How Do You Know When To Quit?
Unless you’ve been under a rock this last week, you’ve probably either watched the video about Susan Boyle on Britain’s Got Talent, or you’ve heard about the Internet phenomenon she’s become. For those of you who haven’t seen the version with the interview prior to her singing, I give you this link and I want you to pay particular attention to what she says at 38 seconds into the interview:
Go, now, and watch. You won’t regret it, I promise.
At 38 seconds, Susan Boyle says to the camera that she’s going to “make that audience rock.” Now, if you haven’t just gone to see that video, and you hadn’t seen it before, here’s what the fuss is about: Susan is a 47-year-old woman who tells the judges (including Simon Cowell) that she wants to sing like Elaine Paige, whom some sites refer to as the “first lady of British Musical Theater.”
But even before that point, the audience has already written her off. She tells Simon she’s 47 when he asks, and when he rolls his eyes, she jokes and does a sort-of hip-waggle, saying, “And that’s only one side of me.” It’s nerves, probably, that has her acting a big dingy there, but it’s hard to tell for sure, and she comes across as clownish. Everyone in that audience, at that point, has written her off. Tell the truth—when you see her at that point, you’ve written her off. After all, she’s this frumpy, middle-aged, gray-haired woman. She’s not dressed in the latest fashion (though she is wearing a nice dress), she’s not slim, she’s not blonde, she’s not what you think of as a winner of these types of shows. She sure as hell doesn’t “look” like someone who could sing as beautifully as Elaine Paige. And in that moment, I think most people would agree with Simon’s eye-roll.
When Simon questions her, asking her what is her dream, she answers, “To become a professional singer.” He asks her why she hasn’t, and she simply says, “I’ve never been given the chance before, but here’s hoping that’ll change.” While she’s talking, the camera cuts to the audience where a young woman rolls her eyes. When Susan mentions Paige’s name as a singer she’d aspire to sing as well as, there is obvious snickering in the audience, and shots of women arching their eyebrows in disbelief. Some are obviously waiting for the train wreck this poor Susan Boyle is going to be, and some look as if they’re cringing for her, hating that she’s about to go through the public flogging of a failure.
She explains she’s going to sing “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Miserables.
The music starts, everyone waits for the disaster, and she hits that first note and bam, she has you. By the second or third word, the audience is applauding and the judges are floored. Utterly floored. Not half-way through the song, not two stanzas… by the second line of the song. The audience gets to its feet on that second line, and she does indeed make that audience rock. In the middle of the song, when she sings the rising lyric and her voice soars, the entire place goes nuts. 4000 people in that audience, and they are blown away.
Here was a woman who had gotten one small shot ten years earlier, who’d participated in a charity CD (singing Cry Me A River), where her talent was obvious to anyone with ears, but she hadn’t “made it” yet. She’d been taking care of elderly parents, she lived in a very small community, and she is (or was) unemployed. That singing on that charity CD shows she had talent, but talent, alone, won’t always win out. Timing, opportunity, are the other key ingredients. And you don’t get opportunities if you don’t keep trying.
She stood in front of that audience, hearing their skepticism, seeing the giggles, and then rocked the song anyway.
I want to tell you about another person who did something quieter, who stunned me and made such a huge impact, I’ll never forget it. It was one of the very best motivational moments in any conference I’d ever attended, and I asked her permission to relay it here.
You may already know Christie Craig. She is incredibly funny (and giving) and she and Faye Hughes are practically a stand-up comedy duo. Christie writes funny mysteries that are a hoot, and I’ve always only known her as “that successful author,” the one who has something like five novels out as well as non-fiction. She’s one of those warm people that sees someone like me (who tends to freeze up in crowds until someone else breaks the ice) and she makes them feel welcome. And at ease. A terrific person.
At our PASIC conference, Christie was to give the very last session on the second day, and her talk was going to be on, “How to Know When To Quit.” I saw a roll-on (carry-on sized) piece of luggage on the floor at her feet, and I was curious. While she introduced her subject, she opened the suitcase at her feet and pulled out a rather large UPS-type envelope. Not the normal letter-sized—the next size up. She started explaining how she became a writer, and what she’d gone through to get to where she is now—and she explained she’d been dyslexic, and how every single solitary step had been a challenge. She talked about how writing and telling stories was her dream, and she had to teach herself how to do everything, every single step of the way. It was hard—and I have a son and husband with dyslexia—I know a little bit about what she went through.
Then Christie asked, “When do you quit? Is it after the first fifty rejections?” and she pulled a stack of papers from that UPS envelope and let them rain down around her feet. “Or the next fifty?” and she pulled another stack out and let those rain down. I could see the letterhead of the pages as they fell, and I thought my throat would close up on her behalf. “Or how about the next hundred?” she asked, and pulled another wad of pages out and let those rain down. “Three hundred? Is that when you quit?” And she emptied that envelope and reached into the suitcase and pulled out another one, and asked, “Or is it the first 500? Do you quit then?” Those papers kept raining down, “Or how about the next 500?” and more envelopes, more pages. “How about a 1000? Is that when you stop?” And at this point, I couldn’t have spoken if someone had held a gun on me, I was so choked up. “Or how about the second thousand?” More pages. “Or three? Is three thousand the point where you stop?”
