Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Keys to Publication

By Pam Jenoff

People often ask me what has enabled me to succeed as a published writer. I don’t know -- luck, perhaps, and being surrounded personally and professionally by many talented and supportive people. But if I try to boil it down to factors I can actually control, I would say discipline, tenacity and the ability to revise.

Notice that none of these is talent. When I decided to pursue a writing career in earnest in the wake of 9/11, I took an evening course at a local university called “Write Your Novel This Year” with about two dozen other people. That course spun off into a small writers’ workshop of six or seven – the students varied over the years – who would critique each others work. I stayed with the group for well over five years and in that time I saw the work of many other writers, and a number of them considerably more talented than me. This is not false modesty; this is true. There was in particular one eccentric sixty-something man who used to carry a Curious George doll in his backpack who penned some the most beautiful imagery I have ever read. There were also writers of mystery, science fiction and children’s books whose work has stayed with me over the years. When I think of them I feel wholly undeserving of all of the riches of my writing career.

But, candidly speaking, the fact is that I am published and they are not. So what has made the difference? First, you must have discipline. When I started writing I had to do it from five to seven in the morning while working a busy day job as a junior associate at a large law firm. It was very difficult and I forced myself to give up lots of outside activities and social commitments so I could go to bed and get up early every day. I’d like to tell you that it has gotten easier – but I still have a day job and a baby on top of writing it is still just as hard as ever to keep that time. The difference is that now I have deadlines that get me to the computer no matter how tired or busy I am whereas back then it had to be self driven. You must make the time.

The second important factor I believe is tenacity. For along time it looked as though my first book wasn’t going to sell and my agent told me to go write another. It is the very hardest thing for an aspiring author to hear, whether being told to go back and make major edits to your manuscript or to start on a new one entirely, after you have put in so much work. But my attitude was “If not this one, then the next.” I was just going to keep banging on the door of publication until it gave and someone let me in. I think giving up is the single biggest reason some authors don’t make it – if you stay in the game you have a chance and if you quit you don’t have a chance at all.

Third, I think that, technically speaking, the single biggest difference is the ability to make revisions. If you are lucky enough to get feedback on your work, it often comes in the form of a problem (e.g., not enough tension in the third arc) rather than a solution. You must be able to take other people’s feedback and incorporate it in your work without losing the heart of what you are trying to do. As a junior associate at a law firm I was continually doing that on my briefs, which greatly helped. And you have to be open to that feedback. I once had a friend with a brilliant novel but the manuscript was 400,000 words – about four times the length of an acceptable novel -- and it wasn’t until she was ready to make the hard changes that publication came about.

The formula is probably different for everyone. But for me it has always been about tenacity, discipline and the ability to revise. And people who believe in you. And luck!


Nikole Hahn said...

Definitley a great blog here. Do you ever feel like your life is one big fat schedule?

Linda Andrews said...

I enjoyed reading your blog, and I definitely agree with all your points.