The Career Journey: A Tortoise’s Story

The Career Journey:  A Tortoise’s Story

We’ve all seen the movie Cars and we know life is a highway and we want to ride it all night long.

Anyone who knows me, knows I’m the least spontaneous or impulsive person in the world. Between ADD and OCD, I won’t leave my carport unless I’ve planned out every turn from my complex parking lot to my destination, including which lane to drive in at least two miles prior to any given turn.  I not only plot every trip into the unknown through Mapquest, I also use MSN, just to be sure. I find the idea of taking that road just to see where it goes, purely terrifying.  Why would anyone who knows how to get there want to take a different route? I just cannot fathom the purpose of the Sunday afternoon drive where you just get in the car and cruise around.  Where are we going?  When are we going to get there?  Are we doing something?  What do you mean we’re just driving around going nowhere for as long as it takes? Stop the car and let me out. If I don’t have a turn-by-turn with estimated arrival time and distance, I don’t want to go.  But that’s just me. I am the ever plodding and overcautious turtle on the career highway.  Go ahead a zoom past me.  I’ll be sure to wave when I trudge past those who’ve stopped to ask for directions because they’re lost.

Pacing doesn’t just apply to Chapters One through Eighteen.  It also applies to your career from writing page end on the first book to signing your contract for book forty-seven. Everyone has their own comfort zone, their own pace for traveling down that career highway.  How fast and how far is up to you.  Just make sure, you’re the one behind the wheel and you know where you’re going.  There are two approaches.  That of the tortoise and that of the hare.

Pop Quiz:  Are you a hare or a tortoise? Which list below do you identify with?

A. I’ll take a big high powered agent over one with many successful clients.
I would rather have one bestseller than a dozen mid-list books.
It’s all about the money.  I’ll write whatever pays best.
I read only the types of books I want to write.
I think it’s okay to call or e-mail an agent/editor frequently. They work for me.
I start lots of books but get easily bored with it and move on.
I write for the sheer joy of it.
I look for what’s Hot on the market.
I love to promote on loops and chat lines.
I don’t worry about what other people say when I know my writing’s good

B. I target a publisher before I start a book
I view my writing as a business.
I don’t mind working for what I get, even if it takes longer.
A bad review or critique is devastating.
I find a type of book that works and stick with it.
I view networking with other authors and industry people as an opportunity.
Those who strike it big with their first book haven’t paid their dues.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
I’m afraid to offend people with what I write.
I’d rather go with a safe contract with a current publisher than jump into a risky relationship with a new one.

The Hare, list A, wants it all and wants it now.  A risk taker, quick to jump on the trend wagon, looking for a high powered agent to wheel that bestseller deal. They have that wildly original idea that breaks out of the mold that will either launch them . . . or sink them. They’re not that interested in learning from where others have gone. They want to make their own road and don’t want to share the wheel or take directions from anyone. They can be emotional, passionate and sometimes unrealistic.

The Tortoise, list B, is a plotter and a plodder.  The journey is as important as the destination and they don’t want to make any mistakes that would mean taking a detour.  They study the route in advance. They research every possible angle before making a decision. They pave the road of their career with well crafted, tried and true novels that stay within the guidelines.  They don’t step on toes, they don’t break rules and they don’t take risks.  But they also can miss wonderful opportunities.  I’m reminded of a commercial featuring a NASCAR driver and his son.  The son asks “When are we going to make a right turn?” The father, amazed, asks “Why would you want to?”

My name is Nancy and I’m a Tortoise

I’ve been published for over twenty years with the idea that this is all I ever wanted to do.  The first unnamed and barely remembered book I submitted reached a quick deadend because I didn’t know where I was going or how to get there.  I didn’t know anything about the market or publishers. I didn’t know any other writers even lived in Michigan. I’d never heard of RWA®, I had no idea how to find an agent or what I’d say to one. There were no computers, no loops or blogs or eHarlequin.  There was the Writers Market for $19.95   When I sold my first book to Zebra for their regency line, I didn’t even know they had a regency line. And after signing the contract, I went to the store and looked on the shelves and thought “Oh No! I’m writing for those people who publish the books with the passionate pink and purple covers with words like Captive and Vixen in the title.”  Who knew?  I should have. All I knew was I was a writer and I wanted to have published tacked onto that.  Making a living at it was just a bonus. Which brings me to my first point:

