Today’s post is by regular contributor Susan DeFreitas (@manzanitafire), an award-winning author, editor, and book coach. She offers an online course, Story Medicine, designed to help writers use their power as storytellers to support a more just and verdant world.
They say everyone has a book inside them, but few have the talent, skills, and wherewithal to actually write and publish that book.
Talent? Frankly, I think talent is pretty common, and that most people who really love books have the essential spark of what it takes to write one.
Skills? Those are harder to come by, and generally pretty expensive to come by, whether you’re paying in cash, time, or both.
But having recently completed my fourth novel manuscript—and coached countless writers through the same process—I can honestly say that this business of wherewithal, or grit, is by far the biggest factor in that equation.
Grit is often seen as the stubborn plowing ahead, the continuing to do, do, do despite life’s various indignities, rejections, and setbacks. And it certainly is that—but also, I think, something more.
- It takes more grit to let go of some element of a book that’s not working than it does to keep pushing ahead with it.
- It takes more grit to get qualified feedback and put it to work in yet another revision than it does to keep pounding away at the manuscript by yourself.
- And it takes grit to hold firm to your vision for the project, even as you put that feedback to work, and continually seek ways to improve it.
Here, to my mind, are three critical ways that writers who’ll reach the finish line with their book, and go on to publish it, are distinguished by grit:
1. They seek qualified feedback.
In Playing Big: Practical Wisdom for Women Who Want to Speak Up, Create, and Lead, author Tara Mohr notes that it’s a stereotypically male thing to forge ahead with one’s big vision without seeking outside input on it, and a stereotypically female thing to seek feedback on one’s vision from any and everyone, whether or not their opinion actually matters.
As far as I can tell, writers of any gender can fall into either of these traps with their work-in-progress—and either one can keep those writers from ever actually publishing their book.
The first mode is just forging blindly ahead with your book without seeking anyone’s feedback on it. This is easier to do with writing than with virtually any other art form; you can work for years, even a decade or more, without a single other soul ever setting eyes on those pages of yours.
This might feel like a safe way to develop your vision without falling prey to the way that critical feedback can cause you to second guess yourself—but in doing so, you tend to set yourself up for a fall. Because all too often, when you finally shop that manuscript out, you discover that no one wants to buy it (or you discover this by self-publishing it).
The second mode I’ve spoken to here can be just as damaging, though—that being the mode where you seek feedback from people whose opinions really just don’t matter, like your spouse, your friends, your book-club buddies, etc.
These people might love your book, might be confused by it, might dislike this or that, might have ideas about how you can fix this or that. Regardless, their opinions and ideas don’t ultimately align with the reception your book is likely to receive when you attempt to publish it—and in revising to this hodgepodge of unqualified opinions, you run the risk of turning your book into a hodgepodge as well.
In order to actually move ahead with your project, and accurately survey your book’s chances in the marketplace, you have to seek feedback from people whose opinions are qualified. Meaning, people who understand your genre, who have the experience to recognize the issues in your manuscript, and who know how to address such issues in revision.
And showing your work with someone like that? Believe me, I know: it takes grit.
2. They address feedback while holding to the vision.
Say you’ve screwed up your courage and gotten beyond the first hurdle: Seeking qualified feedback. Which means you now have that feedback in hand—and chances are, it was not the fantasy we all secretly harbor: This is perfect! You should send directly to my agent—here’s their address.
No, in fact, the feedback you received pointed out some critical issues you need to address in revision. Which means that your next step requires grit of a different type.
Because just revising to feedback won’t get you over the finish line with your book. In order to do that, and to truly make your book work in revision, you have to also hold true to your original impetus for this project, what book coach Jennie Nash calls your “deep-level why.”
Your deep-level why is why this story matters to you, what you’re interested in about it, why you keep returning to it, what its inherent attraction is for you. And there’s nothing more critical to keep in mind as you decide how you’re going to implement the feedback you’ve received—because if you don’t maintain your connection to that original impetus or spark, you’ll lose what it is that makes your book special, and what will ultimately distinguish it in the marketplace.
Believing in yourself, and your vision for your book, even when you find out that it isn’t nearly as far along as you thought it was?
That definitely takes grit.
3. They continually seek small refinements and improvements.
The final role that grit plays in this process comes in at the end with a book project.
You’ve put untold hours into this manuscript, and part of you never wants to see it again. But even so, there are small refinements that can still be made—little improvements that will ultimately have an outsized effect on the finished product.
The closer any object gets to the speed of light, the harder it becomes to accelerate further. I think books are like that too: it can take forever to approach light speed (i.e., the finished version of your manuscript), but the small refinements you make at the end can make something that’s already good truly great.
At a certain point, of course, you just have to let manuscript go and move on. But the closer you can get to light speed—that impossible dream, the perfected version of your book—the more magical and dazzling it will ultimately be.
And what does it take to keep finding ways to improve that book, even after it feels like you’ve already given it your all? You’ve got it: grit.
Susan DeFreitas is the author of the novel Hot Season, which won a Gold IPPY Award, and the editor of Dispatches from Anarres: Tales in Tribute to Ursula K. Le Guin, a finalist for the Foreword INDIES. An independent editor and book coach, she specializes in helping writers from historically marginalized backgrounds, and those writing socially engaged fiction, break through into publishing. She offers a free masterclass, Fiction As a Force for Change, here.