A Lesson from Your Dog

by James Thayer

Illustration by Jennifer Paros - Copyright 2009

Illustration by Jennifer Paros - Copyright 2009

Dogs offer vital lessons for writers, including turning around three times before lying down and chewing a shoe with proper etiquette.  But the most important lesson is their namesake attribute: doggedness.

Ah, to be brilliant and fruitful, to have the words spill out, the perfect story gushing forth like water from a pipe.  To be Eleanor Hibbert, who—writing as Victoria Holt and Philippa Carr—would sit on a sofa, no paper in sight, and dictate her novels, her words taken down by secretaries.  Or to be Erle Stanley Gardner, author of the Perry Mason novels, who dictated into a machine, often working on four stories at once and producing a million words a year.

But most of us aren’t Hibbert or Gardner.  For most of us, writing is hard, and a successful career as a writer is even harder.

The key ingredient: persistence.  Sci-fi novelist Kevin J. Anderson says, “Persistence is much more important than raw talent.  Most aspiring writers give up long before their chance arrives.”

What is the relationship between innate talent and perseverance?  Which is more important?  Talent alone won’t get a writer far.  Leon Uris said, “Talent isn’t enough.  You need motivation—and persistence, too: what Steinbeck called a blend of faith and arrogance.”  President Coolidge was known as Silent Cal, but when he said something, it was worth listening to: “Nothing in the world can take place of persistence.  Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent.”

When does a novelist most need persistence?  Two times: during the writing, and after the novel is completed.

First, during the writing.  Listen to a few writers.  George Orwell: “Writing a book is a long, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness.”   F. Scott Fitzgerald: “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.”  Edna Ferber: “[Writing] is a combination of ditch-digging, mountain-climbing, treadmill and childbirth.”  And James Joyce: “Writing in English is the most ingenious torture ever devised for sins committed in previous lives.”

Well, even hugely successful writers are allowed to whine once in a while.  My maternal grandfather began his working career as a coal miner.  Writing isn’t as hard as coal mining, and a pox on anyone silly enough to think it is.  But, make no mistake, writing isn’t easy, not as easy at it may look to those who don’t write, such as movie producer Irving Thalberg: “What's this business of being a writer?  It's just putting one word after another.”

Why is writing a novel hard?  Several reasons.  First, it’s a big thing, and can take a year to complete, which is what a novel has in common with a house, also a big thing that can take a year to build.  Literary agent Donald Maas says a novel is “a large, complex, fluid and difficult-to-manage undertaking.” 

Another reason writing a novel is hard: it is piece work.  If we take a day off, our completion date is another day away. 

And no one will tell us what to do.  The writer is an apprentice, and there’s no journeyman to instruct the writer regarding what to do next.  Each new word is a new decision—decision after decision—and it can be wearing.

Second, after the novel is completed:  Doggedness is critical during the marketing process.  A writer must be unrelenting in the effort to submit his or her work, and must become hardened against rejection.  Every professional writer receives rejection slips, and if you are not dogged in your pursuit of an agent or a publisher—if you do not repeatedly pick yourself up after a rejection, and send your manuscript to someone new—you won’t make it as a writer.

Don’t believe that the best, the most talented, the now-legendary writers took their share of shots?   Here’s what Mark Twain had to listen to from publisher George Carleton, standing there in Carelton’s office after Twain had submitted several stories, including The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County: “Books—look at those shelves.  Every one of them is loaded with books that are waiting for publication.  Do I want any more?  Excuse me, I don’t.  Good morning.”  

Most writers have gone through this.  Joe Haldeman was turned down more than a dozen times before Forever Warfound a publisher, and went on to win both the Nebula and Hugo awards.  Twelve British publishers rejected J.K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter novel.  Frank Herbert’s Dunereceived thirteen rejection slips.  Rudyard Kipling received this personalized rejection slip early in his career: “I’m sorry, Mr. Kipling, but you just don’t know how to use the English language.”  Theodore Geisel’s first book was turned down by twenty-three publishers before Macmillan accepted it, and suggested he use a pseudonym, so Geisel adopted the peculiar name Dr. Seuss for And to Think I Saw it on Mulberry Street.  Richard Hooker worked seven years on his oddball novel, only to have it rejected by twenty-one publishers.  The book was M*A*S*H.  

Can doggedness be taught?  Maybe we have it or we don’t, much like courage or wit.  But surely knowing that all novelists get rejected--that it is routine and has been suffered by even the best--will help us persevere.

So give your dog a bone and watch him go to work.  It’s a lesson for all writers.


James Thayer’s thirteenth novel, The Boxer and the Poet; Something of a Romance, was published by Black Lyon Publishing in March 2008.  He teaches novel writing at the University of Washington Extension School, and he runs a freelance editing service (www.thayerediting.com).

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