Surviving the Moat

Standing on the threshold of publication is nerve-racking. I am teetering at this moment, waiting for that gentle nudge that is but a wisp away-fully at the mercy of market conditions and business decisions that are out of my control. I know my time is coming. I can feel that breeze of hope slipping through the drawbridge cracks. Still, this oh-so-close vantage point makes me hungry for bite-sized optimism. Naturally, I turn to literature for my devotionals.

Way back in 2009, I blogged about a book that had inspired me and validated my years-long, dogged quest toward book publication. You can read that blog post here, though I encourage you to read Malcolm Gladwell’s book, OUTLIERS: THE STORY OF SUCCESS for yourself. In it, Gladwell breaks down the 10,000 hour common denominator behind the greatest success stories in our country.  It is as true for writers as it was for the Beatles, or Bill Gates, or Michael Jordan, for example.

RecentlyI read Norton Juster’s THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH which was full of metaphor and analogy tied to a quest of a very different kind. I know you’ll laugh at me for admitting that I had never read this 1961 classic before. Indeed, I think it’s brilliant. A few passages are especially relevant to any evaluation of effort, failure, and dues-paying.

“You must never feel badly about making mistakes,” explained Reason quietly, “as long as you take the trouble to learn from them. For you often learn more by being wrong for the right reasons than you do by being right for the wrong reasons.”
     “But there’s so much to learn,” he said, with a thoughtful frown.
“Yes, that’s true,” admitted Rhyme; “but it’s not just learning things that’s important. It’s learning what to do with what you learn and learning why you learn things at all that matters.”


  “And remember, also,” added the Princess of Sweet Rhyme, “that many places you would like to see are just off the map and many things you want to know are just out of sight or a little beyond your reach. But someday you’ll reach them all, for what you learn today, for no reason at all, will help you discover all the wonderful secrets of tomorrow.”

Finally, as I was curled up on my sofa today, suffering through a virus that left my head in a fog and my throat in a sand blaster, I watched the movie EAT, PRAY, LOVE (I had already read the book.) In one scene, Liz is in India talking with Richard from Texas who has nicknamed her ‘Groceries.’ It was as if someone had pushed the repeat button for me when Richard uttered this line.

“If you wanna reach the castle, Groceries, you gotta swim the moat.”

That pretty much sums it up, doesn’t it? If the drawbridge were lowered for us, we wouldn’t appreciate the quest. In the end, this publishing biz is about survival of the fittest which applies both to talent and tenacity. Once you’ve reached the threshold, it’s about knocking on the right castle door.

The 10,000 Hour Secret To Success

I’m so glad that I haven’t punched a time clock to record the hours, months, years I have planted my caboose in a chair in front of a keyboard or notebook. Frankly, I’m afraid such knowledge would depress me today. What I know is that I’ve written until my hands ached and read until my eyes blurred. I have published in newspapers and newsletters, and children’s magazines, but I’ve yet to reach that first book contract. I’ve made innumerable mistakes while writing children’s nonfiction books and picture books that never sold. I have received more rejections than acceptances. But, I have learned so very much in the process. Today, I’m a better writer for it.

My parents’ voices echo in my mind. You see, I was a competitive child and, when I was eight years old, I began showing Quarter Horses. My inexperience resulted in more losses than wins. I’d wrap my arms around my horse and try my best to hide the tears trickling down my cheeks. My parents would soothe the disappointment by sharing some wisdom that I didn’t quite understand at the time. “We all have to pay our dues,” they said. How could they possibly suggest that I had to lose, lose, lose before I could win? Eventually, age, endless hours in the saddle, and a study of more experienced equestrians turned it all around for me. They were right.

Is the writing and publishing quest any different? After all, what is at the heart of any success? Practice.

Malcom Gladwell’s 2008 best selling book, OUTLIERS: THE STORY OF SUCCESS (Little Brown & Co.) is a fascinating dissection of some of our country’s most prominent success stories. What lies behind the exceptional success of some people should inspire patience and perseverance in writers.

Daniel Levitin, neurologist, studied the common threads of success in general. “The emerging picture from such studies is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert in anything.

It didn’t matter what the expertise was in. “In study after study of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up again and again.”

“…no one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time. It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery.”

Even prodigies like Mozart and The Beatles invested a minimum of 10,000 hours before “making it.”

Successful people are not necessarily geniuses, or even educated. They are simply passionate about what they feel is meaningful work and they are tenacious in their quest to succeed.

Today, I believe that all writers who are willing to invest the time to hone the craft will find that their effort will eventually intersect with opportunity.

So, the next time you receive a rejection letter or find that your back aches from stooping over that manuscript, just remember that it’s all part of “paying your dues.” How many hours of effort have you invested in your writing career?

For the record, I’m pretty sure I’ve just reached hour 9,999.

Quote for the Day: “One’s religion is whatever he is most interested in, and yours is Success.” –James M. Barrie (1860-1937) British playwright and author of PETER PAN