The Writer Flies Alone

Tomorrow, I’ll be speaking at Christopher Newport University as part of their 31st annual Writers’ Conference.

I can hardly wait. In the afternoon, I get to be part of a panel with fellow mystery authors Steve Hamilton, Donna Andrews, and Brad Parks. In the morning I’ll be speaking about “The Spirit of the Hawk in Fact and Fiction,” accompanied by my new Harris Hawk “Glide.”

Since many in the audience will be writers or aspiring writers, I thought I’d resurrect a blog post I wrote especially for writers that was originally posted a couple of years ago at A Good Blog Is Hard To Find. 

With the rise of  ebooks, much has changed in the world of publishing since “The Writer Flies Alone” was originally posted in 2009. But most of its lessons still apply. In fact, maybe now more than ever.

Without further adieu, here is “The Writer Flies Alone.”

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A hawk flies alone.  Hunting to survive.  Keenly aware of its surroundings and driven by its hunger.

Each spring, thousands of new red-tailed hawks hatch from their eggs and, after being nurtured for a time by their parents and learning to fly, are pushed from their nests.  Over seventy percent of these juveniles, known as passage birds, will fail to survive their first winter on their own.  In fact, despite being at the top of the food chain–proud and noble creatures that they are–the five-year mortality rate for wild red-tailed hawks remains around ninety five percent.

I wonder what the metaphorical mortality rate is for those of us who fancy ourselves as writers?  We die every time we receive those rejections, don’t we?  Every time we fail to meet those self-imposed goals or deadlines?  What about when we fail to live up to our potential as artists?

Camaraderie among writers is a wonderful thing.  Consulting with others about your work is a time-honored tradition, and as published authors, we may even enjoy the consultation of a trusted editor or agent. Conventions, writers associations, and group blogs such as this, have also become great tools for the working writer. Some of your best friendships may even be with fellow writers.

But when you come right down to it, when the friends, mentors, and colleagues have all gone home and the door is closed, no one else is going to sit down in front of that keyboard but you.  No one else can tell your story.  No one else can offer us your insights or place your particular spin on the human condition.  In the end, armed only with imagination, an ear for prose, instinct, guts, and sometimes just downright stubbornness, a writer, just like the hawk, must fly alone.

The good news is I can testify from personal experience that red-tailed hawks are most definitely not extinct.  Nor are they endangered or expected to go extinct at any time in the near future.  Indeed, thousands of them are able to overcome the harsh realities of our natural world to survive and even thrive every year.

So what can you and I learn from the hawk’s temperament that we can apply to our lives as writers?  What lessons can we draw that will not  only prevent our writing careers from going extinct, but maybe, if we are lucky, even allow us to soar.

I think there are four traits the hawk possesses that serve to optimize its chances for survival.  I think if we’re to survive as writers we need to cultivate these same qualities in one form or another.

Awareness

A hawks predominate sensory input is visual.  Birds of prey possess binocular vision and can resolve minute detail and detect even the slightest movement at great distances.  This highly developed sense of sight gives them an edge when game is camouflaged and scarce, and as you can see from the statistics I quoted earlier, they need all the edges they can get.

What is your awareness as a writer?  What is your vision?  What type of work are you trying to create and sell to publishers and what is the reality of today’s marketplace for that type of work?  Sometimes the minutest detail can cause us to miss an opportunity.  Take my own case as an example.  For many years St. Martins Press in New York has offered an annual contest for unpublished private eye novels. First prize is a $10,000 advance and publication of the book in both the United States and in England.  Now here’s the ironic part. Last year I was asked to serve as one of the judges for this contest, but back when I was  trying to sell the unpublished manuscript for A WITNESS ABOVE, I never entered the St. Martins contest.  Why not?  I’d never heard of it.  That was a big lack of awareness on my part.

And I’m not just talking about marketplace awareness.  It should go without saying that if you want to write a science fiction novel, you should have read and continue to be reading piles of science fiction, particularly the classics; but have you gone beyond just reading works in your chosen genre?  Have you ever attended a science fiction readers convention or gone to a science fiction writer’s conference? How many scientific  periodicals do you subscribe to?  Are you merely looking to dabble in science fiction or are you hoping to make this a career?  The time to ask yourself these questions is before not after you’ve spent six months or six years slaving away to create your first or your next opus. Because we fly alone, too often we writers are guilty of working in a vacuum, and that lack of awareness can sometimes cost us.

 

Persistence

A mature red-tail hawk, skilled at taking prey, will stalk and continue to pursue a particular quarry via multiple dives called stoops until it has either taken the game or exhausted all possibilities of doing so.  This persistence isn’t just blind stubbornness either.  The wise bird will continually adjust its angle of attack, probing for weaknesses, looking for opportunities, whereas a juvenile often lacks these skills.

Are you persistent with your writing?  Do you make the time necessary to pursue your goals?  Do you even set word count or production goals?  Most importantly of all: are you willing to rewrite and revise, rewrite and revise, rewrite and revise again and again until you have made enough of your own literary “stoops”, as it were, to know that you’ve gotten it right and that the work is as good as you can make it.  It’s hard work catching game in the wild.  It’s hard work, this business of being a writer.

