Tag Archives: persistence

Star Making

Ever see the movie, A STAR IS BORN? Take your pick among three–soon to be four–versions.

The original film came out in 1937 and starred Janet Gaynor and Frederic March. It is NOT a musical. While ironically in real life Gaynor’s career was waning and March’s was just hitting its stride, Gaynor’s portrayal of a star-struck girl named Esther who comes to Hollywood with no training and no contacts contrasts well with March’s brittle acting technique. This version, unhindered by big musical production numbers, focuses on the plot of a nobody of extraordinary talent discovered by an alcoholic major star on the skids, their relationship first as mentor and student, then as friends, then as newlyweds, then as a married couple held together by her determination, and finally the heartbreaking tragedy of his ultimate sacrifice for her.

Today, some critics find the original story line to be less plausible than the subsequent versions. I disagree in that I feel they are thinking too literally. The story is all about being star-struck, about having dreams that are bigger than you are, about finding the guts to reach for them, about maybe–just maybe–meeting a mentor that will give you a helping hand up to your first foothold, about then clawing your way forward through hard work, persistence, and raw ability, and about the price you always pay for whatever you achieve.

The 1954 version–sometimes referred to as A STAR IS REBORN–is all about a Judy Garland comeback. She’d been off-screen for four years before fighting her way back to the lead of this film. Critics seem to love this one. After all, Judy Garland! What more needs to be said?

Well, I think quite a bit. The story line in the second film has been significantly altered, although most of the major plot points remain. Garland’s character Esther has worked her way up to a mediocre singing career, where she has hit a plateau. She’s happy there, until James Mason’s character hears what she can really do with a song. He convinces her to reach higher. The film, despite having George Cukor as director, struggles to balance the plot against numerous production numbers that showcase Garland’s voice. It often loses that struggle and sags badly in the middle.

In Cukor’s defense, the most egregious number–one that goes on and on and on and on–was added after he’d finished the film, requiring a few plot points to be cut. (And as we writers know, editors can sometimes chop and hack our polished effort brutally to fit some production agenda other than our artistic vision.)

The film also suffers from lost footage, so there are weird patches of black and white photo stills overdubbed by dialogue. While damaged footage is common to silent movies because of age and faulty storage, it seems peculiar for a film made in the 1950s.  I don’t know what occurred to damage Garland’s movie. I believe the film was restored in the 1980s, when the stills were inserted as some sort of Band-Aid measure. If you have never seen the 1937 film, you’ll find this section of the Garland movie to be baffling.

Garland’s talent is undeniable. The voice is still strong. The acting is still delightful. But she looks fragile and strained. Her personal issues show in her face, but like the character she’s playing, she hangs in there.

However, the original version had a grandmother character who embodies the theme of the story. She is the one that encourages Esther’s dreams and sends her cash when Esther is struggling to find work in Hollywood. And when Esther feels beaten and is ready to throw her career away, the grandmother steps in and chastises her for being a quitter. There are several reasons why I prefer the 1937 film, and the grandmother is one of them.

As a writer, over the years I’ve known feast and famine, success and failure, high praise, touches of glory, and moments of disappointment so acute I wasn’t sure I could go on. All of that goes with a writing career. There are times when the only way to keep going, to keep writing, to keep submitting is sheer determination. So I like the grandmother’s scene where she won’t let Esther quit or throw away all that’s been achieved. It speaks to me, and that’s what story (whether prose or film) is for.

The 1954 Garland version lacks the grandmother character. Occasional care and encouragement are provided now and then by the character of the studio head, but there’s no tough love coming from granny. (As for those who claim the Garland film is more plausible than the Gaynor version, I ask if you really swallow the concept of a studio head being as warm and kind as a grandmother.)

Few actors can cry or transmit grief better than Garland, so she tugs your heartstrings enough, especially in the scene when Esther is worried and crying about her husband and then is called by her director to resume her performance and hits it perfectly, but I wish there had been one less overdone song to make room for preserving the grandmother role. Scriptwise, it’s important to keep that theme of paying the price–which to me is the core of the entire plot–going.

As for the two other film versions, also centered on music, there’s the 1976 vehicle with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. I admit I haven’t seen it. Streisand’s singing ability is huge, although her acting annoys me. Kristofferson–a talented songwriter–has never otherwise impressed me. Since I haven’t seen the film, I don’t feel it’s fair to comment on its merits or possible flaws. However, it’s a copy of the copy. Let’s leave it at that.

