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David Farland's Daily Kick in the Pants:
Planning to Succeed


Very often when I speak to writers who have just won a major contest like Writers of the Future, I find that they have something in common: an attitude. They'll say, "I wrote stories regularly for years, and then I finally decided that I was going to win that contest." They might place first or second or even third, but they usually have this in common: they decided that just writing wasn't enough, and that they needed to give it their best shot.

As authors, that's an attitude that we need to cultivate. Even if you win a major contest or an award, there is always another step to take, another goal to make, another mountain to conquer.

Deciding that you're going to attain the goal is a little intimidating. We don't want to be vain. We don't want to look foolish for being over-confident. We don't want to put our hearts on the line and have an epic fail in public.

But we have to do it anyway. We have to decide to succeed. Making a public commitment motivates us to greater success.

I know that personally, when I began work as a writer years ago, I started this way: I entered a contest with a short story, one of the first that I'd ever written, simply because my writing teacher suggested that I do so. I won third place in the little competition and took home $50. I thought about it and realized that I'd spent about seven hours writing that story. If I'd worked a little harder, I wondered, could I have taken first place—which paid about $200? If so, how much longer would I have had to work? An hour? Three hours? Five? Would it be worth a little more umph?

At the time, I figured that I made a little over $7 per hour. Minimum wage was just half of that, and so for a college student, I reasoned that winning a contest could make a little extra money, perhaps even enough to pay for a date every once in awhile.

So I decided to begin writing with a goal in mind: to win a writing contest. I looked at the contests in my area—there were a couple at the college, along with a few national contests—decided to enter soon, and I made up a plan.

The first thing that I looked at was the audience for each contest. Who would be judging? In some cases, I was able to find out, and I read the stories and books that each judge had written . . . the better to discern what they liked.

I then took the stories that I already wanted to tell, and tried to push them toward what the editors might like.

If my protagonist was 26 but my judge was 40, I moved up the age of my protagonist. If the judge liked science fiction, I gave him science fiction. If the judge wrote stories that were fast paced, I worked on pacing. If the judges wanted world creation, I showed them a new world. If the judges sought meaning in a story, I worked on creating a profound theme. If the judges wanted lyrical prose, I put the stories to meter. If the judges hoped for great metaphors, I spent hours finding just the right metaphors to bring the tale to life. If they wanted brilliant dialog, I polished it until it shone. If they wanted something wondrous, I created things they'd never seen before.

In short, I quit just writing the first story that came to mind. I began writing with a goal in mind, the goal of pleasing an audience, and I began submitting to contests. To my surprise, I soon took first place in a major regional contest. A couple of days later, I won another. A week after that, I found that I'd won first place in the Writers of the Future, an international contest, and I went on to win the grand prize for the year. In all, I figure that I took home more than $12,000 in cash and prizes over the next year.

This quickly led to a contract for my first three novels with Bantam books. Suddenly I was in the big leagues, I was writing for a genuine audience. That's where the writing gets tougher. Why?

Because your audience encompasses everyone in the world, including people with warring tastes.

In short, the writing gets more difficult as you try to reach greater heights.

I recently read a little post about an interview that Terry Brooks gave. In it, he pointed out that with his writing, he always struggles to make his next book better than the last.

Some authors, he points out, write three hundred pages of a beautiful novel and then run out of time or energy and tack on a crummy ending. I've seen that a lot. Others, he adds, write two or three novels and then lose their passion and just start cranking out inferior work. That describes a lot of authors.

A real professional, Terry points out, recognizes that with each novel, he needs to be getting better. Terry Brooks is right.

I've pointed out before that authors need to create a sense of anticipation with their careers. Your first novel should be great. After all, you're competing with the best authors who have ever lived. People who read your story might compare you to Ursula K. LeGuin, J.R.R. Tolkien, or Frank Herbert. Now, you might think of yourself as a little writer working on your first novel. You might not want to invite such comparisons. But the truth is that no matter what we want, we get our novels compared to the finest works by the greatest authors who have ever lived. So you've got to get used to it.

Don't think in small terms. Don't say to yourself, "I just want to write a comfortable little story." If you want to be comfortable, get a government job, or marry well. Don't try to write for a living.

Your readers want your best effort. They want their hearts to pound and their heads to explode. They want fireworks with every novel. They want literature that changes their lives. That's what they're paying for. It's part of the author's unwritten contract with the reader, and we need to provide a great experience.

So start planning to succeed now. That planning might come in a lot of various stages. You might need to study your markets. You might need to take a class or absorb a book on writing to boost your skills. You might need to do an inventory of your skills and figure out what you need to do in order to do better.

Whatever your course of action, you need to bring your best effort to the table. Plan now to succeed.