Please. No whining.

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.

23 thoughts on “Please. No whining.

  1. John, your post should be required reading for any aspiring . . . well, just about anyone wanting to succeed at anything. Great advice.

  2. Outstanding Post, John, as always.

    Hey, Kill Zoners, wanna hear something really cool?

    I posted my second novel, CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR… on last month, and when the sales data changed yesterday, I made money for the first time on my writing.

    I wonder what great things will happen next?

    No whining here!
    Thanks for all your support.

  3. John, this is another one that we’re gonna print up and hang all over the house. And it should be read out loud in every school in the country.
    Thank you. Again.

    Paula, that is FABULOUS, fabulous news. Congratulations!

  4. I suppose what you say is true from a certain perspective, but I can’t seem to shake the image of a guy coming in last in a race and then holding his hands up like he’d won the thing. While it may be that no one can convince him that he failed, I don’t know that he is doing himself any favors by not admitting it.

    Paula, it’s always more fun when you make money.

  5. At least from the acting point of view, actors should remember that even if doing something like “Facts of Life” isn’t their dream job, it’s how they connect with viewers.

    Who of us hasn’t watched an actor or actress where we say fondly “Oh, I remember when they were still on such and such a show.”

    All our writing counts too.

  6. Good post, John. Success comes from hard work, overcoming the obstacles & refusing to quit – & not being afraid to fail at times. It also helps to abandon the sense of entitlement, which often leads to whining. Just my opinion.

  7. Hey John, your post borders on one of my pet peeves. It’s those that will give you a thousand reasons why they can’t do a task (whether it be writing or some other job assignment), but never offer a single way that they can get it done.

    I really think there is an element of luck or timing to things, but you can’t rely on those, so you need an alternate plan and that, as you boldly state is hard work and perserverance.

    Nice Post.

  8. Excellent post, John, and thanks for including the Clooney comment. It reminds me of something Quentin Tarantino said when asked why he cast Robert Forster as Max Cherry in JACKIE BROWN. He said that Forster had been doing excellent work for years when he was “off the radar.” It wasn’t his fault the movies he was in sucked and sank without a trace. He kept doing good work. That’s all anyone can do: keep doing the work.

    As for success and failure, I posted my first book to Amazon in August; so far it’s sold about 30 copies. I have, however, received favorable reviews and interviews from the likes of Charlie Stella and Timothy Hallinan, as well as good reviews from Leighton Gage and Mike Dennis, all writers whose work I enjoy and whose talent I respect. (Envy, even.)

    To me, that makes it a successful book.

  9. Wow. Outstanding post. You made my quote file three times!

    I completely agree with Joe Moore that this should be required reading.

    Thanks for the inspiration.

  10. Why oh why did you write this, John? I NEVER catch a break, NEVER. Nothing EVER goes right for me, EVER. I’m ALWAYS… wait a second….just re-read it. Nice post.

    I was having a discussion about “luck” with some other writers recently, and mentioned the old adage,”Luck is when preparation meets opportunity.” I would add persistence and production to that. Keep writing. Keep getting better. For the rest of your life. You’ll be “luckier” that way.

  11. Mr. Gilstrap’s post is very timely for me personally.
    The other day a writer acquaintance remarked how “lucky” I am to write a column that appears in 500+ newspapers. I agreed. Very lucky.

    It only took months of researching authors and sending out six interview requests knowing only one would be returned, and that one interview would then appear in our singular local newspaper. Even after a news service picked up my column, it only took months more of building rapport with publicists to gain access to their clients in order to fulfill my voluntary weekly obligation for interviews. Today, I only see one interview request turned down for every four I send out.

    Luck, pure luck. But the truth is, I do feel lucky and very fortunate to do what I love.

  12. As always, spot on . . .

    I’m working on a monetized humor blog right now that earnings-wise may fill my gas tank every three months. However, I’m on track for 150K page views in 2012 and I enjoy it. I can’t control the advertising content or the readers’ choices. So I concentrate on what I can control – volume and quality of content.

    As for the guy finishing last in the race and acting like a winner? Hey, maybe to him, just the act of finishing meets his goals. He may be a cancer survivor or it’s his first race after losing 100 pounds. That brings up the other point, everyone gets to define their own success.

    2009 – 2011 has dealt me some harsh blows. My brother and I have a mutual whining deal – you get a half hour and then have to move on to what you are going to do to fix it. He has serious health problems, mine are more nebulous. And we celebrate every little success – as we define it.

    We are definitely both the last guys in the race, but just crossing the finish line let’s us know that we can now focus on the next race.

    I’m posting this to a group I belong to – required reading.


  13. To augment DA’s comment in particular:

    About eight, ten years ago, my writing career was in a dark place. I’d been orphaned by my editor–TWICE–which meant that SCOTT FREE was doomed, and I’d lost a bitter arbitration fight over screen credit for RED DRAGON. Nothing was going right, and with plummeting book sales and a newly-minted reputation as a trouble maker in Tinseltown, it looked for all the world as if I’d hit a hard stop.

    Back then, Jeffery Deaver and I met every Thursday at a local watering hole, and at the absolute bottom of this mess, I . . . wait for it . . . whined to him. He, of course, was in the middle of his stratospheric rise, so when I asked him, “What are you doing right that I’m doing wrong?” he replied, “I’m sixteen books ahead of you.” Maybe it was twenty. It was a big number.

    He went on, “Your job is to keep your head down and write. If you need to go to a pseudonym, get one. If you need to change genres, do it.”

    That was the conversation that made me decide to change up and write the nonfiction book, SIX MINUTES TO FREEDOM, and that was the book that turned everything around. It was through that research that Jonathan Grave was born.

    None of that felt much like luck at the time. Looking back, I confess that my refusal to surrender during that years-long slump lives on as one of my proudest accomplishments.

    John Gilstrap

  14. After six years tilting at this windmill my self-pubbed books were finally picked up by in 2011 and I was excited to switch my ITW status from “Associate” to “Author”.

    It is still just a blip on the screen…but they’re on the screen and a little scratch is slinking into the bank once a month.The deeper effect is that now I see the door is cracked open. The options have become exponentially broader.

    The first of my audiobook novels has been nominated for an Audie Award, the second is selling quite well and the third will be coming out in audiobook format in spring 2012 while the print copy of the fourth is drawing gradually nearer completion.

    Which leads to another point, the peripheral journeys that not giving up may open for us. Having striven to find a way to get my work published, I podcasted the initial novels and through that process became proficient at audiobook narration which ended up getting me in with audiobook producers and starting off on a tangential business I had not anticipated a decade ago.

    Never, ever, give up … you’ll be dead soon enough, and then you can quit.

  15. Definitely great advice. As an aspiring author I know I have to work hard and I have to take the knocks. Knocks, I hope, will teach me a lot. You can’t learn much without experiencing things.

  16. Great advice, especially since most of us do end up in situations where we could either whine and moan about how unfair the world is or just keep writing. Only if we choose the latter do we have any chance of lifting ourselves out of the quagmire and achieving success. Paula, making money with your writing is a great achievement, you should definitely be celebrating!

  17. Congrats, Paula, on your first sale! I still have a framed copy of my first-ever check for fiction writing. It was like, “Wow, I can do this!”

    A very inspiring post, John!
    This one is a keeper.

  18. Great post, John. I completely agree- after my first novel was roundly rejected by dozens of agents, I finally set it aside and started over, with an entirely different story. And that led to publication. It’s all about perseverance.

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