Becoming a Writer—Part 1, What Will You Write
We provided an introduction or preview in the November edition of the Quarterly. Let’s briefly revisit the point of all this. For some reason, like me, you decided you want to write. Maybe you do have a book in you, just waiting to come out. Maybe you want to become famous, share your innermost thoughts, pass along your vast reservoir of knowledge or simply have fun. One dose of reality: One of the common complaints from “professional” writers is that while at a party or some other social gathering, it is allegedly commonplace that someone will mention that they want to “write a book, too, someday” as if this were a small or uncomplicated undertaking. The writer must restrain himself or herself from responding to, a doctor, for example “ah, yes; I would like to perform surgery sometime.” The point being, it is no small task successfully writing and publishing a book. Note that I said successfully. With relative ease one can, of course, create an eBook on Amazon or another company. That doesn’t mean anyone will ever read it, let alone buy it. So that is one reason why this series is appearing here, to help you avoid those awkward moments. Still, it might be prudent to avoid telling all your friends, family and coworkers your plans. But when you are ready to let them know (and long before you ever get to the publishing phase) you will want to establish a following or create a “platform” via the web and social media so that when that great work comes out, there will be an audience impatiently waiting its arrival. That’s for later in this series.
First, a little aside. I always wanted to be writer—at least from the second grade. But I have also always been a procrastinator. That character flaw, along with having grown up poor, caused me to put off attempting writing for publication for the most part (I did do plenty of writing in high school, college and for work—including educational materials) until retiring from full time employment. I began working on Waiting for Westmoreland, a memoir, in 2004 and published it in 2007. It has not achieved bestseller status nor have I become wealthy as a result. In the meantime, I have devoted many hours to blogging, this website, social networking and working on some fiction projects while interrupted by moving from the east coast to the southwest. You can see the quality of my own writing most clearly on my blog with excerpts from current and future projects here.
So what then, you may ask, are my qualifications to educate you about writing? Let me be clear about this—I will not be providing an online writing course. What I will do is offer some suggestions on self-education you should pursue based on my own experience and on knowledge I have gained from others more successful than myself. There will also be some tips on how to get started. I should also note the oft repeated refrain from many in the company of authors, that no one can teach you how to be a great writer. There are many things that can be taught, or at least learned about writing, which IS the whole point of this series. With that caveat, let’s proceed.
Before putting pen to paper—or more commonly today, fingers to keyboard, you need to have some idea of what words will appear. What will you write about? What topics, what subjects, and in what form. Whether you are writing poetry, short stories, novels, essays or articles, they are all about something. Dogs and cats. History. Technology. Relationships. Politics. Romance. Whatever you find interesting and important to you. Whatever it is, you need to decide whether it will be truth (commonly referred to as non-fiction) or fiction. The latter might include biography, history, nature, medicine, social or physical sciences, politics, technology, etc. Are you already an expert in some field? Do you feel compelled, or at least inclined, to share that knowledge with others? Then non-fiction may be the thing you will write.
That gives you an advantage over the novice fiction writer. Why? Because if you are expert, you will more easily be able to attract an audience through your credentials or reputation. Not only that, provided that you work in and enjoy that field of expertise it makes sense that you may enjoy writing about it. Still, sharing technical or scientific knowledge with the general population, as opposed to peers, demands a different set of writing skills. You must be able to make the subject readable by anyone. The late Isaac Asimov, well known as a science fiction author and a professor of biochemistry, had great skill in simplifying complex science. For an example, do a “Look Inside the Book” on Amazon of his Guide to Earth and Space. Maybe you won’t be in his league at the outset, but if you want to write for the general public as opposed to your peers, that’s what you will aspire to.
Maybe you are not an expert in some field or don’t really want to write within your field of expertise. You prefer fiction. What do you read yourself? Do you read suspense/mysteries, action/adventure, thrillers, romance, spiritual or religious fiction, science fiction or some other genre? Or do you prefer general fiction or perhaps classics—great works of literature? You want to become a bestselling author so maybe you assume you need to write what is most popular. But if you don’t read and like it yourself, how are you going to write it?
Worse, if you are not much of a reader at all, you will have a much more difficult time being a writer. As Stephen King says in On Writing, a Memoir of the Craft,
“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”
Without reading mysteries, for example, you won’t have a perspective on the genre to draw from. Better than taking any writing class is simply reading other writers and absorbing the techniques you find. What can be taught are things like grammar and the “tools of the trade.” More on that later in the series.
Back to the what of writing. While it is possible to write in multiple genres, many “experts” recommend against it. Why? Simply because each genre has its own history, style, vocabulary, common themes, plots, story arcs, etc. The jack of all trades handyman has a place in maintaining a home, but you probably would not want one to tinker with your computer or service your home’s main electrical panel. But you like what you like; don’t let anyone dissuade you from challenging conventional wisdom. It’s just a hurdle that you can overcome with determination and diligence. Check Asimov’s catalog of writing for an example. In addition to science fiction and hard science, he wrote countless non-fiction books and articles on a vast range of topics from the bible to Shakespeare. More brilliant than most, perhaps it came easily to him but if you want it, just do it. In fact, don’t get hung up on genre at all in the beginning. Just write. Yes, eventually you will need to identify genre for ease in marketing and publishing. Back to the bestselling or most popular. If you happen to like what is popular, more power to you. But remember, the bigger the pond, the bigger the other fish and the more of them. If you have a narrow niche, you have less competition. So don’t worry about genre or popularity; write what you like–not what you think everyone else likes. Your writing will be better for it.