So You Wanna Be a Writer—Part 4 by Adam Rocke
Happy New Year! (For the record, that wish extends to everyone, not just writers!)
For writers, the start of a new year is the ultimate blank page,a page you’re free to fill with everything you hope to—or better yet, fully intend to—accomplish in the coming days/weeks/months. For example…
This is the year I get published.
This is the year I write that novel I’ve been thinking about forever.
This is the year I get an agent.
This is the year I sell a screenplay.
Now saying you’re going to do something and actually doing it are two very different kettles of fish, especially when it comes to an accomplishment that is heavily dependent on second party assistance (getting published, selling a script, securing an agent—all require someone to say YES!). But the best part about New Year’s resolutions is steeling yourself to the task, and summoning the effort to bring that personal challenge to fruition. For me, fulfilling promises to myself has always been far better than publishing deal advances or royalty checks. Literary achievements should never be just about the money, even though many do involve a hefty paycheck. Literary achievements are the “end game magic” that began with the blank page where your creativity, time, and effort transformed nothing into something. And the words you write and set free upon the world will be around long after you’re gone. Not to get all philosophical on you, but when it comes to an endearing legacy, it’s hard to beat a good story—and the storyteller behind that story is a name you’ll never forget.
But if it’s money that’s motivating your literary endeavors—and there’s certainly no shame in that—this will definitely bring a smile to your face. A former literary manager of mine had a very astute saying: Talented writers have the unique ability to write themselves out of poverty.
Harry Potter’s real mum, the incomparable J.K. Rowling, proved that point in spades. Novelist Steve Alten lost his job as a general manager at a wholesale meat plant, then sold his car to pay for editing fees to get his first novel into shape. Shortly thereafter he had a two-book, seven-figure deal; Meg went on to become an international bestseller and the movie—directed by John Turteltaub, and starring Jason Statham and Ruby Rose—is due out later this year. Those are but two of the many rags-to-riches, words-to-wealth success stories. I’ll raise a glass to your name being the next on that illustrious list.
But to make that unpublished-to-unstoppable transition happen, you need to write. And to write, you really have to live. You have to experience the world around you in all its splendor and glory—and oftentimes its ugly vagaries, as well. (After all, Superman needs Lex Luthor. And Batman needs the Joker.) What I’m saying is, while you could easily stay in the comfort and safety of your home and Google Search until your fingers bleed, that lack of five-senses personal experience will definitely show up in your writing. Trust me on this—somewhere along the way, your story, characters, or dialogue will suffer.
Now that’s not saying you need to go hunt poachers on Africa, or ride elephants in Thailand, or swim with great white sharks in the vicinity of Guadalupe Island. Hey, if you can—more power to you. But not everyone has the desire or financial capability to engage in international adventure travel. And guess what? No worries!
Explore the happenings in your own neighborhood. Learn what makes your zip code tick. Get to know the people who live in your immediate orbit, even if it’s just a surface discovery of who they are, what they do and how they do it. Talk to local firefighters and police officers—get familiar with their lingo and mannerisms. Observe a busy restaurant in action; try to listen as other patrons compliment and complain about their meals, and see how the restaurant’s staff handles the interaction. Spend a few hours in the waiting room of a hospital emergency room (granted, that one could be a bit ghastly, but if you ever decide to write something in the horror genre, your observations could turn an “okay” manuscript into a bestselling page-turner). Go to your local bakery pre-dawn, when the fresh baked goods are just coming out of the oven. Remember those smells and put them to words. Visit an automobile dealership and go through the new car buying process, even if you have no intention of buying one. Listen to the salesperson’s pitch, and file those lines and anecdotes away for future use. Next time a telemarketer calls you, listen to what they have to say. See how hard they’re willing to work to make a deal and use their moxie for any of your characters that need similar traits. But don’t stop there—make a day (or a week!) of checking out every retail or service store in and around your neighborhood. Get eyes and ears on how the sales clerks and customer service reps deal with potential customers. Come up with a short line of questions—think intelligence gathering, not interrogation—and fill a notebook (or notebooks) with their answers and your overviews of those interactions. A character reference library chock full of relevant and tangible intel that you can rely on to flesh out and enhance the characters you will create over the course of your literary pursuits is an invaluable tool, and something every writer should have at their disposal.
Yes, writing is most assuredly a solitary pursuit that relies on serious “in the seat time” to crank out anything of substance and merit, but squirreling yourself away in some plush cave to hide from the world and rely on the Internet to do all your research is a tactic that might work well for convenience, but will not do you any favors in the long run.
Seeing pictures of the Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls simply cannot compare to taking in the depth and breadth of their majesty up close and personal. Ditto for animals of every genus and species. Granted, jetting off to the Australian outback or the Costa Rican rainforest might prove difficult if not impossible, but what about visiting the zoo or the aquarium? Some in-the-flesh visualization is better than no direct/semi-direct contact.
If money is tight, avail yourself of any free activities your neighborhood, hamlet, village, or city has to offer. Many martial arts studios, boxing gyms, fitness centres, art studios, snorkeling and dive clubs, dance studios, and a massive assortment of other pastimes offer a “First Lesson Free” promotion to attract new clients. Even if you have no desire to stick with the classes, if you ever find yourself writing about a character or storyline that’s in any way involved with that particular sport or hobby, having participated personally, you’ll have a much better understanding of that amusement’s inner-workings than if you simply watched a YouTube video.
Bottom line: don’t use the excuse of being a writer to dedicate all your time to writing. There is an old saying: the devil is in the details. The best way to convey the finest of details to your readers is to live them!
Until next time, happy New Year and happy writing!