From setting a good scene, to creating believable dialogue, there’s a lot to learn about writing, but writers aren’t always in the student position. Writing is also a great teacher; storytelling is an age-old practice that has shaped and inspired us since the dawn of time.
A while back, I started a list of things that surprised me about the writing business. I did this simply because it was interesting to me, and now I’ve decided to share a few of my findings. Take from it what you will. These are the things I didn’t understand until I started writing with my whole heart. They haven’t necessarily made me love the process any more or any less, but they are my experiences and I speak only for myself here.
- Writers who don’t write? Yes, they exist… and they’re everywhere. I know it sounds critical, but I’ve known dozens of ‘writers’ who do everything but actually write, and they love telling you all the reasons they can’t make it happen. Children, day jobs, unsupportive spouses, housekeeping, you name it – the ways a person can make themselves into victims of circumstance are endless and this kind of avoidance often requires as much creativity as actual writing. I don’t know where the reward in this lifestyle is, but there must be one because of non-writing writers, there are plenty. Though their intentions may be grand, the fact is that you can’t intend your way into writing a book. Until I dig my heels in and put writing first, I can call myself a writer, but no one is going to take me seriously – and that’s what’s fair.
- Writers are artists! And publicists, and marketers, and business owners, and… a lot of other things, too! So you want to be a writer. Great! Now you just need to brush up on your personal relations skills, develop a brand, finish that book, find an audience for it, and start the next novel! The days of writing and leaving everything else to the publishers are gone. Maybe those days will return, maybe they won’t, but one thing is certain: publishers, for the most part, can’t support you. They, like everyone else, are low on resources and trying to recover economically. And even if they did all of your marketing, they don’t manage the business that is your career. And it is a business. As a writer, you’re an entrepreneur; a businessperson. You need to know a lot more than how to write a book – even if it’s a damn good one. Career writing is in an entirely different playing field than hobby writing. In fact, it’s not even the same sport.
- It’s all about illusion. We all know that everything we see on TV – even the “reality” stuff – has been refined and prepared for public consumption before it reaches us. That’s because, by its very nature, entertainment relies on glamour, refinement, and illusion. And writing is entertainment. As an author, you are a public figure, and you can’t be a dull one. Back in the old days, authors were mostly faceless storytellers that readers knew nothing about. Now, thanks to social media, readers can connect with authors, and they expect to. These days, writers need to be aware of how they present themselves. It’s confusing for readers to see their favorite author of serial-killer slash-trash beaming into the camera like a flower child on Prozac as he pushes his tow-headed nephew on a swing. It’s equally conflicting when you come across the Facebook photos of a children’s author face-down and ass up in a puddle of her own sick after a party. Writers are brands and readers have expectations about what kinds of people they are based on what they write. And to fail to deliver is to disappoint your audience.
- Time is a cruel mistress. When you have deadlines, there isn’t time to waste, so a lot of pastimes must go by wayside. I’ve come to realize that when I’m not writing, I should be plotting, researching, or working on marketing, lest I fall into the naïve philosophy generated – and perpetuated – by authors who presume the world cares that they’ve written a novel. People don’t care until you give them a reason to care, and that takes time. Take days off, yes, but like money, time is either spent or invested, so I have to be aware of where mine goes. With the exception of a few TV shows, I don’t like television, and I’ve cut down social activity to the things I really enjoy. For the most part, I live by this philosophy: If you aren’t part of the path, get off the road. It’s harsh perhaps, but I know I wasn’t put here to socialize, have babies, or make lots of friends. I was put here to create something bigger than me. I’m not a sentimental person, and if cutting the fat so I can spend more time writing makes me a dick, I’m comfortable with that.
- But I wrote a whole book! Every book you write stimulates the sales of your previous books and from observing other writers, I’ve learned that writing one book, or two for that matter, isn’t enough to build much interest. If that one book is all I want to write, that’s fine too, but if I’m looking to have a career, I need more than one or two products to offer.
- They came to be entertained. If you are a fiction author looking to teach before entertain, you had better be very subtle about it. Readers rarely browse the fiction sections looking for life lessons. Fiction readers mainly want to be entertained, and in much the same way viewers don’t care if J-Lo is an amazing cake-decorator in her free time, no one cares about your degrees, or what invaluable wisdom your great Aunt Ethel passed down to you. These things give you no prevalence here. Do you know how to tell a compelling story…? That is the question.
- There are no days off. When you aren’t writing, you’re still writing. That’s all I have to say about that.
- Sometimes… the voices really do tell me what to do. We’ve all heard writers say things like, “Oh, I just let my characters tell me the story.” It sounds so fickle, and yet, it’s the God’s honest truth. I try to keep my characters under some control to be sure the plot doesn’t go off track but these make-believe people really do have agendas of their own. It’s a phenomenon that I don’t understand; but for me, it’s just part of the joy. I don’t want to analyze it, I just love that it happens.
- People want to be part of your progress. When it’s innocent, it’s a testament to the good in people. Your real friends are thrilled that you’re doing something you love and they celebrate the accomplishments with you. This is the support group you’ll need when things get tough, and these folks are rare. Hold them close because there’s another type of person who wants to be part of your progress too, except their motives are different. These guys like to take credit for your success. Or they like to think they’ve inspired your art – that you base your characters off them, write your poetry about them, and paint your paintings in the likeness of their divine beauty. It’s embarrassing. And instead of being joyful of your success, these guys will wave your hard work away and say you “got lucky.” Some of these folks are other writers and some are not… but all of them are unfulfilled and unable to find their own power in the world. They’ve resorted to stoking someone else’s fire just to get close to some sparks. Cut these people away from you like a mole that just changed color.
- You really can make a living doing this. Maybe that wasn’t true in 1950. Maybe it wasn’t even true in 1998, but today, if you produce quality work, put effort into marketing, make informed decisions, and continue building a backlog of material, you can thrive as a writer. I know many people who do. Some of them are with one of the “Big Five” and some of them are self-published on Amazon. They have nothing in common with each other regarding genre, age, sex, or race. But what they do have is grit and determination. They all make time to write, they all work hard, they all finish what they start, and none of them are willing to let the world – or anyone in it – tell them they can’t do it.