Now, there’s going to be a 2018 effort. I believe the film will be released this October. It stars Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper. Is it to be a copy of the copy of the copy? In 1937, Frederic March channeled the amazing but self-destructive John Barrymore for his performance. In 1954, for her performance, Judy Garland channeled the very best of the amazing but semi-destroyed Judy Garland. Who will this year’s stars channel, if anyone? I hope the music appeals to Gaga’s fans. I hope the best of the plot remains preserved. But I hope most of all that the theme of reaching for your dreams despite the price you pay has not been tossed aside as irrelevant.

Anyone in the performing arts, whether writer, actor, or singer, has to face that reality sooner or later at any level, and find the guts to pay up. Anyone who’s driven to perform or write–or why else do we do this–must pay. If you don’t, if you quit either by giving up due to discouragement and fear or by refusing to train and hone your craft or by drowning your doubts in self-destructive behavior, then that means you are silencing the muse and destroying your gift. Think of poor Whitney Houston–blessed with outstanding talent–who threw it away. There are so many other tragic examples. Don’t be one of them.

If the price before you seems too high, ask yourself why. What must you give up or sacrifice for it? Time, effort, and hard work? What else are you going to do?

If the timeline for success seems too long and discouraging, so what? As my father always says, “Time goes on anyway.” Get started and keep going!

If the price challenges your ethics or honor, take a second, even harder, look at the situation. No writing gift requires you to cheat, plagiarize, steal, or lie. Back away and choose a different path to your dreams. Find a price you can pay.

Face reality. Your heart may be set on writing bestselling novels, but your ability lies in nonfiction. How can you make that work for you? When I began my career, the hottest genre on the market was romances. I tried, but my heart wasn’t in them. I had to choose other genres, knowing they were less lucrative. That was a price I became willing to pay. One of my favorite novelists, Georgette Heyer, was brilliant at writing witty, socially satirical Regency romances in the style of Jane Austen. She wanted, however, to write mysteries. And although she penned several, they never achieved the outstanding success of her Regencies. Did she pout? Did she quit? No, she kept going.

Once you’re in the game, how will you stay in it? By being willing to make sacrifices, by putting in hard work, by adapting and changing what you do and write as the world, your readers, and the markets shift, and by never quitting.

Remember that whether you are a big or little star, you make your luck through persistence, hard work, and being prepared to seize opportunities when they come your way.

 

 

 

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Writing for Gold

[Update:  the following post is an edited, shortened version of the original which was published during week one of the 2016 Olympic Games. Due to events involving one of the athletes whom I used as an example, I decided to remove mention of other athletes–including Gabby Douglas–as well. Therefore, I have pulled the teeth of this piece and retained only its primary points. Accordingly, you will find comments at the end from readers that refer to the original post and not the version available now.]

 

Warning:  if you’re tired of hearing about the Rio Olympics, please log off because I am enjoying them and intend, in this post, to tie them into writing.

A few years ago, I found myself trapped into participating in a Nielsen phone survey. One of the questions asked what my favorite sports were. I answered “The Olympics” and “The Kentucky Derby.” Granted, I was messing with the survey taker, but I was also being honest. I love the Olympic Games. Some events are my favorites. Some are merely interesting. Some bore me. That’s okay. I like the thrill of competition. I like to see people who have trained themselves to their maximum potential being tested–and sometimes bested.

However, the point of this post is about drawing lessons from champions whether they are on the track, swiveling around a pommel horse, playing beach volleyball, rowing, fencing, cycling, or pounding a keyboard. Elite athletes are all about training, discipline, sacrifice, and courage. They continue despite pain and injury. They give 150 percent, and they believe in their dreams of victory. They also know that no matter how good they are, there is a real possibility that a competitor will be better. They could place 4th or 5th in the race, and go home knowing only that they tried their best and it was not enough to grab glory.

Writing for publication is all about training, dedication, discipline, and sacrifice. It’s all about having dreams–that this story will pull together and be good enough to sell, or this novel might be the bestseller. And it’s all about putting in the long, sometimes tedious hours to make that dream happen. But dreams–no matter how big–need a reality check as well.

I tell my students:  “Just because you’ve written something, that doesn’t mean it’s any good. Just because you write something good, that doesn’t mean it will sell. And just because a piece of your writing is published, that doesn’t mean the public will read it.”

Writers, like athletes, need to train for victory but be prepared for defeat. There are no guarantees in the publishing industry. You can write an amazing story, and be rejected because the editor just bought someone else’s work for the last slot of her publishing schedule for that year. It doesn’t mean your story’s no good. It means your timing was slow.

