So You Want To Be a Writer
From an Old Timer
You want to be a writer…you don’t know why….there is simply something deep in your emotional-psyche-self that whispers to you that…you “need” to write. That voice started speaking to me when I was seven years old. That was way over a half century ago. I’ve made my living at it for a good many years—not always a good living but not always a bad living either. And, I’ve done it all—movies to magazine articles, books to radio shows, documentaries to InfoBarrel.
I share the above information in order to convince you that I am experienced enough for you to at least give a listen to. You need not follow a word of my advice but I do hope you will give it a read.
One of the first errors a new writer will make is to use what we used to call “silver dollar words.” That is big words that most people won’t be familiar with. Big words make the writer feel intellectual but they make his writing too tedious to enjoy—no one wants to take the time to keep running back and forth to the dictionary. Sometimes silver dollar words can’t be avoided however. For example, I write quite a lot about the brain, mind and consciousness. As a result, I end up using the word “epiphenomenon” a lot. Because I know that epiphenomenon is not a word in most people’s vocabulary, I explain what the word means so the reader knows what the heck I’m talking about. As a result, a sentence that I might construct would look much like this: …and so some scientists say that the mind is a mere epiphenomenon (a secondary phenomenon or, in other words, a function) of the brain.
You don’t want to write for intellectuals in any case, they’re all too busy self-aggrandizing to read your work anyway.
Speaking of reading, it is essential that you read a lot. I read someplace, years ago, that “some people read and some people write” and I believed that was the case for a very long time. My writing, however, did not start to truly improve until I became an avid reader.
Read, read and read some more!
The odds are probably against you for landing a great, financially rewarding writing job no matter how talented you are. And so, you need to be prepared to write anything on assignment. That’s when all your reading really begins to pay off. I have a home library of a couple of thousands books. I have read 90% of them cover to cover and I keep adding to their count all the time. This is not bragging. This is part of my job as a writer…especially as an all-media writer which I have been for a very long time. In order to make a living, I’ve gone from an assignment job of writing about boxing directly to a job writing about ancient history followed by a physician’s life story. The point is all that reading truly pays off!
You also have to know how to research material and sometimes…fast. The web is certainly a big asset in this arena but books remain a major source. Most of the books I’ve read have yellow-highlights in them so, if the need ever arises, I’ll be able to find facts or data that I am looking for immediately.
To be a professional writer, you must also be able to muster both inspiration and enthusiasm for writing material that you have little or no (real) interested in. Very few writers are privileged enough to write only what they want to write and make money at it. There are exceptions to everything of course but, in general, writers are hired to write what the hiring person wants and this includes film-writing to article writing. (This is a major reason why I enjoy InfoBarrel so much—with only a few taboos, I am free to create whatever I want to create. For a guy who spent over a decade ghosting for others, this is a real treat).
Write, write and write some more!
You have to write…daily if you want to fine-tune your craft and develop your own style. Except for illness, travel or special occasions, I have been writing a minimum of 5 hours a day, 7 days a week since 1969. I still do!
I actually started writing as a kid but I didn’t really get serious about it until I was in my mid-twenties. After that, I wrote every day for eight years before I made a first sale. It happens like that sometimes so be prepared!
Criticism and Rejection
If you’ve been writing for very long at all, you have had to face criticism. If having your work criticized—even harshly—discourages you and angers you or distresses you very much. You’re in the wrong business or, at most, you’re a hobbyist. Criticism and rejection, as said, comes with the territory.
My favorite all time rejection story happened to me many years ago. I’ll share it with you to make a most important point: I had completed a new play with title, The Thirst and the Thorn. It was structured uniquely in that act one was Comedy, Act Two Drama that flowed into tragedy.
I gave the play to a producer/director friend of mine and asked her to read it. She did and she politely said, “Jack, I usually like your work but, quite honestly, this play stinks…it will never work with audiences.”
I knew a TV producer and I thought maybe he would want to do something with the play. I gave it to him to read. I returned to his office a week or so later and asked him what he thought of my play. He said, “Do you want me to be honest with you.” I said, “of course” what was I to say, no, lie to me. Anyway, he picked up my play and tossed it into his trash can.
