Last April I wrote about starting a book (a memoir of a Fortune 500 CEO), and described the process of coming up with what I thought might be the book’s opening sentences:
“In English grammar, they have what they call first person and second person. First person is when I talk about me. Second person is when I talk about you. I think grammar may have it backwards. Anyone who has had any measure of genuine success knows that focusing on myself comes second. Focusing on you comes first.
“So here’s the thing. I’m going to tell you my story. But the point is not to tell you my story—it’s to offer whatever experiences and perspectives I can in hopes it may help you work out what your story is, and muster the courage to live it.”
“Right now,” I wrote in my blog, “I have no idea if these hundred words are good, or so-so, or awful. That’s not false modesty. I truly don’t know. I have no idea if they will end up being the way the book starts, or even whether or not they will appear in the book at all.”
This week two different editors answered that question. The first said the sentences were great, brilliant, a terrific opening. The second said they were awful. “The first page and a half,” she wrote in her notes on the finished manuscript, “I would cut entirely.”
Aha. Back to the drawing board.
I thought I’d finished this book. I thought it was darn good. In fact, I thought it was excellent, sparkling, shiny, all ready to go.
Turns out, according to editor #2, there are things wrong with it. Big things. It needs massive work.
This week I also spent some thirty hours going through the manuscript of a completely different book — this one also purportedly “finished” — revising and re-revising and re-re-revising. This one I wrote in an intensely focused marathon over the summer, the idea being that we (my agent) would take it to New York in mid-September and sell it. But that didn’t happen. In September she gave it to an editor who we were sure would love it. Who we were sure would make a big offer on it.
Who turned it down.
It wasn’t ready.
In my writing career this has happened to me almost more times than I can count. The first time was with The Go-Giver, which was — surprise! — rejected by multiple publishers. We took the manuscript back, editor’s red pen markings, deletions, and suggestions scattered over every page, and completely, thoroughly revised it. The process took months.
That was the first time, but it sure wasn’t the last. My list of books that were rejected by publishers the first time we took them to New York includes, among others:
- The Go-Giver (now published in nearly two dozen languages and with close to half a million copies in print);
- The Red Circle (now New York Times bestseller and out in French, Polish, and Chinese, with a YA/teenage readership edition on the way);
- Flash Foresight (New York Times bestseller, five languages); and
- A Deadly Misunderstanding (Nautilus Award winner, with a Foreword by Ban Ki-Moon, Secretary General of the U.N.).
All four were eventually published and have since made their mark on the world — but only after first being turned down, shot down, and sent back to the drawing board.
I studied for a few years with a wonderful screenwriting teacher in Hollywood named Hal Croasmun. In his advanced course Hal taught us that beyond all the hundreds of techniques and skills we’d studied, there were two essential rules to becoming a successful professional screenwriter, someone studios would line up to work with.
#1) Make your writing excellent.
Merely good is no good. Talented: who cares. Clever: dime a dozen. The writing has to be dazzling. You have to practice your skills, writing every single day, refine and hone, hone and refine, and put yourself and your writing at the very top of your game. But that’s not enough. Rule #2 is equally critical:
#2) Be easy to work with.
You can be brilliant, talented, and amazingly skilled, says Hal, your writing can be the best writing anyone’s ever seen — and none of that will matter. If you are a prima donna, defensive, protective, in general a pain to work with, you might as well quit before you start, because nobody will want you.
Nobody is interested in working with a temperamental genius.
Accept critique willingly. Be open to notes and criticism. Never assume you know better. Never assume that the person telling you your page sucks “just doesn’t get it.” Assume that, even if you think he or she is dead wrong, there is something in what he or she is saying that you need to listen to and pay attention to.
Because, here’s the thing: the universe knows what you’re doing, and what you’re trying to do, better than you do. The universe (or you can say God; hey, according to the Gospel of John they are the same thing: universe = the one word = God) is omniscient. That means the world beyond you knows something you don’t know — and that you need to know.
You can assume that this person, the one giving you this unwelcome, unexpected, and possibly unpleasant feedback, is acting at the moment as the representative of the universe. So listen up.
Stephen King recommends writing your first draft “with the door closed” (don’t let anyone see your work, and don’t listen to what anyone else says about it) … and your second draft “with the door open” (time to listen).
Because whatever you set out to do, there are two essential truths about your path:
- Only you truly know what you’re doing. And …
- You really don’t know what you’re doing.
Or to put it a different (and slightly kinder-gentler) way:
- It’s important to be true to yourself and follow your inner guide;
- At the same time, realize that the universe knows you even better than you know you.
You might generalize Hal’s two rules for writing into two principles for living:
First: Do your very best.
And then: Stay open to learning how you can do it even better.