When an amazing athlete who has persevered despite adversity, inadequate facilities, injuries, and financial hardship loses a gold medal by ninety-nine one-thousandths of a point, that’s agonizing. It’s easy to shout, “Unfair! He deserved to win!” Yet in fact, he lost because another athlete was just that microscopic scrinch of a point better.

Consider a runner about to come in third, but achieves silver because she leans forward as she crosses the finish line, and that lean puts her ahead of a competitor that would have otherwise beaten her. That will to win marks the champion spirit. It’s why one horse racing neck and neck with a competitor in the Kentucky Derby will stretch out its nose at the finish, wining by a whisker–always driven by the will to make it, to keep trying.

When Mo Farah of Great Britain tripped and fell in the men’s 10,000-meter race, he got up and resumed the race and won. That is the heart of a champion. And every writer who is trying to break in and stay in needs that quality.

There will be writing disappointments. Getting published is hard, so hard that sometimes writers are too timid even to try. Yet you must try and keep trying, no matter how many rejections you collect or how much they hurt. Evaluate yourself and what you’re doing in your stories–or not doing. Make adjustments.

Sometimes, rejection is not about the quality of your work at all. You write for a fickle public. And public taste changes. You can sell a manuscript to a publisher and, months later, by the time your novel reaches publication, the trend may have shifted to a different genre, leaving you in the dust. Your quality has not lessened. But the world has changed on you.

After you’ve poured months of sheer hard work into a project such as a novel, to have it turned down or picked apart or ignored by an editor hurts. It will always hurt. But you must put it behind you and evaluate why you were turned down so you can move forward, either by fixing the manuscript’s problems, or marketing it elsewhere, or deciding honestly whether it’s worthy of self-publishing electronically.

The latter option should never be a crutch, a safety net, or a refuge of self-deception. Use it–not to dump flawed manuscripts into the public arena–but to offer readers a crack at your story when editors just can’t make a place for you.

Editors do make mistakes. (Think about how many of them rejected J.K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter story.) Remember that editors are trying to play it safe in the fiction game. They have to answer to corporate bean counters that don’t care two cents for good writing and only want sure winners.

Well, folks, fiction is never a sure thing. We writers are jugglers of words and phrases on the street corner, hoping we have a plot or characters brightly colored enough to catch the eye of passing pedestrians. Sometimes the pedestrians stop and applaud. Sometimes a city bus roars by between our performance and the audience that turns away, disappointed in what they failed to see.

So we try again. And again. And again.

Train yourself. Know your craft. Write to the best of your ability, no matter how hard or challenging it is. Stick with it to the end. Stick with it despite the rejections and barricades between you and publication. Be gracious in disappointment. And use victory to propel you forward to the next challenge, that next and better story that lies within you.

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Making Luck

Do you believe in destiny?

Fate?

Luck?

Do you believe that opportunity comes only once?

Do you feel that some writers are incredibly lucky, achieving all the fame and glory while the rest are doomed to mediocre results or perhaps no publication at all?

Do you believe in yourself and your writing talent?

Do you intend to keep working and trying until you’re published?

Recently, one of my students–presently writing the first draft of his first novel–announced that he knows a career in writing isn’t going to happen for him.

And I felt that sharp, fleeting squeeze of intense irritation coupled with sadness.

He has just sealed his future. He has made a decision that will guarantee that he’ll never be a published novelist. In only his first attempt, he has given up.

Does he have talent? Yes!

So why is he tossing in the towel?

I can’t say. The answer probably lies within his dreams and aspirations. Undoubtedly he’s finding it difficult to learn–much less master–writing craft. He’s perhaps unwilling to put in the work and practice that learning a skill requires. Because it’s always harder than anyone expects.

And maybe, although he loves fiction, maybe the passion for writing has burned out. It does happen.

Or perhaps he lost faith in himself and is too young to understand as yet that everyone must endure trial by fire in any creative endeavor. The bigger our aspirations, the bigger the challenges we must overcome in reaching them. Nothing is easy. Nothing is going to be a shortcut. Just ask couples seeking to adopt babies. Or athletes striving for an Olympic gold medal. Or individuals trying to become actors in Hollywood. Or those studying and working hard to become doctors.

Why should writers be exempt from the sweat, doubts, fears, self-discipline, and effort that others go through in achieving their ambitions?

Writers have to train and train hard in order to bring our stories successfully to readers.

In the last five weeks, I’ve received similar messages in several fortune cookies: “Keep trying and you will succeed.” “What you most long for will come to pass this year.” “Persistence will pay off.”

