The Writing Tortoise

Silence of the Lambs was the middle book in a trilogy by the writer Thomas Harris (no relation to the awesome Chicago-based stage actor). It was made into a movie by director Jonathan Demme starring Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins. The trilogy has since spawned a fourth book to the series, a total of five movies and a television series.

I am now 53 years old, so if I started the Hannibal Lecter franchise today, I would be 86 years old before the television series would start. It pays to debut young.

Harris’s books are not the best crafted, and serves as one more example that you should not wait until you are perfect before starting on your novel. But you should never set an age goal for being published. That is a sure fire way to delay your debut. If you focus on getting published this year or with this manuscript, you fail to grow for the next story.

This is one of the many contradictions of becoming a writer. You should debut as early as possible, but you should not try to debut young. Harry Bernstein published his first book when he was 96, in 2007. He had his first story published in a school newspaper at 16, which was an impressive achievement in his time. Probably akin to having a print-on-demand novel published today. But he struggled as a writer for the next 80 years because he wanted to be published more than he wanted to be matured.

If you set your goal to getting published before the age of 20, just so that you can be labeled a “teenage author”, you are bound to fail. Take it from me. I tried to be a teenage author and I have not published a work of fiction after 40 years.

Instead of setting an age goal for your debut, you should set yearly reading goals and learning goals. Better yet, set monthly or weekly writing and learning goals. Then again, maybe not. Reading a book a week will get you to only 52 books a year. Two books a week will let you reach the hallowed goal of 104 books a year. If you English teacher says something like “You must read at least a thousand works of fiction to be able to become a writer,” then you come to the conclusion that it will take you about ten years get that far. And most of the books your English teacher says you must read are boring. Let’s just skip it and start writing. And then one morning, you wake up and realize that you are thirty six years old, not anywhere near getting published, and have not read anywhere near the required thousand books. But if you had read just one book a week since the time you were sixteen, you would have finished the thousand books ten years ago. That English teacher might have just pulled that number out of her ass, but the bottom line is that there is no shortcut to becoming a writer. No, it is always the tortoise that wins the race. Spending ten years reading books and learning to write might sound like a long time beforehand, but you will look back one day wishing you started ten years ago before you realize it.

Some people handle writing like a business. Some people handle it like a hobby. There are successful cases in both. But the best writers treat it like a learning experience. Impatience is always the enemy of art. Roz Morris, in her book Nail Your Novel, urges you never to send out your manuscript simply because you are exhausted by the project, or because your relatives are nagging you to.

There is an old saying in Japan that roughly translates as “The detour is the shortcut.” If you are in a hurry, don’t cut across lawns. That could be a cause of trouble and cost you more time than if you walked around the lawn. Do not try to skip any steps when you are trying to build a career. The slow way is the fast way. If you try to short change a learning curve, you will pay double for it later.


3 thoughts on “The Writing Tortoise

  1. I like the notion of the detour becoming the shortcut. It’s now that Chicago stage actor became a successful accountant, despite only having a BFA in Acting…lol

    Liked by 1 person

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