The Most Important Thing

Wendy Lawton

Blogger: Wendy Lawton

We talk so often about all the elements necessary for a writer to (a) get an agent (b) get a contract (c) find his readership and (d) build a successful career. As a blog reader your head must be swimming with all this valuable advice. 🙂

I set myself the task today of boiling it all down to one thing. It’s kind of like the desert island challenge. You know, if you were stuck on a desert island and you could only take one thing. . .

There are any number of possibilities. For instance, a great query. A great query can catch the attention of an agent and set the whole ball rolling. Plus your query sketches out your whole book in a nutshell, tells who you are, who your audience is likely to be and demonstrates your writing skill. That’s a lot to pack into one single page. Plus your query shows how well-thought-out your prosed book (nonfiction) or how creative your novel (fiction) is likely to be.

As important as a good query is, that’s not it.

How about your skills? You ability to write is essential and if you go one step further and write books that take our breath away, that’s a huge leap. Writing that sings will overcome a bad query, small platform, obscurity and any other number of things.

As important as stunning writing is, that’s not it.

Speaking of platform, could that be the one thing? We hear the call for a vigorous platform, especially in nonfiction, ad nauseum. I mean, if you have 30,000 Twitter followers and annual visits to your blog numbering in the six-figure range wouldn’t that insure success? Not necessarily.

As important as an impressive platform is, that’s not it.

Would it be connections? We’ve all heard it’s not what you know but who you know, right? If I’m friends with three different publishers and can call any number of editors for a lunch date when I hit the city, won’t that count? Maybe some, but not as much as one would think.

As important as a vast network is, that’s not it.

Before I make you absolutely crazy, let me confess that I’m not going to tell you what I think is most important. Not right now, anyway. First I want you to chime in with what you think it is. Late this afternoon I’ll add it to the end of this blog and mention it in the comments but I don’t want to give an answer until I hear what you have to say. My guess is that you may even have some arguments strong enough to make me reconsider but I promise I’ll post the one thing I’d already decided is the most important thing, even if you come up with much better arguments.

So comment away. What do you think is the most important thing to meet these four challenges: (a) get an agent (b) get a contract (c) find our readership and (d) build a successful career?


Im baaaack.

First let me say, if you want real wisdom, read the comments below. Make a list from these comments and you will have a solid game plan for success. Especially all those who pointed to the unseen element—the God-part of what we do. I’ve come to the conclusion lately that there is no truer thing. Then all of you who talked about perseverance and flexibility. Beth Szabo summed it up beautifully: “Have a thick skin, don’t give up on your dream, learn the rules, then learn how to break them to present a fresh voice, be flexible without losing yourself.”

After reading all your wise and wonderful guesses, I feel like mine is so prosaic, so market-driven. I wanted to make all kinds of apologies but I’ll stop myself because mine is no less true.

Here’s what I’ve observed as the one thing that sets those who are uber-successful apart: These writers have carved out a unique place for themselves in the industry. They own their place and no one can do it better than they do. For nonfiction, this is the person who becomes the “voice of [whatever]” or the “go-to person for [whatever].” For fiction this is a combination of voice and subject or era or category.

It’s difficult to explain but I can sure identify it. These are writers who never fail to give their readers the book they want. These are the writers who grow their readership every time a new book comes out because of word-of-mouth excitement.

I look at some of my most successful clients (and these are just a few of many) but they each own their niche. Lauraine Snelling owns inspirational, Scandinavian immigrant, family saga. Julie Klassen owns inspirational regency. Debbie Macomber owns her brand of heartwarming women’s fiction. Ann Gabhart owns a subset of Amish fiction (Shaker) while Judy Miller owns another (Amana). Jill Eileen Smith resurrected Biblical fiction in the CBA and continues to gain readers. Their readers love them and know they exact kind of read they’ll get from them.  In nonfiction Pam Stenzel is the go-to person for teen sexual issues and is the one to get called to appear on all the talk shows when the subject comes up.

What does this mean for the pre-published? If you’re still in the exploration phase, don’t hurry this up, but realize that to be successful, you’ll have to eventually declare a major, so to speak. You can’t write all over the place and build the kind of readership that will take you over the top.




