The Writers’ Bathtub

I’ve run across this analogy several times, most recently at the Kris ‘n Dean Show in Oregon. It’s a remarkably simple and straightforward analogy, and seems to — more or less — directly reflect the reality of being a working writer: from the moment you begin to the moment you quit your day job and are selling often enough to support yourself on your work. And beyond.

It goes like this.

The Writers' Bathtub: empty
THE BATHTUB: Imagine a cross-section of an old claw-foot bathtub, with a faucet at one end and a sloping back at the other. The tub is empty, because this is where everybody starts. Everybody starts with the idea: I want to be a professional writer. They haven’t done anything yet, so the tub is dry.

The Writers' Bathtub: the professional line
THE PROFESSIONAL LINE: even before we put water into the tub, we become aware of the line. It’s up near the lip, not exactly at the top, but pretty close. This line represents the level at which a writer’s fiction becomes professionally publishable. It’s a somewhat arbitrary line, more or less representating the invisible point at which a person passes from aspirant to published author.

The Writers' Bathtub: turning on the tap
TURNING THE WATER ON: having decided to become a professional writer, you begin to write. Ergo, you begin to actually do the work of writing. Notice that your first efforts only begin to fill the tub. A thin film of water spreads out across the porcelain from where it splashes into the basin down by the faucet. You’re not at publishable level yet. In fact, you’re not even close. But the work cannot be avoided. Almost nobody magically starts with the tub already full. So you write, you submit what you write, and you begin to collect your first rejection slips.

The Writers' Bathtub: filling the tub
FILLING THE TUB: OK, you’ve been doing this for a little while. You’ve set some goals, perhaps, and sent out some material, generated yet more new material, and have probably begun to actually do some homework: books on structure, scene, plot, attending conventions, going to blogs and getting advice from the pros, etc. The water is accumulating. The water is the sum of your effort. If at any time your effort flags, the water coming out of the tap will slow to a drizzle. Then a few drops. Maybe even stop? Lots of people quit altogether because it gets too hard, and it seems like too much work to keep up the effort. The water in the tub stands. Begins to dry. Maybe even dries up altogether? But if you’re consistent, or can attain bursts of consistency, the level of the water rises. Notice also the classic wave motif — Doesn’t really happen in an actual tub, but for the purpose of this analogy, it’s essential — because your output is never constant: each new piece you finish will be either better — or worse or the same — than the last one. This is true for everyone at all times, even the pros. Hence the oscillation or “wave” pattern. There are troughs and there are peaks. The tips of the peaks are pretty high, compared to the troughs. But even then, they don’t touch the professional line

The Writers' Bathtub: more filling the tub...
THE LONG FLOW: This is where many — maybe most? — aspirants throw in the (hah!) proverbial towel. Having accrued a number of rejections, and seeing that the tub fills slowly, unevenly, and with tremendous work, they say, nah, this is too much for me and I don’t want anymore. So they drain the tub and walk away. Everyone else? They keep with it, a little here, a lot there, spurts, gusts, gasps. The water keeps going into the tub: every day, every week, every year. Everyone fills at a different rate, and not everyone’s rate is constant. The homework doesn’t end either: more learning, more writing, more lessons. But the water is accumulating all the while. Maybe the rejections stop being form rejections and become personalized rejections? Not sales. Not yet. But indications are good that you’re improving and making good progress.

The Writers' Bathtub: first professional sales
FIRST PROFESSIONAL SALES: Finally, you’ve put enough water into the tub that the crests of your waves begin to hit the professional line. You know you’re there when that first sale comes through from a professional market. The overall mean level of your writing is still not consistently pro, but your best work — the crests — is at entry-level pro status, and you’re finally getting some results. Notice that the time spent at the peaks is short, while the time spent in the troughs is long. This is because most of your work isn’t quite up to pro level yet. You still have a lot of filling to do. More writing. More homework. By now you may have produced several hundred thousand words. Several novels, numerous shorter pieces, without success. But you’re getting your first monetary validation: the checks begin to arrive, if sparingly.

