So You Wanna Be a Writer — Part 3 By Adam Rocke
Still with me? Fantastic! Thank you for your continued interest in my ramblings. So without further adieu, let’s get to it.
In the previous installment, I teased an upcoming discussion about agents and managers, and the benefit (or in some cases, the necessity) of having proper literary representatives in your corner. However, CDP’s “new blood,” Kirsten Marion, the true catalyst for this blog, dutifully reminded me that while agents and managers can be incredible assets for “professional” writers, the material itself should always take center stage.
Of course she’s right.
You’ll have to forgive me. I’ve been playing the literary game so long, I often forget my start in the realm of “writing for a paycheck” and what it took to get to the point where having an agent and/or manager was not only possible but downright mandatory. Thus, let’s table the literary agent/manager conversation for a spell and cut to the quick—let’s talk content.
In real estate, location is pretty much everything. In the writing game, content is key. Now that’s probably one of those “no shit, Sherlock” statements, and you needn’t be a rocket scientist to surmise that good material is better than bad material, but there’s a lot of work that must take place before you have ANY material to submit. For me, that work is broken down into categories: CREATIVITY, DEDICATION, TIME MANAGEMENT, TEMPERAMENT, and JUDGMENT.
In terms of creativity, there should be no constraints on your work. Writing isn’t a coloring book—no reason to stay within the lines. Anything is possible, and the sooner you realize there are absolutely no boundaries to what you can write and how you can write it, the greater your chances of unlocking your own literary potential. To that end, you need to do two things: read as much as possible, and write as much as possible.
When it comes to reading, I don’t just mean in the genre you intend to work. Sure, that could be your primary area of concentration—and knowing what other authors are doing in your “space” will certainly help you avoid anything that could be considered copycat or “been there, seen that”—but I’d strongly recommend reading work outside your personal area of specialty, perhaps even outside your comfort zone. Your own plot lines, characters, and dialogue will greatly benefit by exposing yourself to the widest variety of literary voices and content imaginable. Just because you’re writing an edge-of-your-seat action/adventure, or a smart, tech-heavy sci-fi/thriller doesn’t mean reading a historical love story or a political satire is without merit. When it comes to writing (and life, really), knowledge is power. The more information you have at your disposal, and the greater your perspective of the world in which you live (past, present, and future), the greater the likelihood that you’ll be able to create something that other people will want to read—and keep reading.
Next comes dedication. This is the big one. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met over the years who tell me about “the great idea they have for a story.” But the number of people who actually follow through on taking time to put that story down on paper or computer screen is infinitesimally small. If it’s your intention to make writing your job, then you need to treat it like a job. Considering most jobs are forty hours a week, that means writing (at least) forty hours a week. Granted, there’s nothing set in stone. And nobody’s gonna put a gun to your head, demanding you park your butt in a chair and tickle your keyboard for a third of a day, five days a week. But if you’re serious about honing your craft… If it’s your honest intent to become a novelist (or a writer of nonfiction books)… The fact remains that those books will not write themselves. You have to prioritize your time. You have to fend off distractions. And you genuinely have to like (scratch that, love) what you’re doing. Believe me, it’ll show up in your work. For if you’re just going through the motions, it’ll be blatantly obvious to anyone who reads the finished product that the author ultimately didn’t believe in the quality of their story.
In the literary profession, one of the primary dedication killers is writer’s block. Like the yips in golf, writer’s block comes on without warning and can last for mere seconds, or for an extended duration. I know of one writer whose writer’s block lasted so long, after delivering two manuscripts on a four-book deal, he was forced to repay half the advance because he completely blanked out on continuing the series—a series that was doing far better than just okay, I might add.
Amazingly, I have never suffered from writer’s block. For that luxury, I credit the incredible tip I received from one of the most famous writers on the planet.
Shortly after moving to Los Angeles in the early 90s, I was having lunch with friends at a trendy chain burger joint—Hamburger Hamlet—in Brentwood, an affluent L.A. suburb that got its claim to fame for all the wrong reasons: namely O.J. Simpson’s butchery of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ron Goldman.
Midway through the meal I excused myself to the bathroom. Standing at the urinal, I discovered my bladder relief neighbor to be none other than the King of Horror, Stephen King.
“Mr. King, I’m a huge fan. I’d shake your hand—”
“Yeah, don’t,” he replied, devoid of a smile.
“Any tips for a fellow scribe?”
“Sure. When you’re getting ready to end your writing session, don’t completely finish the current train of thought. That way, when you start back up, you’ll have something to write immediately and never find yourself in a situation where you’re just staring at a blank page.”
