Benjamin Barber, an eminent sociologist, once said, “I don’t divide the world into the weak and the strong, or the successes and the failures… I divide the world into the learners and nonlearners.”
Does everybody have the personality traits or mindset to be a professional writer? I doubt it. For some I bet it will never be more than a hobby, a release, a form of self-medication. And there’ s nothing wrong with that. From studying professional writers, athletes, musicians, etc., I think that to work as a professional yourself you need the traits and mindset the professionals possess. Talent and creativity are NOT enough to enable you to stand among your heroes.
Are you determined enough? Determination goes hand in hand with focus, one being long term, the other short. Without focus and the desire to learn/improve, determination is more detrimental than beneficial though. Sometimes it takes a lot of failure to achieve success. Sometimes we have no idea how much determination it takes until we look back nearly a decade and see nothing behind us but a mountain of rejection slips, and find that we’re just now holding that first paying acceptance. Determination is part faith, part ego, part fortitude, part training. You can learn to grow tough skin, learn to take constructive criticism and reject negative. How do you stay determined in those early years? If you’ve already got five, six, seven or more years with very little ‘success,’ what helps you keep going when the evidence (lack of sales) will make you question yourself and craft?
Are you humble enough/your ego in check? Nobody likes working with an asshole. Even worse is a drama queen. Deep down we all want to (or do) believe we’re special since our world view and our lives are supposed to be unique. But to be honest, mostly we’re not special, mostly our lives mirror the lives of those we’re attracted to and call friends. Sometimes thinking we’re ‘special’ and have a story only we can tell helps us stay determined. The world is full of talented jackasses. If we step back and see how little we truly know (not just about writing, but about everything) the easier it is to get a more realistic perspective on where we stand. Yeah, we have something to contribute (hopefully), something moving, or entertaining, yet reader response is pretty much the only yardstick by with which we can measure our creations. Simply being aware of our roots, our place in the big scheme, etc., can we keep our egos in check? Hell, everybody wants acceptance and validation, but those who only want that might as well get the fudge out and find some other means of expression.
Are you reliable enough? It takes a certain mindset to stay steady in output, in meeting deadlines while juggling tons of other projects, in upholding your side of the contract, in answering fan email, etc. Like a lot of things, organization, focus, and a plan help, but without actually being consistently reliable (producing your best work, on time) organizational skills and short-term focus aren’t enough. It takes stamina to build momentum in a writing career (or as a musician or athlete). It takes dedication and editors learn to weed-out the non-dedicated quickly.
Are you honest enough? You have to be honest with yourself in your emotions, your world view, your family view, relationships you’ve had, your mistakes, your treasures, what enthralls you and what disturbs you. And that’s just the first step! Then you have to portray that honesty through your characters in an effective manner that proves convincing and lasting. Honesty can’t be faked. I think it’s either something that you have or don’t have. If you’re prone to exaggerate or outright lie, the only thing you can do is be mindful of when and why and learn to nip it in the bud, even if it causes you internal struggle. Everyone wins when they’re honest.
Are you appreciative of others? Though we compose in solitude and study our craft with the door closed on everybody except the voices in our heads, people are the whole point behind writing. People help us, teach us, support us, humble us, inspire us, treat us, encourage us. We wouldn’t get anywhere with out at least a handful of close, like-minded, professionally driven amigos. If we never thank anybody it shows what really matters to us.
Are you curious enough? It takes an endless well of curiosity to supply the ink to our proverbial pen. Discovering, unearthing, learning, teaching (and in teaching, discovering more), always remaining mystified by life’s intricate web, enriches our work and our lives. Those who aren’t curious are obvious. Their stories are usually a rehashing of the same thing over and over and over. But the curious ones–like Bradbury, King, Gaiman–search out mysteries. Some people on the other hand just aren’t curious about much. Maybe they never will be because questioning things or confronting issues that piss them off or make them hurt, scares them. The world isn’t bland, our normal, lazy, conditioned perceptions are bland.
