Writer, This is Your Job

by James Scott Bell

Some years ago I was teaching at a writers conference in New Mexico. After lunch I noticed one of the conferees sitting at a back table, looking distressed. I went over and asked her what was up.

“I don’t know,” she said. “Am I ever going to get anywhere? I see all these people, they all want it just as much as I do. How do I know if I’ll ever make it? ” Tears started down her cheeks.

I handed her a napkin for the tears, then took another and drew a pyramid on it. I divided the pyramid into six sections. Inside the pyramid are writers, I explained, with each section representing a different level of achievement.

The bottom, where most of the people are, is the realm of the “want to.” Or “I think I have a book inside me.” But outside of some scribblings, maybe a short story or two, perhaps an unfinished novel, these people never move on to the next level…

…which is where people like you are (I told her). Those who actually try to learn something about writing. Who buy writing books, go to conferences, take classes…and write.

Above that is the level for those who actually finish a full length novel. This is a great place to be. This is where real writers come from.

The next level holds those who write another novel, because the first one is probably going to be rejected. They do this because they are novelists, not just someone who happened to write a novel.

Next are those who get published. Above that those who are published multiple times.

Sitting on top of the pyramid is a Wheel of Fortune. This is where the breakout hits come from. The wheel goes around and lands on a book like Cold Mountain. Or The Da Vinci Code. Or Harry Potter.

No one can control this. No one know how to guarantee a hit, or it would be done every time out.

Your job, I told the young writer, is to keep moving up the pyramid. Each level presents its own challenges, so concentrate on those. As you move up, you’ll notice there are fewer people, not more. People drop out of the pyramid all the time. But if you work hard, you might get a novel on the wheel, and that’s as far as you can go on your own. After that it’s not up to you anymore.

The conference went on and I forgot all about this incident.

A couple of years later I bumped into her at another conference. She told me that this conversation and the diagram had a profound effect on her, and that she was going to keep going, and was finishing her first novel.

Two years after that she wrote to tell me she had landed a book deal. She is now a published author.

Writer, if you want to be published, if you want a hit book, don’t worry about things you cannot control. Don’t grasp at phantoms. Focus on the page right in front of you. Make it the best it can be, and build these pages into a book. And then another.

Keep climbing the pyramid.

That’s your job.

P.S. Adapted from the forthcoming The Art of War for Writers.

35 thoughts on “Writer, This is Your Job

  1. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

    OK, I don’t repeat words in my WIP. I so needed to read this. I feel the same way sometimes… like it’s a pipe dream. So many people share the same dream; but I know I’ll go on to the next level, and the next. You have held a light up for me at the end of the tunnel. (Another thing I don’t write in my WIP.)

  2. Jim, this post is awesome! A great way of framing the writer’s journey. I love the way you discuss moving to the next level, and how people drop out along the way. It truly is a matter of persistence and focusing on the page and the craft. Good advice for young writers as well as the “less young”!

  3. Thanks back atcha, Lily. Keep climbing.

    And thanks, Kathryn, for the kind word. Yes, it’s a temptation for writers of any age (or publication record) to look at things beyond the immediate page. I love Dennis Palumbo’s quote, “Every hour you spend writing is an hour not spent fretting about your writing.”

  4. Great advice, Jim, as always. This is good news for everyone: the herd thins as you work you way up. That’s a strong visual image anyone can understand.

  5. Great post James, as always.

    What separates the leaders of the herd (the published) is often hard work and sticking to the trail up the hill despite the many and constant obstacles. Sure talented writers can and do fail to make it to being published, but those who are published don’t stop short of their goal. It is not easy to become a published author, and then you find that becoming published is just another step in the process to becoming successful. But it is absolutely worth it and the trail up and the struggle makes you stronger.

  6. Right on, Joe. It’s something writers need to hear, especially when they are at a conference with 300 or 400 other people!

    And John, good point about the struggle making you stronger. That applies to just about anything, doesn’t it? There’s a certain reward in growth alone.

  7. Terrific post, Jim. I needed that today. As authors we control only one piece of our career–the book–but it’s the pivotal piece. The rest is just distraction. Your is a topical, modern and relevant translation of Reinhold Niebuhr:

    “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can change, and wisdom to know the difference.”

