[I can’t find the original Twitter post that coined the phrase “stolen-time writer,” but it has stuck with me all these long months. So if you see it, please let me know so I can give the writer credit.]
“Genius is 1% talent and 99% hard work.” – Albert Einstein
My favorite inspirational quote is actually one coined by my amazing CP, Cassy Klisch. She told me once:
Remember what separates the dreamers from the doers; the ones who wish and wonder “what if” from the ones who get what they want.
And that’s the biggest lesson I’ve learned about writing, about success, and about life in general. In fact, two lessons that, I think, are equally important to achieving your goals:
- Work hard.
- Work smart.
I’m a stolen-time writer. In fact, I’m probably one of the strangest combinations of a secret aspiring writer. I graduated from New York University’s Leonard N. Stern School of Business with an undergraduate degree in Finance and Accounting. My life path was already carved out: I got a job by the end of my junior year at one of the largest banks in the U.S. — maybe the world; I worked my butt off, and I excelled at my job.
But there was always that passion. That burning desire. That need, as one might breathe or eat or drink.
I know most writers will nod in agreement or commiseration when I say that the first factor in success is working hard. Very. Very. Hard. I don’t stand out amongst all of the amazing souls who have surely but steadily been plodding towards their dreams for years — but I put in my fair share. For three years, I worked a full-time job in finance, pulling off ten- to sixteen-hour days, sometimes working weekends. I remember from November 2016 to May 2017, I literally did not leave my office before 10PM. Ever. Not even a single day.
And after work, at night? I wrote. By the distant, shimmering lights of my concrete jungle, by the cool glass windows of my Manhattan high-rise, I wrote. Every little sliver of time that I could find in-between work and sleep and social life, I was writing. I’d literally get home from work, shove whatever food I could find down my throat and give myself an hour — just one hour — to relax and shift gears. And then I’d sit in front of my laptop and pour my heart into my manuscript. I would crawl up in the middle of the night or drag myself up in the early hours of the morning to write, write, and write.
It’s definitely easier said (or written) than done. Trust me when I say that there were so many times when I wanted to just give up, relax, and watch a movie with my boyfriend. So many times I’ve had to decline invitations to go shopping, or hiking, or some all-day event that would take up my writing time; that I’ve said, “Can we do brunch or dinner instead?” because that would allow me to catch up with friends but also have time to write.
And there are so many times that I gave in. That I plopped down on my couch after work and said, “Screw it. I closed two deals at work today. I’m ****ing exhausted and I want to rest,” or said, “I really want to go to that party; I’m gonna go.” I faced that choice every single day. And maybe 1/5 times, I would choose to rest. But the other 4/5 days, I chose to fight.
In Chinese, we have an idiom: 日积月累. It roughly translates to, “A bit of hard work every day amounts to a lot in the long term.”
So. It doesn’t have to be 3,000 words a day. It can be one sentence. It can be random thoughts, or brainstorming, or more plotting, or development of a character arc. All that matters is that you show up every day.
Working hard is only half the battle — the important, foundational, imperative half. The other half is working smart. It’s like rowing a boat. You can row hard and row until your arms fall off, but if you’re headed in the wrong direction, you’re not going to get to your destination.
Lesson 2: Work smart.
I wrote my first draft of Blood Heir between fall 2014 and fall 2015. In November of 2015, I posted my opening on Absolute Write. And this is where work smart comes in. I thought people would love my opening; I thought people would fall to their knees with song and praise.
Nope. The critiques came. So. Many. Critiques. All of them so astoundingly useful. (I’m looking back at my opening back in 2015 and cringing. It’s still posted somewhere in the forums if you want evidence of how much my writing has grown in three years — and how much yours can, too.)
It was like lighting a bunch of candles in a dark, dark night, where I’d been stumbling out in the woods by myself and thinking I was going the right way. One candle for characterization. Another for emotional swings. A third for pacing. And so on, and so on.
I realized that a complete rewrite (perhaps more than one) was necessary, and I realized that I needed beta readers. Not just any beta readers — but ones who were better than me. Who were critical. Harsh, even. But I took all of the feedback eagerly, and rewrote. And rewrote again. And again. I started realizing how far I was from mastery of my words, from all of the techniques that separated the great authors from the still-learning writers. I studied the works of my favorite authors (and recorded my thought processes on this blog!) which was a tremendous help to my own writing techniques.
By August of 2017, I began to feel that I was close — very close — but I wanted one final run-through of my manuscript.
That’s when I found one of my greatest CPs, Heather Kassner. I had joined a Twitter event called #CPMatch, where writers — you guessed it — look for CPs by posting a short pitch of their book. I learned so much from Heather (who had representation from a superstar agent by the time we connected), from both her critiques and by reading her writing. And believe me when I tell you, her writing is magical. Truly, every word she uses is carefully-chosen and each sentence is well-crafted and rich with meaning. Not a single character is wasted.
In the final round of my manuscript revision, I learned from my CP to carefully place each and every word.
And that brings me to today! In the query trenches, I received 14 full manuscript requests and am still pending 17 responses. So far, every agent I queried has requested materials. For now, I consider that a small success — and I hope to announce some good news soon! Working hard and persevering in the face of a long journey gave me the courage to perfect my manuscript over the course of three years and five rewrites — and working smart ensured each of those rewrites was not wasted time. But first? Show up every day.