Plan Your Trip Carefully

Know where you’re going and, at the price of gas, figure the shortest route. Before you hit the road have a destination in mind.  Ask yourself why you’re writing.  Because you enjoy the process?  Because you want one of those dumps in front of Barnes & Noble?  Because you need to pay the bills? Or just because you can’t imagine NOT writing? Ask yourself my favorite Sean Connery line from The Untouchables.  “What are you prepared to do?”  Say “No” to family members and friends?  Take your laptop on your cruise with you and get up at 5:00 a.m. to work on Chapter 5 until the sunrises or your battery dies?  Take a basic writing class?  Save every penny to go to National then actually screw up the courage to TALK to people? Actually plan a certain number of hours each and every day to plant your butt in front of the key board and WRITE?  These aren’t trick questions, but not everyone can answer YES to all of them. If you did, you’re ready to start packing for the trip.

What are you going to pack?

Before you leave the house on a trip, you make sure you have your keys, money for gas, a map and a cell phone in case you run into unexpected trouble.  Many writers start down the road of their career without considering the basics they’re going to need on the road.
>  Start by having something to sell. Sell no wine before it’s time.
>  Be ready both technically and psychologically. It’s a tough rough business. It’s not for sissies! Be prepared to be rejected. Be prepared for stress and deadlines.  Be prepared for success and all the pressures that come hand-in-hand with it.
>   Perfect your craft.  Learn the business.  Study the market. Understand your writing strengths and weaknesses and find the best destination for your style and your goals.
>  Know what your want your writing to do for you.  Make big bucks right now.  Establish a steady income.  Are you going to depend on it for a living? Are you willing to try new things or are you content to stay in a particular niche? These questions will narrow down your goals to the ones that are right for you.
>  Work on another book while one, or better yet, two are making the rounds.

According to Zig Ziglar, a brilliant motivationalist that my bud Debbie Macomber introduced me to, there are ten things plus one you need to pack on your journey to success:

1.  A do-it-now, Hustle approach to life
2.  Character defined as “the ability to carry out a good resolution long after the excitement of the moment has passed.”
3.  Risk-taking (not gambling)
4. Time-miserliness–the lack of time isn’t the problem–having a sense of direction and using time wisely are the critical factors.
5. Non-verbal communication skills. Consider what your actions and expressions relay about you.
6.  Thick skin.
7.  Obedience–before you can become a leader, you must learn to follow.
8.  Courage to take the first step.
9. Intolerance of things that violate divine or human laws but tolerance for the rights of others to believe what they believe.
10. A sense of humor. The relief from tension and enjoyment of life
11. Winning habits

How are you going to get there?  The Mapquest route

Are we there yet? We all love to fantasize about the Star Trek transporter.  Step in, Zap you’re at the destination.  We all want that over night success without the long, tiring, cramped ride with our other cranky companions.  Writers are too often so desperate to sell that they’ll sell anything to anyone, thinking any foot in the door is getting off on the right foot.  Not true. Sometimes mistakes made early on are difficult to recover from. Don’t confuse desperation with persistence.  Persistence is a willingness to stick with it for the long haul, but if the breaking in period becomes too long or frustrating, a writer might grab at whatever comes along, settling for less then they deserve.  And yes, a bad agent is worse than no agent.

True, there will always be the Overnight Success. But more often that flash is a one hit wonder and not a Rowling. Most bestselling authors got there by building their reputations slowly and steadily over a number of years like Stephen King, Dean Koontz, P.D. James and even Nora.  According to ubber agent Don Maass in his book The Career Novelist, his rule of thumb is that it takes five books to establish an author or a series, and it’s essential that each book remain in print and available on the shelves as the others appear. In his opinion, switching genres or even publishers can send an author straight back to Go. Ideally, he budgets ten years from beginning the first manuscript to the time one is safely established as an author. Not exactly warp speed to get rich quick.

The best way to get where you’re going is to have a map. Think of it as career MapQuest. Start with finished manuscript. Proceed through three contests. Turn left and go four agent queries before taking a sharp right at a major publishing house, merge into multibook negotiations and 6% with one third on signing, one third on proposal, one third on accepted manuscript until reaching destination of New York Times list.  Easy huh?  So how come so many of us get lost, get sucked off onto the wrong exit or take the scenic route looking for adventure only to run out of gas?  There is more than one way to get to any given destination.  There’s the fastest and the not on the highway routes. It’s a matter of pacing. Not chapters, but career. Setting the pace that works best for you is as highly individual as each one of us is. Damn the torpedos and pedal to the metal isn’t for everyone. Some like to take the scenic route, exploring different avenues and the roads less traveled. Some like to stop at every rest area for a break. The important thing is making a comfortable, well planned trip with as few surprises and disappointments as possible.