97 Responses

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  1. Sarah K says:

    My guess would be something like, “Finding your voice” or more broadly knowing who you are.
    As good as your writing or query might be, without the passion of who you truly are behind it – it will still lack that intangible force.
    Platforms and networks are built with people with whom there is mutual interest and that doesn’t happen until you know who you are and where that interest/strength lies.

  2. Not giving up. (And the willingness to learn to build a boat…thinking Castaway. 😉

    Love this post!

    Looking forward to coming back to read other answers & then yours later this afternoon.
    ~ Wendy

  3. Staying true to your voice
    Not giving up
    Writing and then writing some more

  4. Rick Barry says:

    Wendy, I’m thinking tenacity. The deep down inner drive that compels the writer back to the keyboard over and over despite the setbacks and despite victories. Without this compulsion to stick-to-it-iveness, even a stellar writer might give up too quickly (or become a one-hit wonder). But with tenacity, even a mediocre writer can continue slogging forward, learning lessons and making progress and reaching new horizons that the impatient can only dream to achieve.

  5. Wendy, Some folks might say that I’m successful because I’ve made it through at least the first two or three of those steps, but I don’t feel comfortable or complacent. Because, as you know, in this industry you’re only as good as your last book, so you have to keep working.
    That’s why I think the most important attribute for a writer, at whatever stage, is maintaining their focus. And that’s a tough one for me.
    Thanks for getting this discussion started.

  6. Joanne Sher says:

    I kept thinking “a great book.” But that may be to vague. Or tenacity. Will DEFINITELY be back!

  7. Effort.

  8. Yes, I would think a dogged determination to write, if you’re sure God wants you to–in other words, perseverance! But in spite of our best efforts, we also need GOD to bless them.

  9. David Todd says:


  10. Loving what you do. If all those things (agent, platform, good writing) are in place, but you don’t do it for the joy and pleasure of it, you won’t be satisfied. And loving what you do will make putting in the effort, the dedication, finding the voice, persuading an agent, selling trillions of books…easier and more natural, flowing out of your passion.

  11. Wow, everyone has such great answers. I guess I’d say it’s important for a writer to have the ability to adapt. The world of publishing is changing, and if writers don’t adapt with it–while maintaining an excellent work ethic, product, and determination–then they won’t be able to really have what it takes to succeed in this business.

    Looking forward to your answer!

  12. Tiana Smith says:

    Write a good book. Without a good book, the rest of that stuff doesn’t matter one bit.

  13. I think it’s unfair I am supposed to think without my second cup of tea first. 🙂

    All of these answers are great. I especially love Lindsay’s answer because it’s so true. A writer must be flexible.

    I’ll go with patience. Things happen in God’s time, not ours. I struggle with this a great deal. I want control, but I need to give it up. I’ve been tossing around potential ideas for a long time about my next picture book for my current publisher. Nothing seemed right. Yesterday, the idea came in a flash when I wasn’t even thinking about it. It definitely came from Him because this idea wasn’t even on my radar, yet I love it and think it’s perfect. God’s plan for my life bears fruit. I need to give my life entirely to Him and patiently await the revelation.

    I look forward to your answer.

  14. Lori says:

    Learning from your mistakes. Everyone makes them, so writers are not an exception. After a certain age, you learn more from your mistakes than you learn from your success. Hopefully after making many mistakes, one will become successful.

  15. Jeanne says:

    So many great answers already. I probably haven’t nailed what you have in mind, Wendy, but I’m thinking of two qualities stirred into one bowl, so to speak. Determinaion to do what needs to be done–writing, focusing, marketing, social networking, etc, interspersed with teachability to continue to learn and grow in the craft and business sides of this industry. Such a great post! Looking forward to reading others’ answers and discovering yours. 🙂

  16. Oh – too fun. Let me take a stab at it.

    I’d say the most important thing is adaptability and flexibility. You have to be able to grow, adapt, learn and take criticism (and learn from it). You don’t have to know everything right away, but you must be willing to learn.

