Thursday, August 21, 2008


Part of being human is trying to figure out what in our pasts have led to our present.

That means we often attribute significance to past occurrences and what we believe led up to those occurrences. After all, hindsight is 20/20.

Looking at successful people, we can make observations about their histories, compile similar data, and draw conclusions about what makes a successful person.

But unlike science, which uses controlled experiments that are repeatable, it's impossible to have a control group for a person's life. Good things that happen may indeed be a result of hard work and effort, or it may be the stars aligning. It's usually a little of both.

While an astute student of human behavior can find commonalities among the success stories, these are often vague rather than defined, and if repeated under similar conditions do not always result in success for other people.

When you add exceptions--people who do something other than what the majority do--to the mix, it becomes downright impossible to predict success.

Which brings us to writing.

We're supposed to write a good book, but the term "good" is subjective. Then we're supposed to promote it, even though only a small percentage of books actually become bestsellers, and bestselling authors may not do a lot of promotion.

Because there are no guarantees, no controlled way to study and repeat success, and not even a universal definition of "good", the majority of us spin our wheels in relative obscurity, while a select few make it big and then tell the rest of us exactly how they did it, even though they're often attributing significance after the fact, which simply isn't good science.

So what's a writer to do? Work hard self-promoting even though the odds are against it paying off? Struggle to write a good book, whatever that means? Study the market? Ignore the market? Listen to bestselling authors? Listen to their publisher?

Readers of this blog know my feelings about luck. It pervades the publishing industry, and life in general. I've blogged before about maximizing the potential for luck by working hard, but without specific instruction that's like a coach at half time telling his team that in order to win they have to play better.

So here's some specific instruction.

1. Study the situation. That means learning everything you can about writing and publishing. Read about it, talk to people in the industry, and seek answers.

2. Set attainable goals. Once you have a rudimentary understanding of how publishing works, you can figure out how to leverage your standing within it. Keep goals to things within your control.

3. Learn from both failure and success. Try things for yourself, try them again, and revise and evolve.While you can't control the experiment, you can test and hone tactics.

4. Don't compare yourself to other writers. No good can ever come of this. Ever. Writers aren't in competition with each other for contracts or fans, and one person's success doesn't hinge on another failing. Envy is poison.

5. Value yourself. If you don't have enough confidence to believe you're worth more, no one is going to give you more.

6. Bust your ass. If you aren't driven to succeed, you probably won't. How bad do you want this? If the answer is: really bad, then you have to prioritize accordingly.

7. Forgive. You'll make mistakes. People will screw you. Circumstances may conspire to keep you down. Regret, guilt, worry, and self-pity are all just as poisonous as envy. Let the past stay in the past and move on. You're better than that.

8. Dream. That's why you became a writer in the first place. It's the one thing you have complete control over, and the one thing that will keep you going when everything else is going to hell. The day you stop dreaming is the day you stop trying.

Did I miss anything?


Stacey Cochran said...

Great list, great post... I love this new JA Konrath "tone," btw.

I would only add to this list: Search for what people need, and if the need is not being met, then meet it.

Meeting your audience's needs is huge. The truly successful folks in any business are able to discover something that people need at a time when the need is not being met by others... and they capitalize on this.

We as writers tend (by our nature) to be self-absorbed, but if you can think about what others need first, you'll be received much more enthusiastically than if you're always thinking of yourself first.

Joan Reeves said...

I like your list, Joe, because it's not just applicable to writing - it's perfect life instruction also.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for writing this - it was helpful to me at this point in time.

Unknown said...

A wonderful post. Thank you for sharing your thought on this. Numbers 4 and 5 are so true and so often ignored. Great!

Unknown said...

Well said Joe. I'm in the middle of the "Bust your Ass" phase...actually it seems that's a constant through out all phases. I would add one more to the end of the list...

Repeat all these steps endlessly until all goals are reached.

Jude Hardin said...

9. Pay it forward.

Whenever you have the opportunity and the time, give a fellow writer a helping hand. Or, boost his/her ego with a deserved compliment. It's good karma, and it'll make you feel good.

Thanks for all you do for new writers, Joe. We appreciate it.

Creative A said...

Great list. The only thing I would add is to write what you're passionate about and what you love - otherwise you end uo wasting a lot of effort and time, even just in studying markets you're not going to stick with.


Anonymous said...

That's a very good list. Thanks.

JA Konrath said...

Some very good additions here. Thanks!

Lisa Abeyta said...

Good post. I'll add one more -

See rejection as a detour not a roadblock. No simply means "no" at this moment in time for this specific idea with this specific entity. It doesn't mean it isn't a good idea, won't sell somewhere else, or isn't worth pursuing. Only you can decide when you're ready to move on; never let a rejection make that decision for you.

Anonymous said...

Terrific post! I especially like "Forgive". It's easy to get caught up in anger and frustration, and it's good to be reminded of this.

Best wishes to you for a great day!

T. M. Hunter said...

Don't forget the old adage that works for writing and for life in general.

10. Don't burn your bridges.

You never know when an editor for a small press or magazine may be the one looking over your submission for a major publisher or a contest in the future. Don't piss someone off without cause (and sometimes, don't piss them off, even with cause). Follow their guidelines to the letter, and be polite, even in the face of rejection.

Linda C. McCabe said...

I agree with the additions to your list by Jude Hardin and Astonwest.

I would also include

12. Be a part of your local writing community.

Writing is by definition a solitary activity and non-writers simply don't understand our need to create just the right turn of phrase. Or why when we are in the middle of composing something - even an email - that we hate to be interrupted.

It is therefore necessary to periodically get together with other writers who share our obsession and will give us the pat on the back, boost in the arm, or kick in the pants that we need depending on the level of effort we are putting forth on our craft and career.

Ruth said...

This comment has nothing to do with your pots, but I have to write it.
I am Spanish, but I've lived in California for seven years, I came back two years ago. When I was there, I use to buy "Writer's Digest", and when I saw your blog -I don't even know how I stumbled upon it-, I inmediately recognized your books from a couple of articles featured in it. Yesterday I picked one of my back issues at random (I brought them all with me, that's how much I like the magazine) and I found an article -more of a diary, really- written by you.
Sometimes coincidences amaze me. It's a pleasure to have found you, and know that I follow you from across the seas. Buying your books is not going to be that easy, especially given that I hate to read translations and they only sell best-sellers in the original version, but I'll make an effort.
Kudos, Mr. Konrath.

Joe Moore said...

13. Be nice.

It's amazing how you can advance your writing career by just being a nice person.

Jen said...

Excellent list. Everyone else's additions were pretty helpful, too.

Yeah, I took notes. :)

Anonymous said...

I loved all your points, Joe, truly loved them... then I read the comments... WOW! Those were all fantastic too! This is a great blog with great comments too...for my addition, would just like to add... yes, yes, yes to Stacey's comment 'find what people need', and to remember also that needs do change... so be open to change as a writer.

Roman J. Martel said...

That's a great list Joe.

I also think it's important to celebrate those victories and those goals you do achieve. Sometimes writers get so focused on the goals that they forget to stop and celebrate that completed first draft.

Anonymous said...

"People will screw you." One-star amazon reviewers are the classic example. Where do these freaks come from?

Anonymous said...

This is a great post. Love the thoughtfulness.

I'll definitely send some folks on over.

:) Christina

Anonymous said...

This is one of the best posts I've read in a long time, and the comments are great, too! Numbers 4 and 5 are my biggest stumbling blocks. I can't even get to number 6, but I'm working on it :-)

Thanks for a great blog, JA.