Want to Publish a Book? Brandon Sanderson Says, ‘Determination and Grit is Not Enough’
Media profits from selling us the dream of success — sometimes to our detriment.
We’ve heard the stories a million times before. Some nobody with incredible talent worked for years in dire conditions until their writing became a bestseller. Stephen King was an impoverished teacher who could barely support his family until Carrie was published. JK Rowling was a clinically depressed, unemployed single mother when Harry Potter was rejected by publishers twelve times.
We like these stories. We tell them often. They make us believe that anyone can make it as a successful novelist as long as they work hard and make sacrifices for their art. However, for every success story, there are a hundred failed ones.
People have spent years chasing the pipe dream of being a bestselling novelist. They’d give up their jobs, pay for expensive courses and workshops with no tangible results, and write until they burn out. It would be all be worth it, they tell themselves, once I become a bestseller. Writing has grown from a hobby to a habit to an obsession. By then, it’s a source of stress, not pleasure.
For many, writing is an addiction, a little bit like gambling. It’s not the act of tossing dice that is addicting; it’s the dangling carrot of success. Writers dream of their work paying off without realizing their odds are bleak.
I know how miserable this sounds, but trust me, there is a happy ending.
“You can’t do anything”
In his 2020 YallWest keynote speech, Brandon Sanderson dismantled the “you can do anything with hard work and determination” mentality that comes with writing books.
Sanderson is an American fantasy and science-fiction bestselling author best known for the Mistborn series and for finishing Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. This modern writing legend had written 13 novels before he sold one.
“You can’t do anything,” said Sanderson. “Sometimes determination and grit is not enough… Luck plays a bigger part in our accomplishments than anyone wants to pretend.
“Sometimes, media — even the media I create — goes too far. We profit off of selling you a dream without giving you the warnings, without giving you the realism, without giving you the stakes and the probabilities.
“Sometimes we are selling this to your detriment.”
He explains survivorship bias, a human inclination to trust the word of someone successful. But sometimes this can become a fallacy.
“We don’t know how much of what put me right here right now was skill, and how much was talent, and how much was luck… Certainly, all three pay a part, and you can control some of those things and not others.”
We tend to encourage everyone to write a book. When someone tells a good story, relates a weird dream, or experiences something unusual, a typical reaction is “you should write a book.” There’s a strange fantasy surrounding selling books. Too many times I’ve been offered a deal by someone who had “the best story idea ever.” I’ll write the entire thing and we’ll split the profit 50–50. The preposterous work balance aside, who considers that there might be no profits at all?
Luck often comes in the form of being in the right place at the right time, submitting a book that fits the current market, and finding agents and editors who resonate with the story. Publishing is an industry like any other, and to ensure they stay in business, they use trends to sell books. This makes sense from a business perspective, but it’s bad news for writers who aren’t interested in writing trending genres or tropes. It’s also bad news for trend-stalking writers, since their novels might be ready for submission after the hype is over.
So, what’s the point of writing books?
Sanderson encourages aspiring writers to shift from “you can do anything” to:
- I can do hard things.
- Doing hard things has intrinsic value.
- Doing hard things will make me a better person, even if I end up failing.
To do this, he explains how to set better goals.
After writing 13 books, some of which had been attempts to pander to the market and turned out terrible (Sanderson’s words, not mine), he wondered, “What’s the point?”
Yes, he wanted to be a novelist, but he also just loves to write. He realized that if he never sold a book in his life, but he wrote 100 novels, he would be a bigger success than if he had given up. After all, he sincerely loves writing. And his goal changed from being a famous author to becoming a better writer and to write books that he likes.
In short, make goals that you have control over.
Your goal could be to become a better writer, exploring different genres, or finishing a draft by a certain time. Your goals should not be about being published or agented. You have no control over that, and it’s a setup for failure and disappointment.
Keep your day job and enjoy it, if you can. Explore life and the world, and allow these experiences to fuel your writing. Enjoy the good days of inspiration and enjoy the bad days of writers’ block. Write for yourself, not for the market or any other subjective audience.
Writing is a journey and being a bestselling novelist is the beautiful view along the road, not the endgame.
Okay, but I’m special
Many of you may read this and think, “Yes, writing is hard and many people won’t succeed but… I will get published. I will be one of the successful few.”
I get it. Even as I write these words, I can’t get this mentality out of my head. Still, I’m planning to enjoy the journey no matter what happens to me or my novels in the end.
Try to take money out of the picture. When my brothers play hockey, no one asks them, “So when are you trying out for the NHL? Oh, you’re not going professional? So what’s the point of playing?” Yet when writers tell people about their works in progress, they respond with, “Are any of your book published yet? When is it going to be published? Are you going to make money from it?”
Some things are just meant to be enjoyed and that’s healthy. In today’s hustle culture, everything we do needs to make money for some reason. Take a deep breath. That kind of stress can be detrimental to writers. I know from experience that it’s almost impossible to write when you feel like the world is reading over your shoulder.
Writing is awesome. There’s a reason why we love doing it. Don’t let flimsy promises of riches and fame take that away from you. You can hope. Hope is a powerful tool. Temper your hope with goals you have control over. Use hope to motivate you, but don’t allow it to discourage you.
Do hard things and enjoy every moment.
Brandon Sanderson. The Common Lie Writers Tell You — YallStayHome 2020 Afternoon Keynote. May 4, 2020