This past weekend, I accomplished something that I have never done in more than thirty-five years of showing dogs—I completed the requirements for a championship on a rough-coated collie that I bred and every point Dixie earned was from the Bred-By-Exhibitor (BBE) class. She is not the first rough champion I have bred, but she is the first that I have taken from no points to finishing points strictly through the BBE class. As I said, there have been other rough champions that I bred or co-bred.
I’ve finished many champions over the years, most of them for other people, but I can say that I have had a good run with my smooth BBE champions. There have been ten of them. I know that number because of the beautiful medallion the American Kennel Club sends when someone finishes a champion with all points earned exclusively from BBE. I actually counted the number of champions that I have bred over that thirty-five year span and came up with twenty-three. Considering that on average, I breed less than one litter a year, that isn’t too shabby for a small, hobby breeder.
And, what does this have to do with the writing life? On first glance, not a whole lot. But, upon scratching the surface, the similarities start to emerge. Both activities should involve a deep commitment to producing the best product possible (and before anyone starts to flame me, I DO NOT consider my dogs a “product”), both involve a learning curve, both have short-cuts to “success”, and both have a high rate of burn-out when that success isn’t instantly realized.
Like dog shows, being a writer involves what should be a deep commitment to producing the best product possible. Learn the rules of writing (at the very least, proper grammar. PLEASE!), learn the norms of the genre you’re writing in (once you know them, you can push and bend them), and READ. READ A LOT! As Stephen King has said, if you don’t have time to read, you aren’t a writer. Good writers read everything they can get their hands on. They read in the genre they’re writing in. They study how other authors take the norms and push those boundaries. They read in other genres.
Being a writer has a learning curve. That’s where all that reading comes into play. Read “how-to” books on writing. Maybe you won’t use all or much of that advice, but there is something to be learned within the pages of that guide. Just as the American Kennel Club standard is the guideline/blueprint for what a collie should look like, that standard is open to personal interpretation. Dog show judging is highly subjective. So is writing. However, if what you’re writing isn’t selling, just as in the dog show ring if the dogs aren’t winning, perhaps it’s time to re-evaluate how you’re approaching the guidelines. I’ll never forget a time one very self-important small man announced to me (amidst several insults, as well) that he was going to be the number one breeder of smooth champions of all time. That was thirty years ago and he is still involved with this crazy sport. Anyone care to take a guess as to how many champions he has bred or co-bred? Anyone? Just like him and his inability to adapt and to follow that blueprint for what a show collie should look like, if you cannot adapt your writing you are doomed to failure before you sit down at the keyboard. There is a learning curve and you either learn or die.
That isn’t to say you should be writing to a template or formula. Use those as guidelines. How you color with the words inside that template/blueprint/formula is entirely your choice. Your unique choice of words, your spin on how the story is told is what makes your story different from every other story out there. I read somewhere that there are only about six or seven different romance story lines out there: the Cinderella story line, the Beauty and the Beast story line, Sleeping Beauty…how you tell those tales makes it your story line.
If you aren’t committed to creating the best writing you possibly can, please spare the rest of us. I understand that’s harsh. The lack of commitment to being the best and the ability to publish something as soon as you’ve written the last word in a first draft through mediums like CreateSpace falls into the area of a short cut to “success.” Yes, that’s your name on the cover of that book. And, yes, you’ve probably got a lot of friends to tell you how wonderful the book is and will even post a review for you—but, as a famous politician said a few years ago just because someone puts lipstick on a pig doesn’t change the fact it’s still a pig. It’s just wearing lipstick, now. It’s still a pig.
That high rate of burn-out is common to both dog showing and writing. How many start NaNoWriMo every November and never finish? How many start November out ready to write, hit a wall at about day 10 or 15 and never go back. Or how many actually get that novel written and on December 1 push “publish” at CreateSpace and when the horrible reviews start to roll in, stop writing. They blame the bad reviews on trolls, on the fans of authors with more name recognition, on the barred doors of the ivory towers of traditional publishing, rather than attempting to understand what it is the reviewers are saying. News flash—if the vast majority of reviews are arguing for a proof reader and a professional editor to look over your masterpiece, you might want to consider such. Pull the book down, spend the extra money and get it professionally edited and then republish it.
For years, I had a sign in my tack box that said “Failure to prepare is preparing to fail.” Too often, I’ve seen people buy a first rate dog, have some success with it, only to find at the larger shows, they weren’t prepared. They hadn’t learned the nuances of grooming a dog to accent virtues. They aren’t as polished in the presentation as people who have been involved in this insanity called a dog show for years. And, instead of evaluating why they aren’t winning, they chalk it up to “politics”, become discouraged and leave. We call them five year wonders…in that we wonder if they’ll still be involved in five years. Even those of us who have been involved for years (decades) chalk up some losses to “politics.” The latest tempest in a tea pot over group placements is a good example of politics, and I’m just as guilty.
And, just as I did something this past weekend that I haven’t done in thirty-five years of showing dogs, this week something happened that has never happened before. My first published book The Devil’s Own Desperado suddenly rocketed up the charts at Amazon and by the end of the day on Wednesday was sitting at number one in Westerns and number four in western romance. And, I was just as giddy about that as I was the day I signed the contract for publication of that book and just as giddy as I was about finishing my first bred by champion. I never want to lose that wonder, that giddiness, that sense of deep gratitude to my readers.
Go do something you’ve never done before. The sense of accomplishment is simply amazing.