Yesterday, someone posted in one of my Facebook groups a comment I’m seeing more and more lately: a statement of how discouraged they are as a writer.
Truth be told, I understand that all too well. Recently, I decided to leave my previous genre and pen name to start over again. I knew it would be tough, starting over from scratch, but I seriously underestimated how hard to would be to gain traction in today’s market, despite all the lessons I’ve learned about marketing, networking, and how to use social media effectively.
So this post could be a long wail about how tough the industry is, and how hard it is to get noticed when 4500 new books are published on Amazon every day.
But it’s not.
Instead, I’m reminded of the horse-mad girl I used to be, and how I would do anything to ride horses–bike five miles a day to the barn to muck stalls, just to be allowed to ride the school ponies. Volunteer to get on the ‘crazy’ horses, to find out how bad they were before letting students on them. Save my pennies for riding lessons when friends were taking ballet or learning to play the piano.
Once, I’d bargained hard for a riding lesson with a new instructor, only to fall ill on the day of the lesson. I begged to be allowed to reschedule, but the instructor said no. Instead, I attempted to follow her coaching while sick as a dog, barely able to sit upright in the saddle. At the end of the lesson, she told me I had no business being on a horse and I should never bother getting on a horse again.
At the time, I was crushed. Mortified, it was a year before I got up the nerve to approach someone about riding lessons again.
But I did it because I loved horses so much, I couldn’t imagine not riding.
The same holds true for writing.
Several years ago, I was warming up my horse for a dressage clinic when one of the women in the class asked, “Does he always just go on the bit like that?” Her tone was clearly one of admiring envy.
I had to laugh. ‘Going on the bit’ requires the horse to round his back and be compliant to the rider’s hands, the impulsion of movement coming from the hind end. It is a measure of the communication between horse and rider, and in certain disciplines, it is highly prized. It is impossible to do if the horse has his head flung up high and his back hollowed out.
I’d bought my horse as a three-year-old from a slaughterhouse, at meat prices. He was the last horse anyone would expect to become a dressage champion. When I first began appearing at the local shows, people shook their heads and wondered what I was doing there. Over a period of nearly a decade (and many hours of diligent training), we went from being the horse and rider that made people snicker to the team that came home with the ribbons.
The woman at the riding clinic was stunned when I told her of my horse’s background and how much work it had taken to make coming on the bit look natural for him. In the world of competitive riding, most people buy the right horse for the job. The right horse, the right saddle, the right boots, the best equipment money can buy: these can make a huge difference in where you place in the show ring. It doesn’t eliminate the need for disciplined training, but your starting point on the podium is higher simply by virtue of having an athletic horse, and a saddle that prevents you from making a wrong move. That being said, I’ve seen sheer hard work and determination overcome genetics and natural ability. I competed with my meat-market nag because he was the only horse I had, and the hours I put in riding him were a labor of love. Winning ribbons wasn’t the goal. The horse shows just gave me a structure for the time we spent together.
So I have to laugh when people ask me if I’ve always been a writer, in that same sort of wondering, envious tone. As though having a natural gift for something is more valuable than working your butt off to achieve the same results. The truth is, I wrote passionately as a child, only to give it up entirely as a teenager because I didn’t think I was good enough to be a ‘real’ writer. I thought it was time to put away childish dreams and get on with the business of making a career for myself. I wasn’t a natural.
It wasn’t until I discovered online fanfiction archives as an adult that I rediscovered my love for writing. My creative self, having been ruthlessly starved and repressed for several decades, woke with a vengeance. I read everything I could lay my hands on regarding my favorite show, and then tentatively, I began writing my own stories. Not because I thought I was any good. Not because I ever thought I’d be any good. Because I loved the characters so much I wanted to spend more time with them. Because I felt compelled to tell stories about them and share them with like-minded souls. While I was active in fandom, I wrote over a million words of fanfic. The enthusiastic support of friends gave me the courage to try my hand at original fiction, and eventually go on to submit my stories for publication. Making the transition to original fiction was tougher than I’d imagined, but in the end it was no different from moving up a level in dressage: everything that was once seemed effortless becomes hard work as you increase the challenge and have to master a whole new skill set.
Being a natural is over-rated. It tends to teach poor work habits because everything is easy for you at first, and then when it gets harder, as it always does, you get discouraged and frustrated because you’ve never learned how to put in the hours to reach a specific goal. If you want to get better at anything, you have to put your hours in: under saddle, swimming laps, on the dance floor, at the keyboard. You ‘train’ when you don’t feel like it, when it’s raining, when you’ve had a bad day.
One of my favorite quotes is from Calvin Coolidge:
“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”
They are words to live by—but especially if you’re a writer. You don’t wait until the muse strikes you. You don’t let reviews sink your confidence. You don’t compare yourself to others. You write, pure and simple. For some, this means every day, without fail. Many of us can’t manage that but you must write regularly. You hone your skills by practicing. Your creativity is a muscle you exercise. The more you write, the stronger you get. The better your sentences become. Sure, you can sigh and wish you had more talent, but in the end, it is the person who puts the words to paper who is the winner. It is the person who persists who achieves their dream. That person can be you.
Had I been older and more confident, I would have told that instructor if she’d been any kind of decent trainer, she could teach even someone like me. That’s what you need to do when someone tells you that you can never achieve “X”. Decide then and there who you intend to listen to, and keep plugging away. Am I an Olympic level horsewoman? Of course not. But there will ALWAYS be someone who is a better writer than you are at this stage of the game–and someone who is worse.
Keep at your craft. Practice. Take classes. Work with critique groups. If multiple people say the exact same thing is a weakness in your story, they’re probably right. Listen to them. In the end, however, it’s your story, your voice, your vision. No one else can tell your story the same way you can.
Are other people going to be more successful than you are? Hell, yes. But if you are comparing yourself to some Big Name Author who’s been writing for the last 15 years, you’ve done the equivalent of putting your nag in an upper level dressage test when you haven’t done the training for it.
And once the level at which you’re competing becomes too easy, you’ll find yourself raising the bar. Just remember, every time you do, it will feel as though you’re starting over again. You’re not. You are at a specific point in the path. Everyone else is either ahead of you or behind you–but it’s still the same path.
So take heart. It just means you’re a writer, that’s all.