The Long Ambitious Path

It rarely happens. Some author right off the bat writes a fabulous book which jumps on the bestseller list and the person is instantly thrust into the spotlight and has no more financial worries. Yet these few stories are the ones passed around and people continue to hope happens to them.  I know several of these stories, but I’m not going to write it into this entry.  From my view, it’s like telling a story about someone who wins the lottery. Millions of people played the game and one person walked off with the huge prize. It doesn’t stop those other folks from participating in the game the next opportunity.

One of my long-time friends, Jerry B. Jenkins, who wrote the Left Behind series which has sold 63 million copies, has often told people that this series was the chance of a lifetime.  It seems people forget that Jerry had published 100 books before Left Behind. Yet so few people want to apprentice and learn the craft of writing and the business aspects. Instead they want to jump into the fray and land at the top.  It just simply doesn’t happen. And none knew Left Behind was going to take off. Certainly the authors and the publisher believed in the work but who would have predicted the results? I’ve heard Jerry tell the story about how it was a huge deal ten years ago for Tyndale House to publish hardcover fiction. The jacket for the book costs almost as much as the actual printed book. For the first print run of Left Behind, they only printed half of the jackets so they wouldn’t lose as much if the book didn’t sell. These are the stories that people seem to forget—yet are critical to everyone in the journey.

HeatHere’s what initiated my entry about this aspect of the business: In the July 10th issue of Publisher’s Weekly on the hardcover nonfiction page, they pulled a quotation from an online interview with Bill Buford, the author of Heat: An Amateur’s Adventures as Kitchen Slave (which I have not read): “You know I really did see a lot of similarities between chefs and writers. Both professions require people to embark on a long ambitious trajectory, which rests on learning, without being recompensed, all kinds of skills that you’re not going to know for years whether you’re going to be able to make a living from them.”  According to PW, Knopf reports after five printings Heat has 85,000 copies in print.

If you are one of the many writers on the long ambitious path, what do you do? First, you keep growing and working at your craft. If you want to write books, then learn how to write an excellent book proposal. My Book Proposals That Sell has value whether you are trying to write fiction or nonfiction—if you wonder about this book, just check out the endorsements or read some of the customer reviews on Amazon. If you are trying to get an agent or a publisher, learn how to write a great query letter. Every day I see countless, forgettable queries. You want to write one which stands out. Get to a writer’s conference and begin to connect with other writers and editors. In a few weeks, I’m headed to the Greater Philadelphia Christian Writers Conference (use this link to learn more about my speaking schedule). One of the absolute best things you can do is to work on your craft of writing with shorter forms. Books are long—I know not very profound but true. Magazine articles and newsletters and other forms of writing are much shorter, the publication lead time is less and they are much more achievable.   There are too many writers who are stuck on submitting their long manuscript and never work on magazine articles. It’s a shame.

More than anything else, keep working at the journey.  For most of us, it is long and more like a marathon than a short sprint.

3 Responses to “The Long Ambitious Path”

  1. David A. Todd Says:


    Based on the advice you’ve given here and elsewhere, I’m more than willing to try my hand at short pieces as a stepping stone to getting a novel published. The problem is, I don’t particularly feel called to write short pieces. Without the call (i.e. inspiration), what are the chances I would be good at that? I feel called to write novels. I have no ideas for magazine articles outside my professional field (civil engineering), and articles in my field take way more time to research/write than I have, plus are not likely to impress an editor for creative works acquisitions. I’ve got two published in national engineering mazazines: one in 1993 and one in 2001. Each one took 30 to 40 hours to research and write.

    And the short story route seems to have no market. At least, I’ve not been able to find, in print or on the web, a clear picture of what the short story market is. That tells me there probably isn’t one.

    I have what I think is a good idea for a newspaper column, with what I see as syndication potential, but so far queries to newspaper editors have gone 100 percent unanswered. That tells me this is a market without a clear path to reaching editors.

    Slowly the dream dies.

  2. Terry Whalin Says:


    If you are writing Christian material–you didn’t say so I don’t know–one of the best places for short stories is the Sunday School take home market. Get a 2006 copy of Sally Stuart’s Christian Writer’s Market Guide and look under this category.

    A Sunday School take home publication is a short piece and a number of these publications use a fiction story every single week–that’s 52 pieces any editor needs to locate each year. There are other markets like this beyond the Christian arena. It will take effort.

    Also you can hone your storytelling skills in nonfiction writing.

    I hope that gives some encouragement.


  3. c.l.beyer Says:

    As I’m dragging my pen through the beginning of yet another novel, thanks for bringing me back to reality: this is going to take long, grueling hours of work (and it still might not be “the one”)! Am I up to it?

    -a writer

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