When I was a teacher, I'd ask kids what they wanted to be when they grew up (usually to feed into an art project or an All About Me poster for Open House or something) and most kids would pick doctors or sports figures--paleontologists or movie stars would run a close third--and when I asked them if they liked helping kids or saving animals, acting or playing basketball, many said that they didn't care about that, they cared about the money or the fame or the glamor. Heck, I don't blame them! TV and movies and glossy magazines make those high-profile careers look like lots of fun! And now that we have superstar-famous authors like J.K. Rowling and more books-to-movies being made every year, kids are saying that they want to be writers too! And I say, "Awesome!" but there's this same niggling fear that I had as a schoolteacher because I know that there's a pretty big difference between the dream and reality.
And let me say that what follows is not for kids. It's for adults and young adults who want to be writers.
- Herein lies some reality & know all ye who enter here, I'm not kidding. Even a little bit.
Setting aside all the practical things like contracts and taxes and promotion and the like and simply focusing on writing, here's the big thing I want you to know: being a writer means that you write. A lot. It kind of goes with the territory. Sounds silly, but I can't say how many times I've heard someone say that they always wanted to be a writer, but they never could stick with it; meaning, of course, that they didn't want to keep writing. That's fine and good to know. Trust me, there's no reason to want to be a writer if you don't like writing. It's important to discover that you have made writing mean something else, something you want, that you think being a writer will give you--a mode of self-expression, legitimacy, respect, or, if we want to be perfectly honest, a little fame, fortune and glory for sitting at home in our pajamas sipping tea. That doesn't sound too bad, after all! But here's the thing: if you don't like writing, don't do it. This isn't like losing weight or going to the gym where the initial discomfort will bring future rewards because if you aren't comfortable writing, then the writing and rewriting and re-rewriting, and re-re-rewriting and doing so again and again until you are sick of your own words, not to mention the Sisyphean process of then editing and revising and tightening and touting and copyediting and blurbing and blogging in order to hopefully get the chance to do *more* writing, is simply not going to work for you in the long run. Why do that to yourself? Does that sounds glamorous? Let me tell you, those sports MVPs and movie stars are working hard to do what they make look effortless. Their (very long) day is crafted around honing their skills, working out or getting to the gym, getting up early and working until late, making three-point shots or scrimmage runs, saying lines or sitting in make-up trailers and rehearsing blocking over and over and over again to get it right, the ideas of "fresh" and "new" get old fast and I imagine every once in a not-so-great while the thought, "If I have to do this ONE MORE TIME..." flashes through their minds just as often as anyone else's.
Here's what being a writer looks like: you get up, go through your morning routine, then you sit down and you write until you're done writing for the day, get up, go through your end-of-the-day routine, go to bed, get up and do it again. Lather, rinse, repeat until you get to those magical words "The End." Then it goes through the editor, gets a pretty jacket, and magically appears on shelves and screens around the world. Sound simple enough? Yeah, well, that's probably what it looks like to the outside world. What isn't said is that writing requires you to a) perform creatively on demand and b) doing everything else around writing that directly, or indirectly, affects the writing even if it doesn't actually produce one word of writing. I imagine models have a tough time looking surprised at being hit with a bucket of glitter after the sixtieth or seventieth time of being made up, dressed up, lit up, hit, washed off, dried off, made up, lit up, hit, washed off, etc. but that's what they're there to do: look delightfully surprised at a faceful of glitter and get the shot. Writers sit down and some unknown magic is supposed to happen, opening up the inspirational floodgates and tapping into the Great Wavelength of the Muse Universe Beyond and the words just flow onto the page in a mad chorus-of-angels dash as seen on Castle and Romancing the Stone. And sometimes this happens. And other times, you sit down and nothing comes and instead of staring at a blank page, you surf the web or do the dishes or scrub the floors or the windows or decide to do a good deed and shovel the neighbor's walk or dedicate your day to rescuing stray wildebeests because you always wanted to try that someday... You get the idea. And yet, if you don't plow through those times, even knowing that you'll just as likely scrap everything you're typing that day, it won't get done. For every 1000 free throws, that basketball player is looking to learn something from each one--each success and each failure--striving to get better, better, best. For every 10,000 words, an author is just as likely to cut them all and start again, or rewrite them, or change course, adding a new subplot or cutting a secondary character, all in the pursuit of the writing.
And those are just the words on paper!
Then there is the honing of craft, reading books in our genre and books in the market and books about craft and books by the many authors we admire. There's learning by doing, by going to conferences, by meeting with writing groups, by doing daily prompts. There are courses and practices, communities and technologies, newest tools of the trade and old habits that die hard and if you're going to keep growing, and you're going to have to keep moving to keep up with the times that are a'changing! Don't forget all the research and backstory, the photo files and playlists should you be so inclined to keep your world consistent or your mood/sanity intact. And, should you care to indulge, there's your website, your blog, your twitter, your Tumblr, your fans (if you're lucky) and your online presence (if you're smart) and please don't forget to visit/comment/keep up/and make meaningful contribution to your friends' blogs and Twitters and Tumblrs and news as well as the book bloggers, professionals, and writing news sites that your frequent in order to stay on their radar and know as well that you are not alone. And if you're already down this road less-traveled, to check-in with your agent, your publisher, and their crew: your editor, your PR contact, the event coordinator and whomever is in charge of any foreign affairs because you are your own biggest advocate and being nice to your team is nice. Just remember to be careful not to gripe or bad-mouth anyone online, stay positive, be honest, keep consistent, and don't compare your journey to someone else's because that way lies madness and loss of brain cells you can't afford to spare. Do all that and don't forget: leave time for your own writing because as we all know it all comes down to your next book.
