I’ve been writing for a total of fourteen years, six years full-time. Many of these years I had nothing to show for the work I was doing. At times, it even seemed like I was the only one who understood that I was actually doing any kind of work at all. Hard work with no reward at the end of the day has discouraged stronger individuals than me. When trying to distinguish what kept fueling me forward on my path to publication and dreams of representation, I realized it was a series of writing axioms I repeated to myself every single day, rain or shine, good day or bad, whether the words were flowing or not, no matter stack of rejection letters growing out of the corner of my eye. Here are the five adages that have shaped my writing journey and never fail to preserve what I think of as a healthy work ethic:
#1 – NEVER, NEVER, NEVER GIVE UP
One afternoon while working at my local bookstore, I was dusting a sales rack littered with desk doodads and a small, gold plaque caught my eye. As soon as I read these words, my heart gave a little skip and I had to have it. Right then, as a matter of fact. I took it off the shelf and placed it in the employee reserves cabinet behind the register. At the end of my shift, I didn’t think of waiting as I did for my favorite romance paperbacks until the first of the month when my storewide discount would drive the price down thirty percent. No, I paid the list price of $9.99 + tax and rushed home to place the plaque on my desk where it has been every day since. This is the most important axiom of my career. I started my journey in 2005 with two clear-cut goals: a) I wanted to be published and b) I wanted an agent as passionate about my work as I am. There are hard days in publishing. It’s inevitable. Everyday that I opened a letter of rejection at my desk or in my inbox, this adage was all but staring me in the face, slapping me back into focus. And it made all the difference in the world.
#2 – "PLOTS ARE LIKE SHARKS…"
This awesome quote comes from New York Times bestselling author J.R. Ward: "Plots are like sharks. They keep moving or they die." These words may not be stamped on a plaque on my desk but they’ve been on the dry erase board in my office so long, they’ve dried there and will probably be stuck forever as a result. This doesn’t trouble me in the least, however, because this quote has saved every story I’ve written since I came across it in The Black Dagger Brotherhood: An Insider’s Guide. Before, I would write and write and write and a good third of my manuscripts would eventually die off. I’d lose interest or write myself into a corner. In either case, I wasn’t passionate enough about the stories themselves to go back and fix whatever mistakes I’d made. In retrospect, it all boiled down to one vital thing: zero plot momentum. Nothing made that as clear for me as Ward’s shark analogy. It’s the writing adage that I pass along most often to writing friends.
#3 – "SCIENTIFIC WORKABILITY!"
I borrowed this one from Julia Child who was not only a dedicated chef but an incredibly disciplined writer. I’ve learned over the years that the writing is never perfect. Something can always be tweaked, whether it be plot or grammar or wording. I began writing my historical romance, Forever Amore, in 2002. I completed the first draft in December 2004. After a series of rejections from editors and agents, I decided to revise. The book was not published until September of last year after six revisions—two of which were major rewrites. The manuscript has been through so much proofreading and editing, it would make my high school AP English/Language Arts teachers—the ones with the merciless red pens—beam with pride. But when flipping through that polished paperback at any point during the last year, I’ve pursed my lips over wording I’d tweaked a hundred times before. The editor in me is merciless and never satisfied. I content myself, however, that when I turned the manuscript into my publisher, it was as polished and professional as I could make it at that time and put my red pen to work on the next.
#4 – DON’T SHY AWAY FROM NECESSARY CHANGE
With change comes growth. As a child whose family moved around quite a bit, I resented this saying more than any other. Writing, however, taught me just how tried and true this particular axiom is. Going back to the early days of my historical romance, the original manuscript was a whopping 140,000 words. In my mind, a masterpiece. For targeted editors and agents, a monster. Industry professionals kept telling me it was too long and I blatantly ignored them. At the core of this stubborn refusal was the fear of losing sight of the story vision. After a year, the truth began to sink in. This was my first baby, however, so cutting into it was something I tossed and turned over for another year. By the third revision, I’d cut that baby down to 75,000 words and had to admit it was sharper, more succinct. Still, the rejections continued to trickle in, this time focusing on the "cardboard" hero. I may have learned to revise story structure, but I’d never dreamed of touching my characters. After studying this particular character, however, then what made great romance heroes so beloved, I realized what I needed to do. After another two revisions, I finally shaped him into the hero the story needed and—by extension—the man the embattled heroine deserved. The story changed exponentially without ever losing clear sight of its original vision and was ten times stronger and tauter and a better read because of the change. Madeleine L’Engle’s said it right in A Circle of Quiet: "Experimenting is the only way a writer grows."
#5 – NEVER LISTEN TO CRUEL CRITICISM
This is the adage I have most trouble taking into account. If there’s one blessing of rejection, it numbs you to things that would’ve really hurt or frustrated you beforehand. But sometimes those cynical voices in your head or on the physical plane unexpectedly manage to wing past this careful armor. These are the ones that have the best chance of hurting us, unfortunately. After six years of rejection and publishing ups and downs and the occasional biting criticisms, I thought no cruel bystanders or bout of melancholy could ripple the surface of my clear-cut resolve. In March, however, an anonymous commenter on my personal blogsite informed me in no uncertain terms that I needed to get a life, a real job that makes real money and, condescendingly, included that growing old with no money is not pretty. I’d heard it before, but something about the wording or the timing arrowed straight through my heart. I stopped writing for three weeks before my husband finally gave me the motivating kick that I needed to get back on the production wagon. Less than a month later, an agent called with an offer of representation for my paranormal romance series. If I had continued to let this mean-spirited individual interfere with my work, I probably wouldn’t have fulfilled my second career goal. Now I cannot stress enough the importance of never listening to cruel criticism. Another quote I’m fond of along the same lines is this one from Sinclair Lewis: "It is impossible to discourage the real writers – they don’t give a damn what you say, they’re going to write." Amen!
Amber Leigh Williams is a multi-published romance author, a member of Romance Writers of America, former Secretary of GCCRWA, and a reviewer for The Season. Her first western romance, Blackest Heart, placed 1st in the 2009 More Than Magic Contest’s novella category and her historical romance, Forever Amore, was nominated for Best Book of 2009 by Long & Short Reviews. She is represented by D4EO Literary Agency and lives on the Gulf Coast with her husband and three labs. Learn more about her books and her journey to publication at http://www.amberleighwilliams.com!