Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Good to Great for Writers

I know I said I was going to do a series on archetypes, but I'm going to interrupt that this week because I read something interesting I wanted to share, and the series will resume next time.

A couple of weeks ago, my agent mentioned on her blog that she was reading the book Good to Great by Jim Collins, which is a business book about how companies that had been performing well made a jump to great performance. One of the things she mentioned from the book was that "good is the enemy of great," and that got me started thinking, so I checked the book out of the library and read it. While it is a book about businesses, there are lessons to be learned for a writing career, as well. I think I've done just about every wrong thing through the course of my career, and I hope I'm on track to start moving in a better direction.

First, that idea that good is the enemy of great. What that means is that thinking you're doing okay can stop you from having the drive to do better. It also may make you afraid of taking the risk of changing what you're doing. If what you're doing is working, why change? But reaching greatness may require change and risk. I think that this can apply to writers at any stage of their careers. For mega-bestselling authors, having the clout to have publishers willing to print their grocery lists without editing and knowing that people will buy that can allow them to coast at that level of success so they never push themselves to achieve what could be lasting greatness. For solid midlist authors, moderate ongoing success could make it scary to try the entirely different thing that could be what breaks them out into bestsellerdom. For unpublished authors, a lot of contest wins could be what's keeping them from selling, if their focus is on writing to please contest judges instead of editors or agents (since contest judges and editors and agents are often looking for entirely different things). All of these people may feel like what they're doing is working and that their success means they're on the right track, but that could be what's keeping them from doing even better.

"Great" companies have leaders who blend personal humility with personal will. While they have a strong vision for their companies and are willing to do what it takes to achieve that vision, their ambition is more for their companies than for themselves. They aren't stars or divas. As a writer, you are your "company," but this still applies. Think about yourself as a writer being distinct from yourself as a person, so that your ego is focused on what you produce rather than on personal fame and recognition. You don't want to compromise your standards for your work, but you don't want to get into the mindset where you think that you, as a person, are the star.

The great leaders also tend to take personal responsibility for things that go wrong while giving external factors like luck or other people the credit for success. Yes, there are plenty of things, especially in writing and publishing, that are out of our control and that may be to blame for what happens to a book, but since they're things that are out of our control, there's little point in playing the blame game. The only thing you can change or control is what you do. True, the editor who was excited about your book may have left or the market may no longer want what you write, but you aren't going to get anywhere, change things or improve your situation by blaming those things (and how often do you hear in writing groups about how a person isn't published because the New York publishers only want mediocrity? And what do those people usually end up achieving?). Meanwhile, if you are successful, it may be because you wrote a really good book, but there are a lot of other factors in that success, from editor or agent input to where you fall in your publisher's list to which chain store buyer really got into your book. It's too easy to rest on your laurels if you let yourself take full credit.

Mind you, this isn't saying that it's always your fault but never your achievement, just that thinking that way is more likely to result in behaviors that can lead you to greatness.

Next, the book says that great companies hire the right people before they worry about the right direction, because the right people in the right positions can go in any direction. This doesn't work as well for writers, since you don't really "hire" the people who'll be working with you, like editors and agents, and since you don't get an agent, editor or publisher until you've written something, you have to at least attempt a direction before you get your team on board. What does apply, though, is the idea of only going with the right person instead of hiring just to fill a position. The wrong agent can be worse for your career than no agent at all -- and that doesn't just mean the scam artists. A perfectly valid agent who's had great success with other clients could be bad for your career if it's not a good match and you don't communicate well. Don't be so eager to be able to say you have an agent that you go with the wrong one. When in doubt, keep looking. If things aren't working well, act fast to first communicate that things aren't working for you so that maybe you can resolve your issues, and then to make a change if you can't work it out. This is an area where delaying as a way of trying to be nice just ends up hurting everyone.

Then, you need to be willing to confront the brutal facts of the reality you face while never losing faith that you can prevail. The book refers to this as "the Stockdale paradox" because it was the coping strategy Admiral Jim Stockdale used to survive years in a POW camp. Neither the pessimists nor the optimists coped well with POW camps. The blind optimists who tried to raise their spirits by holding onto the hope that they'd be home by such and such a date (with no basis in reality for that hope) were as likely as pessimists to give up and die when things didn't go the way they hoped. But Stockdale forced himself to face the cold, hard reality of his situation even while never giving up or losing faith. I think this really applies to writers, especially those who are still aspiring. All those rah-rah speeches about how this is the year we're all going to get published may actually be counterproductive. Don't lose faith that you have what it takes to get there, but never forget that writing and getting published is hard. It may take time, lots of hard work and even some stroke of luck to get there. Not everyone will make it, but don't lose hope that you'll be one of the ones who does. Facing harsh realities may mean listening to things you don't want to hear. It means seriously considering critique, contest, rejection letter or review feedback instead of just declaring that the person giving the feedback is clueless when you don't agree with it. It may mean being aware of what's happening in the publishing world. Sticking your fingers in your ears and singing a happy song may make you feel better, but it's not going to help you be great.

