Secrets to being a successful writer

James Lee Burke. Photo by Robert Clark

The rewards of being a successful writer are obvious. Completing an article, short story or book brings a huge sense of personal satisfaction. And seeing your work in print creates its own adrenaline rush.

Then there’s the fame factor, no less enjoyable even if it is just the “big fish in a small pond” variety. And, of course, there’s the possibility of financial gain.

But have you ever thought about what it takes to be a successful writer? A certain amount of writing skill is necessary and even more important is a good story idea.

However, when you get right down to it, I suspect one of the most critical element of success is persistence…and a thick skin.

That’s right, the old saying, “Writing is 99 per cent perspiration and 1 per cent inspiration,” is really true.

And even if you’re a disciplined, dedicated writer, you need a system for submitting your work and dealing with rejection.

Award-winning author James Lee Burke is one of my favourite writers. As well as telling a good story, he creates a vivid sense of the landscape and the people that inhabit it. And his characters possess a depth and complexity not soon forgotten.

Burke, now 75, had his first short story published in a college magazine when he was in his 20s. By the time he was 34, he was the author of three successful novels.

Then came a long, dry patch. Burke didn’t stop writing; he just couldn’t get published.

So he developed a method for dealing with his growing stack of rejections. When a short story was returned, he gave himself 36 hours to get it back in circulation. He’s used that procedure for 45 years. “If you keep your story at home, you’re ensured to lose,” he wrote in a 2002 New York Times article.

Burke follows the same philosophy when it comes to books. His fourth novel, The Lost Get Back Boogie, was published in 1986.

After it had been rejected 110 times.

James Lee Burke's fourth novel.

“I’d published three novels in New York then went 13 years without a hardback publication,” Burke wrote. “That many rejections is supposedly some kind of record in the industry.” 
 
Not long after it was published, The Lost Get Back Boogie was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.  Since then Burke’s had an additional 26 novels published.

So now, whenever something I’ve written gets rejected I tell myself to “Burke it.” Just turn it around and get it back out there. Because, hey…you never know.

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