    So excited for the “unveiling!” 😉

    – Nicole

  17. Loralie Hall says:

    I love all the previous answers. So much passion and dedication to the craft ^_^

    My guess would be to write. Nothing else counts for much if you don’t write.

  18. Persistence.

  19. I think bottom line is you must have a good story. To me I think that means voice, good characters and good plot woven together.

    Other things are important that have been mentioned. I know I’ve got to write a good query to get an agent to read my story. So is it like a pyramid?

    Can’t wait to hear your answer.

  20. Amanda Dykes says:

    Ooh, this question will have me mulling for a while. As of now, here’s where my mulling has landed me:
    Faithfulness to sit and write, to learn the craft, to keep taking steps, to continue when things look grim, to continue when things look bright and not get swept away on a cloud of ego, faithfulness to “conduct ourselves in a manner worth of the Gospel” and– above all– faithfulness to do all things for the One who is faithful to us.

  21. naureen says:

    I think it has to be persistence…though a fairy god mother could be a big help!

  22. Jill Kemerer says:


    Faith in God’s plan for your writing. Faith in yourself. Without faith, I couldn’t get through the setbacks and heartbreak.

  23. Cheryl Dale says:

    Believe in what you are writing. Never write because you think it will sell. Write because you believe the words within need to be shared. Then your writing will be passionate and publishible.

  24. Debra E Marvin says:


  25. PatriciaW says:

    Story. Story trumps everything.

    I was going to say creative freedom, the sense of liberty internally and from all the external demands to create good story, but if one does nothing with that liberty, it matters not. In the end what matters is good story.

  26. Lee Abbott says:

    I can speak only for myself, but . . .

    I wouldn’t do any of it if I didn’t believe that God created and equipped me for this specific purpose.

  27. Alison says:


    Am I close?

    I look forward to hearing your response!

  28. Susan says:

    Inviting God into the process.

  29. I can’t wait to see your answer, Wendy, because I consider this a riddle that is nearly impossible to solve. The answers above are great, and if this were multiple choice, my answer would be “All of the Above.” Since you are making us narrow it down to one, I would say the ability to work with and listen to other people (I think that’s really one, not two things). Sarah K said “Finding your own voice.” That certainly is important, but I think it’s vital to be able to listen to someone else’s voice. This will help with learning skills, developing as a writer, and working towards creating “stunning writing.” Secondly, there is no point in having an agent, editor and publisher if you’re not going to listen to them. Certainly, an author should listen to feedback from her readers and part of gaining an audience is connecting with that audience. That requires listening as well as talking (writing). Even writing realistic characters requires listening to others, otherwise, they’ll all sound like you! So my thought is that the one thing that will help a writer to get the four things you listed is the ability to listen to another’s voice. I am eager to hear what you have to say.

    Thanks for another great post. Blessings!

  30. Brad Huebert says:

    An authentic voice bubbling from a heart enflamed with Jesus.

  31. Dale Rogers says:

    Writing something people can relate to, whether it’s a memory, a wish, or a haunting. Also, having charisma or the “it” factor.

  32. Plot – for Wendy’s answer.
    Support – for mine.

  33. A teachable spirit.

    Tenacity, valuable as it is, becomes stubbornness if not coupled with a teachable spirit.

  34. If Janet was posting this, I’d declare this a Kobayashi Maru and wait for your answer. But how do I know if you don’t secretly want someone to mention the KM anyway?
    (Yes, as a matter of fact, I do have a flu bug, why do you ask?)

    For me, it’s starts with learning to juggle everything, doing my BEST and then laying it all down at the feet of Jesus.

  35. Barbara Hartzler says:

    Honestly, I think it’s probably just timing. Call it God’s timing, or the writer being ready. The agent willing to take a chance, or the publisher doing the same. That’s my guess. 🙂

  36. It’s got to be persistence, tenacity or some form of I-will-keep-going-come-what-may. All the other things you mentioned in your post are fleeting and change from project to project and year to year. Over the course of an entire career, though, a consistent moving forward, getting back up when you’re knocked down, trying again when you feel like giving up, is necessary at every step.