And while we’re on the subject of persistence, let’s talk about rejection.  Every writer has their work rejected.  Generally, the more commercially successful the writer, the more rejections they have received.  But ask yourself: are you still taking your rejections personally?  I know I am.  I’ve never met a writer or author who at least on some level didn’t.  But we also know we need to try to move away from this, don’t we? Do you think if the red-tailed hawk spent two or three days sulking on a branch over just missing that big fat juicy rabbit, it would survive?  Maybe you’ll have to forgo the rabbit for now; maybe you’ll have to settle for a mouse.

What about when you receive rejection letter after rejection letter regarding a particular manuscript or query?  Do you blindly just cross the latest one off the list, label the rejecter as an idiot, and go on?  Or do you adjust your angle of attack, perhaps seek some outside help or opinion, try something a little different?  You’ll need to, if as a writer you hope to survive.

 

Patience

It can take time to produce good writing.  Just ask Charles Frazier.  He spent seven years full time writing COLD MOUNTAIN.  I’m not suggesting we all need to do that, but I am suggesting that as writers we need to cultivate more patience.  Well, you may argue, some of today’s bestselling authors seem to be able crank out two, three, or even more books per year.   But even among those authors I would suggest that a certain amount of patience is necessary in order to produce the volume of work they put out.  Many of these authors have dozens of projects percolating at any given time, most of which will lie dormant or in various stages of development for years.

In trade publishing today, commercially published books generally have a shelf life not much longer than a loaf of bread.  We can wail and gnash our teeth all we want about this state of affairs, but it isn’t going to get us very far.  Better to be patient, to develop our visions and plans, and to produce our work at the pace that will best optimize its chances to be accepted and communicate what we want to our audience.

Speaking of acceptance, if you’ve had an experience at all in the book publishing world you know that publishers, like lawyers brewing a legal battle, tend to respond to new opportunities at a glacial pace.   Why should they move any faster? Publishers today are basically gamblers looking for diamonds in the Himalayas without any maps.  Not only that, authors hoping to make a name for themselves in the mainstream marketplace often take multiple books over many years to reach such a status, usually with very little economic return before they manage to finally “break out”, as booksellers like to say.  For every overnight success, there are thousands of published mid-list authors, and even for many overnight successes the path to long-term brand name status is often a long and painful one with many ups and downs.

 

Adaptability

The last of the hawk’s qualities we need to try develop as writers is perhaps the most difficult.  Successful hawks are not only able to make the minor adjustments necessary to capture a particular quarry, they can adapt on a larger scale to the particular hunting environment in which they find themselves.  They will take a wide variety of game, depending upon what is available at that location at a particular time of year.  They’ll hunt near major roadways, where the slightly warmer temperature of the pavement causes many rodents to build burrows.  They’ve even been known to soar overhead following combines in the wheat fields in the Midwest, knowing that the huge machines tend to flush out all the ground animals in their paths.  And, unlike the vast majority of raptors, a couple of different species of birds of prey, Harris hawks and Golden Eagles, even break my opening premise.  They become wild collaborators, not just hunting alone, but cooperatively in packs lives wolves, because that is what is needed for them to survive in their particular environment.

I don’t know about you, but when I find a particular genre and characters, and techniques that are working with my writing I tend to want to stick with them. But at the same time I’ve had to come to realize that if I fail to evolve in my writing, I may find myself writing sonnets in a world where very few, if any, are reading sonnets anymore.  To die with the sonnet, at least in the commercial sense, may well be a noble choice and one we decide to make, but we must also understand the consequences of our actions.  Commercially successful writers today tend to be adaptable in their writing, not to follow fads, but to stay aware of trends, what their audiences are reading.  What kind of book or article are you planning to write next? Will you stick to familiar territory or strike out for new ground?

Next time you’re driving down the highway somewhere and spot a hawk, perched high in a tree or maybe soaring skyward on a thermal, think about the qualities that allow it to survive and how you can apply them to your life as a writer. Ironically, each time the hawk flies after game it risks its own life as well.  A broken primary flight feather, a nasty bite from a squirrel that can lead to infection—any of these can mean its imminent demise.

In your writing career, every time you put your words on paper and see them published, you too are taking such a risk, are you not?  Spend some time in the next day or two at your favorite bookstore.  Don’t stop to read anything—just spend a few moments walking the aisles and perusing the covers of all the brand new books, magazines, and newspapers for sale.  All those words, headlines, and titles calling out to you—they are there because some writer took the risk to create them and some publisher took the risk to invest in the paper and ink and myriad other costs of production and distribution to make them available.

All of them are seeking an audience.  All are competing for attention. Unfortunately, most will fail to gain a large enough audience within the short sales cycles offered by many big box retailers to justify continued presence on store shelves. Thousands of copies may end up being remaindered eventually, be burned, or reduced to pulp, while their authors must learn to live and write another day.

The great news is that, like the hawk, many authors will.  Many will even learn to exhilarate in the thrill of the hunt.  There has never been a better time to be a writer.  It’s pretty wild and wonderful out there.

 

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