Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Writer Magazine Article

I've been asked a lot about the article I wrote for The Writer Magazine, so here it is. I hope you enjoy it.


www.WriterMag.com • The Writer | 13
Don’t be afraid of striking out
In writing, as in baseball, you have to stick with it to hit one out of the park
I’m a Little League Baseball coach.
I’m also a writer, and the two have
more in common than you might
suspect. In both baseball and writing,
you often fail more than you succeed,
a hard but important lesson my
son taught me. When Joe turned 9, he
moved to minor-league baseball, in
which players pitch to the batter rather
than the batter hitting the ball off a tee.
It is a big adjustment.
The first game that year, Joe stepped
to the plate, and like many of his teammates,
he struck out. Paralyzed by the
thought that he might swing and miss,
he never took the bat off his shoulder.
As he walked back to the dugout, I tried
to be the good coach, shouting encouragement:
“That’s OK, Joe. We’re just
having fun here.” A few innings later,
Joe stepped up to the plate again. And
again the bat remained on his shoulder.
Again I offered encouragement. “No
problem, Joe. Good try. We’re just having
fun.” When Joe got up a third time
and again the bat never moved, my
mantra was well-rehearsed. “Hey, great
try, Joe. We’re just ...” Cutting me off,
tears in his eyes, Joe shouted, “Dad! It’s
no fun striking out all the time.”
My son was right. It is no fun striking
out all the time. It’s no fun feeling
like a failure. As a writer, I should have
been more sympathetic. I had struck out
many times.
In baseball, if you are going to play,
you must accept that you will strike out.
The statistical odds can’t be ignored. It
doesn’t mean you’re a bad player. In fact,
if you get a hit just three times out of 10,
you’re considered very good. Writing is
also a profession of failure. Rejection is,
at some level, inevitable. As writers, we
can’t become paralyzed at the thought of
rejection. We can’t fear it, or seek to
avoid it. Rather, we must confront it
head on, charge into it with reckless
abandon. We must look at rejection like
a ball player looks at striking out, that
thin line between trying and succeeding,
a line we must cross as many times
as necessary, knowing that on the other
side exist our dreams and goals.
In terms of my career, I bridged that
thin line by learning the three P’s—
patience, perseverance and persistence.
I have known that I wanted to write
novels since the seventh grade. But I am
also the product of a large family of
compulsive overachievers, and so I felt
compelled to attend graduate school
after college. I decided to attend the
UCLA School of Law, and knew within
the first three weeks of classes that I had
made a mistake, that practicing law was
not going to satisfy me. But compulsive
overachievers don’t quit. So for three
years, I gutted out the law-school experience,
and, like my classmates, I sought
out the best jobs. Before I knew it, I was
on that treadmill—and I was running.
I accepted a job at a fast-growing San
Francisco firm that suited me well, but
with each year it seemed that the treadmill
picked up pace, until I was sprinting,
working 50- to 60-hour weeks, feeling
as if I could never catch my breath. I
was named a partner of the firm early. I
was making more money than my parents.
By all accounts I had succeeded.
But I wasn’t happy.
Finally, one morning as I readied for
work, I had an epiphany. I thought of
that seventh-grade kid who wanted to
be a writer, who wanted to see his name
on the cover of a book, and I realized
that dream was slipping away. Standing
in my bedroom, my back to my wife, I
uttered five words that would change
my life. “I can’t do this anymore,” I said.
My wife never hesitated and whispered
back, “Then we won’t.”
It would take me almost a year before
I would utter those words to my partners
and colleagues. Some were genuinely
happy for me, and some later told
me that my courage had inspired them
to also change their professional course.
But it had not been courage that led
me to utter those words. It was fear. I
was afraid of looking back on my life
and realizing that I had never taken a
chance at my dream. I was afraid of
growing old and bitter and resentful,
feeling professionally unfulfilled. I was
afraid of never taking the bat off my
shoulder and swinging for the fences
because I was too afraid of striking out.
And I did not want the fear of failure
and rejection to dictate my life and how
I chose to live it.
In July 1999, I left the practice of law
and my home in the Bay area for Seattle.
I rented a charming, brick-walled office
—8 feet by 8 feet and windowless—that
my wife affectionately called “the prison
cell,” and I set to work.
By my calculations, I would write a
novel in a few months, and publication
would be right around the corner. Yes, I
was that naïve. So, following the mantra
of writing what you know, I created a
Off the Cuff Robert Dugoni
I was 40 years old, living in my wife’s
grandmother’s home and unemployed.
I felt like George Costanza.
14 | The Writer • February 2010
Off the Cuff
character named David Sloane, a San
Francisco lawyer who, though successful,
felt unfulfilled. Sloane, however, had
a remarkable ability to not only win trials
but get a jury to do whatever he
wanted. I called the book A Wrongful
Death. I had no idea if it was any good,
but I entered it in the Pacific Northwest
Writers Association’s literary contest
and, lo and behold, it won.
Buoyed by my success, I sent queries
out to five agents. Four rejected it, but
the fifth called and wanted a six-week
exclusive to read the manuscript. Of
course, I agreed. After six weeks, Clyde
called to tell me that the manuscript had
promise but that the second half needed
work. We set out to fix it.
Nearing Christmas, when it finally
came time to send the manuscript to
publishers, I had been gainfully unemployed
for 18 months. In that time, my
wife and I had a second child. I was nervous
but hopeful. Then I didn’t hear
from Clyde for months. “Why don’t you
call him and find out what is happening?”
my wife said. “No,” I said, “I don’t
want to bother him.” I was so happy to
have an agent that I didn’t want to screw
it up. “He said he would call,” I added.
Finally, in March, I received a 5-by-
8-inch envelope from the agency. It
looked suspiciously small for a contract.
