I ran into this thing the other day talking about how skills trump passion in choosing a career. I’m not sure I completely buy the premise but I get what they’re talking about. But out of that, the thing that stuck out for me was this bit:
In a 2007 episode of the Charlie Rose show, Rose was interviewing the actor and comedian Steve Martin about his memoir Born Standing Up. They talked about the realities of Martin’s rise. In the last five minutes of the interview, Rose asks Martin his advice for aspiring performers.
“Nobody ever takes note of [my advice], because it’s not the answer they wanted to hear,” Martin said. “What they want to hear is ‘Here’s how you get an agent, here’s how you write a script,’ . . . but I always say, ‘Be so good they can’t ignore you.’ “
And that got me thinking about writing, because, you know, most things do. I’m kind of a one-trick-pony that way. There’s all this focus on money and marketing and jobs and money and agents and publishing and money and, well, money, that a lot gets lost. I’m not sure I’m even talking about quality so much as the need for a conversation about quality.
Here’s an example. Monsieur Chuck Wendig, he of the bearded visage and lack of pants, mentioned conversations he had at a recent conference where everyone asked about how to get an agent, editor, etc., but nobody asked how to write a good story.
That’s a problem.
We keep seeing news items like this one about how 16-year-old Emily Baker just got a book deal because of (not for – important distinction there) the fanfic she wrote about boy band One Direction. Congratulations to her, by the way. I have no idea if she’s any good. Presumably she’s good enough or her readers wouldn’t have gotten engaged enough with her story.
But whether she’s a good writer, or even a competent one isn’t where the focus is. We talk about the book deal. We talk about the numbers. We talk about fame and exposure and agents and marketing. We reduce the art of storytelling down to brutal numbers because that’s what you do in business.
But writing isn’t business. Really. Publishing is business. Writing is craft and art and voice and style. It’s emotion and timing, pace and plot. It’s not about the money and it can’t be about the money.
It has to be, as Mr. Martin has said, about being so good people take notice, whatever ‘good’ means. And it’s a word that means different things to different people. It’s elusive, sure, but not so undefinable that you can’t notice it when you see it. Kind of like porn that way.
I say this next bit not just to you reading this, whether you’re a new writer or a veteran or just like inside baseball conversations, but to myself as well. Because I’m just as guilty of it as the next guy.
Stop looking at numbers. Stop looking at the marketing and the promos. Stop looking at selling. Yes, there’s a time and a place for it and it’s important stuff and I’m about to embark on a blitz of it myself. But don’t do it so much that you forget why you started all this in the first place.
Focus instead on being so good they can’t ignore you.
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