Saturday, December 4, 2010

Six Rules for Success

Mystery writing conferences are a great opportunity for those of use who work at our craft in isolation most of the time to get together and renew our enthusiasm. This year’s Crime Bake was one of the best, and I came away with lots of things to think about and new books to read. The panels brought a lot of new names and topics, but through it all, writers came back to a few main points about writing and the life of a writer. These are worth keeping in mind no matter who the writer is—the author of a bestseller, of a first book, or of half a dozen mysteries that sell modestly. So here they are, the qualities of a successful writer as reiterated by a number of writers who have achieved a range of success.

First, be persistent. Writing the novel takes time, selling it to a publisher takes time, producing it takes time, and selling it to the book-buying public takes time. It can take twenty years to become an overnight sensation, so keep working year after year after year, and you will continue to learn and grow and eventually get there.

Second, continue to study your craft no matter how many stories or books you have published. There is always more to learn, always something you can do better. Do you struggle with dialogue? Listen to how people talk, transcribe conversations, practice set pieces with two people encountering each other in a cafĂ© or on the street. Write things outside your comfort zone—write a thriller short story if you’re used to writing traditional stories, practice a fight scene, describe a place you don’t expect to use in a story and how your character moves through it. Read, write, learn.

Third, write with your whole self. This usually comes out as write from the heart, or write what you love to read, or write what you want to read. But however you phrase it, you as the writer must be fully involved in the task of writing the story; if you’re not involved, your reader won’t be either. This also means, write without thinking about who will publish it. Forget what happens when you’re finished—just write the story.

Fourth, forget about following trends. By the time you finish your book, the trend will be petering out and the editors will have moved on to something else. Even worse, if you’re writing to a trend you’re liable to be writing poorly, writing something that you don’t truly care about, and it will show.

Fifth, don’t complain about how hard this business is. If it were easy, every single person you know would be a writer and everyone would be successful (how that would work out mathematically for book sales I don’t really know). Don’t complain about the agents or editors or reviewers; they’re not going to change for you or anyone else, and they are, for the most part, doing a great job in a difficult business. Their life isn’t any easier than yours. Your job is to write, and leave the rest of it to others.

Sixth, accept the fact that luck will play a role somewhere along the line, so be ready. Write that book, send it out, and show up at events and conferences. You want to be ready when Lady Luck decides to smile on you.

There may be more core rules than these six, but I think these are pretty sound. As I listened to the other writers talk and share stories, I could hear these rules underlying their commitment to their writing.


  1. Definitely rules to follow, Susan - My favorite: don't complain (especially published authors!) I always add one more: don't forget to celebrate! Every time you take another step in the direction of getting published or get (another) rejection celebrate because you're putting yourself out there and taking the risk.

  2. Great "rules" here, Susan. I love the idea that luck will one day smile on you. Not "may" but "will." That thought should keep one going! I might add also to remember that one person's meaty manuscript may well be another's "poison," so don't quit just because some editor with a belly ache rejects your piece. Keep submitting if you believe in your work. (Not for nothing my current publisher is 'Perseverance' Press--I've lived by that word!)

  3. Good post, Susan. I also like #5, "don't complain." No whining, people. Just work.

  4. Raymond Chandler said "A good story cannot be devised; it has to be distilled." I think the same thing might be said of a writer's career.
    Thanks for this informative post, Susan.

  5. I believe persistence is crucial. If you want to be a writer, you have to write. No quitting because of rejections or nasty reviewer comments.

  6. All of the rules are great, Susan. I especially like “Write that book, send it out, and show up at events and conferences.” The contacts you will make at a conference such as Crime Bake are invaluable, not to mention the lasting friendships.

  7. Great rules, Susan. Maybe this one is implicit in the others: Support other writers at whatever level. We're not in competition. Be happy for others when they achieve something. Commiserate and encourage when they have a setback. Learn from their experiences and let other writers learn from yours. I've gained so much from being part of the mystery writing community.

  8. Love the "no whining." It's hard to stick to that and I have to admit that there have been days when I've broken that rule (usually in the privacy of my own office), but I know that whining is a sure way to alienate members of my support network.

  9. I love the way you phrased it, "write with your whole self," which is a great way to think about it.

    And I love Hallie's addition -- remember to celebrate ---- and I'd add, Try to make yourself stay in the moment and celebrate whatever you've just attained - rather than fantasize about meteoric successes that dim the star of real achievements.

  10. I love the additional rules--celebrate your successes, support your fellow writers, treasure their support and friendship. It's easy to forget these kinds of rules when we're not getting the feedback or success that we want, but at the end of the day I'd rather have written a mediocre scene that I can rewrite than whine about not being rich and famous.

    Thank you all for the great feedback, and keep on writing.

  11. Great ending - we need to appreciate our own luck and everyone else's.

  12. Susan, that's an excellent posting.

    One of the above additional comments was "Support other writers at whatever level." Your good work at Level Best and elsewhere has done a great deal to put that rule into action.