The first breakthrough in my writing career came when I finally wrote a book that I had been pondering for almost two years. It wasn’t long, or really that fancy, but it was an idea that caught on. Since that time it has sold more than 30,000 copies. The year was 1982, the book was “Fifty-two Things to Do on Sabbath,” and it was directed at Seventh-day Adventist families.It was a good idea at the right time.
But that book almost never happened. Like so many other beginning writers, I doubted my idea and my ability to write it. When I finally had it written, I put it in an envelope, addressed it, stamped it, and then left it on my desk for two weeks. All I had to do was put it in the mail, but for some reason I had a hard time doing that. Today I suspect that I thought that as long as I never mailed it, they could never say no. And No is the word that all writers dread.
Since that time, I have written quite a few books, many stories, and many more articles. Some were bad, some were ugly, and some were pretty good. But I learned unless I actually wrote the book or the story or the article, I was only dreaming about being a writer. The bottom line with writing is simply this: putting words on paper. But the flip side of it is my firm belief that the purpose of writing is to share it with someone else. Anyone can write a 1,000-page novel, stick it in a drawer or a box somewhere and forget that it ever happened. But the scary part comes when you have to share it with someone. Why? Because they may not like it. They may not even like you. At least, that’s what you’re probably thinking.
To deal with this issue, there are, in my mind, two approaches. One is the rifle approach. You come up with a brilliant idea, which in itself is a major accomplishment. You hone that brilliant idea until it shines, and then you labor for years–possibly decades–to make that idea into a book that will shake the world. People like Proust can write one book and have it be earth-shattering. But there is a very, very good chance that you will spend a lifetime of labor on one idea and have it become brilliant in only one mind: yours.
The opposite is the shotgun approach, which is mine. This is based on the premise that the worth of a writer should never be based on one work alone. Instead, I have lots of ideas to share with people. It’s kind of like taking a class in college where 100% of the grade is in the final exam. Some teachers can teach that way, but I don’t. Instead, I give students many chances to prove–and redeem–themselves.
And even though “Fifty-two Things to Do on Sabbath” did well, I don’t think I want to be known for just that one little book. I have published 14 more since that time. And every one of them I consider worthy of my time. But when I finish one book, perhaps even before, I am thinking about the next project.
So what happens after laboring for months–or even years–on writing, editing, and getting a book published? What do you do then? Rest on your laurels and wait for the money to pour in? If you take the rifle approach, that’s pretty much it. Everything you have is tied up in your one project. But writing for me is a work of a lifetime. I intend to be coming up with stories until my dying day, long after senility sets in and people decide they don’t want to hear from the old codger anymore. When that happens, I hope they judge me for my writing when I was in my prime. But I know I will always have something to say, and I won’t hesitate to say it.
For after all, a writer is only as good as his next book.
One thought on “Don’t Look Back”
This was very encouraging and what I needed to hear. I liked hearing your experience with your first book. Your approach with writing is what I’ve been trying to live: “Let nothing stop me from speaking my voice.” It’s a gradual work in progress, psychologically, mentally, emotionally. I like your shotgun approach, but I admit I follow the rifle approach more. However, I follow it too intensely. Ironically, I somehow adapted to the British education system (similar to the rifle approach) during my undergraduate career rather than the American version (similar to the shotgun approach) I grew up with. This year I’ve been learning how to both expand and lengthen bright ideas without getting bogged down with fear, perfection, and rejection, and just speak them out to share with someone. It is nice and encouraging to hear what went on behind the scenes of an author’s first step forward in writing and publishing.
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