The Beginning Writer
The Write Decision?© Will Greenway 2000
How long has it been since you appeared on the grassy hilltop surrounded by oaks—a month or only a minute? It's hard to say. Time seems to blend together in this pastoral place with the tittering of birds and the hum of the wind through the leaves. The sun gleaming in cirrus-dotted sky makes your skin prickle with warmth. A cool breeze sighs through the clearing, bringing with it the fragrant hint wildflowers threaded with the scent of pine and the pungency of old tree-growth. Leaning back to stretch, you press your palms into the soft grassy soil. The sound of a harp being strummed drifts through the woods. A moment later, the plucked thrumming of a mandolin joins in.
You wonder how the students seated to the left and right of you feel about this locale for a writing seminar. There are representatives from all manner of cultures, ages, and races here, the only thing that they have in common is that they each have the same stylus and tablet that you used to travel here. For yourself, you're not sure if these tranquil surroundings put you at ease or create a distraction.
At the head of the 'class', the thick-bodied instructor adjusts himself on the tree-stump and clears his throat. He daubs at some perspiration on his forehead, a pushes a hand through his thinning dark hair. He favors everyone with nervous smile and fidgets with the pointer in his hand. After a moment, he appears to steel himself.
"Why be a writer?" he asks in a soft voice you barely hear. He draws a breath and when he speaks again his words are clearer. "Do you really want to be a writer, or someone who simply knows how to write?" Tapping the pointer on his shoulder he glances around at the students. "Would someone like to volunteer their definition of what a writer is..?"
Writers. Is there anything divine or special about them? Some of us writers might like to think so—but the truth is, serious storytellers are pretty much like everybody else except they're wired a little different from their peers.
The difference between a writer and someone else is that the writer often feels compelled to create. To a hard-core storyteller, writing is an obsession. The question of whether they are good writers or bad is irrelevant—the words are in their mind and not inscribing them in some form or other is a source of lost sleep. If you're one of the people so afflicted, you already know you're a writer. The words that come later in this article aren't going to change your mind.
From here out, I will test your determination as a storyteller. If you fail, it does not mean you don't have a good story to tell, or lack the ability to write well. What it says is that writing will not be your career, and you will likely not ever finish any large projects. If you press on, I can only wish more power to you.
To master writing, one has to ask one hard question right after the other. Can you learn to handle rejection? Does criticism, constructive or otherwise, piss you off? Think you can learn to objectively deal with those two issues? Can you passionately create a literary work and then let go of it? To be specific, once your work is fully formed, can you treat it as print on a page and not some untouchable conglomeration of your blood, sweat, and tears? If your answer is 'no' to any of these questions, find the exit.
Still with me? Can you stomach hours of work for no pay? Can you dedicate at least two hours a week, every week, to your art and stick to it? Are you ready and willing to defend your writing time against every spouse, child and relative who thinks it's a silly waste of your precious time? If you're not—kiss your career goodbye baby. Unless you live alone, or you are truly blessed with an understanding mate, you will be disrupted—constantly. If you can't lock that darn door and have a do-not-disturb sign heeded in at least in some marginal measure—you are bound to be frustrated. If you simply can't imagine slicing two whole hours out of a 7 day week—step to the right—the sign reads 'exit'. If you can't think of a way to engineer your schedule with your room-mates, spouses, and children so that they observe your privacy for that same two hours a week—so sorry, come back when you can state a stronger case for your 'me' time.
If you were a dedicated writer coming into this, you are already fighting these battles. It's hard for the married folk, and writers with children have it the worst. I used to poo-poo not being able to get the significant other to lay off for a couple hours a week. Then I got married. I went as far as to make sure before we got married that she knew I had my not-to-be-disturbed slot of writing time. Just the same, there's always some reason—a question that simply can't wait, a news article that just has to be shared, a cute anecdote she heard on the phone. Growling at the disruptions is NOT the proper response. Your spouse is already jealous of the 'me' time you've set aside. If you start bristling over it, the problem gets worse. I know this from observing other married writers who went that route and ended up having to choose between their marriage and their writing. Five for five—the writing went the way of the dodo. It's probably not a coincidence that all five victims were men. The ongoing battle for 'me' time is a war men have battled women over since the existence of couples.
Childless married women don't experience the spouse problem nearly as much as the men. It balances out though, moms typically have twice the problem of dads. The "go ask your mother" syndrome can be fingered as the culprit there—that and lazy husbands.
There's no question. It is a battle. It's a war where the casualty is your ability to focus, to produce material, and do what's necessary to learn and grow. I sympathize whole-heartedly with your plight. Time-guzzling attention-starved spouses, constantly needy children, and never ending list of household chores are all a real drag. If you want to do the storytelling gig, you have to find a way to surmount these obstacles. If you can't foresee finding a way over or around, that's really too bad. You had promise. You have my have sympathy. Maybe you'll catch up with the rest of us later.
I take this cavalier tone to protect you. If you don't want to write badly enough to even find the time to write on a regular basis—the ugly emotional parts of criticism and rejection simply WON'T be worth the headaches they will give you. Your enjoyment or drive to create story has to override the drawbacks and pitfalls. Unless your circumstances are truly extraordinary, your problem is far from impossible to overcome—you simply aren't willing to prioritize. Writing simply isn't important enough to you.
