3 Attributes for a Successful Writing Career

Mary Keeley

Blogger: Mary Keeley

Magnificently written books that readers dive into and remember long after they turn the last page are the goal of all committed writers. But the road to that destination is almost always bumpy and loaded with detours and potholes. There are three personal attributes you need to replenish often for a successful journey. Observing these traits as they’re depicted in inspiring movies may reignite them in you.   

Perseverance. When you’re feeling weary, overwhelmed, or discouraged, step away from your work for a short time and recharge your resolve by watching the movie Miracle about the U.S. underdog hockey team that won the gold at the 1980 Olympics. Do you remember the scene in which coach Herb Brooks, played by Kurt Russell, made the team do the same drill over and over, way past the players’ persevereperceived point of exhaustion, until one of players finally “got it” and answered coach’s repeated question correctly? The players could hardly remain standing by then, but none of them had given up. That moment was a turning point when they knew who they were as a team. Other players, some of whom were more talented, had been cut by now, and we begin to see why the coach had chosen those players. He knew that perseverance would ultimately win the medal.

As you watch that scene in particular, focus on the determination shown in Kurt Russell’s character and in the players who endured. The coach was reinforcing in them the perseverance they would need as well as the skills. The beauty of true stories like this one is that a realistic goal is within any person’s grasp if they keep on doing the hard work. How might you apply the inspiring message of this movie to where you are in your writing journey today?

Persistence. If you are facing obstacles in your path to publication, or re-publication, and need some inspiration to continue focusing on your dream instead of the obstacles in your way, I suggest you let the movie October Sky encourage you. It is based on the true story of Homer Hickam, who grew up in a poor coalmining town during the 1950s. At the time the only way boys could go to college and escape the mines was if they got a football scholarship. Homer was an average player at best. But his fascination with the launch of Soviet Sputnik 1 and seeing it streak across the sky inspired him to build a rocket. Enlisting the help of three friends and a metalworker who worked for his father, they learned through many failures until they finally had success. Their goal was to enter their rocket in the county science fair. The prize for the winner was a college scholarship.

Observe how Homer persists through rejections, unfortunate circumstances, and his father’s opposition to such a waste of time, to hold onto his dream. What is inspiring about the true story on which this movie based is all four boys persisted to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles to reach their goal. All of them went on to graduate from college and have lives of their choosing.

Passion. If you are experiencing a dry season in your writing, don’t languish there. You need a refreshment of passion. One of my favorite movies that is full of passion is Last of the Mohicans. Rita Kempley, a The Washington Post reviewer, wrote: “the film sets new standards when it comes to pent-up passion,” a less than resounding recommendation. But the public felt otherwise. The movie was the 17th highest-grossing film in 1992.

Writers need to be passionate in their writing if it’s going to be at its best. Readers will know if that ingredient is missing from your work. Take the time to replenish the passion in your writing by letting a movie such as Last of the Mohicans fan the flame in you again. 

Which of the attributes might you be struggling with right now? What do you do to recharge your perseverance, persistence, and passion in your writing life?

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53 Comments

  • A writer’s perseverance and persistence remind me of the lesson plans that teachers write. They should include goals (with small steps), strategic and productive use of time, opportunity to be creative, and flexibility.

  • Mary, I’ve struggled with all three of these at various times. You’ve made some good suggestions to overcome the problems, and a writer’s recognition he or she needs to address them is the first step in recovery. Thanks for sharing.

  • There’s another trait I’d add, but I don’t know of a one-word description – but here goes.

    There’s a military maxim that a good plan, violently applied immediately, is better than a perfect plan applied in an hour.

    This can be related to perfectionism in writing – no novel is flawless, and the polishing effort can become an end in itself.

    I respect the opinion of those who hold that a novel is a work of self-expression and passion, and that it doesn’t matter if it’s read or published. I don’t agree with that view; I feel that writing is communication of a story and a set of moral values, and that the end use is quite as important as the creative process.

    Thus, get it done, to standards that are high but not absurd, and keep a holistic vision of the process, from inception to publication.

    Maybe that’s a good ‘one-word’…

    Vision.

