Friday, July 15, 2011

The Gambler (Part I)

“Now, ev’ry gambler knows that the secret to survivin’
Is knowing what to throw away and knowing what to keep.” – “The Gambler,” Don Schlitz

I recall a period in the late 70’s and early ‘80’s when country music was king. Considering I grew up in a suburban enclave a mere thirty miles from New York City, this was kind of strange. Ads featuring the likes of Crystal Gayle sprouted up all over the television, touting New York City’s only country music station: 1050, WHN. The Dukes of Hazzard enjoyed an inexplicable run as a to-10 show, Kris Kristofferson and Dolly Parton were movie stars, Willie Nelson shared a billing at Giants’ Stadium with the Grateful Dead. On the rock and roll stations I favored playlists were crammed with southern rockers like Lynyrd Skynyrd, Charlie Daniels, Marshall Tucker, Molly Hatchet, and the Allman Brothers.

One of the biggest stars of the country music surge was Kenny Rogers. Rogers had a string of hits on both the country and pop charts in the 70’s, songs like “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town” and “Lucille”, but his most famous hit was “The Gambler.”

In the song, written by Don Schlitz, the narrator tells of the important lessons he receives from an old card player on a train. In addition to the line at the top of this post, it’s got that classic, catchy chorus:

“You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em,
Know when to walk away and know when to run.”

And now I finally get around to my point.

I see about a bajillion posts on Absolute Write that go along these lines:

“I’ve written [insert random number] of words on my [genre] novel, and now I’m [stuck/bored/completely captivated by a shiny new idea that I really want to write instead]. This happens all the time, and I never finish anything. What should I do?”

There are as many different answers for this problem as there are respondents, and they range along a continuum which starts at one end with “Get your ass in that chair and finish the damned thing,” and ends at “Delete everything and never write another word” at the other. Okay, most people don’t actually come out and say that last, but some folks sure do imply it, don’t they?

I’m much closer in sentiment to the ‘finish the damned thing’ camp. And because I can’t help but talk about me (it’s my blog, after all), I’ll relate a little of what I went through  while writing Parallel Lives. I started on December 6th. I worked at a furious pace through December and January. At the end of January I had a full story with a beginning, middle, and end (but not ‘The’ end) totaling 183 pages, 44,000 words. It was a glorious process, exhilarating and fun.

And then February hit.

An old classmate of mine called February “The Armpit of Months.” I think that’s pretty accurate in the northeast portion of the United States. It was in February where I got bogged down, saw the flaws in my book, and started to struggle. I couldn’t get things quite right, and there were many moments where I shoved back from my desk, groaned aloud, put my fists to my head, and stomped around the room in frustration. I started new documents constantly, copying parts of the story and starting them over, and heard the siren’s song: “Work on me!” cooed he short story I’d started in Writer’s Circle. “Come back to me,” sang the NaNoWriMo. It was tempting, so tempting. But I didn’t give in, I stayed the course, lashed myself to the mast and steered the ship away from those rocky shores. Why?

A book that doesn’t get written doesn’t get published, and a book that doesn’t get published doesn’t get read.

And this is what it comes down to: I want you to read my book. I want lots of people to read my book. Sure, I could just post the whole thing here, or e-mail it to you, and you’d probably start to read it. You might finish it, too, but I want more. I want you to buy my book. I want it repped by an agent and edited by a pro. I want to see it on bookstore shelves, I want to click on it at Amazon. I want you to love it or hate it, it really doesn’t matter (well, I’d rather you love it, of course), I just want you to read it. Got it? And if I gave up every time things got tough, you’ll never get to read my book. I’ll always be moving on to something better or easier, and I’ll never finish everything. A gambler who folds on every hand comes away with nothing except lost antes on every deal.

And so my general advice is to stick it out, because, as the Gambler also says, “ev’ry hand’s a winner and ev’ry hand’s a loser”.

Of course, the Gambler also knows that, sometimes, you do have to fold ‘em. You have toss your cards on the table, and wait for another deal. When is that time? That will be the subject for another day. Have a pleasant weekend, all.

[Note: Not sure what's up with that font size in the last paragraph, but I can't seem to get it right....]


  1. Hi Jeff, I just came across your blog from your AW sig - you're spot on here. Your anecdote links perfectly with the message of the song. I definitely need to take some of your advice, and just get on with it. Looking forward to reading your blog further.


  2. Great points, Jeff! I think this is something we all need to take in consideration at one point another. :)

  3. Luke and Carrie, thank you for your kind comments. It's funny how these associations come to you -- I hadn't really thought of that song for years, it just started floating through my head.


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