I was gobsmacked. Truly and thoroughly. And impressed as hell. She didn’t stop–she didn’t let the obstacles in her life define her. Christie became the definition… of tenacity. Determination. She has talent, and the skill to put it to good use.
We dream the dream, and we want it to be easy. We live in a society where pop stars get millions to show up and act badly and behave worse, and while we mock that, we’d all secretly like the trip to success to be just that simple: show up. But it’s not that simple. It’s not always easy. It’s hard work, it’s perseverance, it’s making sure you’ve got the goods when the opportunity comes along.
That last part? Yeah, that’s the hard part. It bears repeating: it’s making sure you’ve got the goods when the opportunity comes along. That means hard work, when it comes to writing. Telling a compelling story for an entire novel isn’t like making Ritz crackers and cheese and calling it a four-course meal. There’s a bit more to it than just sitting in front of the computer and spilling out a story. For some people, it may come naturally. For the rest of us, it’s a constant process of learning, improving, getting feedback, listening to it, learning from it, discarding what doesn’t work, and then trying again.
If you’re getting the opportunities to be read—and it’s not selling, it may be a matter of you having more work to do. We all hit that point. It’s just part of the process. But if you’re getting amazing feedback (consistently, from everyone), then it may simply be a matter of timing—you just haven’t had your manuscript hit the right person at the right time. There’s not a lot you can do about that but keep trying, because you never know when the next opportunity will open up because you handed it to the right person. In my case, I’d published a lot of non-fiction, edited a regional magazine, switched into screenwriting (where I wrote probably 15 scripts) and then switched back to fiction. I’d finished the script version of Bobbie Faye when a friend happened to be here and happened to want to read it and happened to want to hand it to a friend (just for fun, not for any particular thought of the friend helping) and then the friend happened to know this editor and was willing to pitch it… and when I got that phone call about the offer, it was a soaring feeling, like the audience suddenly coming to its feet on that second line of Susan Boyle’s performance. Almost twenty years to the day after I’d first sent out my first non-fiction piece. It wasn’t overnight. I’d worked two jobs, gone back to school, was mom to two boys, helped run a construction company, and wrote in the wee hours of the night when everyone was asleep, because I dreamed a dream. I wanted it. I wanted it enough to not sleep that extra hour, to take the notebook with me to the kids’ practice, to skip out on movies or TV shows.
I’d still be doing that now, without the sale. I can’t let go of the dream. It’s changed for me over the years—what I wanted, and how I wanted to do it, but the ultimate dream was to sell what I wrote, with the hope that it brought some pleasure to the reader.
So when do you quit?
If you think you quit when it’s hard, then stop now, because I assure you, it will get hard. Even if you’ve got a book or two or ten out, it’s gonna be hard. If you think you quit when it’s bleak news, then stop now, because there’s no way to have a career in any field that is all sunshine and roses up your ass. It’s gonna get bleak sometimes. Markets change, people change, culture changes, and with change comes growing pains. If you think you quit when people don’t see your talent, then quit now, because not everyone is going to agree you have talent and even when they do, they might not be able to do anything about it. If you think you quit when people say no, then stop now, because I guarantee you, people are gonna say no to you. The day before I sent the query to the agent who repped me for the deal, I’d found out my friend had handed the manuscript to her agent, who said to me that he could see that Bobbie Faye was a very funny woman who was incredibly strong-willed and yet he hated her and wouldn’t want to spend another single minute in her head. This cracked me up because (one) he was about 65 and not exactly my target audience and (two), I have always wanted to write a character who is a love-em or hate-em kind of person. I didn’t want a lukewarm response. I wanted her to be memorable. So, as negative as that note might have come across to most authors, I loved it. And I put the next query in the mail. Signed with that agent. Had a three-book deal. Was the first guy wrong? Not for him. That was his taste and I respect that. But everyone doesn’t have the same taste, and that’s why you keep trying.
So, when do you quit?
You quit when you want something else, more. You quit when you have another dream that means more to you.
I kept writing. There were days when the economy here was so bad, there was very little work, and we dug the change out of the sofa to get enough money to put enough gas in the truck for my husband to get to work, and he had to get paid before he left, or he wouldn’t have had enough gas to make it home. I understand hardships and heartbreak, depression and frustration. But “no” is not an option. It is only an obstacle.
I’m sitting down to my fourth book now. It’s scary as hell, to start something new. I emailed a friend and asked, “How do you write a book again? I’m thinking it involves words… probably in some sort of order… maybe spelled correctly? Something like that?” It’s like having to learn how to do it all over again, and it gets harder, because you’ve set a bar of quality for yourself and you want to beat it. It’s intimidating to think you can, that people expect you to.
But I will keep trying. I dream the dream.
How about you?