Perseverance for Writers

I was invited to talk to the Garden State Speculative Fiction Writers yesterday. The topic was perseverance for writers. I had a great time. I always do with the GSSW. The talk went well, and there was an epic Q&A session afterward, covering everything from my thoughts on genre to query letters to cover art to my favorite Godzilla movie. (For the record, it’s Destroy All Monsters, but I also really like Final Wars.) I have the GSSW’s permission to reprint the text of my talk here on my blog, which I’m happy to do because every writer struggles with sticking with it at times. I hope this can be of some help. If you like it, feel free to link to it. Here’s what I said:

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Before we get started, I want to thank Gary Frank for inviting me to come here and speak with you guys. I want to thank Jenn Persson for coordinating it, and Neil Morris for picking up my wife Alexa and me at the train station this morning. We’re city folk and don’t own a car.

So, some of you know me and some of you don’t. For those who don’t, my name is Nicholas Kaufmann. I’m a writer from Brooklyn, New York. I’ve had six books published so far, and another one on the way. My work has been nominated for a Bram Stoker Award, a Shirley Jackson Award, and an International Thriller Writers Award. The last time I was here was in 2008 and you guys were still called the Garden State Horror Writers. I liked that name, obviously, because I love horror, but I like the new name even better: Garden State Speculative Fiction Writers. I think speculative fiction is a much broader tent, and I’m of the opinion that it’s always a good thing to be inclusive. That’s how organizations grow and thrive and remain relevant.

I’m reminded of the time I tried to convince the HWA, the Horror Writers Association, to open their doors to urban fantasy and paranormal romance writers, since those were — and still are — very successful subgenres, and they have so much in common with horror. I could only see an upside to drawing them into the fold. It would have meant an infusion of new blood for the organization, new viewpoints and contacts and members with important information to share about writing and publishing books that sell. But the idea was met with stubborn refusal and a cry of “But that’s not real horror!” As if there’s such a thing as fake horror. But it was clear no one in the organization was interested in evolving or growing or changing. And now, I worry that the HWA, to which I no longer belong, has become little more than a small, inward-looking circle-jerk where members only read each other’s books and give each other awards every year.

But I digress. Which I often do when I get started on the HWA. Anyway, the last time I was here was in 2008, and back then I talked about blogging. This time, I’m going to talk about something different. This time, I’m going to talk about the one thing every writer needs in their life: perseverance.

Because let’s face it, being a writer can really suck. I don’t know any other profession, outside of maybe acting, where the sheer volume of rejections is considered part of the job. The money, frankly, is awful, unless you’re a national bestseller or have a big enough backlist that you can live off the royalties it generates. You spend a lot of time alone, typing on your computer in a self-imposed solitary confinement where sometimes it feels as though the only people you talk to all day are the folks on your Twitter feed. And then there’s the problem of just finding the damn time to write. Most of you in this room probably also have a fulltime job on top of being a writer. You have to, because, as I mentioned, the money sucks, and maybe you’ve got car payments to make and kids to feed and a mortgage breathing down your neck.

With all this weighing on writers, I am never, ever surprised when I hear someone say they don’t write anymore. I certainly don’t judge them for it. Lord knows there were plenty of times when I considered quitting myself. When money is tight and magazines act like you should be grateful they’re paying one cent a word, it’s enough to make anyone want to throw in the towel. But I never did. I never quit. Not even during the tough times, when it seemed like everyone was rejecting everything I wrote. I did what I had to do to get by. I took odd jobs to keep the money coming in, but I never stopped writing. I never stopped trying to become a better writer. I never stopped trying to find better and better publishers for my work.

And now I have a novel coming out next week from St. Martin’s Press: Dying Is My Business. My seventh book, but my first to be published by a major publisher. It’s a dream come true for me. I’m beyond thrilled. But it never would have happened if I hadn’t kept at it. If I hadn’t persevered.

Perseverance isn’t a gene. It’s not something some people have and some people don’t. It’s not something you’re born with or can buy. It’s something you have to do. It’s a drive that comes from inside. More often than not, it means sacrifice. It means seemingly endless frustration. It means making a commitment to writing. This commitment may take different forms for different writers. For some, it may be something as drastic as quitting your day job and taking the plunge into fulltime writing with only your savings as a safety net. For others, it may be something as small as not playing Grand Theft Auto V until after you’ve reached your day’s writing goal. Everyone is different and everyone’s needs are different. But what I’d like to do is share some tips on how to stick with it, especially during those times when writing feels like an angry bronco trying to buck you off its back. Keep in mind, these are things that work for me. Your mileage may vary. But if you’re having trouble persevering through all the distractions and disappointments, I think these can help.

