Those of you who follow me on Twitter know that I have a schedule of writing “tips” that I tweet semi-regularly. They often spark thoughtful conversations on the craft, which is one of the reasons I started them to begin with. But there is one tweet in particular that I receive no end of grief for publishing:
Writing is a learned craft, not a mystical gift from the universe. You can learn. Practice. Read. Write. Read some more. Write! #writetip
That sounds innocent enough, doesn’t it? Read on to feel my pain…
And God Created…Writers?
You’d be surprised how many people believe writers are born. These are the same people that believe you’re either given the talent by God or by god you don’t have it. Period. If you’re a talentless hack now, you’ll always be a talentless hack, so don’t even bother trying, they say.
They’ve subscribed to the commonly held belief that James Scott Bell, in Plot & Structure, refers to as the Big Lie. They believe that writing is something that can’t be learned. They believe the ability to write is some cosmic accident or blessing and you’ve either been initiated by the universe or you haven’t.
They couldn’t be more wrong. Not even if they fell out of the Wrong tree and hit every branch on the way down (sorry…couldn’t resist).
Are there people who are born with natural talent? Of course. But there is a difference between having some talent and being a prodigy. You don’t have to be a prodigy to be a writer.
So what do you need to be a successful writer?
First and foremost you need passion. Writing is a labor of love. Writers of novel-length work spend months, sometimes years, with their work-in-progress. If you’re not passionate about your writing, you’ll never succeed. There are a lot of obstacles. There is a lot of rejection. But cheer up! Passion is the easy part! If you weren’t passionate already you probably wouldn’t be concerned about what it takes to be a writer in the first place. But let’s be clear: passion comes from within. No one can give you passion. There are no magic formulas.
You don’t have to open a vein and bleed all over a page to prove you have passion. But I’ll tell you this much about writers: when we’re not writing we’re thinking about writing. We’re using our environment as a tool to perfect our craft; describing our surroundings in the voices of our characters, using the “Idea Net” I talk about in my article How Do You Come Up With Story Ideas, making critical observations and finding the story hidden within, taking cliches and turning them upside down, eavesdropping on conversations to hear how real people talk to one another, and on and on.
In short, you know if you’re passionate about writing or just curious. The curious open a word processor, hit an obstacle and say “guess I’m not a writer.” The passionate open a word processor, hit an obstacle and say “I’m a writer, dammit! I can solve this!”
An Inquisitive Mind
You have to ask a lot of questions. And you have to be the type of person who isn’t satisfied with the first answer you come up with. In each of our minds is a box of cliches. Every time we come up with an idea, we reach up into that box, pull something out, and put it on the page. It’s our instinct. It’s a pretty big box, and it’s in the way of the good idea box. And the edges feel the same, so, you know, it’s easily mistaken for the good box when we’re groping around in the dark.
If you’re not constantly asking questions, the cliches will go unnoticed and your work will suffer. What sort of questions? Take a look at that link above, about how I come up with story ideas. I go through a step-by-step process, starting with a simple observation, working through the cliches, and finding the story hidden beneath the surface matter.
You’re not going sit down at the keyboard and produce mind-blowing material. Not at first. Your first steps are going to be slow and labored. You’re going to be uncertain. You’re going to doubt yourself. You’re going to be afraid to refer to yourself as a writer when talking to other people. You’re going to read what you’ve produced and think it’s garbage (or at the very least, not as good as you’d like it to be).
Learning the craft of writing is a time-consuming task. The way you improve your writing is to write…and read…and write some more. Every time you read something new you’ll begin reading it with the eye of a writer. You’ll come across something surprising or exciting, or scary and suspenseful, and you’ll wonder how the writer pulled it off. You’ll find yourself learning through mimicking.
These are the steps all of us go through, and each of us tackle them in an order unique to our own learning style. And just when you think you’re on the right track, you’ll read something that has you questioning yourself again.
You’re going to face obstacle after obstacle after obstacle. If you’re not tenacious you’re not going to last.
When I was writing Necromancer Awakening, I sent my favorite author (and internet friend) Raymond E. Feist an early draft I thought was ready to be queried. After he read it, he told me I had a lot of work to do before it would be ready for publishing. I was crushed. That manuscript represented my absolute best effort at the time, and a pro was telling me it wasn’t good enough. If I wasn’t a tenacious person, I would have given up. Instead, I took his advice to heart. I scrapped any thought of querying the manuscript right away and spent the next two grueling years learning and improving my craft. Now, after more than 2000 books sold in its first month, and being listed on more than 4 Amazon bestseller lists (paid), I’m thankful I have a tenacious nature. The hard work and tenacity paid off.
Skin of Stone
Writing is about putting yourself out there. You’re creating something, offering it to the world, and inviting commentary. That’s scary. You know what happens when you ask for honest opinions? You get them. And guess what…many people are going to think you should stop wasting your time. They’re going to compare you to their favorite writers. Each of your friends, who up to this point have never held a pen in their hands, will suddenly fancy themselves a literary critic. They’ll know exactly what you’re doing wrong…and they’ll tell you.
This is all part of the process. Look, when someone tells you they didn’t like your book, how can they be wrong? You can’t “argue” them into liking your work. The bottom line is you failed to deliver an experience that they would find enjoyable. End of story.
If you’re the type of person who is prone to feeling sorry for yourself, or gets easily offended, this is the point at which you’re going to be tempted to get off of the roller coaster ride. If you haven’t developed a thick skin you won’t progress to the next level. What is that level?
It’s asking yourself if you can learn from the criticism you’re receiving. If you’re sharing your work with friends and colleagues, ask them why they didn’t like it. Ask them for specific details. If they can’t provide any, then fine, chalk it up to stylistic differences. But if they come at you with a laundry list of issues, you’d do well to hear them out. They’re telling you what would make your work stronger in their opinion…before an agent or publisher has a chance to reject it.
Does this mean you have to make all the changes your critics request? Of course not. But it would be pure foolishness to not grant them a proper hearing. Weigh the criticism. You’re going to find much of it is spot on. But you won’t get that far if you dismiss it out of hand.
And you certainly won’t get that far if you just throw in the towel.
[Update: March 19, 2015] It occurs to me I failed to mention one key thing: Readers are nearly always right when they tell you something is wrong. But they’re nearly always wrong about how to fix it! The reader is a driver bringing his/her car to an auto mechanic and saying “There’s a clicking noise up front! I bet it’s the fuel pump!” They’re right about the clicking noise. After all, they heard it. But they probably don’t know a fuel pump from a fist pump.
Remember, writing is a learned craft. A master carpenter didn’t pick up a set of tools and build a house the first time out of the gate. That carpenter had a lot of learning to do. They probably served as an apprentice for many years before being trusted to tackle the tougher jobs.
Writing is no different. Everyone learns at different speeds, but learning is a must unless you’re some sort of prodigy.
Prodigies are rare and unique. The rest of us get there through determination, hard work, countless hours in front of a keyboard, and personal sacrifice. No mystical gift required.
Now, if the universe decides to hand you some talent, then don’t look a gift horse in the mouth! Until then, keep typing.
I’d love to hear your story about how you became a writer. Please share it with us in the comments below!
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