Writers Must Have Passion
The Voice of Experience
“Integrity is not a conditional word. It doesn't blow in the wind or change with the weather. It is your inner image of yourself, and if you look in there and see a man who won't cheat, then you know he never will.”
During the 1930s, John D. MacDonald earned an MBA from Harvard, then volunteered for the army in 1940 and served well during World War Two.
After the war, his options were seemingly limitless. With his MBA from one of the most prestigious schools in America, he was virtually guaranteed a high-paying job.
Instead, he became an impoverished writer of pulp fiction.
For the first four months of his writing career, MacDonald wrote 800,000 words and sold not a thing.
Finally, in his fifth month, he sold his first short story for twenty-five dollars.
Fast-forward to 1950, the year he finally sold his first novel, which was followed by sixty-six more published novels, which was followed by his being named, in 1962, as a Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America, and a National Book Award in 1980.
During an interview toward the end of his career, MacDonald said: “They pay me to do this! They don’t realize, I would pay them.”
Can any of you relate?
Go back and read the section that mentions he wrote 800,000 words in four months. Friends, that is the equivalent of two novels each month. He wrote fourteen hours per day, seven days per week, and collected hundreds of rejection slips in return….oh, and he lost twenty pounds in the process.
Do you feel the passion?
Let’s take a look at a few lessons we can learn from MacDonald’s example.
Whatever It Takes
With an MBA from Harvard, Mr. MacDonald could basically write his own ticket in the business world. He was newly married, a war veteran, and he held the key for success. Instead, he chucked it all, listened to a small voice inside his head, holed himself up in a tiny apartment, and wrote like a man possessed.
I hear so many people say they have a passion for writing, and then several months go by, without success, and suddenly they cannot find the time to write.
I want to ignite a fire in you all. The world needs writers. If you truly have a passion to write, then I consider it your social responsibility to write. Murders, rapes, mass-shootings, government atrocities, genocide….it is all there for us to see on a daily basis. There is ugliness afoot, and to counteract that ugliness, we, as a society, turn to the Arts. The Arts provide us all with a padded, soundproof room of safety, a place where we can bring our blankies, tuck ourselves in a corner, suck our thumbs, and escape from the madness that threatens our serenity and sanity.
The world needs writers.
The world needs you.
Laugh at Rejection
I have said this before, and I’m likely to say it a few hundred more times: rejection does not mean you are a bad writer.
There are so many reasons why a writer might be rejected, and most of them have nothing to do with ability. Approaching the wrong editor, not following the submission guidelines, not writing a great hook in the query letter, all can lead to swift and ignominious rejection.
MacDonald was, literally, rejected hundreds of times within a four month period. He would write a short story, send it to a publisher, and be rejected. Day after day, week after week, and month after month, rejection followed rejection.
And yet he kept writing.
Did he begin to question his writing abilities? I honestly have no idea, but I suspect he did. Interestingly, his first published piece came, not from one of his query letters, but from his wife entering him in a writing contest.
Even after he was published in a magazine, his first novel was not accepted until 1950.
He kept on writing.
Combine passion with perseverance and you have a formidable weapon.
Try Something Different
Most of MacDonald’s novels were published in paperback and not hardcover. It was a personal choice and decision. He came from the pulp fiction class of writers, and all pulp fiction was printed in paperback. MacDonald liked a book you could scrunch up and shove in your back pocket….he did not like hardcover.
So he swam against the literary tide and refused to publish in hardcover. It was only after his death that several of his novels were republished in hardcover.
So he swam against the literary tide……
I think this is such an interesting and valuable lesson to learn.
The hottest genre to write in these days is Young Adult Fiction. With the success of books like “Divergence,” we are seeing a great many authors swing in that direction, to try to grab a piece of that literary pie before it loses its enormous popularity. This idea of following the hottest trend is understandable, but it is not the only option.
Writers like John D. MacDonald have shown that there really are rewards in being a writer others follow rather than a writer following others.
The Economic Value of a Series
Twenty-one of Mr. MacDonald’s novels were Travis McGee novels, McGee being the central character in all of them. It was a very successful series that spanned over twenty years, and sold millions of books.
Travis McGee was a literary hero for the average American. He was a two-fisted giant of a man, a beach bum and adventurer, a philosopher in quest of grails and windmills to topple. He spoke often about the rape of the environment and the horrors of big business, and he was all in favor of the poor taking from the rich in Robin Hood fashion.
Once the first in the series sold, MacDonald saw the popularity of his main character, and he just kept writing more books in the series until, today, decades later, the McGee series is one of the most cherished series in American literary history.
The lesson to be learned is obvious. Once you find the key to success, saddle up and ride that sucker for all you are worth. We never know when our fifteen minutes of fame will end.
Join me on my writing website
- William Holland | Thoreau of the 21st Century
Get comfortable and we'll discuss writing, toss out some observations, and help you along with some tips.
Do you feel you are doing everything necessary to succeed in writing?
I listen to writers who have found success. I would be a fool not to do so.
There is so much to learn from John D. MacDonald, so many tidbits of wisdom that we all can benefit from if we are willing to learn.
I find great comfort in knowing that one of the most successful authors in American history was rejected hundreds of times, and I find great inspiration in knowing that there are others out there who hear the voice of passion and who answer that call to write.
In today’s online world of instant gratification, I love the fact that there are still writers out there who are willing to put in unbelievably long hours to improve their craft.
I received an interesting comment recently from a fellow writer. She was lamenting the fact that many writers have turned to content mills to make a sure buck, but in spending that time writing SEO nonsense, they are using time that could be used on serious writing and honing of skills.
I completely agree. I understand the economics of it all, and why writers churn out ten articles per day for ridiculously low pay, but I wonder how much growth is happening. I have never heard a writer say that they grew up hoping they could write keyword-rich articles for ten dollars each. Most grew up dreaming of writing successful novels.
Just something to think about.
2014 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)
“Helping writers to spread their wings and fly.”