My kindergarten-age son would like to tell you a joke. "Why can't you trust atoms? Because they make up everything."
It turns out on further questioning that he has no idea what atoms are, but that's okay: he remembers the joke and it makes people laugh, and as long as he stops right there people think he's insanely intelligent. (Which he might be -- he just doesn't know what atoms are.)
You're predicting I'm going to start talking about how words make up everything and writers aren't to be trusted except that fiction is far truer than life, and…well, no. I'm going to take a sharp left to last Monday when I brought my kids to the park (even the joke-telling one) in an effort to get them out of my hair for a little while. I brought the sock I was knitting.
While I sat knitting, a father was throwing a football to one of his sons. The kid would run like a mile away and the father would send the football sailing out over the field and it would land in the kid's arms.
I said, "You have great aim." I can't hit the back yard tree from my porch.
He said, "I wish I was a pro football player. They haul in the money!" and then, maybe in an effort to get his toddler daughter out of his hair while he turned his sons into pro football players, he said, "Hey, look, honey! She's knitting!"
The little girl toddled over to me, so I did my best to infect her with the knitting bug, showing her how you pull loops through loops to make stitches and how different kinds of stitches make different patterns in the sock. She kept saying, "Why do you do that?" and I admitted that yes, it's faster to drive to WalMart to buy socks.
I said, "It takes 34,000 stitches to make a pair of socks."
(I'm not insanely intelligent -- I'd happened to read that the day before, a number calculated by The Yarn Harlot, who I believe is insanely intelligent.)
The father stopped mid-throw. "Thirty-four thousand?"
His other son came and sat near me. "Show me."
This time I used a friend's technique for teaching knitting to boys. "See, you stab the stitch through the heart, strangle it, pull out your sword, and pop its head off."
He said, "You were a lot nicer when you taught it to the little girls." Then he said, "Thirty-four thousand?"
I said, "Well, if you're going to become a pro football player, you probably do throw that football thirty-four thousand times."
He thought about it. "Maybe."
So he could get a career worth millions every year, and I'll have warm feet. Fair enough.
The kids went away to do something interesting, and I wondered about the thirty-four thousand number, if it's accurate, and then I thought: a novel is maybe three times that. If you turn in a hundred-thousand word book, you've made (in effect) three pairs of socks.
And you write a word faster than you knit a stitch, or at least I do.
It sounds like a lot, but it's actually all about the incremental effort: one word at a time; one stitch at a time. One short story at a time. One submission at a time, one publication at a time. That's how you'll make a career. This week, QueryTracker was named one of 2014's 101 Best Websites for Writers by Writers Digest Magazine. We've been named six times in the last seven years, and how did Patrick build up this website? One entry at a time. 1300 agent listings, 198 publishers, over 79,000 members, and now 1300 success stories among those members: it's incremental effort.
So on days when it looks impossible to achieve your dream, think about a pair of socks knit down to the ankle, and how are you ever going to turn the heel and work down to the toes? Well, one stitch at a time. You're going to tell your story one word at a time. Take your next breath and write your next word, because words turn into sentences turn into chapters turn into books turn into realized dreams.
Incremental effort. The winners just keep making the efforts, even tiny-seeming ones: tens of thousands of them.
Jane Lebak is the author of The Wrong Enemy. She has four kids, three cats, two books in print, and one husband. She lives in the Swamp and spends her time either writing books or shoveling snow. At Seven Angels, Four Kids, One Family, she blogs about what happens when a distracted daydreamer and a gamer geek attempt to raise four kids. If you want to make her rich and famous, please contact the riveting Roseanne Wells of the Jennifer DeChiara Literary Agency.