By Paul Goat Allen
I watched a presentation recently given by Mike Tomlin, the head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, where he said that talent has very little to do with success in football. “It’s not what you’re capable of, it’s what you’re willing to do. I know plenty of people that are capable. I know fewer people that are willing… Will is a powerful thing. Ask yourself, ‘what are you willing to do?’”
I immediately thought of all the writers I’ve mentored in Seton Hill University’s Writing Popular Fiction graduate writing program as well as the countless indie authors I’ve worked with over the years.
What Tomlin said about football directly relates to writing—and to life. It doesn’t matter how talented you are. It’s what you’re willing to do with that talent.
Some of the most insanely talented writers I’ve ever had the opportunity to mentor, years and sometimes decades after working with them, have never published anything. On the flip side of that, I know writers who—while maybe not the most talented wordsmiths—have gone on to publish multiple novels (both indie and traditional), make national bestseller lists, and find commercial and critical success with their novels.
So, let’s go back to the question Tomlin posed: what are you willing to do?
I thought about the writers I’ve have the chance to work with who have gone from writing student to bestselling author and a few common characteristics soon became apparent in all their respective histories:
• A willingness to learn, to know more about writing, the publishing industry, etc. This includes the willingness to leave your ego at the door when your work is being evaluated. When I critique a story, I dissect it piece by piece to identify strengths and weaknesses. Some writers find this kind of examination and analysis uncomfortable but a very few welcome it and use that information to improve their novel in the revision process. From experience, I know those are the writers who have the best chance at finding success in this brutal industry.
As a book reviewer who has worked for a multitude of companies, I find it curious how few writers ask me how they can get their book reviewed and/or featured in publications and professional review sites. Again, the writers who ask these kinds of questions are generally also the ones who seek out the aforementioned critiques.
These are the writers who understand the power of networking. It’s not just about what you know but who you know. Nurturing relationships with fellow writers, editors, agents, etc. can absolutely benefit you when it comes to publishing and career opportunities. Two of my favorite jobs—working for The Chicago Tribune and PW—came directly from editors who knew me, liked my work, and hired me on the spot.
• A willingness to persevere. I can’t even begin to tell you how many times I’ve heard this story—a student graduates, or a writer I’ve worked with finishes their novel, and after sending it to a few agents and/or publishers and receiving rejections, they just give up.
For those of you struggling with this, just remember Laurell K. Hamilton’s story. In the ‘80s, she tried to get her debut novel Guilty Pleasures published with no success. But she believed in the story (that blended horror, romance, and fantasy) and after 200 rejections—yes, 200!—Ace published Guilty Pleasures in 1993. Today, Hamilton has published almost 50 novels and has sold more than 20 million copies of her novels.
• A willingness to be proactive. This is a big one. Don’t wait for something to happen—make it happen! If you’re an indie author with a new release looming, plan a book signing tour, utilize social media to increase awareness and create a buzz, do a giveaway, etc. I know so many indie writers who do NOTHING when their novel is released!
Here’s a great little story. Back in the 2000’s, I worked for BN.com as a blogger, editor, and forum moderator for the company’s paranormal fantasy, science fiction, and fantasy boards. Every month, we’d feature an author with a new release and the author would stop into the forum to answer questions and chat with fans. It was a ton of fun and highly successful—we sold a lot of books! In 2009, Jaye Wells had her debut novel coming out, Red-Headed Stepchild, the first installment of her Sabina Kane saga. She contacted me, told me about her novel, and asked if I’d be interested in checking it out. Her publisher, Orbit, sent me a copy and I loved it. BN.com ended up featuring her debut novel—and every single subsequent release—in the paranormal fantasy forum, and the series ultimately went down as one of the best series in that decade-long golden age of paranormal fantasy. The takeaway here? If Jaye had never reached out, those novels would have never been featured on the B&N website.
• A willingness to take advantage of opportunities. Jaye’s story is not an uncommon one. In various capacities over the last 25 years, I’ve had the opportunity to seek out and interview authors, find new releases to promote, etc. And I’ve interviewed hundreds of traditionally published and indie authors for Goodreads, BlueInk, PW, and BN.com. But there are literally hundreds more authors that I wanted to interview, wanted to promote their novels, but I couldn’t contact them because they had no digital footprint. Major opportunities missed just because the author couldn’t take a few minutes to set up an Instagram or other social media account.
Make yourself available, accessible, and always be willing to say “yes” to opportunities, be it a panel at a convention or a group book signing or an interview for a podcast. Every promotional thing you do is a potential door opening—and you don’t know what that open door can lead to.
The bottom line: successful authors don’t wait for their big break. They make it themselves. Don’t give up. Don’t lose sight of your goal. Keep grinding. Be willing! Look at any bestselling list and you won’t find the most talented writers, you’ll find the writers who worked the hardest to get where they are.
Paul Goat Allen has been reviewing books for more than 25 years. In addition to BlueInk Review, his work has appeared with BarnesandNoble.com, The Chicago Tribune, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and more. He also teaches in Seton Hill University’s Writing Popular Fiction graduate writing program.