From Failure to Success in Writing

how-i-raised-myself-from-failure-to-success-400x400-imadpwd2t88rkgy8The rah-rah headline for today’s post is borrowed from a book I read as a young man, How I Raised Myself From Failure to Success in Selling by Frank Bettger. It’s considered a classic of sales-training lit. But lots of folks have given the book props for helping them get ahead in other professions, too.

The headline is also apt because I definitely thought myself a failure as a writer when I was in my twenties. The stuff I wrote didn’t work the way I wanted it to, and I was told that’s because you have be born a writer. You can’t learn how to do it.

For ten years or so I accepted that I would never make it in this business.

So I did some other things. I moved to New York to pursue an acting career. Started doing Off-Broadway, Shakespeare, avant-garde. But after awhile I wondered why I wasn’t being offered a starring role in a movie like Raiders of the Lost Ark (they gave it to some guy named Ford).

During a visit back to L.A. I met this gorgeous actress at a party. Knowing I’d be returning to New York soon, I only waited two-and-a-half weeks to ask her to marry me.

Shockingly, she said yes.

After we were married I decided it might be a good idea for us to have one steady paycheck. Since Cindy was the more talented of the two of us, she continued with her stage work while I applied to law school.

In my third year at USC Law I interviewed with a big firm with offices in Beverly Hills.

Shockingly, they hired me.

Later on I opened my own office. And found out I had to be a businessman, too. I had to learn entrepreneurial principles. So I started to read books on business, and one of these was Bettger’s.

A few years went by and the desire to write, with me since I was a kid reading Tarzan of the Apes, came back to me. Bettger’s principles helped me along that path, too.

Frank_Bettger_(1888-1981)Frank Bettger was a former big-league ballplayer who went into the insurance game. After initial failures he started wondering if he really had what it took to be a good salesman. He decided to find out what others did. He began to apply a set of practices that helped get him to the top.

The first of these practices was enthusiasm. To sell successfully, you have to be enthusiastic about your product, your prospects, life itself. You need to exude joy, because the alternative is gloom, and gloom don’t sell.

Bettger noticed that if he didn’t feel enthusiastic, he could still act enthusiastic, and soon enough the feeling came tagging right along.

When I discovered you really can learn the craft, I got as excited as a man in the ocean who finds a plank to hang on to and then spots a lush island in the distance. It was enough to infuse joy and hope into my writing, and those two things alone started to improve it.

Another practice Bettger mentions is a system of organization. Make plans, record your results. When I got my first book contract I hadn’t thought through what I’d do for a follow-up. So I got organized. I began planning my career five years ahead, kept track of who I met with and pitched to, who I wanted to meet, and scheduled projects accordingly.

I’d already established the discipline of writing to a quota, but now I started keeping track of my output on a spreadsheet. Starting with the year 2000 I can tell you how many words I wrote on any given day, on what projects, and my weekly, monthly, and yearly totals.

Next, Bettger summarized the most important secret in sales: Find out what the other fellow wants, then help him find the best way to get it.

This got me thinking about pleasing readers. In college I was heavily influenced by the Beats (Kerouac, Ginsberg, et al.) Their writing was idiosyncratic and experimental. But I figured out early that what was idiosyncratic did not necessarily, or usually, connect with a large audience.

I knew I could write solely for myself, ignore genre, be hip (though a lot of the time it was artificial hip). But I wanted to make a living at this, so I backed up and looked for points where my own writing pleasure met with readers’ desire for a good story.

Still, I needed confidence this could be done. Bettger wrote that the best way to increase confidence is to keep learning about your business. Never stop.

The same holds true for writing, both the craft side and the business side.

If you are set on traditional publishing you need to know: What are publishing contracts like? What terms are you willing to accept … or, more importantly, walk away from? What are the characteristics of a good agent? What can you realistically expect in terms of editorial and marketing?

If you are going to self-publish, do you have a plan? Do you know what you need to know? Are you putting in a systematic effort to find out? Are you a risk taker?

In my business life I dedicated at least half an hour a day reading about business principles, thinking, and planning. I do the same thing in my writing life. I read every issue of Writer’s Digest. I enjoy books and blogs on the craft. My philosophy has always been that if I pick up one new technique, or see something familiar from another point of view, it’s worth the effort.

There’s a lot more packed into Bettger’s book, but I’ll close with the part that helped me most, both as a businessman and as an author. It’s his chapter on Ben Franklin’s plan for self-improvement.

In Franklin’s autobiography, he writes about his desire, as a young man, to acquire the habits of successful living. Franklin chose thirteen virtues, such as temperance, resolution, frugality, justice and so on. He made a chart and concentrated on one virtue for a week, ingraining the habit. That way, he could go through his list four times a year.

Bettger followed this plan by choosing thirteen practices that would help him as a salesman, such as sincerity, remembering names and faces, service and prospecting, and so on.

I did something similar with my writing. I formulated what I call the Seven Critical Success Factors of Fiction: plot, structure, character, scenes, dialogue, theme, and voice. By concentrating on these serially, I hoped to raise my overall game.

Bettger’s book helped me at two crucial points in my life––when I had to run a business, and when I made the decision to pursue the writing dream. In both pursuits there are challenges aplenty. Sources of inspiration are critical. I’m glad that ex-ballplayer was around to fire me up.

So what gets you enthusiastic about your writing? When you need an infusion of confidence, where do you turn?

28 thoughts on “From Failure to Success in Writing

  1. Good morning, Jim.

    Great post. Your story has been what motivates me to keep studying the craft, helping me believe that I CAN learn this stuff. Every other book I read is a craft book, or I’ll read two books at a time (craft and pleasure). It keeps me going to conferences. All the amazing teachers/posters here at TKZ keep me following this blog for new information, and motivates me to keep learning.

