[process] The bathtub theory of writing success

A week or two ago, I was talking to calendula_witch about the processes of success as a writer. I was reminded of an analog a pro writer once gave me.

Think of the publishing world as a bathtub.


In that bathtub there is a line which represents the level of professionalism one must reach before one can begin selling pro stories.


Into that bathtub flows the water of your talent and effort.


It fills over time, as you practice your craft, learn new techniques, refine existing ones, submit to markets, apply consistent effort to producing new materials and generally do all the writing and writing related program activities which your favorite pros spend their time at. Note that the waterline is wavy, like a child’s drawing of the ocean. This is because while you have a baseline, or mean, level of quality in your output, at any given point in your career path some work will be better than other work. Variability within an established range, so to speak.

So, as the water of your talent and effort continues to flow into the bathtub, the waterlevel rises up.


At first you sell one or two stories over a span of time. The peaks of your waves have touched the “pro line.” Then you begin to sell with some consistency, still missing sometimes. The midline of your waves has touched the “pro line.” Eventually, if you are smart, persistent, lucky, and most of all consistent in your practice, even the troughs of your waves will rise to the “pro line”.

Think of success not as a point which you pass, but as a state which you enter with increasing frequency.

In other words, write more, and don’t forget to send out.

Your thoughts?

10 thoughts on “[process] The bathtub theory of writing success

  1. tetar says:

    The drain is not plugged, so there is a constant drain on your efforts and so on. The overflow drain slot is wide open, so editors can fail to recognize your work. Also, the markets amount to only one cup of water per month or thereabouts. So the tub may be full but only a cup of what’s in it has room to be published.

    Further, much of that cup is filled FROM THE SINK. (Or the toilet, or other sources of water.) So only part of the cup, say, half or less, comes from the tub.

    Further still, although one is almost certain not to be published if one’s writing falls below a certain professional level, rising above that level in no way guarantees publication. It just makes it possible. So one might fill the entire tub with publishable, even superb, stuff, and never have any of it selected for the monthly half-cup used by the market bather.

    After a certain point, it’s pure chance, a seventh wave splashing into the cup. One can better one’s chances by such devices as splashing more noticeably nearer the cup — attending many cons and gaining much face time with editors, publishers, and other splashers might be a way, for example. One can also find the way to the sink, or toilet, or other sources.

    All in all, it seems as good a metaphor as any to over extend, but doesn’t go nearly far enough in explaining anything useful to the many writers whose work is publishable but rarely if ever cupped.

    Perhaps we need to add some bubble bath?

  2. Robert E. Porter says:

    People talk about reaching “professional” level as if there were some falsifiable criteria for excellence in art, as if the market were not subject to whim and reputation. Whole genres can dry up and blow away. As society fluctuates, so do our values. Some of the greatest works in American literature would be unknown today if they had not taken a detour through France.

  3. Jay says:

    @ Robert E. Porter

    Absolutely. “Professional” is in no wise an objective criteria, but falls under a version of the Potter Stewart test. Yet there are manifold “middle of the curve” cases which clearly qualify, assuming that by “professional” one means “commercial fiction paying above a given rate.”

  4. tetar says:

    Might not “professional” mean, for example, prose clear and organized enough not to be an embarrassment to or stand out amidst the rest of a daily newspaper?

    Certainly in journalism reporters are brought along to produce a certain minimum of balance between clarity and information content. Add aesthetic effect, such as surprise or suspense or some other aspect of fiction, and might one not come up with a kind of base-line professionalism to shoot at?

    Yes, subjective judgments enter into fiction publishing much more, but objective standards can indeed be applied, even if it’s just to decide “whatever works” or “I know it when I see it”.

  5. Jay,

    I visited one of your panels at NorwesCon in 2006, and wanted to say I’ve been enjoying your “process” blog posts quite a bit.

    Reading the previous comments on the bathtub piece, it seems some people still think that persistence has far less to do with it than fortune, or the state of the markets at a given point in time.

    Yet Dean Wesley Smith, whom I hold in high esteem, always preaches that “filling the tub” is the single greatest key to emerging from Aspirant Status, into the professional fiction world. No shortcuts. No magical potions. No other way around it, than to sit down and write. And mail. And write some more. And keep mailing. And keep writing. Until one day, probably quite contrary to our expectations, we start to break through.

    Thanks for taking the time to share this idea. I tossed the link over to the Writers of the Future forum, where I think all of us in Aspirant Status can use continual reminding that there is no replacement for simply doing the work, and doing it again and again and again, and never quitting.

  6. Jay says:

    @ Brad — Thank you, sir.

  7. tetar says:

    Brad, I agree. Nothing replaces persistence. Vonnegut once wrote that talent is common as dirt; what’s rare is determination.

    But doing the determination head-bounce dance is no guarantee either. Luck is as important as any and all other aspects. It’s a crap shoot, all other things being equal. Otherwise quality would win out, which it quite obviously does not. Once you’re publishable, it’s an even playing field.

    As to breaking through, that’s simple numbers. The more times you roll the dice, the more likely you are to bounce one off the table. Of course, your odds remain the same each throw, because each new submission zeroes things out, all else being equal, because there is no telling what a given editor will like or not at any given moment, and there never was any accounting for taste.

  8. Dane Szitar says:

    Excellent post. Forget all the rules. Forget about being published. Write for yourself and celebrate writing.

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