Got that? Excellent!
So you sit and write your story, bit by bit, turning off your inner editor as long as you can to get it done. You inch your way through the story for months at a time, maybe years, going back to make notes on what to tweak or change or cut, keeping disciplined for the long haul until you reach that final bit that says "The End." Huzzah! Now you put this book aside to marinate for a while and if you're lucky, you start on the next story that's been buzzing annoyingly in the back of your mind, or, if you're obsessive, you don't and begin to fret and worry and nitpick and needle and wheedle on this very same story you just put down as you begin to rewrite and re-read (and hopefully read aloud) and start hacking and slashing and killing your darlings and other violent euphemisms until it resembles something vaguely story-like and you're ready to show it to friends. Well, not friends, exactly. Showing your work to friends and family either is a testament to your relationships or your commitment to solitary confinement because most often these people don't want to hurt your feelings or end up sleeping on the couch. No, the friends you want are friends of your Big Picture who want to help your work get better and aren't the kind of friends who mind crushing your heart if you've left it pinned on your sleeve. These are critique partners and writer friends and agents and editors (who, by the way, don't magically appear) and this is what all those conferences and online communities and research were for--the not-writing part of writing--and are uniquely important. [P.S. If you don't have any of these sort of people and believe that you and only you can make your writing as good as it can be and if pressed, you might be willing to make *some* changes but will NEVER SELL OUT by changing your precious baby book, then good for you! I hope you like being your own best audience because that's pretty much the only person who will ever read it.]
Sorry, that bit was snarky. Onwards!
Now you sit and wait and worry about all that possibly could go wrong, second-guessing if you should have shown your work to anyone at this stage, let alone people whose opinions really matter, and wondering if you haven't been premature and WHAT WERE YOU THINKING sending it out when it's obviously not ready and wishing you could somehow Control-Alt-Delete it and take it back since your don't happen to have a Time-Turner on hand. Now you're comparing yourself to J.K. Rowling, Great. You try to ignore the constant refreshing that you're doing on your email and tromping to your mailbox, keeping an eye on the Inbox icon to see if anything's come in, driving yourself to distraction as you concentrate on not-thinking about the things you shouldn't be thinking about because it's too late now anyway and you'll never fly this carpet if you don't stop thinking of pink elephants. This entire process is magnified if this is something being sent to a prospective agent or editor or professional because now it's serious and if you're lucky, you start on the next story, or, if you're obsessive, you don't and begin to fret and worry and nitpick and needle and wheedle on this very same story you just put down in a sadistic bout of deja vu.
Sounds like fun? It gets better!
You've got mail! It's feedback (or a rejection or a request)! Hurrah! Now it's time to go back to your naughty book and start applying all the suggestions you think are worth considering at least 24 hours after you've read them the first time and balked in righteous indignation that anything was so wrong and nothing could be further from the truth and what do they know, anyway?! Feeling better? Good. So now: editing. You rewrite your story. Or tweak it and tenderly, hesitantly poke and prod at the edges until a few weeks or months into it you start shredding it in a fit of pique and end up rewriting it all again anyway, which is what you should have done in the first place. It's a very therapeutic process, especially if you're insane. Now do it again. And again. And again. And, if you're lucky, you'll land an agent with it who will suggest her own changes in order to interest an editor who will suggest his own changes and it will be up to you to keep making them in ridiculously short turn-around times after all this endless waiting, leaning on your critique partners and writer friends as well as your best friends and family for much-needed support [again, if you think you can do this alone, think again!] and each time you send it off for another round of consideration, feedback, edits, or whatnot, you're back at that familiar station at the corner of WHAT WAS I THINKING?!? and WHAT DO I DO NOW? Then, if the stars have aligned and the moon is full and a baby is born with one brown eye and one green and the collective breath of the world inhales once at the very same time, then your baby book goes through editing, line editing, copyediting, promotion, event-planning and the six weeks up to and after the scheduled launch date, you are writing more than you ever did in the collective pages of said book trying to get the word out there and when the tumult dies down you are exhausted in scattered piles of leftover swag, obsessively Googling yourself and refreshing stat pages like some rhesus monkey on experimental drugs, it occurs to you that this part of the publishing journey is over and you really should be working on that next project you've got rumbling around in the back of your head.
And that's sort of what it's like being a writer.
Honestly, you'd have to be a crazy person to want this.
Logical conclusion: writers are crazy people.
You are welcome to join us, but know that you want to be a writer because you love writing. You live and breathe writing. You can't imagine a life without writing. You can't NOT write. Because, as my very wise and funny friend once told me an older screenwriter said to him: It's like entering a pie-eating contest where the prize is more pie! So please be very, very sure that you like pie. There may be fame and fortune and glory, there may be respect and justification and working in your jammies, there may be movie deals and foreign rights and things you can't even dream of happening and achieving far beyond anything anyone could have imagined, but that's not a guarantee. If you're going to pursue a career in writing, the only guarantee is that you will be writing. A lot.