Welcome back. I’m sure you won’t be surprised to find the glass is still full, but if you want to read more about that, check out last month’s article, where I tried to answer an age-old quandary and then meted out some really controversial advice. It wasn’t half-bad for a first column, if you’ll permit me the self-indulgence.
But, onwards, and to this month’s instalment.
Every now and again I hear the buzzer of my gate and glance out a window to see a nondescript white van idling at the bottom of my drive. Most city-dwellers wouldn’t pass any remarks, but when you live in the middle of nowhere, nondescript vehicles of any kind have a habit of occasioning you to suspicion. It just so happens that this particular van belongs to a salesman, though I imagine no documentation exists anywhere to identify him as such. A salesman of hoovers (vacuums, for my American friends), no less, and someone who is best left believing that no one is currently home. He is the sort of salesman who appears harmless, friendly, and always cracking jokes and regaling potential customers with anecdotes. He charms you with his constant talking (a very Irish trait) and puts you at ease with his friendly demeanour, but before you know it he’s left your house – and you don’t know what happened, or how, but suddenly you have four hoovers and not a penny/cent in your wallet. You spend the rest of the day thinking, “But I kept saying I didn’t want anything! How did he get me to buy this crap?” Well, it’s simple. That’s his job.
You see, that man has spent years learning his trade: how to be charming, but not creepy; how to smile; how to set people at ease with body language; how to sell to a woman on her own, a man on his own, or a couple; how to say the right words at the right time; and how to make the customer feel like they need his product more than anything in the world. Some people are born with a natural accompaniment to this learned talent – the gift of the silver tongue – and it gives them an advantage over our veteran salesman, but only in certain areas.
Now, you might be asking what any of this has to do with an article about writing. Well, when we put pen to paper, and ask someone to read what we’ve written, we are selling our product. Our product is words, and like our salesman, we tend to spend years learning how to use the right ones at the right time. As with sales, some people are born with a natural accompaniment to the learned talent of writing. Some call it imagination, others call it insanity, but at the end of the day the selling of our product is down to us.
So when you start writing, one of the most important things you have to consider is how to sell yourself. Because, in reality, every time you put something out there for someone to read, or attempt to publish something, you are trying to find a way to do what a great salesman does: get past the barriers that people have towards buying things they didn’t plan on buying. This is why as a writer it’s not just enough to have great ideas, or to be able to choose the right words to say what you mean. It’s an entire package that you have to cultivate over a period of time. A great idea is only as great as its execution, and great execution pales in the face of limited imagination.
To become a successful writer, it is not enough to say “I’m great at telling a story, but someone else will have to tinker with the nuts and bolts”. The salesman is only as good as his knowledge of how to adapt to continually differing circumstances. If he neglects the jokes and anecdotes, and stays on the charm offensive instead, he might come across as too forced. If he neglects the charm offensive, and stays with the anecdotes and jokes, potential customers might think of him as nothing more than a funny guy who pops ’round now and again to try to sell some things.
There’s a saying in sport: “It’s better to win tomorrow than lose today”. In other words, it’s better to take one step forward tomorrow, rather than one step backwards today, and that applies to writing insofar as it’s not so important what you do today, but rather what it amounts to tomorrow. Words that are written today will become chapters tomorrow; chapters that are written today will become novels tomorrow; skills that are learned today should be remembered tomorrow.
To be a great salesman tomorrow, it requires working on the fundamentals today. Despite what soppy reality-TV shows say, people aren’t born anything. It’s one of the more annoying statements of the modern world when someone says “you were born to be such-and-such”. No, they worked their ass off to be such-and-such. There is no accounting for hard work, setbacks, and perseverance.
So many people believe that Sir Edmund Hillary, when asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, said: “Because it’s there”. It’s untrue. Hillary actually said, “Because I was told it can’t be done”. It was George Mallory who said “because it’s there”, some three decades earlier, and he died 300 feet from the summit. The year before Hillary successfully climbed the 29,028-foot peak with Tenzing Norgay, Norgay himself led a Swiss expedition up the Lhotse Face and had to turn back 800 feet from the summit because of bad weather and exhaustion. Hillary had to convince Norgay, in 1953, to give it another shot. Around the same time, he realised that his friend, George Hunt, was planning an ascent of his own. He was taking the Lhotse Face, and because Chinese-controlled Tibet only allowed one expedition up Everest per year, Hillary had to either choose to join Hunt’s group, or go his own way, and he ended up forging a route through the treacherous Khumbu Icefall with Norgay instead. Numerous climbers have tried this route since; many of them have perished. The reason why Norgay and Hillary didn’t is because Norgay knew the Khumbu Icefall better than any man alive, and knew that going early in the morning was the best possible shot for success. But Norgay could have said no, and Hillary could have turned back when he found out that Hunt had called quits on the Lhotse Face, but both of them had worked too hard and had too many setbacks to give up so close to their goal. They persevered and became the first men to climb Mount Everest.
They weren’t born to do it. Like the salesman, and like the novelist, they worked at it until it became second nature. Nowadays, climbers ascend Everest without oxygen, a feat unthinkable in Hillary’s time, but even the greatest climbers of today do not ascend the final stage of Everest, forever to be known as the Hillary Step, without ropes that can be tethered to cams.
And what’s more important is this: it’s better to win tomorrow than lose today. Norgay could have chanced those remaining 800 feet in ’52, but he probably would have died. Hillary could have stayed with Hunt’s group and aimed for the Lhotse Face, but he would have failed with them. That salesman could have given the customer a 30-day trial period, but he managed to convince them that they needed his product. From the outside, one might see those things as just a man doing his job, or a couple of nutcases trying to make history, but we don’t see the most important thing of all: the hours, days, and months of hard work that went into it.
People often say to me that they’d love to be able to write a novel, like I’ve done, but the truth is they’d actually love to be able to write it without having to put in all the hours I have. The idea of writing a novel is a romantic notion to them, but they would never get up at seven a.m. on a Sunday morning to write; they would never spend a whole day editing; they would never sacrifice their social life to write another chapter; they’d never spend a weekend writing nonstop; and they’d never put in the years of hard work it takes to produce that novel.
But you’re different, otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this, and to end this month’s article, I’ll say this: there are lots of things in this world that can be measured and quantified. Hard work is not one of them, but it is the one that will make the most difference in the end.