I have an overarching theory on life that I believe I might have mentioned here on TKZ before: Failure cannot be inflicted upon anyone; it must be declared by the individual. No matter how hard an artist is knocked down, or how often, as long as he gets to his feet and stays true to his obligations as a professional and a craftsman, the game is still on.
To quit, however, is to guarantee failure. I respect those who grow too tired of the fight and walk away, just as I respect anybody’s well-reasoned choice to do anything. To chase the choice to quit with a lot of whining, though, is unseemly. No one forces another person to give up writing or to seek publication, and since the decision was not inflicted, it makes no sense for an artist to blame anyone who’s not staring back at him from the mirror every morning.
There’s a corrollary: Success must be earned.
It’s worth noting, I think, that with very few exceptions, every person who has found success in any endeavor in any industry shares the single attribute of having worked hard. They brushed away rejection and tried again. And again. When success didn’t come as quickly as they wanted, the real achievers took a look at their own skill sets and identified what needed adjusting in order to improve their marketability. Actors learned to sing, singers learned to act. Literary writers learned how to write more commercial stuff. English Lit majors went back to school to learn about cyber security—or to get the PhD that would allow them to teach what they love at the collegiate level.
They didn’t sit around and blame others. Yes, the publishing industry is changing, so adapt. No one owes success to anyone else.
Throughout the struggle, it’s important to keep your head in a positive space—a space that can be elusive, given the state of popular media. Entertainment Weekly published a snarky article last week entitled “Stars’ Worst Movies.” In it, they made fun of an early George Clooney movie called Red Surf. Rather than being embarrassed about an admittedly less-than-great film, though, Clooney said in the article, “I’ve done some bad jobs along the way. But you’ve got to do them. The Facts of Lifes and the Baby Talks and the Red Surfs. When you’re starting out, those are big breaks.” He didn’t apologize for those early efforts because he was doing his best to make a living doing what he loved to do. When the movie flopped, he went on to the next one. I hear he makes decent coin as an actor these days.
What’s the analogy to novel writing? Recognize your own big breaks as they happen. Judge your path to success not just based on the long road that lies ahead, but on the accomplishments you’ve achieved. Start with the fact that you’ve finished a book. Or three. That puts you in the stratosphere among those who dream of publication one day. Got a short story pubbed in your local supermarket rag? Shout it from the rooftops. It’s a big deal.
Opportunity never knocks. Opportunity lurks out there, waiting to be discovered through hard work, dedication and risk taking. It makes itself most visible to those who are focused on possibilities, and are open to trying new things. Some of my greatest successes in this industry and in others can be traced to casual conversations that were struck up in the most unlikely of places. Some might call these chance encounters, but I don’t buy that. Sure, there’s an element of serendipity, but that would not have mattered if both parties hadn’t had their heads and their hearts in the right places.
Whenever anyone asks, “How do I get an agent?” or “How do I get a producer interested in the film project I want to do?” my answer is always the same: Go out and find them. Introduce yourself. Attend the meetings they attend, and introduce yourself. Talk to them.
Earn their attention. If that takes you out of your comfort zone, then either expand the zone or abandon the dream. Or invent a brand new approach that no one’s ever heard of.
But please. No whining.