Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Three Essential Tools a Writer Needs (and it's not what you think)

When I first started sitting on writer panels and faced the classic question, what are the essential tools every writer needs--I would reply with appropriately calibrated gravitas:  a deep passion for the written word, a willingness to search beyond the shadows of your soul, and a keen appreciation for the spirit that defines how we, and others, view the world. 
                That was then.
                This is now.
                I've been lost in the Forest of Futility enough times to know exactly what I need to survive.  But having these three essential tools isn't enough.  Yes, passion and soul searching and emotional connection are important--but they are like the granola in your trail mix.  Very good to have, but they won't sustain you.  They won't get you out of the forest, up the mountain, through the clouds and into the sun.  I'm talking the basics of wilderness survival: knife, flint, and fifty feet of para chord.

Survival Tool Number One:  Hope
A writer without hope is like an explorer without a horizon.  For me, that hope is defined by the projects I have out there in the wild being considered (or not) for publication.  That means I need to be in constant motion, putting words on a page and sending them out.  But the mere existence of hope won't do the trick.  You have to know where it is.  If you let hope get behind you, then all is lost.  It has to be in front of you, preferably up high where you can always see it.  Send out those manuscripts, then allow them to populate your dreams.

Survival Tool Number Two:  Persistence
In the real world, survivors might call this the will to live.  To crawl out of the cave, to eat bugs and tree bark, or saw your arm off with a dull blade when you are trapped by a rock in a crevasse in the middle of the desert.  For scribes, this is the will to write--to put words on the page even when the clouds of rejection are raining on your creative soul.  If Hope is your north star, Persistence is the drive to finish the damn book, to polish it till your fingers bleed,  then send it out and out and out.  And when it comes back, all beat up and pleading for mercy, send it out again.  Keep Persistence behind you, but close.  You want to feel it's firm hand on your back.

Survival Tool Number Three:  Luck
This is arguably the least, and most essential, tool you have.  Luck is out there, happy coincidences of fate that lead to treasures unseen.   Most people view luck as a random event--sometimes it happens, and when it does it happens to someone else.  I remember interviewing a champion poker player for a magazine article.  I asked him how much luck plays into the game.  He replied that luck is huge, but if you wait for luck it will burn you every time.  The good players, the ones that keep winning, know how to make their own luck.  So my view is every writer needs luck, to submit the right manuscript to the right editor at exactly the right time--but those odds, if you calculate all the other manuscripts out there and how quickly market trends change, are oppressively long.  So I say keep luck in your orbit.  You can't see it or feel it.  You just have to know that it is out there, and when tools one and two are in doubt, that shining pinball of good fortune will bounce your way and change everything.  It has happened to me more than once and I know that it will happen again.  But here's the thing about luck.  It won't find you. 

You have to get in its way.


Jordan Dane said...

Good stuff, Stephen. Hope, persistence and luck are really solid tools for a writer to have. Getting your work out there (meaning you have to risk rejection) is part of the luck factor. If you don't submit, luck won't matter.

Sechin Tower said...

This is a great insight, Stephen! If you ask me, the greatest of these three is hope, for hope gives you the strength to persevere, and if you persevere long enough the dice will eventually come up in your favor.