I am working with a team of three people who are on a mission to complete a self- help book in 2015 – Dale, Monica and Mike. Two weeks ago, we were wrestling with a particularly thorny chapter, and when I explained that the latest iteration still lacked oomph and depth and that they would have to revise it one more time – I thin it was the third time -- Dale spoke for the team. “That’s fine,” he said, “no problem. We have all agreed that there will be no bad songs on our album.”
“Ah,” I said, immediately getting the point, “so no `Muskrat Love.’”
We all burst out laughing. America’s Greatest Hits is one of the best albums of all time, right up there with the Eagle’s Hotel California and Fleetwood Mac Rumors --(and yes, I know, my musical taste is not exactly revolutionary). No one who has ever listened to that otherwise stellar collection of songs (“Ventura Highway,” “Sister Golden Hair”) understands that “Muskrat Love” is far and away the worst one. I can sing America’s Greatest Hits album from start to finish – every word, every line – and whenever I do, I get to “Muskrat Love” and think, “What were they thinking?” Maybe there is some genius musical or cultural or historical explanation for that song that I have yet to understand, but pretty much everyone agrees that it’s a dog.
Which was Dale’s point. There would be no bad chapters in their book -- nothing that would pull the reader out of the narrative, nothing that would cause the reader to stop.
I think this an excellent intention for every writer to set. If you want to be a writer who gets read, you need to get serious about your work. You need to think about how it will be perceived by readers. You need to commit to doing whatever needs to be done to make it effective and engaging and worthwhile on every single page.
Is that easily achieved? Of course not. It's very, very difficult.
The cost of excellence was reinforced this week by Kobe Bryant, who made headlines by passing Michael Jordan on the NBA’s list of all-time top scorers -– an extraordinary achievement in an extraordinary career. In an interview after the milestone, Kobe said, “I think the competitive nature is something that frightens a lot of people, when you peel back truly what’s inside a person, to compete and be at that high level. It scares a lot of people that are comfortable just being average. You can’t get to a supreme level without kind of channeling the dark side.”
There is indeed darkness to the idea of wanting something really, really badly – of wanting readers, wanting your book to touch people, wanting to make money form your work, wanting to be known for your ideas, wanting to do well enough with your work to get to quit your day job and just write.
There is the possibility of failure lurking there, too. A few days before Kobe set that record, he set another one: the record for shots missed in a career. (Is that poetic justice, or what?) And here’s what he said about that record: “You’ve got to step up and play, man. You can’t worry about criticism. You can’t worry about failure.”
- You’ve got to step up and play.
- You’ve got to get out of your comfort zone.
- You've got to set the intention for excellence.
Those are some mantras we can all use to fuel our efforts in the New Year.
A Few Extras:
- I wrote a guest post this week over at The Write Practice about 7 Questions That Will Transform Your Writing in the New Year. Check it out.