Okay, yeah, I know it sounds a little too woo-woo to pin my hopes on that. We all know that fortune cookies contain affirmations that can apply to anyone. Still, at certain times in our lives we need those affirmations. We need anything that will give us heart, pick us up, and keep us going.

Here’s a Russian proverb that I also consider to be very inspirational: “Pray to God, but continue rowing to shore.”

So I dream, but I continue working as hard as I can to keep my writing skills sharp and my stories the best they can be at any given time.

As a career novelist, I firmly believe that writers make their own luck. Opportunities are plentiful, but unless we’re prepared for them we can’t seize them when they cross our path. Accordingly, I think it’s a waste of time to bemoan the missed chances. When we pass up an opportunity, it’s because we weren’t ready to take advantage of it. So the solution is to do all we can to prepare ourselves for the next one–or the right one–that comes along.

You may have realized all this long ago, but I’m a slow learner. It took me many years to stop berating myself because I rejected a lucrative publishing opportunity early in my career. For years I wasted energy regretting how I’d passed up a chance to make a lot of money.

Finally I came to understand that I’d rejected the deal because it wasn’t right for me. My instincts understood that I would have been a misfit in that genre, and probably I wouldn’t have written successful stories.

Instead, luck came to me in other ways–in other book deals. And I’ve learned that persistence makes all the difference. You needn’t surrender just because you can’t figure out how to complete your first draft. You needn’t stop marketing your manuscript just because you’re rejected once, twice, or multiple times. You must move forward–even if at times you feel like you’re crawling through a cave blindfolded–and you must follow the passion of your heart.

The publishing world is not a kind or friendly place. It’s tough, harsh, and at times barricaded behind a battery of no, no, no, no coming at you like bullets. If they shoot you down, okay. But it’s entirely up to you whether you stay down or you rise to try again.

I can’t control whether an editor makes me an offer or rejects my manuscript. But I do control my effort, my writing craft, and my level of determination. It’s up to me to stand ready to not only seize the chance when it comes by but to also recognize when it’s the right one for me.

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Simple Persistence

All summer, the weeds in my flowerbeds grew unchecked. All summer, I fretted about it. I like my house to look cared for and tidy.

I hated to see the mess when I would come home. I expected my neighbors to complain, but they politely, kindly ignored the situation. Several times, I intended to hire someone to pull weeds and root out the grass taking hold, but then I never got around to it. With my back injury, I remain under orders not to dig or pull.

This week, I stepped outside to hang small flags in honor of Veteran’s Day. The sparrows fluttered up from the rose bushes and tall weeds in the flowerbed. Mice rustled through brown crab grass, scuttling for cover. Angrily I chastised myself once again for this state of affairs. “Got to get this cleared out,” I told myself for the countless time.

One particular species of unsightly weed has grown head tall, a gnarly, thick-stemmed monster. Last week, it bloomed with numerous tiny white flowers. There it stands, taller than me and blooming in a pretty, if feral way. I refused, however, to admire it. Ugly. Wrong. Odious. I’ve got all sorts of adjectives for it, and a few flowers weren’t going to change my mind about it.

But as I put out the flag, I heard a faint humming sound and saw a honeybee busily working those fingernail-sized flowers. I had no idea that bees would still be harvesting pollen this late in the year. And all my shame and embarrassment over the weeds fell away. Unwittingly and unintentionally, I had provided a last bit of food for the honeybees.

In this modern day and time, when honeybees are beleaguered by virus, pesticides, and the loss of natural habitat, to even see one at work is a rarity. Yet we cannot survive without them. They help keep our food supply going.

I was glad to see this single bee. I’ve missed them since moving here. My last residence had two hollies along the front facade that attracted them. Dozens of them would be buzzing through the holly blooms, and yet none of the bees ever bothered me there. This house has been devoid of bees … until now.

I choose to take it as a good sign, a positive omen that somehow, sometimes, the world just works the way it should. If I’d been capable of keeping the bed in order, there might not have been a lingering wildflower for this bee to sample before winter closes the door.

Seeing the bee at work also reminded me of the merit of simple persistence. I don’t know how far the bee had to fly to find these stingy little bits of harvest. The season is dying away, and the fingers of winter are reaching out for us, and yet little bee was still harvesting, still working hard. The bee works by instinct and the mysterious rituals of its species. It doesn’t quit until it dies. Regardless of the encroachment of humans, it continues to find a way to feed the hive and its queen.

So, too, is writing a process of simple persistence. You plan. You imagine. And then you simply work and work and work and work, day by day, hour by hour, unable perhaps to see your way clearly through the story at times. You must keep going. You must persevere until the story is finished, the draft completed. You can’t abandon it partway through or you will never learn, never grow. You will never achieve a comb of honey, the nectar of your imagination and talent.

