Monday, August 02, 2010

How To Succeed as an Author (or anything!)

Success is a slippery thing to define. I have friends and family who think I'm a success because I've had my books published. And sometimes I do feel like a success. After all, becoming a children's book author is the fulfillment of a dream I've had since I was a kid. But there's always something new to reach for... that breakout novel, that big award, that huge advance. Maybe I'll truly feel like a success then. Or maybe not. Maybe success should not be defined by arrival, but rather by the journey itself. After all, we have control over how we conduct ourselves on our journey, so shouldn't that be the focus?

I often get approached by people who are at the beginning stages of their writing life. They want to know how to get published. They want the secrets of success. I am always happy to talk to these people and share the knowledge I've gained so far. My aim is to be encouraging and informative. But it never fails that after our coffee or email, I feel like I inadvertantly discouraged them with the truth. Writing books is really hard. Getting published is even harder. There are no shortcuts. My basic message is this: In order to get published, you have to write the best book ever. It's not who you know. It's what you do. Write. Revise. Revise some more.

I came across this fantastic 3-minute talk on by Richard St. John about what leads to success. The principles here can be applied to any endeavor. Everyone should watch this, no matter what your dreams and goals are. Take a look, and then I'll show you how it fits with writing/publishing...

1. Passion: If you LOVE reading and writing children's books, you are off to a great start. If you haven't read any children's books since you were a child, you are loving a memory, and that's not the same thing. Go to the library and read as many current, award-winning and best-selling children's books as you can. Still love children's literature? Still feel passionate about writing it? Then get started!

2. Work: Put your butt in the chair and write every day (or as often as possible). Don't wait for inspiration to strike. You have to write a book before you can sell it. Don't talk about writing it. Write it. It's hard, but it's fun. It's make-believe. It's play. It's creating something tangible from an abstract idea. I often imagine I'm reading while I'm writing, literally turning the pages of a book in my mind, seeing what comes next. So I tap into that pure joy of reading while I'm working.

3. Good: You have to practice to get better at anything. Writing is no different. Keep reading great books and study what makes them great. Take classes and workshops to learn how to improve your craft. And revise! Your first few drafts will be terrible. You need to revise a lot to make your manuscript good enough for publication.

4. Focus: You will have many distractions to fight against if you want to write children's books. If you have a day job, you'll have to find some early morning or late night hours to dedicate to writing. If you are a stay-at-home mom, people might assume you have all the time in the world, so they'll ask you to volunteer here and there, or to have lunch or coffee on this day and that. Be careful to only say yes to things you really want to do. Don't say yes out of guilt. Call yourself a writer. Set regular writing hours. Make it a priority. Turn off the internet. When I started out, I only had two hours a week to write. But at least it was something. If I had thought that wasn't enough, I might have never gone for it. Now I have at least two hours a day.

5. Push: It is very challenging to finish writing and revising an entire book. You will think it's terrible at many times in the process. You will want to give up. That is one reason you need to be part of a supportive community. Join SCBWI and get involved. We children's writers are friendly, helpful people! Form a critique group of like-minded people. They will help you improve your writing and give you emotional support as well. And you'll make lifelong friends!

6. Serve: Think about your audience. What is your book going to do for kids? What will you be giving them? Create a mission statement for what you wish to accomplish. Tape your statement up next to your computer, and remember why you've set out on this journey. My mission is, "I am writing stories that will touch children's hearts and souls and make them see the world and themselves in a new light." What's yours?

7. Ideas: This is really the heart and soul of being an author. No matter how good your writing is, you need to have a fantastic idea. So think. Daydream. Observe. Question. Stimulate your creativity. Think outside the box. Have fun.

8. Persist: Ah... he saved the best for last. Or maybe it's the hardest. Persistence truly is key in this profession. Chances are you won't find instant success. You will have to deal with lots of rejection and discouraging days, even after you've gotten published. But remember this: Nobody has the power to make you give up. Believe in yourself. Make it happen.

The truth is, becoming a successful children's book author takes all of the above plus timing and luck and a little magic. I choose to focus on what I can control. I can create a successful journey, one day at a time, by my own doing. And so can you.