With a nod to Stephen Covey, author of the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, who died this week from complications of a biking accident, here are seven habits–based on my observations over the last 20 years— that successful authors seem to share.
The habit of discipline. Long ago, in a land called Mississippi a certain young lawyer rose at five am every day to write for a couple of hours before heading off to his office. He didn’t let his day job, the demands of a family, financial pressures or anything else interfere with those two quiet hours. Eventually he launched a career writing courtroom dramas such as A Time to Kill, The Pelican Brief, and The Runaway Jury, and my favorite of all his books, a quiet little novel called A Painted House. His name is John Grisham.
The habit of observation. Angela Hunt, one of my favorite novelists shares a definition of a novel that I really like: A novel is a fictional representation of a universal truth. If we as writers want to share that truth with readers, we must become keen observers of the world around us. In my workshops for beginning authors I encourage them to go out and spend time in the real world, and to take a notebook. Sometimes they tell me they don’t have time to waste sitting in a park or a mall people-watching. But quiet observation is one of the best ways I know to get to the truth of things. Those small telling details are one of the hallmarks of superior writing.
The habit of humility. I’ve written here before about Pat Conroy and his utter kindness, generosity, and humility toward his readers and other writers. Not so the romance writer Nicholas Sparks, who in a March, 2010 interview in USA Today, compared himself to Hemingway, and then proceeded to denigrate a book called Blood Meridian by Carmac McCarthy, winner of the Pulitzer prize for his novel The Road. “Horrible,” Sparks said. “Its the most pulpy, overwrought, melodramatic cowboy vs Indian story ever written.” This from the man who has made a fortune on such books as “A Walk to Remember” and “Nights in Rodanthe”! “There are no authors in my genre,” he said. “No one is doing what I do.” Mr. Sparks’ career may not be damaged by such remarks–he is too well established and there is virtually no crossover between Mr. McCarthy’s readership and his, but those of us still aspiring to Mr. Sparks’ level of success might be better off modeling ourselves after Mr. Conroy.
The habit of generosity. Whether it’s providing financial backing for a writing conference or scholarship, or taking time to advise a newcomer, or offering to judge a writing competition, I’ve noticed that often it’s the most successful authors who step up to the plate. Just the other day, author Jane Yolen set up a grant to help writers who have published, but not in the past two years. Her goal is to help the so-called midlist writer who needs help breaking out. Sometimes it’s hard not to feel envious of someone else’s sales, book contract or movie deal. But I think some of those feelings stem from the feeling that there is not enough success to go around. The late Mr. Covey wrote about developing an “abundant mentality”– the idea that there is plenty of success for all of us. When we operate from this mindset, it becomes easier to be generous with others.
The habit of gratitude. Someone else will always win more awards, land a more lucrative book deal, have a bigger movie coming out, get a better review in an important journal. A successful author runs his own race from a place of gratitude. When I forget to be grateful for where I am in my own race, I stop and remind myself of how many as yet unpublished authors would love to be in my shoes. And that realization spurs me to get back to trying to improve my writing, working toward success.
The habit of playfulness. Have you ever watched little kids on the playground? They run in circles, arms outstretched, they spin, chase each other, fall down and get up giggling. They invent games, catch bugs, fill buckets with water and dirt, pull apart a flower to see how it’s made. Their sense of wonder and their joy in the ordinary is infectious. Our lives as writers can’t be all about deadlines, proposals and marketing plans. We need to rediscover joy so that it can infuse our work. Set aside some time for play, for self renewal and balance, and see if your writing improves. If it doesn’t then oh well, at least you had a good time.
The habit of openness. Twenty years ago I made a decision to quit my day job and try to learn to be a novelist. Danielle Steel was hugely successful even then, and I decided to write what she was writing. I actually produced a 600 page novel on a typewriter!–and sent it out, to no avail. I went to a conference where I was advised to write what I knew. I was a former teacher, I knew kids, so I decided to try my hands at writing picture books. How hard could it be? Turns out, very hard indeed. The manuscripts I sent out came back so fast it was as if I had mailed them to myself. Finally, a very generous editor ( see # 4 above) sent a note which I kept for years: “Your work is lovely, but you are not a picture book writer. You are a novelist.” All righty then. I wrote a novel for preteens, sent it off and the first editor who read it, bought it, launching my career. All this is to say, be open to trying a different kind of novel, a different genre or time period. You never know when you’ll hit upon the perfect showcase for your particular talents.
What habits on this list do you think are most critical to a writer’s success? Are there any you would remove? Any you would add?