When Don Maass examined the common traits of his high ticket clients, this is what he found: They were genre writers-none had ever crossed genres or written a main stream novel.  They published for ten years before reaching the six figure level, though most had a five figure income early in their careers. They reached six figures by improvement of craft and careful reader cultivation.  The six-figure threshold arrived before the six-figure advance because of backlist royalties and subrights sales.  None were plugged in.  They weren’t talking in chat rooms, attending conferences, joining organizations, self-promoting or chasing awards.  Those things don’t hurt an author, but he didn’t find them to be essential factors in a writing income. The main thing was each of those writers believed in their writing and had a unique voice.

Keeping it between the lines: Goals, Focus, Determination

“If events aren’t planned they seldom take place.”

Be SMART about your goals: Specific (establish boundaries so you’ll know when it’s been achieved), Measurable (a check list of steps you take-i.e. I will write eight pages a day), Attainable and Realistic (out of reach, but not out of sight) and Timely: put a deadline on it.

Success is a Habit–if you do it long enough, you know what to expect, then you combine that knowledge with ‘the breaks’ and you’ll make more right than wrong decisions.

1. Expect to achieve success when you prepare for it The path isn’t always smooth or straight and more often than not those things have nothing to do with you. Expect the unexpected.  Pot holes:  Rejection. Lines fold. Orphaned. Bad reviews. Don’t let them side track you.  How you react to these roadblocks will determine your success.  Review your plan of action, seek wise counsel, feed your mind good information that’s positive instead of dwelling of setbacks. Learn to persist because patience is required for any long-term success.

2. Success begets Success. It’s a domino effect, the “I Can Do It” that creates a roll, that builds your confidence (not to be confused with resting on laurels!)

3. Make success happen through repetition.  This is establishing a pattern, not a rut. Continue and build upon the things that work for you. Establishing successful habits doesn’t work if you try it once or twice then let it slide…kind of like exercise and diet.  Start with I will write for two hours without distraction.  I will write eight pages before I check my e-mail, I will send out X-number of queries every week to an agent or editor. I will read a book out of my genre every week/month.  I will write the entire chapter without rewriting. I will not check my numbers on Amazon every hour.  I won’t worry about what other writers are doing, saying, selling. Ingrain positive habits into your writing life

4. Being, Doing and Having.  You’ve got to be before you can do and do before you can have. Make three columns.  In the right column list all the things you want to get or have out of your writing career.  Bestsellerdom.  Financial independence. A book tour.  Quitting your day job.  These are the Haves, your goals.  In the center column, list the things you’ll have to Do in order to have those things.  Study the market.  Do a business plan.  Network with your house’s publicist. Dedicate more hours to the process of writing.  Take a grammar class.  In the left-hand column identify what you have to Be in order to Do so that you can Have.  Be attentive to trends, frugal with promotional spending, outgoing, disciplined. Working with this reversed order of things will help you identify your strengths and where you need to concentrate your efforts.

5. Choose success.  You can choose to be happy or miserable. To enjoy success, you need to explore what makes you happy, the areas where you can succeed and continue to do and enjoy these things.  Unhappy and unsuccessful people on the other hand want other people to do things for them.  They want their agent to sell their book instead of writing a great book for their agent to sell. They want the public to love their writing instead of creating characters readers will love. They shift the responsibility for their success to someone else. That way failure is never their fault. But then success is never something they’ve earned, either.

6. Remember experts can be wrong.   Wilma Rudolph was told repeated by her doctors that she would never walk, but her mother kept insisting that she would. Fortunately she believed her mother and went on to win three gold medals in track and field events in the 1960s Olympics.  Reviewers, editors, critique partners, moms, best friends and spiteful enemies can be wrong. Trust yourself and maintain your optimism. But also be prepared to find out that they may be right. Maybe you don’t have a strong enough voice for a single title.  Maybe your pacing isn’t tight enough for suspense.  Maybe you aren’t disciplined enough to put out the number of books it will take to put food on the table.  These aren’t bad things unless you refuse to recognize them and get frustrated by insisting on taking a road that’s not right for your suspension. You’ll just beat yourself up unnecessarily when you could be enjoying a smooth ride in a vehicle better suited for your talent and temperament.