The Writers' Bathtub: working professional!
WORKING PROFESSIONAL: The end goal of this entire thing, is to be a working professional. You sell regularly. The money is coming in. Maybe you even get to quit the day job and be full-time. This can only happen when even the troughs of your ability — the lesser books and stories — are of such high quality that they too meet the minimum standard for pro sales, and sell. It doesn’t mean you’re immune from rejections, as those never go away completely no matter how much you might want them to. But the sales aren’t as sparse as they once were, you’re more secure in your ability and you have the sales and the track record to prove it.

Now, the important part is that it took a long time to get from an empty tub, to a full tub. Years, probably. As the old saying goes, it takes ten years to become an overnight success. Another old saying: you need to write your first million words before you actually get to the point where you can begin to sell. 99% of everyone who begins with an empty tub, never gets to the point where it’s filled to overflowing. Most people quit, or slack off. The vast bulk of the time spent filling the tub, is work. Plain old work. No magic wands or fairy potions. Just work. Write, submit, collect rejections, write again, etc, etc. No way around it. Practice, practice, practice.

EDIT: huge thanks to everyone who has been sharing this around the internet. Traffic has really taken off! I can’t take credit for the concept of the Writers’ Bathtub, but I am glad the presentation is working for people.

ALSO: if you love analogies, check out my post: The Wall. My own personal take on the forever-struggle of the Aspirant.


11 thoughts on “The Writers’ Bathtub

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  2. You know, that model probably applies to almost any endeavor that takes a lot of learning and practice — music, painting, even software programming — although the pro level line may mean different things.

    Nicely done.

  3. True as far as it goes, but hard work, even quality of product, does not suffice. Still requires luck, networking, and even, to some extent, a conformity to what is currently selling. If your stuff is too far beyond the fat part of the Bell Curve of what’s considered publishable or acceptable content, or viewpoint, then forget it. Otherwise, the hard work aspect holds water, yes. It never gets any easier.

  4. @Gene – Luck and networking can speed up the process, sure, but hard work and dogged determination will get you there (assuming you have some basic level of talent and teachability). On the other hand, luck and networking won’t do a thing for you if your skills and dedication aren’t up to it — I’ve been there and own that T-shirt.

    Appealing to a broad market it certainly part of it — a publisher isn’t likely to take the risk on something experimental from an unknown.

  5. Good comments, Gene and Alastair.

    My take…..

    Networking seems to me to be a function of homework.

    As for luck, I believe that luck has played a huge part in the careers of certain best-sellers. People who just happened to produce the right product at the right moment, and got the right marketing. J.K. Rowling, for example.

    But I’ve also personally met some people who have forged very successful pro writing careers for themselves — and are now full-time fiction writers — on sheer willpower, and a little creativity.

    Given that luck is the one aspect of this equation over which we have the least control, I don’t factor it in. If I get lucky, I get lucky. If I never get lucky, I still intend to go forth and keep submitting and trying to write better stories and, hopefully, the rest will take care of itself.

    As for working outside the genre boundaries, or doing avant garde fiction, I’m not sure I have much interest in that. For my own work. I have some ideas for novels that are cross-genre, and probably wouldn’t be marketable until I could market them on my name alone. And that’s obviously not something I can ever count on, until it happeens. (smirk)

    Also, Alastair, I agree 100% that the Bathtub is an applicable metaphor for just about anything we strive for in life. Especially the difficult or long-term projects, whether it’s playing a musical instrument, getting a college degree, practicing and perfecting an art, etc.

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  7. Fantastic post. I hope you don’t mind that I paraphrased it a touch on my blog (but I did link to the original).

    In a society of instant gratification people don’t think of the sheer sustained effort involved with most things worth doing. Then again, our ‘entertainment’ industry is littered with insta-celebs, internet wunderkind or reality TV train wrecks reinforcing the belief that it takes no work to achieve fame or fortune.

    I pray I have the intestinal fortitude necessary to fill that sucker all the way to the top.

  8. Great comment Gabriel, and I agree. Ours is an “insta” society. Nobody is willing to put in the long hours and long effort anymore. Maybe this is why it’s even more impressive nowadays to see someone like Lance Armstrong or any of the others who have to be slavish and dedicated beyond belief, to achieve truly world-class results.

    For me, I’ve come to embrace the Long Struggle. I used to resent it, but now I know that the longer and tougher the road, the more I will enjoy myself when I finally have some success.

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