 or 1999, Sandra Hill picked me out of many people at a cocktail party to talk to, then emailed me for many years. i still remembeer her words of wisdom and pass it on to other writers whenever possible. It took 10 years and I won't say how many books before I finally sold, but I'm the poster child for persistence!
Of course I remember, Pam, and I've been following your successes with interest ever since! You know, Sandra Hill took the time to talk to me, too, and offer advice when I was thinking of signing with an agent. She's a terrific mentor and has many friends to prove it.

It's nice knowing that one's words of encouragement can live on and offer hope to others. I never say anything I don't mean, but hearing that makes me even more mindful of offering hope when it's merited.

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