    John Gilstrap

  8. John, I like Niebuhr’s writings, and especially this prayer, famously applied in AA of course, but so relevant for everyone else, no matter what they do.

  9. This is a really encouraging post. Reminds me not to lose focus (which is so easy to do) and keep writing. No matter what. THAT’s the most important thing. Thanks, Jim!

  10. Thanks for this very encouraging post. I am reading “Plot and Structure” and “Revision and Self-Editing”. You give such practical advice. These are the most helpful books for new writers that I’ve seen! Wishing you continued success in your writing.

  11. Thanks for the good word, Jim. I remember you sharing this at the Blue Ridge Conference in May 2007. To be honest, I’d forgotten it. I’m glad I ran into your post. I’ve hit a wall with my WIP. Mostly, because I haven’t committed the time to it like I should.

    Now I’m motivated to write a page or two in the morning.


  12. Pyramid??


    I should have learned this advice before. I just reached the top of the Sphinx!

    And there was no wheel of fortune, just a loaf of moldy rye bread and goat’s bladder full of tepid water.

    ..No wonder there wasn’t anyone else around here.

  13. All so very true. I wrote my first novel at 17, and I didn’t know anything about pyramids or publishing or anything but words on paper. I kept writing for years and had my first book published at 50. I now have 4 books in print and several more either coming out or in production. Now I’m working to climb the next step in that pyramid. Persistence is so important. Thanks for reminding me.

  14. Thanks Jim, I certainly need this advice sometimes:) I’ll just try and keep going up the pyramid. After camping with my boys last nighyt I fear I have slipped to the last level:)

  15. Great stuff, Jim. Very encouraging.

    When I’m struggling with the lack of production, it’s good to be reminded that I’ve already moved up the pyramid a step or two by finishing a couple of rough drafts, reading those how-to books, and taking that class. Even so, I need to keep working on getting to the next level.

    “Writers write. Everyone else makes excuses.” –Jack Bickham

    I love the illustration and differentiation you make between the stuff you can control and the stuff you can’t. This is something that applies to other areas of life, too. Wheel of Fortune, indeed.

    BTW, Thanks to Jay Lake for sending me to this blog. It looks great. Although it’s now an additional distraction from actually writing.

  16. As always, good advice lands on my doorstep when I need it most. Here’s to finishing off pyramid step 2 and moving onto step 3!

    John Gilstrap kicked me out of my funk with his critique and got me working on something I was about to trunk. Now James Bell gives me a wonderful visual to help me keep me focused and my eye on the prize.

    I nominated y’all for inclusion on a list of ‘essential blogs’ for a reason!


  17. This is excellent advice, Jim. Writing and publishing does have its frustrations and disappointments, and we just have to learn to move upward and onward.

  18. Thank you very much for this post. I have finished and queried three novels at this point. The first one should not have been sent out!!! I plan to send the second out again but the third I was asked for a partial and am waiting for a reply. Your post gave me hope. Thank you. Patti

  19. Thank goodness for someone who puts a positive spin on the reality of it being so hard to make it.

    It seems we hear all the time how hard it is, how difficult and fickle the industry is, how even when you do make it you won’t get paid anything much… and although these comments are followed up by ‘so stick at it and learn your craft well’ they are so disheartening.

    This was a really nice way to show how hard things are but how there is visible forward progression to be made at each stage.

    Thank you 🙂

  20. You can’t know how much I appreciate this post. At the very least, I know where I fit in the pyramid: two full-length novels, one of which captured the attention of a notable agent. Writing the next. Climbing the pyramid.

    Thanks for the encouragement.

  21. Thanks for this post. Somedays it feels like I’m going no where. Today I told God it will happen as I went out the front door.

    I saw a link to your post and it was like he was telling me I’m on my way. I’m on level three so I feel good about climbing up.


  22. Wow. What a powerful message to us newbies. Thank you so much for sharing it. It inspired me to write a post on my blog that will maybe help encourage someone else.

  23. You’re simply brilliant, James! Great stuff – and a good reminder to anyone on the pyramid! (regardless of where you are!) I want to be like you when I grow up.

  24. I was absolutely shocked when I went to my first writer’s conference and found all these people that wanted to write a novel.

    I’d already written three, so I thought everyone else would have too.

    That’s the key. If you’re a writer, write.

    Thanks for the post. It was comforting to know I’m doing the right things.

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