  37. Assuming a writer has all of the above in place (many great answers there, btw) I think the make or break element is the hook. If you’ve got an idea no one’s ever had before, that hits that elusive nexus between what people want to read and what’s never yet been written, that could make all the difference.

  38. Jill says:

    I believe it’s willingness to take advice, be adaptable w/o losing the vision, take hard knocks and get back up again. And, really, I can only do that if I’m passionate about my career.

  39. Beth K. Vogt says:

    I did a quick glance through of comments, and I’m chiming in with: perseverance. The ability to get myself back up, dust myself off, and start all over again.
    Hhhhmmm … sounds like the lyrics to a song.

  40. This is a fabulous, thought-provoking post, and I don’t really see there being one answer. I’ve seen tenacity, a good story, teachability, craft, God’s blessing, etc., all mentioned, and I agree with every one of them. These are great things – necessary things. But to go forward in my own writing career, while I need all those things and indeed need to cultivate those things, I first need the *idea. I can’t go further without the idea to begin with.

    I look forward to reading what others think and your own answer. Thanks for the discussion!

  41. Renee blare says:


    To realize I am not the one with all the answers and will need guidance along the journey.

  42. It could be so many things. My first thought was steadfast determination – a writer needs to keep going, no matter what. Then I thought maybe humility and having a teachable spirit. But, if I can only choose one, I’d say it’s believing in yourself and the ability God has given you, combined with the effort you’ve put forth to learn as much as you can. As I look at the big picture in my quest to be published, I can’t do any of it unless I truly believe it is possible.

  43. Wendy, thanks for the thought-provoking post. I agree with Jackie and Patricia (and perhaps others) above when they say a great story is paramount. But that doesn’t apply to non-fiction, and I don’t know that this question was specific to fiction.

    Though I don’t know if this is the most important thing, I’d guess a teachable spirit would be vital, because someone who is teachable can learn the rest of the attributes mentioned here: Craft, marketing, voice, story, and even patience can be learned. (Most of us are just in too much of a hurry to develop that one). So I’m going to go with a teachable spirit.

    I can’t wait to hear your thoughts!

  44. Sarah Sundin says:

    I vote for two things in tandem: perseverance and teachability. Without teachability, perseverance can turn into pigheadedness 🙂

    With those two traits working in tandem, a good writer can learn to become a great writer, a techno-ignoramus can learn to build a platform, and an introvert can learn to network.

  45. Helen Gray says:

    God’s guidance.

  46. I read almost to the bottom before finding an answer that matched mine: a teachable spirit.

    There’s always something new to learn and someone who can teach us more, if we’re willing to humble ourselves and let them. If God has gifted us with the ability to write and the desire to tell His stories, then I believe we should always look for ways to use that gift in bigger, better ways to bring Him glory. Having a teachable heart keeps us close to Him and affects our lives (and the lives of those around us) on every level.

    Great job with hooking us to share our thoughts, Wendy. I’ll be back tonight to read your answer. 🙂

  47. Oh my, Wendy. This reminds me of the scene in “City Slickers” when Curly said there was “one thing” that was important as he held up his sun-leathered finger. He didn’t tell the movie-goer what it was either. I believe his twin said it was gold in the sequel, but I have a strong suspicion neither you nor Curly would call that your “one thing.” For me, I’d have to answer with this verse, “Seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness and ALL THE REST will follow.” I do hope when Jesus said that, He was thinking agent, contract, etc. for me, but if not, I’m sure I’ll like His plans for me even more :o).

  48. Heather says:

    My guess is something alongthe lines of perseverance–in other words, be patient and keep writing– don’t give up in the face of rejection. And in order to persevere, you have to really want it.

  49. Elizabeth Kitchens says:

    Gratitude for the gift of writing ability because it would keep you humble and keep you striving to improve. It also implies that you have the knack for writing and for making good stories.

  50. Beth Szabo says:

    Have a thick skin, don’t give up on your dream, learn the rules, then learn how to break them to present a fresh voice, be flexible without losing yourself.