  • I’ve struggled with all of these at one point or another in the journey. All three qualities are abundant at the beginning of a new project. But they wane at times as I dig in and do the work. After harsh comments from a contest. When I’m stuck in the story. That’s when I have to CHOOSE to walk in these attributes. It’s not always easy, but it’s always rewarded when I look back and see the book finished. See the growth that happened in me because of my choices to press on.

  • Ahhh, Mary! I love that you are such an encourager! Thank you! Excellent movie examples–and I’ve seen all of them!

    I don’t know of any writer who hasn’t struggled with all three of the necessary attributes for a successful writing career. I know I have.

    I think what’s key for me is taking time off occasionally. This week is spring break at our house so I’ve stepped away from blogging and social media a bit, and I’ve delighted in long, glorious days spent with our daughter. Shopping, laughing, nails, hair… you know–doing the important things. Precious time spent with a teenager who’s growing up so fast.

    I’ve managed to sneak in some time to create and it’s been a joy to remove some of the pressure. And it’s funny–when I’ve done that, those are my most productive days.

    • Mary Keeley Mary Keeley says:

      You are so right, Cindy. Taking time away to have fun doing something totally different is actually productive for your work and can be just what a writer needs to replenish these attributes.

  • I love Miracle. Our family has watched it more than once because it is such an amazing story when you consider the odds these young players went up against to win.

    I’ve definitely struggled with these attributes from time to time. Like Cynthia, when I get overwhelmed I step away for a tiny bit. I don’t abandon writing all together. Instead, I work on fun writing like a fan fiction story. I might even critique someone else’s work to keep that passion for my own writing alive.

    Thanks for sharing these movie recommendations. I’ll have to check out the two others on the list.

    • Mary Keeley Mary Keeley says:

      I so agree, Cheryl. Taking time to fill our FUN tanks keeps us healthy and balanced. And that’s an environment in which perseverance, persistence, and passion can be restored. Have fun watching those movies.

  • Right now? Perseverance. I finished an edit, only to find that the book is still too long and needs another go through. Grr! I thought I was done!

    Mary, LOVE your recommendation of Miracle and especially that scene you mentioned. Did you know that the actors weren’t acting there? The director decided that the actors needed to do exactly what the real players had done. So he made them skate just as long as the real Herb Brooks had made the team skate, which means that everything those guys were going through on the screen was real. Wow.

    • Mary Keeley Mary Keeley says:

      Wow indeed, Sally. I didn’t know that detail. Thanks for sharing. It’s probably why the scene was so effective. I wonder how Kurt Russell was feeling inwardly for those young actors in those real moments. Watching his facial expressions and those of the young guys is a good study in how to express them in writing.

    • Wow, Sally. I didn’t know that. Hubby and I love that movie!

  • My first article would never have been published without persistence! But right now, I thought struggling with perseverance might be an issue. Our recent work is on our two cats … and we had to put one to sleep this last week. I opened up our work yesterday … told my daughter it would be hard … picked up where my last edit was … tears were streaming down my face as I read her sweet name … but I found I had a new and renewed passion. This work will have my heart on in through the edit more than ever.

    • Mary Keeley Mary Keeley says:

      I’m sorry to hear about your cat, Shelli. Thanks for sharing how getting into an emotional experience as you did personally, or as a good movie can do vicariously, kindles passion. Your story will be even better.

  • In July 2012, I went to the Navajo memorial and museum of Bosque Redondo, outside Fort Sumner, New Mexico. I was there with 2 Native American friends and we toured the museum and got more upset by the minute. But it was the completely sincere and yet incredibly astonishing comment made by a park ranger that sent all 3 of us into an emotional tailspin. This ranger, a woman, said “When visitors ask me about the Navajo people who come through here, I tell them that those people shouldn’t get mad, they should just be sad.”

    Oh, hello?

    Would she say the same thing to a Jewish museum visitor at Bergen-Belsen, or Sibobor?

    The Navajo consider Bosque Redondo, or Hweeldi, as they call it, to be the most horrific point in their history. It is their Holocaust. The point in time at which their culture was on the brink of annihilation. Of the 9500 Navajo people held there, an estimated 2500 died. The treatment and conditions were so bad, the government signed a treaty and gave the Navajo back their land.
    And yet they shouldn’t be mad?

    An army of grown men hunted and herded toddlers and elderly women, pregnant women and broken down old men.

