Lesson from Your Dog
by James Thayer
offer vital lessons for writers, including turning around three
times before lying down and chewing a shoe with proper etiquette.
But the most important lesson is their namesake attribute:
to be brilliant and fruitful, to have the words spill out, the
perfect story gushing forth like water from a pipe. To be Eleanor
Hibbert, who—writing as Victoria Holt and Philippa Carr—would sit on
a sofa, no paper in sight, and dictate her novels, her words taken
down by secretaries. Or to be Erle Stanley Gardner, author of the
Perry Mason novels, who dictated into a machine, often working on
four stories at once and producing a million words a year.
most of us aren’t Hibbert or Gardner. For most of us, writing is
hard, and a successful career as a writer is even harder.
key ingredient: persistence.
Sci-fi novelist Kevin J.
Anderson says, “Persistence is much more important than raw talent.
Most aspiring writers give up long before their chance arrives.”
What is the relationship between innate talent and perseverance?
Which is more important? Talent alone won’t get a writer far. Leon
Uris said, “Talent isn’t enough. You need motivation—and
persistence, too: what Steinbeck called a blend of faith and
arrogance.” President Coolidge was known as Silent Cal, but when he
said something, it was worth listening to: “Nothing in the world can
take place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common
than unsuccessful men with talent.”
When does a novelist most need persistence? Two times: during the
writing, and after the novel is completed.
First, during the writing.
Listen to a few writers. George Orwell: “Writing a book is a long,
exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness.” F.
Scott Fitzgerald: “All good writing is swimming under water and
holding your breath.” Edna Ferber: “[Writing] is a combination of
ditch-digging, mountain-climbing, treadmill and childbirth.” And
James Joyce: “Writing in English is the most ingenious torture ever
devised for sins committed in previous lives.”
Well, even hugely successful writers are allowed to whine once in a
while. My maternal grandfather began his working career as a coal
miner. Writing isn’t as hard as coal mining, and a pox on anyone
silly enough to think it is. But, make no mistake, writing isn’t
easy, not as easy at it may look to those who don’t write, such as
movie producer Irving Thalberg: “What's this business of being a
writer? It's just putting one word after another.”
Why is writing a novel hard? Several reasons. First, it’s a big
thing, and can take a year to complete, which is what a novel
Illustration by Jennifer Paros -
in common with a house, also a big thing that can take a year to
build. Literary agent Donald Maas says a novel is “a large,
complex, fluid and difficult-to-manage undertaking.”
Another reason writing a novel is hard: it is piece work. If we
take a day off, our completion date is another day away.
And no one will tell us what to do. The writer is an apprentice,
and there’s no journeyman to instruct the writer regarding what to
do next. Each new word is a new decision—decision after
decision—and it can be wearing.
Second, after the novel is completed:
Doggedness is critical
during the marketing process. A writer must be unrelenting in the
effort to submit his or her work, and must become hardened against
rejection. Every professional writer receives rejection slips, and
if you are not dogged in your pursuit of an agent or a publisher—if
you do not repeatedly pick yourself up after a rejection, and send
your manuscript to someone new—you won’t make it as a writer.
Don’t believe that the best, the most talented, the now-legendary
writers took their share of shots? Here’s what Mark Twain had to
listen to from publisher George Carleton, standing there in
Carelton’s office after Twain had submitted several stories,
including The Jumping Frog of Calaveras
County: “Books—look at those shelves. Every one of them
is loaded with books that are waiting for publication. Do I want
any more? Excuse me, I don’t. Good morning.”
Most writers have gone through this. Joe Haldeman was turned down
more than a dozen times before Forever
War found a publisher, and went on to win both the Nebula
and Hugo awards. Twelve British publishers rejected J.K. Rowling’s
first Harry Potter novel. Frank Herbert’s
Dune received thirteen rejection slips. Rudyard
Kipling received this personalized rejection slip early in his
career: “I’m sorry, Mr. Kipling, but you just don’t know how to use
the English language.” Theodore Geisel’s first book was turned down
by twenty-three publishers before Macmillan accepted it, and
suggested he use a pseudonym, so Geisel adopted the peculiar name
Dr. Seuss for And to Think I Saw it on
Mulberry Street. Richard Hooker worked seven years on
his oddball novel, only to have it rejected by twenty-one
publishers. The book was M*A*S*H.
Can doggedness be taught? Maybe we have it or we don’t, much like
courage or wit. But surely knowing that all novelists
get rejected--that it is routine and has been suffered by even the
best--will help us persevere.
So give your dog a bone and watch him go to work. It’s a lesson for
Thayer’s thirteenth novel,
The Boxer and the Poet; Something of a
was published by Black Lyon Publishing in March 2008. He teaches
novel writing at the University of Washington Extension School, and
runs a freelance editing