The title of this blog post is a quote from comedian Steve Martin, which he gave in answer to the question about how to become a famous comedian: “Be so good they can’t ignore you.”
I have been thinking about Steve’s wisdom a lot lately, because “getting good” is so easy to say and so hard to do, whether you are talking about making someone laugh, playing the banjo, or writing a book. Getting good means trying and failing, studying and thinking, stopping and starting, honing your skills, admitting your faults, and getting up every day to face your fears and your doubts, over and over and over again.
Getting good is a process and a mindset.
Getting good is what occupies the fuzzy middle part of writing a book – everything in between the exhilaration of starting/committing and the thrill of bringing your vision to life and sending it out into the world.
I have a number of clients who are deep in that middle part of the process, and watching them dig in and do the hard work of getting good is so inspiring. Today I thought I would share three lessons from a few of these writers:
1. Abby is working on her first book, a work of middle-grade fiction. She has been working to lay a solid foundation for the story, and it's been something of a struggle. She thought she knew what she was writing. She thought she had this book nailed down, but it wasn't coming together. She was starting to get a little frantic. Then she watched the Steve Martin master class on comedy and heard his famous quote. She realized she had totally forgotten the “getting good” phase of writing. She kept leaping ahead in her mind to the “being DONE” part – which for a writer means having your book on the shelf, being in front of readers who are engaged with your work, making money, getting praise, being (finally!) legitimized as a writer. Leaping ahead means dreaming of glory. Martin’s lessons reminded Abby to just go back to the getting good part. To focus on getting good at writing one scene. Getting good at bringing one character to life. Getting good at improving her dialogue so that it sounds natural and also moves the story along. Abby re-committed to doing this, and it was inspiring to watch her make this reset. All the desperation and panic is gone, and she's now just digging in and doing the hard work of writing a book. (For a great explanation of Martin’s “getting good” philosophy, see this piece by productivity guru Cal Newport.)
2. Kate is finishing up the revision of a father-daughter novel set inside the Senate. She has been working hard on this book for almost two years. She started well before the current political climate became what it is, and the entire time she has been writing, she has been worrying that real life was making what she was writing obsolete. She has fought back that insidious form of doubt, and kept her focus on writing the best book she could, regardless of whatever was happening in the real political arena. Meanwhile, her word count had crept up to a place where it felt like it was going to topple the story (and scare off agents) so she set about cutting it – and axed more than 80 pages and 40,000 words. THEN she gave it to me to cut even more. It’s a brave move – the kind of move a pro makes when her goal is to write the best book she can. Someone who isn’t intent on getting good wouldn’t spend that kind of time or energy or effort. They would, instead, convince themselves that their novel was a special case, and find examples of first novels that broke genre conventions on word count to defend their too-long draft. Kate’s clear-eyed commitment to writing the best book she can, regardless of what is happening in the world, is an inspiring example of what it looks like to get good.
3. Yesterday, David started pitching a nonfiction book about cancer. His story is based, in part, on a 5,000-mile bike ride he completed, which took him from California to New York. Along the way, he interviewed doctors and nurses and survivors and patients. He spent, in other words, a ton of time and effort on the project even before he wrote a single word. He has a super clear vision for his project and super human just-do-it energy. But when he began to write, the story wasn’t on the page. It wasn’t coming through. It was muddled and fuzzy and messy. I kept telling him, “No, not yet.” I kept telling him, “Try again. Revise it. Do it over.” There was so much no. Now mind you, David has a full-time job. And two kids in college. And he’s about to get married. And he does all these endurance athletic events. He has a very busy life. But he also has a commitment to getting good. He dug into his story and did the hard work – over and over and over again. And even the day BEFORE he went to pitch earlier this week, when I thought something STILL wasn’t exactly right on his proposal and said, “WAIT NOT YET,” he didn’t complain about stopping, pulling back, and making more changes. Okay, that’s not true. He did complain for a minute. He said to me, “I totally don’t get what you mean, don’t understand, don’t agree.” He was not happy. But he took the time to listen and he held back the pitch. He thought hard about my suggestion, took some of the advice I gave him and discarded parts of my advice that didn’t resonate – all in service of writing the best proposal he could possibly write. The result is that he went out with a pitch he feels totally confident about showing to the world. That’s a great feeling. I would venture to say it’s the BEST feeling in the life of the book. It’s so inspiring to witness that kind of dedication to excellence.
Will Abby and Kate and David's books become best sellers? No one knows. And as hard as it is to hear, it’s really not the point. We can’t control how the world will respond to our work. All we can do is control how we approach it.
All we can do is TRY to be so good they can't ignore us.
Because it's the trying that is the real prize.