The author talks quite a bit about what he calls the "Hedgehog Concept" which seems to involve a metaphor about the difference between a fox and a hedgehog that doesn't quite make sense to me, but the idea is to build what you do around a simple organizing idea. This streamlines your efforts and allows you to avoid irrelevant things. Your Hedgehog Concept should be something you have the potential to be the very best at (as measured in a way that's meaningful to you) and something you're deeply passionate about. This isn't a goal or strategy to be the best in that area, but rather an understanding, based on looking at the cold, hard facts, of what you can be the best at. For writers, this boils down to finding your voice -- since being you is definitely something you can be the best in the world at -- and focusing on the areas you're passionate about and are truly good at. Don't chase the market by trying to write for each trend that comes along or try to be the "next" version of any big bestseller. Just be the best you.

Greatness also requires discipline (but mixed with creativity). That doesn't just mean the discipline to do whatever it takes to become the best in your area and try to improve constantly. It also means the discipline to focus on the areas you've chosen, even if it means declining opportunities that aren't relevant. Again, no chasing the market. Yes, a new line opening up means opportunities, but is that new line something you're truly passionate about and can write well enough to be the best? Instead of a to-do list, the author suggests having a "stop doing" list, where you look at all your activities to decide which deserve your time/energy/money and which don't.

Great businesses know how to make the flywheel work. Apparently, this is a big, heavy wheel that I guess you find in factories. It's hard to get it started and takes a lot of pushing, but once it gets going, momentum takes over and it becomes easy to keep it going. There's not any one push that makes it reach that crucial point, but rather the buildup of all those pushes. In other words, most overnight success takes years of unnoticed hard work. There's no one miracle moment, just a lot of patience and discipline over time, and all that hard work adds up to make it easy to keep the momentum going if you're consistent and keep moving in the same direction. In contrast, less successful businesses tend to get into a "doom loop" when they're looking for a quick fix, so they're always starting, stopping and changing direction if they don't get instant results. Acting out of fear, they jump on fads and perform inconsistently, so they never get any momentum going. Again, don't chase the market. I got into my own doom loop during the long dry spell that came in the middle of my career -- I was so desperate for a sale that I kept throwing together proposals and flinging them out there whenever I heard about a new opportunity, and as a result I got nowhere. It took taking a step back, finding the story I wanted to write and being patient enough to write the whole book for me to develop any momentum.

(We won't even get into how the publishers often seem to operate in a big doom loop.)

Staying great requires constant growth and adaptation. I guess "great" is the enemy of "greater." You need to focus on your core values, even as the way you manifest those values changes with the times. The example the author gives is Walt Disney, whose values were creative imagination, the "Disney magic," happiness and attention to detail. He started in short cartoons, then moved on to animated features, then took those values into television and then on into theme parks. He was doing different things, but still functioning within the realm of what he could do the best and was passionate about.

Finally, you need to have what the author calls a Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal (a BHAG). This is not a big dream based on your ego or bravado, but rather a big goal based on an understanding of what you can do and what it will take to get there. This huge goal serves to unify your efforts and gives you something to shoot for.

Talent, creativity and skill do matter, of course, even if they aren't on this list. Without those, even doing everything right won't help (kind of like the way the most perfectly formatted manuscript is meaningless unless the content is worth reading). What this is all about is behaving in such a way that talent, creativity and skill can reach their full potential.

The author's web site has a number of essays and audio lectures that may be of interest if you want to explore the topic in more depth.


Lisa said...

What a great take on this concept! Thank you so much for taking the time to write this thoughtful post.

Arovell said...

This was extremely useful and insightful! As a young author, my attitude is very pivotal for my career, and I feel this helped me adjust it and aim it closer to the right direction. Kristin Nelson mentioned in her blog that it was definitely worth a look, and she was right! Thanks for posting this!

Juliette Wade said...

Thanks for the inspiration! What a wonderful, thoughtful discussion of a topic very close to our hopes and fears.

Gail Dayton said...

Wow, Shanna--great stuff here. Need to come visit you more often, don't I?

Alyssa Goodnight said...

Great post--lots to think about!

Melissa Walker said...

Fantastic post. I am curbing my complaining instincts as we speak. There are lots of things to do and celebrate in book promotion land! Thanks.

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