I got the point, he didn’t like it.
After that I took my play to a small theater for a reading. The results there were also negative. No one had the vision that I had so I decided I’d produce and direct it myself. I did and it was a hit with the audiences and more, the “Thirst and the Thorn” became intrinsic to my winning America’s NEA award for playwriting that year.
In any creative field, including writing, you simply cannot let criticism or rejection get under your skin and if you’re skin-thinned you shouldn’t enter the professional world of art at all because in that world, you’ll get pulled over the coals time and time again. My wife sold my first book to Abbey Press some years ago. Abbey published after the work had been rejected around 20 times by other publishers. You just can never give up or be defeated by opinion.
Oh yes, I will tell you this too. 95% of the time when you submit a book to a legitimate publisher, the odds are great that your submission was never read anyway—they just tossed it on their stack of unsolicited manuscripts and sent you a stock letter: Dear John Doe—you’re work has some merit but it isn’t right for us at this time. Good luck. As I always say, I have enough of those kinds of letters to wallpaper my entire bathroom with them.
Bottom line, as said, you cannot be thin-skinned and be in the creative arts professionally, much less writing. It is essential that you believe in you…not in any egotistical way but in a solid, substantial, self-assured way.
Writers and Their Clients
As a professional writer the odds are that you will not have the leisure of writing only when you “feel” like it or, as some may say, when the mood strikes. Writers must write just like builders must build and chefs must cook. A cook, who says, I’m just not in the right frame of mind to come in today, will be fired and on a professional level writers will not work for very long that can’t muster a “frame of mind” to write.
Amateur writers can baby themselves but professionals cannot. There are not many things that will hurt your career more than missing deadlines. This is one reason why you have to be careful to tell your clients what you can’t do and what you can’t. On one of those rare occasions when I ended up with more work than I could handle, I handed it over to a friend of mine who is also a part-time writer. I put him in contact with a client and he told the client that he could deliver 20 pages a day. Well, of course he couldn’t. He was fired and I was stuck with the job. So do not underestimate how much time it will actually take you to complete a project and this usually will include one rewrite. By the way, an honest projection of how long a project will take is greatly appreciated by the client so always give yourself some sensible leeway.
Also—and here’s a big one to remember. For years I always used to volunteer a lot of work—not only did I write for free for people who wanted work on the “if-come” but if a guy hired me to do two booklets I’d give him three. My wife named this attitude for me: Stupid.
No one appreciates something for free and even if you work too cheaply, your client will think you are only worth only what you ask for. It took me years to figure this out even with a little fortunate nudging from my wife.
Most people have no idea what it takes to say, write a book. Many seem to think that it rolls out of you like candy on a surveying belt. What do you mean you only did twenty-five pages in the past five days…what, were you sick?
I once had a client of mine claim that he could pour out 30 pages a day and thus do a small book within seven day. I told him that I would like to see that but I never heard of the project again. Typically people that don’t write don’t get it. So if you play the nice guy and give them a break on price or do something for free, they don’t value it either. Writing, in a term, is hard rackets so if you’re seeking appreciation, surrender the pen and become a massage expert.
So there are two sides to the coin of writing: The writer must be ready and prepared to write as soon as work comes in…but not for less than the writing is actually worth and NEVER for free unless you’re in partnership with somebody and that’s a different contract altogether.
Indeed, if you are going to write for free, write the stuff you want to write...for you.
What About Writer’s Block
Here is where I’ll get a little controversial but, please, give what I’m about to tell you some contemplation. For one thing if you worry about pleasing your client more than getting the work on paper, you’ll freeze up. Question such as, what is she doesn’t like it can close up your creativity so you think you should have sold hotdogs for a living…and wished that you had!
What is vital for all writers including new writers to grasp is that creative writing in non-concentration as opposed to concentration. In fact, mostly your feeble brain will get in the way of your creativity unless you are writing math of high tech. But math and high tech can’t be classified as creative writing unless, of course, you’re a theoretical physicist.
