1. You have to really want it and never give up.
That was the message of the 16th Annual La Jolla Writers Conference (LJWC), where I spent the day on Saturday. Not only am I now filled with inspiration and motivation to keep going, but I also took pages and pages of notes on practical tips to make my book better and advance my writing career.
The main lessons I learned though are applicable to and important for everyone, not just writers.
Andrew Peterson, author of the bestselling Nathan McBride series, was one of the keynotes at the event. During his lunchtime conversation with Grace Doyle, his editor at Amazon Publishing’s Thomas & Mercer, he shared that he wrote 5 novels before writing the one that got published.
When he wrote his first Nathan McBride book, he gave it to an editor friend for advice. The editor said he loved the character but the book just didn’t work, and he asked him if he would write another one (from scratch) featuring Nathan McBride.
“How badly do I want this?”
That’s what Peterson kept asking himself, and he encouraged us all to do the same.
“You have to really, really want it.”
So he wrote a completely new book, and it sold 2 million copies (digital and print combined). Five others have followed since then.
Lissa Price shared a similar story in her query workshop later in the afternoon. She told us to just keep it at. It was the third manuscript she wrote that got her a 2-book deal from Random House, which become the bestselling YA books Starters and Enders.
2. Seek out help.
But it wasn’t just toiling away on his own, Peterson said to Doyle. “I also sought out help.” That is a consistent message from anyone who has gone after their dreams and succeeded.
For writers, he said that begins with finding other writers to get feedback from, getting advice from editors, and attending conferences like the LJWC for guidance throughout your career.
3. The First Draft Is Usually Bad. That’s OK.
One of my favorite lectures of the day was Books Aren’t Written, They’re Rewritten by Martha Lawrence. She began with the premise of Anne Lamott’s “shitty first draft.” You have to assume that your first attempt won’t be great, and then you have to make it what you want it to be.
I feel like that goes for anything in life. We need to be OK with our first try at something being just that, a first try, and keep polishing and editing and trying again until we are proud of what we’ve done.
(Lawrence gave us a 6-step strategy to edit the “shitty first draft.” It was really an excellent lecture, and for the writers out there, you can buy audio recordings of all the lectures from the La Jolla Writer’s Conference).
4. Fulfillment Is Not the Same Thing As Success
The highlight of the event, which was the perfect end to an inspiring day, was Deeanne Gist’s uplifting keynote speech at dinner.
She began with a quote from Tony Robinson:
“Success and achievement without fulfillment is failure.”
She shared her own journey of discovering what success means to her, and what success does not mean: It doesn’t mean chasing status on lists, more social media followers, and it certainly doesn’t mean comparing herself with other authors.
“Success is subjective,” she said.
Right now, for her, success means writing the best possible book that she can write. And to do that, it’s all about working on her craft.
“Fulfillment comes from writing a complete book. Typing THE END, and knowing I did my best.”
5. Learn Your Craft
She used the analogy of Michael Jordan. He can be the best player ever, but if he doesn’t learn the rules, he doesn’t get to play basketball.
“And the same goes for you, and for me,” she said.
When she first began her journey as a writer, it took her three years to write the first book that got published because she was so intent on perfecting her craft. (And to echo what Peterson and Price said earlier in the day about persistence, she finished that book in 1997, and it sold in 2004. Again, you have to really, really want it.)
Some of the things she did to work on her craft, and encourages writers to do, is to attend conferences like LJWC, find critique groups that work for you, listen to podcasts, read how-to books, books in your genre, join writers groups, go to talks and lectures… and, of course:
“The most important thing you can do to improve your craft is to write.”
She ended her inspiring speech with a call for us all to reflect on what success really means to us. “Tying your self-worth to achievement is risky business,” she said.