Road Service

Being prepared for a trip means being prepared to run into problems, and if you’re prepared, you can handle them better and more efficiently. To avoid or survive these potholes, our friend Zig has this advice:

1. Set a SMART goal that is big, long-range, that can be broken down into smaller parts, and don’t set too many goals (he suggests no more than four) at one time. He also suggests seeking divine guidance and direction when setting these goals
2. Identify what’s in it for you. What benefits are you going to get so that when you finding yourself asking “Why am I doing this to myself?” you’ll have a strong, concise answer.  That carrot to keep you going.
3. Recognize the obstacles that stand between you and your goal. Planning in advance eliminates many surprises and disappointments.  If you know there’s construction on I-94, you can select an alternative route to avoid the delays. Overcoming an obstacle makes you stronger.  Think Nitche. You’re going to run into detours (health, family, work) but they don’t become roadblocks if you’re flexible and prepared. Remember, success goes hand in hand with preparedness–realize that the bad goes with the good.
4. Seek counsel and guidance. A counselor helps identify the skills you’ll need to reach your goal and prepare a plan of action for dealing with obstacles.  This could be your agent. This could be an organization like RWA® or Novelists, Inc. or the Writers Guild.  This could be your writing mentor or critique group.  This could be your church or your psychologist. This could be a self-enrichment book like Success for Dummies or The Career Novelist.
5. Consider who can help you.  Family, obviously, becomes your greatest help or hindrance.  Friends who encourage you, keep them close.  Critic partners who share your goals and kick your butt, keep them closer. Industry professionals like reviewers, publicists, web site developers who get your name out there on roadside billboards. Networking at meetings, at conferences, on line. Connections that help you maintain your focus and keep your eyes on your goals.
6. Obtain the knowledge and skills you need to be successful.  Learn how to convert your manuscript to Word and attach it as an e-mail.  Be computer savvy. Know the correct format for word count. Don’t let your participles dangle (I hate it when that happens!).
7. Develop a plan of action.  It must be specific.  You must be committed to it. You need to reevaluate to make sure you’re progressing toward your goal and that the goal is clear enough so you’ll know it when you get there.
8.  Set a deadline for achievement.  A goal without a deadline is just a good intention. I’m a procrastinator.  If not for the last minute, I’d never get anything done. It’s easy to get so caught up in the process that you forget to let go.  It’s time.  Just send it out.

Enjoy the trip.

Take rest stops so the passion can renew itself.  Reward yourself for accomplishing a goal.  It doesn’t have to be a big reward.  Just little things like kicking back with popcorn and a DVD after finishing Chapter 8.  A pedicure when that query goes in the mail.  Take a walk with the dog. Go shopping with a friend.  Be good to yourself and your body.   Breathe!

Setting workable goals will bring you successfully to your destination if you can discipline yourself to follow your map to that achievement. Direction determines arrival at your successful destination.

Life is a highway. Know where you are and where you’re going and what you want from that destination.  I’m a turtle.  I’m okay with that.  I have a hard shell and I can pull my head and feet in. I’m not in a hurry.  I know what I want.  I want to pay for my health insurance.  I used to panic every time I sent something out, sure it was never going to sell, never going to be read, was going to get a hideous cover and die a terrible death on the shelves that would force me to start all over again.  I’ve been right.  I’ve pulled over in rest stops to turn off the engine while seriously considering turning around and forgetting the whole things.  More than once.  But luckily I keep my critique group in the back seat and they keep nagging ‘Are you there yet?’ until I start up again.

Persistence pays off.  Expect to win if you have a good plan.  Make the best of what you have. Dare to do the unusual. Remember failure is an event, not a person.  Don’t take it personally. Develop an attitude of gratitude for what you have.  Leave some of your baggage at home.  You don’t need to haul past mistakes with you. Mistakes are the springboard of accomplishment.   Forget your ego and take good advice.

Life is a highway.  Enjoy the trip.

Suggested reading:

Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass

Success for Dummies by Zig Ziglar

Chicken Soup for the Writer’s Soul by Jack Canfield, Mark Victor Hansen, Bud Gardner

© 2007 by Nancy Gideon