Inside I found a card with a picture of
Clyde and the words “In Celebration.”
Needing no further prompting, I called
his assistant. “Please tell me that Clyde
is having a birthday,” I said. “I’m sorry,”
she said, “Clyde died.” “Oh, my God.
Was it sudden?” I asked. “Yes, about
three months ago. I’m sorry no one
called. ... And no one here does the kind
of ‘boy books’ you write. Good luck.”
I was 40 years old, living in my wife’s
grandmother’s home and unemployed. I
felt like George Costanza from Seinfeld.
The first thing I did was reconfirm
my goal. I said, “God, you gave me the
talent to write. I know that. I’ve written
all my life. I’ve written my way through
Stanford University and worked as a
reporter for the Los Angeles Times. No
one has ever said, ‘Son, you suck. Have
you ever thought of accounting?’ ”
The next thing I did was evaluate my
work. I realized that while I could write,
what I didn’t know was how to write a
novel. So I dedicated myself to learning
the craft. I immersed myself in the writing
business. I joined a critique group. I
began to attend writers conferences—
not to win competitions but to learn
from others. I pulled writers aside and
asked them all kinds of questions, including
what books on the craft they
recommended. Then I bought the books
and studied them until the pages were
falling out of their spines.
I realized that I had been making all
of the mistakes that agents and editors
could spot in a moment. My query letter
didn’t explain the theme of my novel,
and the synopsis was so long and convoluted
that they never read it. The opening
sentence of my first chapter didn’t
hook the reader, and the opening chapter
wasn’t compelling. I had flashbacks
and biographies that slowed the first 50
pages to a crawl. I had too many characters.
The plot drifted. I asked my wife to
give me more time, and she agreed.
It is said that we make our own opportunities
through hard work, and I
believe that. But sometimes we also
need a little luck. At a party I almost did
not attend, I met an agent from the U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency. He
told me about an investigation that had
gone to trial and had become a seminal
case in the history of the EPA. That case
would become the subject for our nonfiction
exposé, The Cyanide Canary.
This time, however, when I sat to
write, I was armed with all of my hard
work. When I sent the book proposal to
10 literary agents, all of them wanted
the book. When an agent with the Jane
Rotrosen Agency called from her cell
phone to tell me she was getting on a
plane and asked me not to sign with
anyone before she landed, I knew that
was the agency for me.
We sold the manuscript, and it appeared
that I was on my way. But then
the editor who bought and loved Canary
soon thereafter left the publisher,
as did my publicist. Enthusiasm at the
house fell, and the book came out of the
gate like a three-legged horse.
Undaunted, my agent and I turned
our attention to my novel A Wrongful
Death, as well as two others I had completed.
She sent A Wrongful Death to an
editor generally considered one of the
best in the business, and again I allowed
my expectations to be raised. When my
agent called to inform me that the manuscript
had been rejected, I couldn’t
hide my disappointment. The next day
Jane Rotrosen called me, and she would
give me the best advice of my career:
“You have to be a bulldog in this business,
kid. You got to be a bulldog.”
I committed to being a bulldog.
Shortly thereafter, two publishers bid on
my first novel. Both were enthusiastic
not only about it, but about my writing.
I signed a two-book deal, and A Wrongful
Death became The Jury Master. It
made the New York Times bestseller list
and stayed there for three weeks. Damage
Control followed, and hardcover
sales surpassed The Jury Master.
Even after that success, however, I
have had to endure some anxious moments,
but I don’t panic anymore when
they arise. I have confidence in myself
and in my agent. When I signed with
Touchstone, a division of Simon &
Schuster, the publisher changed my
third novel’s working title to Wrongful
Death. Fate? Perhaps. All I know for certain
is that I never would have had the
chance to see any of my books to publication
had I never taken the bat off my
I did not want the fear of failure and
rejection to dictate my life and how I
chose to live it.
continued on page 47
www.WriterMag.com • The Writer | 15
shoulder, or quit when I first struck out.
My son Joe also never quit. He committed
himself to becoming a better
baseball player. He took hitting lessons.
He went to catching clinics. He hit in
the backyard until his hands hurt. When
he turned 11, he was named the starting
catcher on the Kirkland Little League
All-Star team and led the team in hitting
and runs batted in at the tournament
that year. More important, he smiles a
lot when he plays, even if he strikes out,
and now he tells me he has a lot of fun.
So do I.
We get through life with hard work, a
little luck, and the kindness of others.
During one particularly bleak moment
in my career, a good friend, Michael
Collopy, now one of the premier portrait
photographers in the world, but
once an executive at IBM, shared with
me advice that his father gave to him
when he expressed his desire to leave
the corporate world to pursue his art. “If
you follow your dreams, the money will
come,” he said. “Follow the money, and
you’ll lose your dreams.”
You have the ability to follow your
dreams, to overcome your fears of striking
out and to cross that line between
failure and success. You may have to
cross it more than once. Like me, you
may have to cross it many times. It won’t
be easy. You will strike out. When you
do, remember: Be patient. Things don’t
always happen on your schedule. Be
persistent. Those who succeed are almost
always those who have first failed.
Persevere. Those who give up have no
chance of success.
You have to be a bulldog in this business,
kid. You got to be a bulldog. Choose
to be bulldogs.
Robert Dugoni
Robert Dugoni is the New York Times bestselling author of The
Jury Master, Damage Control and Wrongful Death. His next
novel, Bodily Harm, will be published by Touchstone/Fireside
in May. Web: www.robertdugoni.com.
Adapted from Robert Dugoni’s speech at the Pacific
Northwest Writers Association’s literary conference.

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