A client for my ghostwriting and editing services—I shall call him Rocky—once asked me what essential things a writer must do to lay the foundations for a writing career. He wasn’t asking about the writing itself, he explained, but about the things that separated those who break in from those who don’t. What and who did he need to know to break in?
I was a bit depressed by this because of the number of times we’d discussed how essential it was to give an editor or agent the very best work you could do.
Here’s some background: Rocky came to me years ago, certain breaking-in depended upon who you knew, not what you did. This caused him to send a very distinguished editor a deeply flawed manuscript in the belief that his cordial treatment by the man at a writer’s conference ensured that he would see past any weaknesses in craft or prose to the golden ideas enshrined therein.
”It’s okay,” he told me, when I realized what he’d done and gone quietly into a case of the vapors. ”He loved the idea when I pitched it to him; he’ll get what I’m trying to do.”
When the manuscript was ultimately rejected, Rocky decided it had nothing to do with the quality of the work, but rather with some offense the ideas in the story must have given. His subject matter, he decided, was simply too controversial. (It totally wasn’t.)
I thought he’d come to accept the need to produce the best work you can, not just in spite of the fact that you have established a relationship with an editor, but because you have established that relationship. In all the years I’d been sending stories to Stan Schmidt at Analog, I did the best work I could for him because he believed in me.
Now, I was a bit disappointed to have to make the same point one more time. Rocky was disappointed, too, when I told him yet again that the writing itself is the very first thing—the most essential thing—in establishing a writing career.
(Well, duh, you say.)
Nor am I just talking about craft. I’m talking about a passion for writing. I think you have to love the process of writing, otherwise writing can be bloody and painful.
Now, bear in mind that this is the ghostwriter talking to the guy who’s hiring her to write his books for him. The irony is, perhaps, richer than I would like. And I wonder, I really do, if the reason he seeks a formula is because he hasn’t done enough writing to understand why passion and craft are essential.
Robert Heinlein had three rules of writing: 1) You must write. 2) You must finish what you write. 3) You must send what you write to an editor.
Obviously, that last thing is also of critical importance if you’re to be published. And I think that Heinlein’s rules 2 and 3 speak to a couple of other essentials. One of my favorite email tags is “Talent is helpful in writing, but guts are absolutely essential.” You have to be persevering—in fact, downright stubborn. That’s because you have to believe in what you do, to keep after it even when you get reject slips and bad reviews, or you have a book orphaned.
You have to keep sending the same manuscript out as many times as it takes, and if an agent or editor gives you suggestions for making your manuscript better (or at least salable to them) you have to be able to take criticism and make changes. But you also have to have good enough grasp of craft to know when what you’ve written is legitimately good and NOT change it at the whim of a single editor.
I have had clients and ”proteges” who went on to get published. I’ve had several ghostwritten books accepted for publication in a variety of genres. I won’t get credit for them, but in spite of that, I still strive to do the best work I can. The lone exception to being an unsung ghost is Star Wars: Patterns of Force, which has my byline on it in the Science Fiction Book Club omnibus of the Coruscant Nights series that I worked on with the late and beloved Michael Reaves.
When your name is going on the book jacket (potentially), I think you ought to be doubly motivated to make what ends up on the page the best it can be.
This is problematic for would-be writers who have tin ears. Some folks who want desperately to be published will never learn to write well—to convey their ideas in words. But the first step in any writer’s journey toward having a ”writing career” is to learn the difference between good and bad writing, between a successful conveyance of ideas and a muddy mess, between the song of a nightingale and the discordant honking of a goose.
I do not pretend to know how to teach a goose to sing like a nightingale. A part of me wants to believe it is possible, but I’ve worked with several writers who lacked even the most basic ability to tell the difference between their own tortured sentence-like sequences of words and the elegant soul food of a Tim Powers or Ray Bradbury or W.P. Kinsella.
I am stubborn, however, and am ever in search of that magical elixir that will grant every and any goose the power of song.