6 Things Tom Petty Taught Me about the Writing Life

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers have more than one tune on the soundtrack to my life and probably yours, too. Their songs have motivated me to be stronger and tougher, not to take any guff, and to go after the things I want in life. Here are some of the things Tom Petty taught me about being a writer.

1. I’m learning to fly, but I ain’t got wings. Writing is an art form. It takes a lot of work to get good at it. Take the time to study your craft—learn about things like plot, point of view, and characterization. Read books, not only quality craft books, but fiction and creative nonfiction—a good writer reads books and learns from them. Most importantly, practice writing. It takes years of practice to become an excellent writer, just like it takes years of practice to become a world-renowned violinist, a box-office-busting actor, or a formidable lawyer. Writing a complete first draft of a novel from start to finish is a huge accomplishment. Many people set out to write a book, but a low percentage actually do. Still, a real writer knows that’s just the start. In many ways, that first draft is just the beginning of the hard work that’s ahead of you. Learn the art of rewriting and revision, too—that’s where the magic happens. Earn your writing wings, and someday soon you’ll soar.

2.  I’m runnin’ down a dream that never would come to me. Writing success is not going to show up on your doorstep one day. You have to go after it, hard. You have to work at it. Two hundred years ago, it was probably much easier to become a published author. But today, there is a lot of noise out there, and it’s more difficult to break through that noise and get noticed. Show up at your keyboard each and every day—you’re going to work harder at this than anyone else, and your work is going to be polished and ready when opportunity knocks. That’s what’s going to set you apart.

3.  You got lucky, babe, when I found you. When we are trying to get published or to find an agent, it’s easy to want so much to be wanted that we forget we have something to offer. Be choosy about the markets you submit to and the agents you query. Do your homework and make sure they are right for you and for your work. When you’re submitting your stories, essays, or poems, submit to literary journals and magazines you would be proud to be published in. Don’t underestimate yourself or your work—start at the top, then work your way down. Yes, it may take longer, but you’ll be happier in the long run, and remember they’ll be lucky to have your work. Before you query agents, think about what you want and need in an agent. Go to meetings prepared to ask questions, and listen to your gut. Don’t be difficult, arrogant, or a jerk. But have confidence in yourself and your work. Yes, you’re lucky when you land an agent, but the agent is lucky, too.

4. Even the losers get lucky sometimes. Whether you’re submitting to periodicals or querying agents, the odds may feel stacked against you. And they are. Literary journals get between hundreds and thousands of submissions each month and can only print a handful each issue. Add to that the fact they often solicit submissions from well-known writers to fill some of those slots. The conventional wisdom seems to be that an acceptance rate of 10% is average—if your writing is ready and you send in 100 submissions, you’ll ideally get 10 acceptances. If you’re submitting to top tier journals, magazines, or newspapers, that number is going to be exponentially lower. My acceptance rate is 4.6%. Agents, too, are inundated with queries from hopeful writers, and it’s humanly impossible for them to represent more than a certain number of writers and do their jobs well. On top of that, they can only represent the very best work, work they fall in love with, because they’re going to have to spend two years or so of their lives representing that work before they see a penny. So yes, it’s hard, but writer, you can do hard things. And you only need one yes.

5. The waiting is the hardest part. The publishing industry is S.L.O.W. I just checked Duotrope, and I have a short story that’s been out on submission for 644 days as of today. I’ll be celebrating it’s two-year submission birthday on June 3rd. To add insult to injury, the market required me to send the submission in by snail mail and to include a postage-prepaid return envelope. Like it’s 1972. Let’s face it, in this case, no news is not good news. It’s a little thing called quiet rejecting. I’d like my $.55 back. But seriously, whether you’re submitting or querying, you can expect to wait a significant amount of time before you hear back from anyone, I’d say generally at least two to three months. Again, periodicals and agents get a lot of inquiries, and they have other things to do like, oh, publishing a magazine or representing the writers they’ve already signed. Time and again, I’ve heard publishers and writers say the best advice they can give new writers is to be patient and not to rush. This goes for every aspect of your writing career. Don’t rush the work—take the necessary time to do your best. Be prepared for it take a long time to get an agent—100 queries or more is not unusual. And after you land an agent, be prepared for it to take a year or so before your work is ready to go out on submission and another year or so working with the editor at your new publisher. This business isn’t fast, and it isn’t for the faint of heart. Luckily, writer, you’ve got what it takes.

6.  I won’t back down. Many say that the best characteristic a writer can have is patience, both when it comes to taking time with their work and waiting for the slow wheels of the publishing industry to turn. But I think the best personality trait for a writer is tenacity. I truly and 100% believe that, if you keep writing, keep rewriting, keep revising, polish your work until it shines like a diamond, and then keep submitting and/or querying like it’s your job (because it is), you will reach your writing goals. Don’t allow yourself to get discouraged. Okay, don’t allow yourself to stay discouraged. Every rejection is one step closer to that yes, so keep going for as long as it takes. Rock on, writers.