  51. If I had to whittle it down to just one word it would probably be desire. If you have the desire to write, you will do whatever it takes to build a career. Whether it’s taking classes, writing when you would rather do other things, meeting the “right” people, crafting the best query, building your platform, networking, or whatever else needs to be done. If you want it bad enough, you’ll do what it takes to make it happen.

  52. Leah Good says:

    I think that the answer specific to a writer (as opposed to all people or all Christians) would be writing well–having a good, compelling, meaningful story writen with proper spelling, punctuation, etc.

  53. Lou Hamilton says:

    I agree with Sharon though I’d take it a level up and say Passion. When writing, along with a desire to see your work published, is your passion and is constantly in the forefront of your brain – and your life – you will find some way to get your work out in front of others. You may need to work on your skills or your platform or your query letters. You may even decide to publish your work yourself. But with Passion, you can make it happen.

  54. I’m going out on a limb and saying an interest in people. Yep, I’m a character first writer. Without great characters, we have an average, probably unsalable story. For me, the ability to write comes out of understanding people.

    • Oh, I like that answer. The books I like best are written by people who understand human nature.

      • “Declare a major.” Oooo, I get that, and it makes me excited.

        This is something I think I’ve reached lately (at the risk of sounding arrogant–not my intent!). I know there will be people who don’t like my stuff and I know why they won’t and they have valid reasons; they prefer genres completely opposite what I right.

        To me, putting a finger on who wants your book and who doesn’t want your book is pretty key.

    • Sally, though I didn’t put this as my “one thing” I must agree that it is important in a novel. A good story I can get at the library. Good characters make me actually buy the book so I can read it again and again even though I know the story. Just want to hang out with the gang again.

  55. I am hoping, hoping, hoping it’s perseverance. Because I have been persevering for a long, long time.

    I’m sure I’ll be published someday…if I don’t die first. 🙂

  56. Teachability! My made-up word, but I think anyone can succeed given enough time if he or she is teachable.

  57. Lisa says:

    Quite the challenge. I a torn should I say A) You need a message (simple or complex) Some core message you give out over and over in many different forms.
    Or B) You need to remember why you are writing. See A.

    I’ll be eager to hear what your final answer is Wendy.

  58. To me, I would think character built by a real relationship with Father God would be paramont in making it in the writing business.

  59. Wendy Lawton says:

    I posted my long winded answer above in the body of the blog post. Agree?

    (I loved everything all of you said. I’m convinced again that we have the best blog community anywhere!)

    • Totally agree, though if you asked me this four years ago I wouldn’t have. It’s been a learning experience, but I realize as a reader I go back to authors time and again because they deliver what I expect not because they write to the latest trends or because they write whatever story is on their heart. I see a lot of authors bucking this concept. They want to write the ideas swimming around in their heads no matter how or if they work for their brand. Working in book promotion, that can make my job tougher.

      Thanks for the cliff hanger and the great advice.

    • I’m glad you didn’t apologize for your answer, Wendy. It isn’t prosaic. It’s spot on. When I read it, I went “duh!” to myself. I was thinking details for the “one thing.” You presented a big picture one thing.

      I completely agree that we have the best community. There is a well of wisdom and experience here and, more importantly, there is generosity of spirit. Everyone is willing to share and to affirm. That, I think, is a God-thing. Most of us (obviously I can’t speak for all; I’m basing this on those who have commented) have God as the center of our lives. God’s love is abounds in this supportive, encouraging community. Thanks and blessings to everyone.

  60. Yvette Carol says:

    Hi Wendy! Yes I’d agree with you. It’s the same with singers isn’t it? They can all sing, but do they have the X factor? It’s something indefinable. Who could have guessed Twilight or Harry Potter would be the mega-successes they were from the books alone? But something about those authors who have the x factor catches something in the readers’ minds and it becomes an unstoppable force.
    Yvette Carol

  61. You got it, Wendy!

    Great examples of your clients. It def is important to stay consistent so your readers know what to expect.

    I am also a hair stylist and I kind of think of it as if my client wants the same haircut, I better give them the same haircut because if I don’t and that is what they are expecting, they may wander somewhere else. Same thing with restaurants.

    Ever notice sometimes when you go in to your favorite place and order the same thing but for some odd reason it tastes different? Some of us won’t come back.