1) Make time for writing. Every day, if you can. Even if it’s just half an hour a day, 30 minutes before dinner or wedged between putting your kids to bed and decompressing in front of The Daily Show, do it. The most common reason I hear for giving up on being a writer is lack of time. My ex-financial advisor emailed me on Wednesday to say hello, and he ended with this. This is a direct quote: “Trying to do a little writing on the side, but it can be hard to find the time and energy sometimes, especially after a long day of work!” Well, here’s the thing. You don’t find time for something you truly want to do, you make time for it. I mean, we make time every day for other things, don’t we? We make a few minutes here and there to do the dishes or scoop the cat litter. If you can make time to sit down and watch that episode of Sleepy Hollow on your DVR, you can make time to work on your novel. I assure you, even if it’s just 30 minutes a day, that’s enough forward progress that your novel will get finished eventually. And it’ll still get finished a lot faster than if you only poke at it one Saturday a month.

2) Believe in yourself. I spent two long, grueling years writing Dying Is My Business, and rewriting it and rewriting it again until I was satisfied. I worked hard. Sometimes I felt like I was going nuts. Sometimes I felt like I was drowning because I couldn’t see the end of it, just chapter after chapter moving toward what I hoped would eventually be the end. But the hardest thing of all was not knowing if all that work would pay off. I didn’t have an agent at the time. I certainly didn’t have a publisher waiting for the novel. It was written on spec, with no guarantee that I wasn’t wasting two years of my life when I could have been earning money instead with a “normal” job. Luckily, I have a very patient and gainfully employed wife who refused to let me quit, even when the doubts were punching me in the face day after day. So I stuck with it, and the gamble paid off. The novel landed me a great agent, and he, in turn, got me a deal with a great publisher. If I had given up, I never would have seen my dream come true. Which brings me to number 3…

3) Have a patient spouse. Actually, what I mean here is, if you have a partner, it’s important that they be supportive. That they believe in you as much as you do. Or more, even. That kind of moral support is invaluable. Because there will be days when you tell your partner the writing was awful and you feel like a fraud and maybe you should just go into HVAC repair instead because at least they make a decent living and have a retirement plan. So much relies on what your partner says in response to that. SO. MUCH. If your partner says, “But, honey, that’s what you said when you were writing your last book, too, and it turned out great,” then you’re good. If your partner says, “Oh, thank God, you’re finally going to get a real job like an adult,” then it’s going to be really, really hard to stick with writing. Really hard. Also, it sounds like you’re in a terrible relationship and may want to rethink some of your life choices.

4) You don’t have to go it alone. I’ve been part of a writing group in New York City for ten years now. I put it together myself with friends whose writing I admire and whose opinions I respect. Not only have they been an invaluable help in strengthening my writing — and I’m convinced Dying Is My Business never would have been good enough to publish without their help — but they also act as moral support and inspiration. Whenever one of them has a publishing success story, I feel inspired. I feel like if they can do it, I can, too. Whenever I have some good news to share, they’re genuinely happy for me. They took me out to dinner when I signed the contract with St. Martin’s. And whenever things don’t go well, we commiserate together, or offer each other advice, or just lend a sympathetic ear. Writing is a lonely enough job as it is. We need all the emotional safety nets we can get. A good writing group can offer that. It can also keep your writing progress moving forward, especially if there are deadlines. My writing group meets every two weeks, usually. When it’s your turn to share something for critique and it’s due in a couple of weeks, that tends to keep you writing. Because your writing group is eager to see your story or your next chapter, and you don’t want to let them down, right? So you write and you write until it’s time to turn it in. These kinds of deadlines can be an enormous help to a writer. There are social benefits to writing groups, too. Every writer needs a first reader, someone who can catch all the logic holes and typos and bad dialogue the author can rarely see for themselves. All a writing group is, really, is getting all your first readers together in the same place, talking about your writing, and then going out for dinner afterward. It’s win-win! And when you hang out with other writers, especially other writers you like, you’ll find you’re not nearly as tempted to throw in the towel as you thought.

So those are my four big tips for how to persevere as a writer. Make time to do what you love, believe in yourself, surround yourself with supportive people, and hang out with those who love doing the same thing you do. Come to think of it, that also sounds like the recipe for a really nice life. Imagine that. The things that keep you writing are the same things that keep you happy.

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My thanks again to the Garden State Speculative Fiction Writers for inviting me to speak. I’m told there will be a recording on the Web sometime soon. When it’s up, I’ll be sure to link to it. In the meantime, the debate continues: Destroy All Monsters or Final Wars?

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