    Of course it is sad, but do not dare tell someone like my dear friend Ted that he should only be sad that a 7 year old boy was taken captive and forced to walk 400 miles across the desert. He is allowed to be mad for his grandfather.

    One thing that spurs my passion for this story, my perseverance to get everything exactly right and my persistence to keep going when I am worn out?

    Righteous indignation that all that was done to them was to rid the West of the Navajo, and if that wasn’t possible, to make them fit to serve Anglo’s and teach them enough to make them acceptable in the eyes of God.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Jennifer, if only you had a little more passion…

    • Mary Keeley Mary Keeley says:

      Jennifer, thanks for pointing out that the story itself often ignites deep passion. Perseverance and persistence are then needed to do justice to it by inducing a passionate response from the reader. You’re on your way.

    • Jennifer, you’ve touched on an important point – one with another military analogy.

      A scout/sniper has to have certain character traits, and has to be devoid of a couple of others.

      The most important positive trait is a strong sense of mission, and the willingness to obey the orders of his duly appointed superiors. It’s a difficult profession under the best of circumstances, and when things get pear-shaped the ‘passion’ of a sense of purpose and duty can be the only things that allow fulfillment of the objectives (which are primarily reconnaissance, not trigger-pulling). The worst part of a garbage dump makes an excellent hide, and it’s hard to stay motivated under a layer of rotting trash.

      When it comes to shooting, there are two traits which are disqualifying – over-identification with the target (the ‘Stockholm Syndrome’) and a sense of power that results in indiscriminate targeting outside the purview of the mission (the ‘Texas Tower Syndrome’)

      These relate to passion for a writing ’cause’ in that first, a deep sense of purpose is vital in retaining motivation through the long days of revisions, and the longer weeks of rejection.

      The Stockholm and Texas Tower Syndromes come to light in the approach to the characters – it’s easy to over-identify with the protagonists, and make them into ‘plastic Jesuses’; likewise, one can develop one-dimensional hateful antagonists that are gleefully smoked during the course of the story. Neither leads to nuance, and both are ultimately boring.

      The scout/sniper has to regard his targets as human, but their humanity is secondary to the overall mission. Likewise the author – characters are fundamentally the author’s mouthpieces, which develop and flesh out story.

      And, Jennifer, you succeed quite well.

    • Kiersti says:

      I love your passion and your heart, Jennifer…they humble and inspire me. And it’s so true that the story you’ve been given to write can itself help inspire the needed passion. I am so excited to see what God is going to do through you and your books!

      And yes, just the thought of that ranger saying that in front of Ted and Evie and you…just about made my blood boil. Thankful you didn’t have to deal with that.

  • What do I do to recharge in my writing life? Read. Now that I’ve written a few novels myself, I understand more the blood, sweat, and tears that go into the writing of a great novel. As I read, I’m inspired by the hours of dedication that went into that particular book. It’s not long before I feel that challenge rise up again. If that writer can do, why can’t I? Then I’m filled with that desire to entertain, encourage, and inspire just as I have been entertained, encouraged, and inspired countless times. A writing friend’s debut novel is coming out in December. She started writing because her husband told her she should stop being just a consumer and become a producer. Wise words.

    Thank you for the movie suggestions, Mary. I haven’t seen any of them, but they sound terrific.

    • Mary Keeley Mary Keeley says:

      Meghan, thanks for demonstrating how you use your reading time productively to challenge yourself. So many craft techniques can be absorbed in the process as well.

      Enjoy the movies. The first two are good family films for children who are old enough to understand the stories.

      • I was going to mention that LOTM is NOT kid friendly. At all. It’s a war movie. And the special effects of hand to hand combat, with knives and clubs, is highly accurate. Which is a nice way of saying “blood and guts everywhere”.

  • I’m so thankful that I get to attend Mount Hermon this year, and while there, I know I’ll be recharged in each of the areas you mentioned. It’s also a great opportunity to encourage and serve those around me. There’s something about commiserating with, and spurring on people who ‘get you’. :-)

    • An excellent point, Jenni. I had benefited from the small, regional conference in my area. But then I went to the ACFW conference. WOW!! (Yes, that wow is worthy of two exclamation points.) Did they sneak Red Bull into the iced tea? The atmosphere fairly crackled with the energy.