    What really stirs up the fire of enthusiasm (for writing) for me is positive feedback. I wrote a short for a charity anthology. One of my supporters read the story and recognized some of the symbolism, foreshadowing, and other techniques. She said, “Wow, I liked that!” I wanted to run home and start writing.

    Thanks for all your posts and teaching.

  2. What gets me enthusiastic is reader feedback. There’s no better incentive than readers asking for your next book. As for the story itself, I like to learn something new each time that excites me. Regarding the infusion of confidence, that would be my critique group. They keep me going through the ups and downs of this volatile business.

    One important factor to production that I do is to set annual goals. I list my creative (writing) goals and my business goals. These determine my path for the year and clarify which tasks take priority.

    • Goals are motivating, Nancy. I like that you have them both for creativity and business. Then when you take action on those goals it becomes a forward momentum that fuels enthusiasm. Nice.

  3. My enthusiasm is rooted in other people’s creativity. I’ll watch a beloved flick or read a favorite novel. Maybe even a documentary where a wonderful story emerges amongst tragedy.

    When it comes to confidence, I’ll reread a piece I’ve written (where people gave positive feedback). Rereading previous (successful) work reminds me that I’ve done it before and I can do it again.

    And thanks JSB because this piece lit me up inside so I must now take advantage of the enthusiasm you provided…

  4. Cool, David. Write!

    About rereading previous work, you reminded me about Dean Koontz. He has a big room in his (very) big house with editions, foreign and domestic, of all his books. He says he occasionally goes in there, looks at shelves, and thinks, “See? I really can do this.”

    Even Mr. K needs a jolt from time to time!

  5. Good stuff as always, Jim. I think I get the most enthused when an idea materializes out of nowhere and appears on the page–something that I never saw coming. It’s the part of writing fiction that cannot be explained to the non-writer–the pure magic of it. The feeling is fleeting, but addictive. I can’t wait for it to happen again. That keeps me going. That and a contract deadline.

  6. Love this, Jim. As someone still seeking to make a living doing this work, and as an ex-pro baseball player and an ex-corporate communications guy, I both relate to this and am motivated by it when I realize how much more I have to learn and do. I get most excited when a project crystalizes in my mind that energizes me (not all ideas do that) and I find myself itching to get out there because I believe others will share that attraction. Frankly, I find it hard to stay up and motivated sometimes, this business is hard and if you don’t fight back and stay positive it can crush you and your dream. But at the end of the day, that’s a choice, and a dark one that I never consider. Articles like this help keep me engaged and hopeful. On a more personal note, your support and friendship has been a factor in that, as well. Thank you for that, and this post.

    • Thanks for those kind words, Larry. You reminded me of the need to develop “Rhino skin” for all the times when obstacles and setbacks do occur. OTOH, that makes that breakthroughs all the sweeter. We can experience a little of that each day when something we write, or an idea we’ve formed, works that magic Joe mentioned, above.

      Carpe Typem.

  7. Love this post, Jim. To get my mojo back, I read another master — Agatha Christie, Michael Connelly, Ann Cleeves, to name a few. Absorbing their well-written novels helps get me back on track.

    • Elaine, that’s probably my favorite way of getting the ol’ mojo back. If I read a passage from a favorite novel, the prose of John D. MacDonald or Stephen King or Michael Connelly….it’s not long before I’m pumped again.

  8. I love this post! It’s on the loop at Women’s Fiction Writer’s Association so you will see a lot of us over here being inspired.

    I’m still knocked out from your presentation at OCC/RWA – thanks for continuing the magic. 🙂

  9. I’m a big fan. Your HOW TO WRITE DAZZLING DIALOGUE is my number one favorite of my top four books about writing. It is a classic. I can’t see another beating it. Ever. It is that brilliant. But back to this post and Ben Franklin’s 13th virtue. Humility? Emulating Jesus and Socrates? Priceless.

    • I appreciate the nice sentiments about DAZZLING, Tom. Early on I didn’t see a lot out there on dialogue, so I worked up these techniques over the years. So I’m glad that paid of with a book that’s helped you. Thanks for stopping by TKZ today.

  10. Letting go of expectations and losing myself in the drama of the story I’m working on gets me enthusiastic. Riding the narrative drive I feel when writing the story and surprising myself. Reading a compelling novel. Practicing a point of craft I’ve learned. And yes, this post has given me even more enthusiasm. As always, Jim, thank you!

    • Dale, those are two very important items! Letting go of expectations (crucial) and getting lost in the actual writing. In fact, the second helps to accomplish the first. Good reminders. Thanks.

  11. Writing for myself and being true to my ideas are what keep me enthused about my writing. I know as soon as I feel I am writing for what others want or expect I’m in trouble…So I try to focus on being true to myself and what I love to write and read. If I’m having fun it translates onto the page.

  12. JSB, an inspiring article, as always. I also read many craft books, and yours are among my favorite. I just downloaded Dazzling Dialogue the other day, and I and looking forward to reading it. Thanks for your help!

  13. Great post!
    Thanks for sharing your mix of enthusiasm and wisdom. Valuable messages delivered with humor and skill – inspiring stuff!

  14. I did something similar with my writing. I formulated what I call the Seven Critical Success Factors of Fiction: plot, structure, character, scenes, dialogue, theme, and voice. By concentrating on these serially, I hoped to raise my overall game.

    This is priceless advice. The idea of working on something different each week is a novel idea (pun intended) and one I look forward to implementing.

    Writers do themselves a disservice by reading only what other writers have to say. Learning from people outside the business is a great way to get a new perspective on old principles. That’s why I follow and read Rory Vaden of Southwestern Consulting every week (and have read every book he’s written). Even though his area of expertise is salesmanship and business, he offers a lot of information that’s invaluable to writers and other creative people.

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