A Lifetime Process

If I have any theme to these musings about my life as an editor and writer, it’s the necessity to continue growing and learning about the craft and the business of writing. In my view, there is no season of the journey without this trait. We never arrive and simply crank out wonderful prose. Every sentence can be improved and writers profit, learn and grow from the input of others.

In my time of interacting with authors, I’ve met a few who act like they have arrived. They add clauses to their contracts where the manuscript has to be printed as it’s turned in (seriously I’ve heard about these arrangements). I find this attitude contrary to what I’ve experienced in the journey and what I continue to experience in this business. My belief in this key ingredient was affirmed a couple of times this week in some things which crossed my desk with a couple of well-known authors.

Nora RobertsThis week I was reading the Romance Writers Report (August 2006) and it includes an interview with mega-selling author Nora Roberts. The word “best-selling” just doesn’t seem to be enough for someone who has more than 280 million books in print (not a typo). The well-crafted interview from Eileen Putnam begins asking her for the secret to her success. She says, “Sorry, no secret. Unless it’s believing storytelling is magic, in addition to hard work. Regular, habitual do-it-every-day work, and the discipline it takes to keep the butt in the chair. Loving what I do certainly helps.”   I know many people looking for a quick fix but according to Roberts (who has done had huge success) there isn’t one.

I’m only giving a short quote from the actual interview but the second question related to the six unsuccessful manuscripts she wrote before she was first published in 1981 and the lessons for aspiring authors.  In part, Roberts answered, “The lesson is not to quit. How much do you want it? How hard are you willing to try? How many of your glorious words are you willing to kill to make it really sing? I unearthed the story in five out of six of the early manuscripts (one was just DOA) and sold them…And 25 years or so later, I’m still learning my craft. You should never stop learning.” (My bold on the quote to make it stand out for you.)

I’ll confess that I’ve not read a single Nora Roberts book (or J.D. Robbs which is the other name she uses). I admire her commitment to the craft and her encouragement for us to continue learning.

Dean-koontzThe second bestselling author to come across my desk this week was Dean Koontz. According to the Random House site, Koontz has sold more than 175 million copies and this figure increases each year by a rate of 17 million. He’s also in the mega-selling category from my view. I’ve met Dean Koontz on a couple of different occasions.  I’m certain that Koontz will not recall meeting me but it was in the mid-80s at a one day writer’s conference at Chapman College. Koontz was one of the featured speakers. During the coffee break, I spotted him standing alone and looking awkward. I walked over and struck up a brief conversation with him. 

Koontz came into my mind when I wrote a few words of review on Amazon about his long out-of-print book for novelists, How To Write Best Selling Fiction.  At age 20, Koontz won an Atlantic Monthly fiction award and sold his first short story that same year.  Here’s a bit of irony for you. This how-to book was published in 1981 and marked Koontz second how-to write book with his first one Writing Popular Fiction released in 1972. He hasn’t written another how-to book since my 1981 book. 

In the introduction, Koontz writes about why he’s putting out a second how-to book saying, “My knowledge of both the art and the craft of fiction is greater than it was in 1972. That doesn’t mean I’m terrifically bright and clever. Any greater understanding that I’ve acquired has come about because I’ve remained open-minded and self-critical about my work and because I’ve labored hard since 1972–-an average of seventy hours a week, year after year. I’ve written, rewritten, and re-written, polished, sanded, buffed, and repolished quite a few books in a variety of categories and styles. I’d have to be exceptionally thick-headed not to have learned something from all those hours at the typewriter.” Koontz is likely using a computer now and the emphasis in this last sentence was in the book—not me. Over the years I’ve read a number of Koontz books and I love his commitment to storytelling and the craft of writing. It shows in each of his books.  Many books pass through my office but How To Write Best Selling Fiction is definitely a keeper and much loved book.

My learning process about this business and the craft of writing continues. It’s a journey and not a destination.

9 Responses to “A Lifetime Process”

  1. Becky Says:

    Your post has given me muchj to think about. I like to write, but 70 hours a week? I don’t know if I have the discipline.

    At least my blog has gotten me writing most every day. Thank you for your insight. I will keep reading AND working.

  2. Connie Pombo Says:

    Okay, Terry, that’s it! I’m out to buy your book, Book Proposals that Sell. A year ago at CBA, two acquisitions’ editors requested my book proposal and it’s been #10 on my list of passionate “to-do’s” (I felt the need to write my story first–Trading Ashes for Roses–but now I’m forging ahead!). I’ve never been to a writer’s conference, but everything I submit gets published, so they say I have a “gift.” My mom says, “You mean you’re still writing: Do you really have that much to say?” I have to laugh! She’s phlegmatic and I’m sanguine (end of story!).

    Thanks, Terry, for being the inspiration and the wind beneath our wings as writers.

    Living Life Passionately,


    P.S. Hope to meet you at a writer’s conference (maybe I should bump that one up to #1!).

  3. C.J. Darlington Says:

    There’s great encouragement in this post, Terry. Thanks for sharing the advice of Nora Roberts and Dean Koontz. It helps incredibly on this journey to know that even bestselling authors struggle with all the same thoughts and feelings beginning writers do. And that we will never arrive.

    I want to have that same attitude–continually striving for better prose and business savvy.

  4. Bernita Says:

    A pilgrim’s progress is no road for the self-satisfied.

  5. R. K. Mortenson Says:

    It’s like anything else in life: the more you know (about writing), the more you realize how little you really know. You know? 🙂

    It’s more painful than pleasurable for me to read my first two published books. I’m learning. Feeling growing pains. My third book I think is much better. But that “I’ve arrived!” point is only a mirage. Once you reach the spot where you thought it was, you find it’s still another hundred yards (I almost wrote “years”) away.

  6. Happy Says:

    Thanks, Terry. What great words of inspiration. I’ve read every scrap Nora Robert’s has written since 1981, but had never heard about the six unpublished manuscripts before her first success. I feel better (and more motivated) already!
    I’ve always heard good things about Dean Koontz’s book on writing. Now its on my must read list.

  7. Michelle Pendergrass Says:

    I’ve read Dean Koontz, but since Nora Roberts is in the romance department, I stayed away. I’m pretty sure I stayed away because I just didn’t think there was anything worthwhile that could come out of the same story over and over and over.

    I’m learning though.

    I had just posted a message over at Faith*In*Fiction that questioned whether anyone had read Nora Roberts. My friend gave me a box of her books (probably 25 or more) a couple of months ago and they just keep sitting here.

    I tried to read on and I had a hard time getting past the first couple of pages. Probably because I’m stubborn.

    I’m going to try to get through some of them because I keep hearing how well she does with her characters and it just seems that if you want to learn what do you, you need to learn from the masters.

    Thanks for another affirmation that I need to read Nora Roberts.

  8. Bob Says:


    Any idea where to get a copy of Dean Koontz’s book on writing fiction–outside of breaking into your office and sneaking it off your shelf?

  9. Terry Whalin Says:


    About the only way I know to find a long out of print like the Dean Koontz book is to go to Bookfinder4U.com. I looked and it’s fairly expensive–even used.


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