I know these problems can be overcome, because I myself have to constantly wage the same war on the time and attention front. My wife is only semi-understanding. She thinks her brief interruptions—every ten minutes—are no big deal. I get by. These obstacles are a matter of priorities. When I'm not writing smarmy articles about being dedicated to the writing ethic, I work forty, fifty, and sixty hours a week for an IT firm. I have a consulting business on the side, and maintain four websites. I somehow have time to write this article (and a few others) plus get work in on my fiction projects. I'm not superman. I'm actually pretty lazy. I could write more if I wasn't constantly screwing around on the web. I can do it—so can you.
Those that haven't stopped reading by now at least have some measure of dedication to the craft.
So, after all that, why in heck would anyone want to take up this time sucking, attention demanding, ego-crushing pastime?
But it's a GOOD kind of insanity! Really. Just don't expect strokes from your friends. "So, you're writing a book—what's it about...?" Ever hear that question? Did you ever notice how the eyes of a non-writer glaze over or they develop an interest in another topic? Even loved ones—they'll read your latest and greatest. "Oooh, that's nice, Darling." This is the point when you get excited. "Really? What was nice!?" That's when your spouse's eyes start trying to find another point of the room to study. Unless you happen to be married to an English or Literature teacher, chances are you won't get a constructive answer you can use. If you happen to have another writer for a partner, that can be equal slices heaven and hell. Nobody can sting your pride quicker than the love-of-your-life. They know they need to tell you the truth. However, being familiar can sometimes result in your spouse being somewhat more direct than you're ready for… "Honey, the description is great. I really see that scene. Darling, there is one thing though. I'm afraid your dialogue—well, it, ummm—stinks." It's moments like those that you wish they simply said it was "nice".
Because of that barrier of understanding, the pastime of writing is mostly solitary. The only people who understand your obsession are other people in the literary industry. For many, that is a big emotional pitfall. Especially when they have no access to anything like a local writer's group. The growing online community is a great compensating boon to writers. It's slowly eroding that wall of isolation around the people that had no other outlet. Its grants the ability to communicate with other writers in their medium of choice—the written word! Marvelous.
By this point you're wondering—is there ANYTHING good about being a writer? Sure, you're in a fairly elite and eccentric group of individuals who—for the most part are pretty darn interesting to interact with and talk to. Most writers love to read, and they tend to become topic experts on the fiction and non-fiction that interests them.
Another good part of being a writer is a sense of accomplishment. There is a special kind of exhilaration that only a novelist (or perhaps a doctor completing a thesis) can relate to. When you put the last word to the page of long project—it is a fist pumping, joyful thrill. Poo-poo, you think? You obviously haven't ground your way through a hundred thousand word narrative and finally finished it to your satisfaction. Woo-hoo!
Being addicted to writing definitely has less impact on your health than cigarettes or alcohol. Now, if only we could get writers to replace those habits with their writing regime...
No other self-inflicted craziness that I can think of makes a person jump up and down and get excited because they sold an article for five dollars. Most people make more money than that on their fifteen minute coffee break. Still, if you can get that excited over five dollars—imagine fifty! Getting a thousand bucks for a piece of your writing is a swooning affair.
Getting published is hard. So when the drought abates it's a terrific feeling even if you get nothing for it. Most writers are just happy that someone liked their ideas besides themselves.
If you're just beginning in writing. Don't expect to get rich—especially if you're only going to write fiction. If you work at it, have good ideas, study and market, you'll sell—it's just a matter of time and discipline. However, that best seller—giant advance—type of sale is like winning the lottery, somebody usually wins—but it very rarely is it you. Some best selling books that earned their authors millions were bounced up to a hundred times. Stephan King's Carrie bounced around for years to the point he was ready to throw it in the trash can. To make it big, he had to pay his dues in frustration and postage. Most likely, so will you.
If you want to make money writing, the best compromise you can make is to supplement your fiction with non-fiction sales. If your fiction techniques are solid—you have the potential to sell well in the non-fiction market. The article you're reading is product of that thinking at work. The non-fiction market pays more and is far easier to place in. I can sell six non-fiction articles in the time it takes to place one fiction story. Not fair—? Who said life was fair?
So, does that mean I only promote non-fiction writing? Of course it doesn't. Fiction satisfies a creative itch that writing non-fiction simply doesn't abate. Non-fiction writing is a business, just as journalism is a business. Non-fiction is a shortcut to building your confidence and seeing worth in the words you put on the page. When someone pays for your written work, that makes you a professional writer. That's a nice feeling. There's nothing wrong with it either. A publishing credit is always a good thing. We all have to pay our dues as writers, learning and growing to the point that editors feel our material is good enough to publish. Each credit you can claim on a cover letter increases your chances of selling again. Persistence pays off.
Now, after all that, do you still want to be writer? Are you willing to fight family and friends for your private time in order to claim the distinction of being a published author? The road is bumpy, but at least the scenery is interesting. Peers are hard to come by, but you can pick up some e-mail pals if you make the effort. The work is hard, but success is extremely satisfying. The rejection and criticism stings, but your skin eventually toughens up. Ultimately, you will learn to be objective about your work and it will be better in the long run.
Still with me? Welcome aboard the Creative Writing Express. We're bound for the literary marketplace. It's a long uphill crawl on rickety tracks. The boiler, she be a wee bit hungry, but we got plenty 'o coal. Roll up yer sleeves, grab a shovel, and start stoking the burner. Watch yer pressure and keep an eye out for bandits. I'm pullin' the brakes and lettin 'er roll…
Next installment we'll be dealing with realistic expectations. We'll talk about productivity, marketing, and compensation. We'll discuss practical and useful goals to help you grow the amount of publishable material you produce.