Are you comfortable with isolation? I love daydreaming, having brainstorming sessions on an upcoming project, being alone to read, going hiking by myself, the half hour or so I write every day in spurts of manic, blazing output. I don’t know how it is with the majority, but most of the pros advise getting in the chair, closing the door to distractions, and writing. You can’t do that while socializing. And writing novels takes a lot of focus, faith, confidence, intuition, and acquired skills. You may find that you have to spend hours upon hours alone to come up with one simple truth that has existed since the beginning of time but you simply overlooked because you were too busy in constant contact. Get used to isolation. And when not writing, go live so you have more to bring back to the drawing board.
Are you independent? Look up co-dependency, see how co-dependent you are in just your little writing circles, then reassess. You have to work toward a certain level of competency on your own.
Are you self-motivated? Nearly everybody who writes probably fantasizes about doing it for a living. I work part time still for my brother-in-law, mostly to stay in shape and keep myself from boredom since some of the best story sections take place while doing what has become a mindless task. When you don’t have a boss over your shoulder, when all you have is time, you might waste a lot of it. The dream bubble pops, you get bored. You procrastinate because, well, hell, you have all the time in the world! But you don’t. Because you’re pissing it away taking all that time thinking about what you could be doing (an old habit for a lot of people) instead of actually doing it. Find ways to self-motivate. Different things probably work for different people.
Is obsession part of your personality? It takes an almost unhealthy dose of obsession to reach a professional level. Mediocre writers are a dime a dozen. There are all kinds of things writers can obsess about, not all of them good. What’s bad to obsess about? How about what everybody is going to say before you’ve even finished the first chapter? How about how huge or small your first advance will be? How about paranoia and thinking that other writers, or agents, or editors will steal your ideas? Not a healthy kind of obsession. When I’m talking about obsession, I’m talking about an uncontrollable wonder of humanity, the world, the process of creation, the precision of well-placed words, how stories move us in ways very little else can. I’m talking about touching magic. I don’t think it’s something that can be taught or acquired. I think it’s a very deep (or not) place in our psyches.
Do you have a professional mindset? Do you want to do the best job you can do, be on time, give your customers what they pay for, handle your business effectively and efficiently, learn new ways to improve, think outside the box and forge new ground? Do you want to take each aspect of your writing career seriously, or only the writing itself and merely dabble in anything outside the creative side of it? Are you willing to study, implement and reassess? Can you balance the artistic and business sides of your career, or do you even want to?
Are you patient enough? Patience isn’t easy. Patience itself takes work that can already wear down what reserves of energy you have that day, week, month or year. But it’s necessary because there are no overnight successes and you’re unrealistic if you think you will be one. Better to accept that things will take time. A lot of time. A lot of work. A lot of learning. Then more patience.
Are you expressive enough? Every word and action sends a message. Take a hard look at every scene in your WIP. What message are your words and actions sending? It goes back to all of us being conditioned about how unique we are, then a lot of people churn out the same boring crap. Tap deeply into your emotions (and god, more than one of them over the course of a novel, please). I’m an intense person by nature, always have been, and it comes across in my work. And people that I know who are passive by nature tend to write passively, their characters skirting conflict constantly and the story going nowhere because they have passion but feel they’ll be punished for expressing it. If you’re passive, learn to be a little more forward and say exactly what you mean. Story is conflict.
Are you attentive to details? The right details, the right word choices, the right execution are all very personal. But editors and agents can see a big difference between an amateur and semi-professional by their attention to detail alone. Stephen King gives a great example of it in On Writing. Many other pros do as well. Details matter, but the right details. How do you learn that? I’ll always swear by hand-copying favorite books. It’s the best way that works for me to internalize how, why, when the masters do what, and to what extent.
Are you for change? A closed mindset in any profession hurts more than helps. Times change, people change, tastes change, perspective changes for you, for me, for our characters, from beginning to end. Cycles, patterns, order and chaos. It’s all part of the sweet and endless mystery. Be open to change. Be water. Be a learner. Nerds rule the world.
And if you missed the awesome news… My Division Mytho’s website, that has tons of awesome details about this massive storyline I’m building (over a million words), is now LIVE! I’m so excited. A huge thanks to Peter Schwotzer for designing it! And a big thanks to everybody who checks it out and shares!