By Mark Terry
A long, long time ago (in what occasionally does seem a galaxy far, far away), I decided I wanted to be a writer. This was toward the end of my college career, between, I believe, my junior and senior years. I was majoring in microbiology and public health and not doing a very good job at it. My girlfriend (now wife) had graduated and moved back home where she was working nearby, and my college roommate (Andy) took an internship for the PASS network in Detroit, so I was living alone, working full-time in a mailroom of a veterinary laboratory at Michigan State and not doing much else.
I picked up a book of essays about Stephen King and he had written an introduction called something like “The Making of a Brand Name,” which was all about how he got started. I was struck, naturally, by the paperback reprint sale of Carrie for $400,000, but I was hit even harder by the idea that a writer was somebody who wrote things and sent them out to editors, who did or did not decide to publish them and pay the writer for the privilege. I started writing.
It’s been a very long and often twisting road, but I’m happy with where I’m at. It took talent, but I can’t define it let alone identify it. It took persistence. A lot of it.
Did it take luck? I can honestly say, I don’t think I’ve been all that lucky in this writing gig. My second manuscript almost got picked up by St. Martin’s Press. My first book contract was with Write Way, and they went out of business before the book got published. I signed a contract with another small press, and they disappeared into the night, their website replaced by—I kid you not—a site for a veterinary incinerator. I’ve had three agents. The first was this kind of fly-by-night outfit in L.A. The second was a good, well-established agency in New York and my agent there tried to sell stuff of mine for six years without success before I moved on. In my efforts to get another agent—the one I have—I sent out nearly 100 query letters.
I kept writing. I branched out, often not intentionally, into nonfiction. I wrote and I wrote and I wrote.
This could have been a faster process. I could have networked more. I could have gone back to school and gotten a journalism degree.
I could have given up and gotten an MBA or whatever.
I didn’t. So where am I now, in the spring of 2006, versus the summer of 1985, when I started this path of folly?
I make a full-time living as a freelance writer. I make a decent, even good, living. I have published two books, one self-published (not recommended), one by a small press. I have a two-book contract for two more, the first of which is coming out from Midnight Ink in October 2006. I’m very busy. I can pay my bills. Clients come to me with work.
Is it talent? Yes, some.
Is it luck? If you keep being persistent, you’ll get some luck; you’ll be in the right place at the right time because, frankly, you’re always working.
But I’ll tell you what. It’s always, always related to persistence.
I grabbed a tiger’s tail back in 1985 and didn’t know how to let go. I didn’t even want to let go, although I definitely had some low spots where I wondered what the hell I was doing. But I knew I loved writing and I could never quite give up the dream of being a novelist (still can’t).
There’s no advice here, really. It’s just that, yes, if you persist—probably persist past any norm of common sense—you can probably succeed at some level.
There’s this brutal story about a master violinist who, after a concert, was approached by a young man who said, “Master, will you listen to me play and tell me whether there’s a future in music for me?” The maestro nods and the young man plays and the maestro shrugs and says, “You lack the fire.” The young man abandons music and goes on to have a successful life in business. Years later he runs into the maestro and tells him the story and asks, “What did you hear in my music?” The maestro shrugs again and says, “I wasn’t really paying attention. I never do. If you’ve really got the will and ambition— the fire—you won’t listen to anybody who tells you to stop. Nothing can make you stop if that’s what you’re meant to do.”
I really don’t advocate destroying your life in pursuit of anything, actually. I think there’s a lot to be said for “getting a grip,” and deciding what things are worth to you, and deciding what’s important. Writing, for me, is a passion, yes, but it’s also a job, and I don’t think I should wreck my marriage or alienate my kids or ruin my health over a job.
Stephen King, again, wrote a lovely essay about this subject and comments on how do you decide when to quit. He suggests that if you quite after three or four or six tries, it’s too early. But if you’ve received 1,000 or 2,000 rejections, rejections that NEVER say anything like, “Pretty good, try again,” or have no other encouragement, then it’s time to re-evaluate your time.
My guess would be most people can decide long before that 1,000 or 2,000, but it depends on what you’re doing. If it’s journalism, unless you’re a total hack who can’t string words together at all, I think you’d get an article published long before you hit the 500 mark, let alone the 1,000 or 2,000. If you’ve gotten 2,000 rejections from agents or book publishers, there’s something wrong, not the least being that there just aren’t that many markets.
But it’s your life. Only you can decide what’s important.
Mark Terry is a full-time freelance writer, editor, and novelist. You can read more about his books at Markterrybooks.com.