    Consistency is key. Sticking with your brand is key.

  62. Um, my comment ended up in a weird place. Sally A., my bad on that!

  63. Wendy, I was really enjoying the responses here and then POOF, power outage. Grrr. But I knew when I came back, there’s be all kinds of depth and wisdom. There are technical lessons to be learned in the craft books, but the life lessons that are so much more intense are right in front of us, in the words we share with the friends we haven’t yet met. Thank you, once again, for opening up a fantastic discussion.

    Peeks around the corner…did you say “declare a major”?? 😉

  64. Wendy, I’ve always leaned toward your “one thing”. Carve out a niche and do it better than anyone else. That’s what I’m trying to do.

    I’m a Genesis semi-finalist, so I’m not letting myself go into any details right now that will give me away if any judges happen across this. But I’ve taken my passions–a foreign country and my home state–and gone down to the essence of why these two things fascinate me. And that’s what I build my stories around.

    I also love 19th century fashion, so I’m “branding” myself as the go-to person. My blog is focused around 19th century fashion, my Pinterest account is largely 19th century fashion, I have experience making 19th century fashion covering Regency to Civil War. I’m even going to the ACFW banquet this year in a hoop skirt. I went in Regency last year.

    I want to be the name readers and other writers think of when they hear these three things.

    • I quite enjoy your blog, and the photos of the clothing? Holy cow!! I cannot imagine wearing those gowns! A hoop skirt? Darn, now I want to go to the conference even more!!!

      • Thank you, Jennifer! I’ll be sure to post a picture of me in costume at the banquet on my blog, for those who don’t get to see me in person. It’s not as hard to wear as you would think at first glance.

        I’ve made multiple hoop skirt dresses too, including a ball gown. The most time-consuming part is hemming the skirt.

    • I’m sure! How many yard of fabric in one of those dresses? What kind of machine do you use? Is there quite a bit of hand work? I sew too.

  65. Kiersti says:

    What an interesting post–I wouldn’t have guessed that answer, but it makes sense, for that’s why I go back to certain authors time and time again! 🙂

  66. Great point, Wendy. It really goes back to knowing who we are, knowing the stories God wants us to tell. In my case, my stories all have the theme of redemption and grace, usually revolving around the protagonist forgiving himself or herself for past sins and accepting God’s gift of grace. But is that enough for a brand? Does it need to be more specific than that? For instance, most of my stories take place in New Hampshire and Boston, because that’s where I’m from. Should that be part of my brand? Because I live in Oklahoma, and so my settings aren’t always in New England. It’s hard to know how to fashion thing niche thing.

  67. Lori Benton says:

    It only took me 13 or 14 years to declare a writing major. Or maybe it claimed me. Feels that way sometimes. 🙂

  68. Wow, I’ve been gone out of town all day and missed out on a great discussion.
    Many inspirational answers and encouragements.
    I think perseverance is essential, following a step behind God in prayer for guidance.
    If he directs my course, I’ll know without a doubt I am where I should be.
    I can the see the success of carving out your own niche and building your following.
    If I know who I am in Christ, I can carve out my niche and own my unique place. There won’t be another exactly like me, with my voice.

    Next Tuesday, I’ll have to tune in earlier.


  69. Kat Hinkson says:

    Can you declare a couple majors? I also think about what my Grandma Erma would think of my stories. If she wouldn’t be proud of me and my words, I won’t write it.
    I know being willing to promote and work to get your name out there is important. Knowing is just the beginning. Willingness to work for is it the key.

  70. Augie says:

    I have towards that I learned through reading Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: Craft and Mechanism.

  71. Augie says:

    I have to words that I learned through reading Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: Craft and Mechanism.

  72. Augie says:

    I have to words that I learned through reading Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: Craft and Mechanics.

  73. Carole Avila says:

    This is an amazing article. I really appreciate all the wisdom that everyone had to share!
    Carole Avila
    Posse Member & Soon To Be Owner of “The Long Term Effects of Sexual Abuse” for adults

  74. Dave Clark says:

    The answer is: Excite others, in every professional aspect of the business.