When you tell someone you’re a writer, one of the most common responses you get is something along the lines of ‘Oh, I’ve always wanted to write a book…’. Some will have only a vague idea of the type of book they’d write (‘…maybe something for young adults, or a romance’) while others will have more concrete ideas for characters (‘…where the main guy is this complete psychopath, I mean really nasty’) or the plot (‘…it would be about this group of investors getting their own back on a crooked banker’). Some may even have something down on paper (‘…you know, I’ve got the first chapter written in a notebook somewhere’). Then comes the killer line: ‘…I’ve been thinking about it for years’. This brings me round to the subject of this posting, why do so many would-be writers never get beyond the ‘thinking-about-it’ stage?
If you asked them, I’m sure you’d come up with a myriad of different answers ranging from things like ‘I haven’t got time’ to ‘I never get a moment’s peace with the kids under my feet all day’ and ‘I just wouldn’t know where to start’. However, I suspect the real reason is something different. When we think of writers, we generally think of people with a passion for their art. While passion certainly helps, I think persistence is just as important. If you don’t have that, no matter how passionate you are about your ideas, it’s unlikely they’ll ever come to fruition.
What do I mean by persistence? Persistence is what keeps you going, even on the days (or nights), when you’d really rather be doing something else. It’s what helps you reach your targets even when, at times, they seem unachievable. It’s what allows you to come back and edit that same damned scene for the umpteenth time, until you finally get it to work.
Persistence doesn’t just come into play when writing, you also need it when it comes to the long struggle towards getting it into press. It keeps you going after each and every rejection letter from a publisher or an agent. JK Rowling had Harry Potter rejected 12 times before it was accepted, and this doesn’t seem unusual. Apparently, (if you can believe things you read on the internet) Twilight was rejected a similar number of times and Stephen King’s first published novel (Carrie) somewhere in the region of 30.
And it doesn’t stop once your work is out there, you still need to be persistent. I watched an interesting documentary about Iain Rankin a few weeks ago where he said that his first eight Rebus novels barely sold enough to give him a living wage as a writer and he had to take on other projects to help make end’s meet. At a book a year, that’s eight years of persisting with his grumpy Edinburgh detective after his first book was published before he started becoming the success he is today.
It seems that when it comes to writing, passion without persistence is unlikely to lead to success, or getting your book into print, or even getting it finished in the first place. Yet, persistence is something that seems to be disappearing from many in the western world, and I’m not just thinking of would-be writers here. We now like in a world where much of the success of those we see around us seems to have come from random luck rather than hard work. Think lottery millionaires. Think X Factor winners. This is breeding a culture where people sit around waiting to get lucky rather than getting on and doing something about it. Too many young people want to be famous, but have no idea what they want to be famous for doing. For them it seems that success is something that just happens if you’re lucky, and isn’t something you have to work at, sometimes for many years.
The British Tennis player, Andy Murray (who, for a long time, was routinely pilloried by the British press for not winning a major tournament), after losing yet another US Open in 2011 famously tweeted, ‘Persistence is failing 19 times and succeeding on the 20th’. This is exactly the type of attitude we need to cultivate, both in ourselves as writers, and indeed for our lives in general. This is the type of person who should be held up as a role model for the next generation, rather than the ever-changing stream of reality TV show winners who owe much of their success to luck rather than persistence.
Oh, and for those of you who don’t know, persistence paid off for Andy Murray in a big way this year when he returned to New York and finally lifted the trophy he’s worked for so many years to win.
From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in the UK. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more.