You can rely on your outline or you can fly strictly on the wings of story sense and intuition. Either way, you move forward, from beginning to end, as many times as it takes to get the words right.

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Phoenix Time

If you want to be a novelist–and by that I mean you really want to write books on a regular, consistent basis and aren’t just toying with the notion of writing one book someday–then you need to be aware of the statistic floating around that claims the average novelist’s career ends after three books.

That’s a dismal statistic. I’m so glad I didn’t encounter it early in my career–much less BEFORE my career was launched.

So why am I laying it on you? Because my point is that–like so many statistics–it can be misapplied and misunderstood, thereby becoming deceptive. You need to understand what’s true about it and what’s misleading.

Long-term working writers reinvent themselves all the time. Unless and until a novelist strikes oil with a major, runaway bestseller or creates a series that becomes highly popular with readers, it’s necessary to adapt and change in order to keep pace with an ever-developing book market.

I have friends in the business who write in several genres under different pseudonyms. So you may see a trio of science fiction space adventures from author Wylie Writer, and maybe you’ve enjoyed them. But then Wylie vanishes, and you think, Oh, darn. He gave up writing.

Not necessarily. Wylie Writer simply found that revenue on the PRINCESS MONA MAMBOS ON MARS series was inadequate, or Wylie’s publisher declined to continue Princess Mona’s adventures. So Wylie is now working on a new paranormal romance project, ZOMBIE BABES, under the pseudonym Amanda Amorous.

The book business operates in a feast/famine cycle. You land a five-figure book deal. You treat your family to steak. Then you s-t-r-e-t-c-h that money over the next three years while you write your epic urban fantasy trilogy about the battle for New York between the organized werewolf clans–Canis Nostrum–and zombie invaders from New Jersey. “Yo, Fuzzy! Go down to the sewers and give Mr. Rotgut an offer he can’t refuse.”

Writing other projects on the side can help mitigate the famine aspect, if you have the focus and discipline to write more than one book at the same time. (Sometimes our day job gets in the way!)

But the first book in that trio may not sell terrifically. Book 2 is much better, but the publisher has already lost interest and doesn’t push it. Book 3 is slid onto store shelves without any fanfare at all. Writer does not land another deal with that publisher.

Again, if you’re in the business because you love to write and you can’t live without words and you intend to keep on writing despite everything, then you pitch your next project to another publisher. And maybe you do so under a different name.

The added complication–as if writers don’t already juggle enough of them–is the current publishing revolution. Traditional ink-on-paper publishing has been merged and blended into what’s now known as the “Big Six.” In a year or two, it will probably be the “Big Four.”

Vanity publishing–thanks to the advent of electronic books–has never been easier. A novelist can put up as many books as she can write. The drawback, however, remains the same hiccup that we’ve always had: getting the public to notice.

In the past, the hiccup was called “distribution.” Under the old-style of self-publishing, you paid a company to print your books then you drove around with a stack of two hundred copies in your car trunk and couldn’t get any brick-and-mortar bookstore to let you hold a book signing event. You ended up either storing the books in your mom’s garage, handing them out to your family as Christmas presents, or dumping them at a tag sale.

In the present, the hiccup is called “promotion.” The new venue of self-publishing gives you worldwide distribution online. Trouble is, you have to catch reader attention. Novelists are now spending time learning to design Web sites and constantly feed a stream of chatter into the various forms of social media in hopes of enticing someone to read their latest e-book.

Writers try new ideas all the time. They try new venues. They pitch their projects to literary agents and publishers, and maybe they’re shot down. They write the book dear to their heart anyway and publish it in Kindle format. No one reads it, and every online visit to the empty bank account (created just for e-book revenue) is a stab to the heart.

This is a business of dreams and disappointments, splurging and starving, trying something new and meeting rejection. It is a lifetime of persistence. A career novelist has to be able to endure the jerky uneven pace of this kind of existence, perhaps even thrive on it. Most importantly of all, a novelist doesn’t quit, doesn’t quit, doesn’t quit.

No matter how many reincarnations it takes to keep work going out there to be read by others, we don’t surrender. We don’t give up. We endure the dark tunnel of working on projects doomed by their publishers to fail. And now and then, we step out into the light of a new sales contract, a juicy advance, a book that’s selling, and good reviews. Like troglytes kept too long in the shadows, we blink in dazed amazement and smile. And when we descend back into the tunnel, the warmth of the good times we’ve enjoyed keeps us going.

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