‘Be a pro.’
That’s what it says. On the worn and oft-folded ‘Post-It’ note I keep in the ‘tiny treasures’ pocket of my jeans (like– what does everyone else use that little right-hand mini pocket for?). Beside a tiny, golden metal heart is the note with the list of my goals for the year.
‘Be a pro’.
What does it mean? What does it mean for us writers?
On the surface it meant three things when I first wrote it back on December 31st, 2018: Back up my work regularly; register my screenplays with the Guild; and get a cell phone (check, check, and… in the planning stages 😉 ). Easy enough.
But, in a larger way, I have also been looking at successful people this year, who are living their dreams and being bold. Jack Canfield says ‘Success leaves clues.’ And I’ve had the chance to see many writers over the years since I started my ‘Athens Writers Association’ and — weirdly — the more I’ve seen of people, the more confusion I have over ‘success’ or what it means to win at life.
I know a few writers who are living exclusively off their writing — the dream! But some of them are not the happiest; some even regret not choosing another path. Others are amazingly accomplished in their mastery of craft; some are having such good fun; others still feel they are doing the divine work they were put here to do.
Most of us are a mix.
The point is, I’m coming to learn that personal success — winning at YOUR best life — is a lot more important than selling a certain number of books or getting the accolades whose lack has been tarnishing your soul. Life is fast and happiness, nonnegotiable.
So apparently, ‘Being a Pro’, to me is not just making a living from writing — and maybe sometimes the money is a byproduct of being awesome. But acting the part and going all in are, in my mind, essential. Money is not everything, but attitude is.
So if you’re interested in being my kind of successful — a very muddy but miraculous thing that hasn’t had much to do with money yet but still seems to be carrying me full-bore toward the life of my dreams, please take note of the below.
(Of course these are generalizations. Lots of pros whine and complain, but I want you to land among the greats and impress people everywhere you go.)
The ‘Be a Pro’ Checklist of Awesomeness:
Talk like a pro
Some things I notice right away about people I admire who are living out their dreams — either paid or as yet unpaid — they talk differently. They are (in general) positive, happy, laid-back, and they don’t complain about themselves or others. It does feel kind of like a time waster to have a writer get the I-suck-so-much speech out of the way.
It’s fair for anyone (especially newbies) to feel unsure or for a pro to disarm you a little with self-effacing behavior, but in general, I know someone who’s serious about their pursuit because they have accepted and embraced their worth.
Be your own promoter, not a shill
A promoter is ‘a supporter of a cause of aim’. It’s good and important (especially for us introverts) to speak up about our passions, our projects, and our potential. That’s how you recruit friends, allies, and fans. Let them see you.
But on the other side is the person who, usually out of fear, can’t stop talking about themselves and how amazing! great! fantastic! their work is. Think about a book cover or Amazon description — in the best ones the work may be ‘a fascinating journey’, ‘exhaustively researched’, or even ‘touching and profound,’ but it isn’t being offloaded — TONIGHT ONLY — at midnight from the back of a truck “Get your copy before it sells out! Greatest work of the 21st century bar none!”
Confidence, not con
Another sign of pros in my mind — how calm and confident can you be about finding fans and supporters? I’m not against hustling and connecting but a lot of social media advertising feels like desperate cries for hugs, IMHO. I’m all for hugging, but when I’m asked to join a stranger’s ‘advance promotion team’ for their book, or offer feedback ‘only if it’s a 5-star review’, or ‘let others know about this valuable resource’ (the promo page for your book?), it doesn’t help that writer’s cause.
On the other hand, I’ve received a charming personal email from bloggers in Australia (which I promoted), I’ve gotten sweet offers to bring my association to the Maui Writers Conference (sounds awesome!), and had some of my favorite creators let me know about new creations — that I rushed out that day to buy. So, if you’re feeling lack and uncertain of your success, just ask for a hug, not a retweet.
Treat your passion like work
Pros put in the time, effort, and discipline to make things happen. It’s not easy, especially if you already have a ‘day job’ or other important commitments. But a lot of my progress comes down to writing a lot of things, polishing them, getting feedback, and doing it again.