After a half century I am convinced that great writing NEVER comes from you but rather through you. Concentration closes down the pathways to your creative center, which I also call the “heart.”
When you open your heart/brain to the Universe, a Universe of information flows through!
For example, ever write an adventure and suddenly find yourself following your characters across the page instead of creating their words and “human” action. It’s like automatic writing with the writer in a literal altered state while he or she writes. I can’t explain it more than this, but if you’ve ever been there and done that, you will know exactly what I am talking about.
The famous western writer Louis L’Amour did this and I suspect John Grisham does this; Shakespeare obviously did this as no one is that prolific without crossing over and landing on the creative page that seems to be unfolding before your eyes.
I have thought for year about writing about this phenomenon and maybe one day I will. For now, though it is offered only for your contemplation and consideration. Many people write directly from their own brains of course; they plot out their structures, even name their characters before they start writing and invariably end up with a kind of literary stagnation. I read a ton of books and I can tell right away if the writer intellectualized his work or, if you will “felt” it. I see this lots on the internet where some writers are no more into their work than their readers are; they are simply pushing out text.
This “pushing out text” happens in all arenas of creative writing but especially on the internet where certain words can be of more value than other words.
Anyway, fear is certainly a reason why some writers “clam up” and sit around for days or even weeks non-productively. But beyond this, writers block, is merely closing off from the pathways of your own creativity. For example, ever start to talk about someone and for the life of you, you can’t remember his name. So then, you push it all out of your mind and in a moment you’re not concentrating on it, the name pops into your head. That’s the way books and feature films and stories are best written—when the writer simply opens up and begins to write. I will often write a page or two of what I call “mutterings.” You know, I’ll write about Christmas or taking a hike or what it feels like to be a snail, anything to relax myself into being creatively open. Suddenly, an idea pops into my head like a forgotten name and I‘m off and running so to speak.
The other truth is I’ve never been able to afford writer’s block. I have almost always worked on deadlines that simply could not tolerate even a couple of days of non-creativity.
Anyway, there are certainly those who will disagree with what I’ve offered here but I do not believe in writer’s block except as a product of fear. No fear, no block so just sit down and put those fingers to the keyboard—never worry, they’ll start pushing those keys down if you think that you’re ready to write or not.
One other thing, you can get overly tired from writing and while this won’t block you, it can cause you to write poorly. I remember one time I got off an airplane in Bangkok after a great many hours of flight and having my client walk up to me saying, “How many pages can you deliver tonight?”
And so I sat half asleep after the flight writing for hours that night in order to give him the pages he wanted before going to bed.—all of which had to be re-written the next day.
Writing is in the roots of nearly every other art form while remaining an art form in and of its own domain. Plays and movies are all built on the foundation of the writer’s clever pen; without writers there would be no recorded history or books at all. Great bands begin with the music of writers and lyricists, often the same person. And of course the competition for work as a writer is fierce. For a new comer to break in to the “business” is to overcome unimaginable obstacles—agents won’t talk with you, publishers will seldom read your work and people who will hire you typically undermine your importance. All this changes of course if you write a hit in just about any media but the population of hit makers is extremely small and…most often very packed with nepotisms of all kinds.
Most writers like most dancers, actors, musicians and so on end up as undiscovered talent. There are few true geniuses like Woody that beat the odds and succeeds much less becoming a giant in the industry. Yet, you, the reader of this article, may be the one for that so-called “big break.” But never write for that particular result as it will only diminish your creativity. If your professional break comes celebrate it, even wallow in it but do not make it you goal; make being the best writer that you can be your goal.
Certainly you do not want to keep your nose to the grindstone all the time—often a touch of so-called writer’s block can be left by the wayside by simply relaxing. My way is to meditate
Find what it is that “opens you up” while away from the desk. That can be lying out on the patio listening to the silences or sitting with friends over coffee; there are no rules or best ways because true relaxation is a private affair—some people hike and others ride bicycles, do what it is that opens you up to the universe itself.
My best advice is to practice mindfulness; getting in touch with nature and other people; decide how to love your world.
Remember, while there are a great many people that write…there are few writers.
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