Success from failure – luck, timing, and hard work
Anyone who knows me in person knows I’ve been struggling to become a published novelist for well over a decade.
That, my friends, is a big fat lie.
Actually, until this last month, there were perhaps five people who knew me in person who knew that. I never spoke of it as a dream because, like many of my dreams, it was so far fetched, it seemed impossible. Unlike many of my dreams, I had seemed to hit a wall.
I’ll admit I have shot for the moon more times than I can count in my life. I’ve applied for schools I didn’t think I had a chance of attending. I’ve tackled an Ironman 70.3 having never run longer than a 5k or bikes more than a few laps around my neighborhood. At 175lbs and 38% body fat, I decided I was going to become a competitive bodybuilder. I’ve free-climbed rockfaces that should have killed me. I’ve jumped out of airplanes. I’ve flown on combat aircraft. I sent dozens of solicitations and manuscripts hoping to find a literary agent willing to represent me.
Friends, let me be the first to tell you, I’m the best kind of crazy.
I trained for the Ironman 70.3 and finished just over my goal time of 8 hours. I buckled down over the next five years, completed another four Ironman races, and whittled my time down to 6:39. Not podium worthy, but a solid time.
I cleaned up my diet, started lifting weights, shed almost 50lbs, and stepped on stage in that sparkling bikini at a very lean 16% body fat and with the most confidence I’d had in years.
I applied to two schools I never thought I would be accepted into and by the end, many years and papers later, some of the papers I had written were required reading at Cornell, published by CSIS, and governmental agencies.
But a decade ago, I just couldn’t crack that novelist nut.
I finished my first novel. I edited it. I pour my heart into it. And every single literary agent I queried turned me down. Some simply never responded. Some wrote terse responses, politely saying “no.” Three were kind enough to say I had potential and ask for more info. I was so hopeful when I was finally able to start a dialogue, but I learned a hard truth: publishers at the time wanted authors from whom they could reliably get a book a year. Since I have the same job now that I had then, you can guess that I was not able to commit to that kind of schedule.
I forced myself to do some introspection then. Why did I write? What drove me to create these fantastical worlds? Characters that loved and fought and tore themselves apart only to pull themselves together to defeat The Greater Evil? Did I want fame? Money? Prestige? And the answer came down to two things: I love the craft. I love the world and character building. I love the weave and flow of a story. But, being frank, I’m also driven by prestige. I don’t think you apply for the schools I’ve attended, completed the races I’ve done, or step onto a bodybuilding stage without some hope for prestige.
To me, prestige was tied to the title “Author” or “Novelist.” But the crafting I could continue with even if, at the time, no publisher would take me. I did what many have done, I did a form of self-publishing.
I learned a lot. First, I’m not as careful an editor as I should be. But along the way, I’ve found fantastic betas readers who tell me what I need to hear, not just what I want to hear. And I grew from it.
I learned more about reading my audience and giving them the stories they craved while keeping them true to the stories I wanted to read and write.
A fistful of master’s degrees, three theses, infinity class papers, and a peer-reviewed journal article taught me more about the technical, grammatical aspects of writing as well. (All apologies to my classmate who labored through what they called a “passive split infinitive unicorn”!)
A decade’s passage also saw a paradigm shift in the publishing industry with the ride of the now ubiquitous e-reader. Authors no longer were tied to The Big Five, slogging through lists of literary agents and vying for representation. They could, for minimal effort and a modest payment, publish their own works directly. Some were successful, others were not, and in a free(er) market, the quality of writing was paramount.
Through all of this, I had kept up with my writing. I wrote for school. I wrote for my job. I wrote for fun: fantasy, science fiction, and… err – spicier… topics. 😉 But I realized that the same approach I had taken with triathlons and bodybuilding was paying off here. The changes you want to see don’t come overnight. Triathletes talk “brick by brick”: building your stamina and endurance one workout at a time. Bodybuilders talk “progress, not perfection”: your physique changes are slow and you are never “perfect,” you simply strive to improve what you have. And it was working for writing as well.
I kept writing and building up the number of fully-fledged novels. I even gained a small level of the prestige (maybe notoriety…) I sought. One of my short stories has been on the top ten list on one site for over a decade. My writing style bled into a modest Twitter following (on a now deleted account). Which led me to where luck and time sometimes collide with preparation to build success. I met DCR via Twitter, under my old handle. He found me again on my next one and we talked about writing. Finally, in a moment of pure fancy, I shot him a sample of my work and crossed my fingers that I wasn’t making a fool of myself.
I told ya’ll, I’m the best kind of crazy. But apparently, my luck (and a decade of building my writing skills) paid off. I’m pleased to announce that my first novel is being published this fall!
At some point in the future, I’ll post about the absolute sh*t show that was getting everything together while on quarantine from COVID-19 and trying to find the only notary open in my state during the lockdown.
But for now, my take away from this is that lessons from hobbies overlap. Build your skills and power brick by brick. Seek progress, not perfection. After all, perfection is the enemy of good enough!
What do you think? Is progress enough or should we seek perfection in our writing? Let me know in an email, comment below, or hit me up on Twitter.
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