Most of the people I meet who want to be more successful I think should just do more. A lot more. More writing, more connecting, putting more passion and danger into what they write. In his book, Shortest Way Home, Pete Buttigieg tells the story of wanting to learn Arabic in college —
“It was hard, much harder than the Spanish and French I had studied in high school…but it was also a highly rewarding language to learn. At first, the English-speaking learner struggles to grab hold of something, since there are almost no similarities between our words and theirs. But after a year or two of learning, the structure of the language begins to unfold and reveal itself.”
How many of us are willing to suck at a project for a year or more before we start to see some progress?
In 2018, I started going to a film-making group, and people would ask me about my screenwriting, and I was embarrassed to say I only had one screenplay (my first in 20 years) in the pipeline. I had other ideas and partial projects but… So, I changed that — Now I have two feature films, two TV drama pilots, and a spec script ready to go out into the world. Just last week, someone in the group asked me if I was ‘ready to pitch’ my work, and I freaked out. Time for 2019’s project. The point is, keep making yourself better.
To me, writing a lot is a good sign of a pro (now, it took me eight years to write my first novel so I’m not knocking anyone). If someone told me they’d written three screenplays in fifteen years, I’m gonna assume they’re not too into it (as a profession), if they did that in five years, that sounds good, if they did that in one year, I’m going to keep up with their name, because I’m probably gonna wanna say ‘I knew them when…’
Dress for the job you want
I’m not into clothes that much, never wear makeup (except for this one time I wanted to seduce a guy — and it worked!), and don’t think fancy clothes have anything to do with talent.
But the longer I’ve led a writing association the more I have come to respect dressing nicely when it matters. I can tell from my other writers’ outfits and hair how they are doing this month: Everything from, ‘Oh man — is he all right?’ to ‘Wow, what great things are happening for her?’ Never with judgement (I’ve been on both sides) but it’s pretty clear when someone’s feeling fine and knows they’re looking sharp.
You want to be the ‘great things’ girl (or boy). This doesn’t mean spending a lot of money, just having some clothes you like and look good in. It’s worth imagining what a super-successful version of you would look like, would dress like. Because being happy, confidant, and comfortable always looks great on people.
Be the most insanely enthused person you know
As people, we love passion. Excitement. Enthusiasm. All sort of words for love. Perfectionism is a poor substitute for love. If you want to take what you do in your writing to the next level, be next level. Watch those ads for Masterclass — those people love with specificity. You want to be so excited you’d talk all day about your passion (not grumble about what bugs you). Be the weirdo who people are pretty sure isn’t dating or keeping up with all the TV — because you’re not.
You’re too busy knocking the world off its axis.
Set some goals, brother
Pros write down five year, one year, and monthly goals. Figure out where you want to be, then work your way back to what you need to do today to make it happen. I don’t hit all my goals all the time, but I hit a lot more than if I didn’t have a list. And surprisingly, hitting some goals still puts you far ahead of the pack.
As important, make choices that line up with your goals. Writing three screenplays this year? Buy ‘Final Draft’ instead of that new 100-hours-to-complete video game. Want to move to NYC? Don’t buy a dog and a house in Georgia. Take actions that — if you couldn’t speak a word — would still shout to observers, ‘I’m doing this! I’m living my dream!’
Keep getting better
Read books, watch instructional videos, take a class, get feedback. A clue about who’s going pro is who thinks they still have much to learn.
More than that, think deeply about everything you create. Read works you love, watch great shows, listen to amazing songs. Always be looking for the next, best way.
Write. A. Lot.
Love what you do today
Some people can fake their way through a conference, or force themselves to write 2,000 words a day, or sign up for the Iowa Writers’ Workshop — but if they are not loving the process of becoming great, I have my doubts that they’ll get there.
That’s not to say this is all fun and games. It’s hard, scary work. And the more you care, the tougher and more frightening it can become. But you should keep returning with a passion, keep wanting to improve, keep being haunted by new ideas and possibilities.
The road to ‘pro’ is long and, as I mentioned, success is what you make of it. But for me, success is becoming a better writer, being respected for what I have to offer, and growing as a human being — be it as a teacher, colleague, or student.
‘Be a pro’.
With every little adjustment of my sails, I feel I’m getting closer and closer. I’m on my way.
Now all I need is that cell phone.