  • I love to watch “Facing the Giants. ” That always encourages me. :)

  • For a movie about passion, and making the right choices, I’d suggest “Tears of the Sun”.

    Not kid-friendly, but I have a feeling it’s part of what inspired Jennifer…

  • It’s fun to read everyone’s comments and see how they find perseverance, persistence, and passion. One thing that always refills my tank, and helps me to rediscover my passion (which in turn produces perseverance and persistence) is talking to like-minded friends. It’s been crucial for me to have a close group of writers who I can call upon when I need encouragement. They know what I’m going through and they know what to say to help me keep going, even through the tough times. It’s one of my greatest privileges to do the same for them. As a matter of fact, we have a Google hangout scheduled tonight. I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to talking to all of them!

  • Anita Mae says:

    My post on the Inkwell Inspirations blog yesterday was about Mazo de la Roche, author of Jalna and Whiteoaks (and many more) and how she overcame her bad nerves/nervous breakdowns and still continued to write. The first time was when she realized her submission might possibly be lost in the postal system because a stamp was found on the floor after she had mailed her story. She didn’t write for 3 yrs. After another setback from bad reviews, her struggle to write ended because she finally got up the courage to write one line. She praised herself and stopped, but then pushed herself to add a bit the next day and each day afterward. She went on to write over a dozen more books.

    Have you ever watched, Mr. Blanding Builds His Dream House, with Cary Grant and Myrna Loy? He has a dream of a beautiful house, but every time he does one thing to reach his goal, more things are thrown in his way. The film is a comedy and the remake is entitled, The Money Pit, with Tom Hanks and Shelley Long. I like the original better, but both show persistence in the face of adversity.

    As for Last of the Mohicans. Oh yes!

    I’ll check out the other 2 you mentioned. Thanks!

    • Mary Keeley Mary Keeley says:

      Yes Anita, I’ve seen Mr. Blanding Builds a Dream House. The film shows how persistence may also be refueled by laughing through roadblocks and detours.

      I think you’ll like the other two movies.

  • Attributes are the raw material, or the building blocks, of any great story.

    Readers unconsciously appreciate a book where these attributes, even though they may be hidden under the surface, contribute greatly to the way the story is constructed.

    Identifying your attributes will help any writer to go beyond what they though possible. (Even if you’re a dog)

    • Mary Keeley Mary Keeley says:

      Amen, Donnie. I so agree. And sometimes when these attributes are hidden under the surface, the effect is they are all the more powerful.

      Dogs have these attributes too.

  • Michelle LIm says:

    All such important qualities to develop, that and thick skin. When I feel discouraged, I often love to watch “Iron Will” or read one of my favorite authors who are amazing at craft. There is just something about picking up a great book to get your creativity flowing.

    As for that perseverance, an accountability partner who will race you, challenge you, and get on your case when you are slacking off is so very important.

  • Darby Kern says:

    Sometimes I just need to pop in the LOTM soundtrack and I can get fired up a-plenty. I can’t even remember how many times I saw that movie when it came out, but it’s enough to spot every change in every home video format Michael Mann has put out.

    Determination comes from many places. Lately I’ve pulled out the paints and brushes again and have been working on some art (which is, in turn, inspired by a very talented art student I have). Doing that has fired some creative brain cells and not so gently driven me back to my writing as well. I need to turn off some noise that makes me crazy but I’m beginning to find the happy place again creatively. Today I had my best writing day in almost two years- and the day ain’t over.

    • Barbara Mischke says:

      Mary and friends,

      I have been writing short stories for about 10 years. I have no trouble with ideas or working with the stories because I look at them as paintings to which I keep adding a little color. Gradually, I have improved and feel that I have some stories that are complete. My problem is finding an audience other than my friends and family. Don’t laugh!

      How do I take the next step?

      Thanks for any help you can give me.

      Barbara

  • I enjoy reading the blog post and article. I am learning, learning and learning some more. How I keep going is thinking about the end product. I am retired Army Officer and we do something called “backward planning.” We start with the end in mind: For example. Write: book in hand, then signing copies, then publisher pulling item from box, then boxed, etc. etc.

    This is a new way of visualization. What do you think. It is easier to continue if you see the end in sight.

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