Writing is a War of Attrition — Publishing doubly so

If you’ve been following this blog, then you might’ve seen earlier posts where I compared writing and publishing to running a marathon. That metaphor still stands, but I want to explore this one. 

Why use multiple metaphors when one would do? When I coached swimming, it was common to explain the same drill multiple ways so that all the kids understood. Some kids just got certain explanations and not others. A cue would work for one swimmer and not another. Hence multiple metaphors for writing and publishing. If the other metaphors haven’t sunk in, then maybe this one will. Maybe this one’s for the history buffs or competitively minded–either way, I hope it helps.

So, what’s today’s publishing metaphor? 

War of Attrition — “a prolonged war or period of conflict during which each side seeks to gradually wear out the other by a series of small-scale actions.” (Lexico)

It’s a very similar idea to training for a marathon, except hostile and in reverse. Rather than building up your body through consistent practice that increases your prowess over time, imagine a war where one side slowly destroys the other. Victory isn’t achieved by a single, resounding battle, but through dozens or hundreds of small skirmishes and disruptions. A battle here, a supply line there. Victory achieved over time. 

What battle are you trying to win? Are you trying to finish a short story? Trying to write a memoir? Trying to publish enough books to make a living off your writing? 

Get ready for a War of Attrition. 

Every time you sit down to work, every sentence you write, every page finished, every draft–all are small victories. It’s not like the movies—no single battle is going to win the war, but each little victory brings you closer to your goal. Every sentence brings you closer to finishing the page and, eventually, finishing the draft. No single finished draft is going to make you a competent writer, but each draft is practice that builds your prowess. 

If you keep sitting down to write every day, if you keep learning about story structure, genre expectations and character, you will improve. Wake up thirty minutes early and write, learn to outline, listen to a writing craft podcast at lunch, read in your genre and learn about genre expectations.  Put in the work, and you will become a good writer, even a great writer. It will take time, sure, but time doesn’t mean shit against someone with dedication. Dedication wins the war of attrition. Small victories, remember. 

It’s the same thing for publishing.

Finish short stories and submit them to magazines. Eventually your short stories will get published. Learn long form story structure. Edit books and finish them. Learn what covers sell in your genre. Learn to write ad copy and how to market. Every book published gets your work out there and your name out there. 

It turns into a numbers game. Overwhelm the enemy. 

I’m willing to bet that there’s a lot more unknown writers with a single book than there are unknown writers with 20 books. More books, more practice. More books, more chances for readers to discover you. There’s a lot more writers making a living off writing 20 books than there are making it off of just one book. 

It will seem daunting, especially at the beginning. Maybe you’re learning how to type or maybe you’re writing your very first short story. You’re just starting the war, of course the enemy’s got you outnumbered and outgunned. Remember that every time you sit down to work, every time you finish a sentence, they’re all little victories that add up. Just finished that first book and worried about starting the second? I guarantee that writing the second book will be easier than the first. Each book, each story will get easier.

That’s the secret about a War of Attrition: At first progress will be slow. Painfully slow. But the more you fight, the more you win and the faster progress will come. It’s common to hear authors talk about how their first book took them years to write and that the second book took a fraction of the time. These little victories build off of each other until you’ve got the enemy on the run. Finally, you look back at the empire you’ve built and marvel at how far you’ve come.  

So, if you’re staring at what looks like an unwinnable war—whether it’s a blank page or breaking even on your publishing business–remember that it’s the little victories that matter. Keep writing. Keep publishing. And eventually, you will win.

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