Wednesday, February 08, 2006


I have a writing friend who shall remain nameless, and we once had an agonizingly long discussion about potential.

I believe that if you set your mind to it, the sky is the limit. Success isn't about intelligence or talent---it's about a refusal to give up. Recent studies have given my hypothesis some support:

My friend believes that your own potential is capped by your own personal limitations. A man with no legs will never win the world record for the long jump. A man with below average intelligence will never tie together Newtonian physics and quantum mechanics. No matter how hard they try. To coincide with that, if you're born into a privileged environment, you can become President even if you have below-average intelligence.

We reached a compromise of sorts. All a person can do is try to live up to their limitations. That might be enough to succeed in some things, and might not be enough to succeed in others. Luck always plays a part, but you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear.

So where does this leave writers? Is this a call to throw away your pens and stop trying? Or is it a call to work to your potential, because it may be enough to succeed? And how do you actually know what your potential is, and if it's enough to make it in this business?

Here's what I know:

  1. Talent is inborn and unchangeable. But craft can be improved.
  2. There are many paths to success.
  3. You can improve your luck by working hard.
  4. You'll sell more by getting out there than by staying at home.
  5. Editors and agents consider talent and a book's merits, but they also consider craft and an author's merits.
  6. You need to learn your limitations, and the only way to do that is by going past them.
  7. Comparing yourself to others doesn't do anybody any good.

Can everyone who writes a book sell that book? Statistics tell us no. Will every book published become a hit? Again, no. Is it possible to become a number one bestselling author? Yes, but you have better odds becoming an Olympic medal winner.

Daunted? Don't be.

All huge goals are simply a series of smaller goals. The pyramids were built one stone at a time. A mountain is climbed one step at a time. A bestseller is sold one book at a time.

No matter your physical condition, if you want to run a marathon, there are things you can do to improve your chances of finishing. You can train every day. Buy the right equipment. Eat the right foods. Work out. Devote a lot of time to this pursuit. Recruit others to help you. Dedicate your life to it.

A lot of writers refuse to dedicate their life to pursuing success. Which is fine. They feel that many writers attain success without dedicating their life to it (see #7) so why should they?

No one is forcing you to work 80 hours a week. You don't have to learn to speak in public. You don't have to learn how to pitch. You don't have to visit bookstores and conventions. You don't have to get an agent. You don't have to improve your craft. You don't have to have a website or a blog. You don't have to do anything at all but write a book. And you might attain success by simply doing that.

But your chances improve if you do other things to reinforce that.

Fate is a future you didn't try to change. The people we admire in our society are the ones who succeeded despite the odds. The ones who faced adversity and won. The ones who picked themselves up by the bootstraps and went on to fame and fortune and glory.

Only you can decide what you must do in order to be a writer.

History will tell you whether you were right or wrong.