By Al Lamanda
Before I became old and wise, I was an impatient and brash young man. (Yes, it’s true, I was once young, and no, Teddy Roosevelt wasn’t in The White House at the time.) I was fresh out of the service and I wanted to make up for lost time, so I was in one big hurry. I had done some boxing in the service and was pretty good in the amateur ranks. Back home in New York, I thought about turning pro. I sought the services of a professional trainer. I met with a young man at the gym who I thought was the trainer. It turned out that he was the assistant to the trainer, a man named Robert, who was sixty-seven-years-old at the time. I told Robert I had done a fair amount of boxing in the service and was thinking of making it a career. Robert told me that if I had the tools to turn pro, he demanded a two-year commitment to training before I could step into the ring. Two years? That was an eternity and I didn’t have the time or the patience to waste on two whole years. Robert showed me otherwise. He invited me into the ring to spar with him to see, as he put it, what I didn’t know. Besides being forty-four-years younger than Robert, I had about seventy pounds on him. None of that mattered as Robert had decades of experience at perfecting his craft and in the end, I had lumps. From that experience with Robert, I learned the art of patience and self-discipline. We remained friends and student and teacher for many years.
Flash-forward some forty years and it seems that every young writer I talk to these days is in one big hurry. I spoke with a group recently at an event and they wanted to know the secret to being a successful author. I told them that there are no secrets and that most successful authors have these things in common: Hard Work. Dedication. Patience. A thick skin. A great imagination. The ability to take rejection and criticism without it resulting in an apoplectic meltdown. The intelligence to understand that constructive criticism and an editor can actually make your work better. The ability to not over-write your story. (Some stories want to end at 65,000 words, so don’t try to make them 80,000. Ever watch a movie that seems about twenty minutes too long, same thing.) The knowledge that you don’t know it all (and in fact, like most of us you know hardly anything at all.) Skill at telling a story. Skill at polishing your story. Did I mention patience? And, of course, a great deal of luck.
My audience looked at me as if I had just recited the formula for nuclear fusion and said there was a pop quiz. You see, the average age of the audience I was speaking to was younger than the belt I was wearing (I tend to hang onto things that work for me) and they are the product of what I call the instant gratification generation, or IGG for short. They have been weaned on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Cell Phones, Skype (I have no idea what that is) Text Messages, High-Speed Internet, Movies and Music Streaming, Whosay, LinkedIn, Pinterest (Good luck with that one) IPads that do everything except make coffee, and all work in the blink of an eye. If something takes more than thirty seconds to work, panic and anger set in, and God forbid you’re away from your phone for more than a minute or two. This past Christmas dinner, there were two groups in attendance. Us old people who actually held conversations, laughed and told stories, and the IGG’s who sat sullenly in a corner and didn’t say a word as they stared at their phones as if hypnotized by Dracula.
So it came as no surprise that my audience was expecting some kind of magic formula to instant success. One young woman asked me if I knew any shortcuts to writing a great story and getting it published.
I told her if she wanted shortcuts to buy instant rice and one-minute oatmeal instead of regular, because when it comes to being a writer, there are no shortcuts. There is, however, luck, and maybe you might be the lucky one that lightning strikes when you are twenty-four, but the odds are about the same as six winning numbers. So replace luck with hard work and the odds will be in your favor.
Another IGG, a male, asked why it was so difficult to land an agent. He said that he sent out hundreds of query letters to agents and didn’t get a single reply. I asked him what the genre of his book was. He said, and I’m not making this up folks, that he actually hadn’t written a book yet, but wanted an agent for when he does. He said, and I could barely keep a straight face, that he sent a selfie along with his query. (Wouldn’t you just love to be the agent that received his email?)
An IGG male in the back stood up and asked me the following question: Why is it so hard to write? I told him it isn’t hard at all, it’s just hard to write really well. Which brought me back to what successful authors have in common. At which point, most of the group were staring at their phones and tap-tap-tapping away.
I’d lost my audience because I was telling them things they did not want to hear–that even in this age of instant everything, when it comes to writing and telling a great story there just are no shortcuts and substitutes for hard work and dedication. You have to love the art of writing and you have to write often to perfect your craft. You have to be willing to take your lumps and ride the roller coaster of rejection and rewrites until, one day, it’s your turn.
And when your turn comes, you still need the patience and discipline to work with agents, editors and publishers, because you will be put to the test. So learn those qualities now and they will not fail you now and later on down the road.
And hopefully, along the way, no one will have to punch you in the head for you to learn these lessons.
Al Lamanda is the author of the Edgar Award nominated mystery novel Sunset. He latest mystery, This Side of Midnight, will be released in June 2015.