Turning Whine Into Gold
You chose to pursue a career as a novelist because of your passion for the written story. But what is your long-range goal? Mine was specific—as a writer interested in legacy, I wanted to leave behind a “body of work,” which to me meant eight novels. Maybe your interest in creative range, and you want to be published in three genres. Or maybe financial gain is most important and you hope to support your family.
“Human desire is a sticky thing,” says Jon Kabat-Zinn in Wherever You Go, There You Are. Desire is sticky enough to pull you toward your goal, but can also be sticky enough to blind you to unexpected opportunity along the way.
I wonder how many of us have written off opportunities as obstacles? I could imagine someone who tried to make it in TV and is now writing novels, saying, Oh great, I’m trying to write a novel and now someone offers me a job hosting an arts show on a local cable channel. I’ll never finish my novel!
Who’s to say this is the best year to seek publication? We live in politically (and therefore economically) unsettled times and publishers are twitchy. What if getting published three years from now might get you to your goal quicker—and in the meantime, you could put those years to good use fleshing out new novels while building a valuable platform? Let me tell you how many publishers would like to see “cable TV host” in your query letter. Even delivering mail could introduce you to countless potential readers.
I love the old joke about the man praying that God will save him from the floodwaters threatening his home. A neighbor knocks on his door and says, “We must leave now. There’s room in my car—come on!” But the man says no. He too heard the warning, and is certain God will save him. When the floodwaters cover his stoop, the man retreats to the second floor. A stranger in a boat comes past his window and says, “Get into my boat and we’ll paddle to safety.” The man says, “No thank you. God will save me.” Then, from a hovering helicopter, a rescue worker shouts, “Grab hold of the ladder and climb up.” The man shouts back, “No thank you, God will save me.”
The man drowns. When he gets to heaven, he rails against God. “I was praying to you the whole time. Why didn’t you save me?” God answers, “What do you mean? I sent a warning, a car, a boat, a helicopter…what more did you want?”
Tunnel vision may appear to offer the shortest route between two points, but it may not be the quickest or the most satisfying. While focused on your all-consuming author goal, could you be missing the warning, the car, the boat, and the helicopter?
A softer focus on your goal could help you see these opportunities for what they are.
Aspiring novelists are told all manner of things that tighten their white-knuckle grip on our goal. Perseverance is key. Write every day. The only failure is quitting. Getting agented is a numbers game. Type “x” number of words a day. It takes a million words to make a novelist. These old saws can help us reach a destination that seems too far away. But think about it: should the same advice apply to all authors, when no two careers are ever the same? Who’s to say that an unforeseen opportunity might not increase your visibility, stoke your creativity, and lead to connections on which you can capitalize?
The quandary interests me, but I’ll be the first to admit I don’t have the answers. While I’m happy to play God in my novels, I am overjoyed I wasn’t cast as the master of the universe. I would have bungled the job by giving myself an easy path rather than challenging myself to explore the deep, lasting rewards of prevailing over rockier terrain, which ultimately gave me so much to write about.
I have seen writers hold onto their goal until it has shredded them apart. I’m just saying, this might not be the best use of your time on earth.
Think carefully before declaring something an obstacle or an opportunity. Saying “yes” might just take you one step further on the path of your unpredictable, creative life.
Maybe those opportunities could open more doors for your writing career.
Maybe they could make you happy.
As a fun exercise in career imagination, pick one of the following “obstacles” and show how it might lead to novel success. In addition, please share stories of success that arrived in an unexpected—or perhaps even unwanted—package!
- Your talented daughter wants you to move to Nashville to support her singing dream.
- Your mother, in hospice, asks your help in writing her life story.
- Your boss wants you to move to Thailand for a year.
Kathryn Craft is the award-winning author of two novels from Sourcebooks, The Art of Falling and The Far End of Happy, and a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, specializing in storytelling structure and writing craft. Her chapter “A Drop of Imitation: Learn from the Masters” was included in the writing guide Author in Progress, from Writers Digest Books. Janice Gable Bashman’s interview with her, “How Structure Supports Meaning,” originally published in the 2017 Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market, has been reprinted in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing, both from Writer’s Digest Books.