That small kernel of advice has never failed me. So even if I already know the perfect ending to a scene or chapter, I purposely refrain from putting it down if I’m getting ready to call it quits for the night. And in most cases, picking up where I left off in the previous writing session—even if I’ve got only a few sentences left to complete the passage—gave me a running start into the next scene/chapter, or gave me a fresh take on what was previously written. Either way, I wasn’t “joining the fight” unarmed. And believe me, sometimes it is a fight—a fight to get all the voices in your head down on paper before they stop talking. Or at the very least, get their discussion down in an intelligible and cohesive manner that doesn’t leave you wondering if a visit to a mental health professional is required!
Time management is rather easy to explain in this context. As we all know, a day holds twenty-four hours. Whatever time in a day you set aside for writing, you want to be sure those minutes/hours are truly productive. If your hearts not in it—if you sit down to write and find yourself thinking about anything but your story and characters—do yourself a favor and do something else. Handle your chores. Tackle that “honey do” list. Go see a movie. Read a book/script. Hit the gym. But don’t just sit there like a lox, mind spinning, hoping your fingers will work autonomously. It doesn’t work that way. Use your time wisely, and recognize when your “time to write” isn’t the right time.
Next comes temperament. This component of your literary pursuit is as personal as creativity. For me, I can’t write if I’m angry or jacked up about something or, conversely, if I’m too relaxed. Too chill. For example, if I come back from a particularly hard workout or sparring session and, post-shower, I’m just dead-tired (not sleepy but physically or emotionally spent), my mind won’t cooperate. But some people enjoy turning their inner fury or angst or sadness into words on a page. Whether it’s cathartic, or a window into their characters’ souls, if a specific personal demeanor works for you, then by all means try to replicate that mindset each and every time you hunker down to work. For many writers, patterns or routines are a necessity. That doesn’t mean your work has to be formulaic, but if your approach to doing the work benefits from a set schedule or mental melody, hey, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Finally, there’s judgment. In my opinion, this is without question the most difficult aspect of the writing process.
When is your work ready?
When is it good enough?
Do you trust your opinion of your work or do you trust the opinion of others?
These are tough questions to answer. And sadly, there really is no way to answer them.
Speaking from the heart—and from my experiences—when it comes to an honest evaluation of your work, you don’t want “yes men/yes women” in your corner. Totally pointless. In your mom’s eyes, you can do no wrong. She’s probably going to love what you write, no matter what it is. Will she be able to provide you with an accurate assessment of your story’s quality and commercial viability? I doubt it. That’s not saying she can’t, but she’s as biased as biased gets.
Every year on American Idol, there were always disillusioned contestants with voices that sounded like cats being drawn and quartered, vying for a spot on the show because their closest friends and loved ones didn’t have the guts to tell them what they NEEDED to hear: their singing voices simply weren’t good enough to make it in the biz.
Of course, that statement is going to get someone’s hackles up. And that’s okay. Hell, it’s better than okay—it’s awesome! If you truly believe you’ve got what it takes to succeed, even when others are telling you otherwise, damn the torpedoes and press on. That goes back to your self-belief and steadfast desire to prove others wrong—and prove yourself right. To be a successful writer in today’s literary arena, in addition to talent, you need that sort of attitude. You have to adopt a “forge ahead regardless” mentality.
Once again, that’s all part of your judgment.
Now, in terms of paying for opinions from “literary professionals,” this is another one of those danger zone topics. Writers are, by nature, opinionated. And many people in the literary game who offer paid evaluations are—yeesh, here goes—failed writers. Not all, mind you, but many. Don’t throw a noose around my neck, you know what I’m saying is true. If you were writing and selling bestsellers, would you really have the time or the desire (or the need!) to read other people’s work for money?
The point I’m trying to make is that when you pay someone to read and evaluate your work, oftentimes the “professional” you paid feels its now their duty to give you your money’s worth. Even if your manuscript is aces, I seriously doubt they’re going to respond with: “Holy shit! This is freakin’ awesome! I wouldn’t change a goddamn thing!”
No, they’re going to justify your expenditure and send you a few paragraphs (or pages) of commentary on your work.
Once again, these are their opinions, based on their own backgrounds, life experiences, tastes, likes/dislikes… The list goes on.
You need to remember, writing is like art. Everyone who reads your work is going to interpret it—and appreciate it—differently. That’s just the nature of the beast. It’s also what makes the writing game so fun and exciting, and so potentially rewarding on many levels. That’s why the manuscript one agent or publisher rejects gets scooped up in a blink by a different agent or publisher.
Consider John Grisham, one of the most successful authors in history. His book, A Time To Kill, when it was first published, received very little fanfare and sold less than 5,000 copies. But after his breakaway hit, The Firm, Grisham’s newly formed fanbase discovered his prior work, bought the heck out of it, the film rights sold, the movie got made, and today it’s considered one of his greatest works.
There really is no blueprint for success. And no guarantees, either.
Well, actually there is one…
If you have a great story in your head but don’t take the time or effort to share it, I can guarantee you that no one will ever know about it.
Until next time, happy writing.
And happy holidays.