I’m trying to write a novel. I guess by definition that makes me a writer. I’m not an author, and may never be one. But in the time I’ve been doing this, I’ve learned a few things that don’t come up in my composition classes. So here are the five essential things a writer must have to be successful.
Youth This cannot be underestimated. Writing is very hard. It takes time, it’s mentally and emotionally draining, and, ultimately, the odds are very long against success. It takes years for a writer to get a break. You write a book, which takes a year or two, then you revise, a couple more years. Then you query it, and, after months, or, again, years, you have nothing to show but a pile of politely worded rejection letters. So you start over. You’ve written another book. You query this one around. Again, nothing but rejection. This process continues. Maybe, just maybe, you get a bite on your third or fourth book. But it is plain fact that nobody sells their first book. Ever. So if you want to be a writer, understand that it will take you years to get anywhere. And a lot of energy, which ebbs as you age. The bottom line is, if you haven’t started the writer’s journey before you hit thirty, it’s too late. It will take more out of you than you have. Yes, there are “late bloomers,” writers who had their first success in their fifties (or later), but that merely proves the point. They had been writing for decades. That’s how long it takes.
An appetite for reading You can’t cook if you don’t like to eat. You can’t write if you don’t like to read. All writers read. For every book you write, you must read five hundred. If you are reading anything less than two full books each week, you aren’t going to make it. Ideally you should be able to read an entire book in a single evening. It doesn’t matter whether the books are any good (most aren’t). Your book needs to stand out, and it will only do that if you have familiarized yourself with every single plotline, character arc and action beat that’s already been written, so that you don’t repeat them. You need to see how other writers do it. Now, I don’t mean by this that you learn good prose by reading. As I said, most books are crap. And even the good ones vary so wildly in style that it is impossible to learn anything concrete. One book will make clear you must write a certain way, and another will tell you the exact opposite. Of course, you can only write your way. But you won’t be motivated to do so without immersing yourself in what others have done, so as to be filled with a burning desire to be just like them.
Tremendous self-confidence This, too, is vital. Give writers a chance and they will happily spend hours telling you all about themselves, their struggles, their triumphs, their failures, their breakfast. They write books about writing books. They go on talk shows and radio interviews and to readings and lectures and signings and workshops, and they boast their accomplishments at every opportunity. Sounds like I’m down on writers as egotistical jerks, right? No. This is what it takes. Successful writers are relentless self-promoters. They have to be. It’s not how good you are, it’s how good they think you are It doesn’t matter how creative, original, insightful and beautiful your book is, nobody will read it if you haven’t convinced them it’s the best book ever, and, more importantly, that you are the best writer ever. And this is much easier to do if you believe it. All successful writers do. Another reason for that big ego: those rejections I mentioned. They hurt, every time. You have to be so certain of your greatness that you know the only possible reason that editor rejected your manuscript is because he’s a clueless idiot. You have to be convinced that the next one will be smart enough to see what’s already obvious to you: how unbelievably awesome you are.
A supportive, understanding spouse Most writers are crazy. They are solitary, introverted people who don’t interact much with others. Wait a minute, doesn’t that contradict what I just said? No, because I don’t mean it the way it sounds. The writer’s muse is fickle and cannot be put on retainer. When an idea hits, it must be put down and developed or it will be lost forever. True, something nearly as good will take its place, but that one spark is gone. This can happen at any time, and when the ideas are flowing, they must be let to flow, because other times there won’t be any ideas at all, which is agonizing. The great enemy of this process is a spouse who does not understand, who sees you staring motionless at the computer screen and thinks, “He’s not doing anything, so this is a good time to talk about refinancing the mortgage.” Your spouse must understand that, yes, your silly little story is in fact infinitely more important than the lousy orchestra rehearsal she had last night. Your spouse must be able to see the signs, to know the first time you grunt incoherently when she asks a question, that she should not then come into the room five more times in a space of fifteen minutes to share every random thought that pops into her head. In short, your spouse must respect you and your writing, must believe in you so much that she doesn’t take it personally when you say you don’t care whether she puts cucumbers in the salad, because, at that moment, you really don’t care. Such a spouse is hard to come by. That’s why most writers are solitary.
Financial stability The starving artist is sort of a myth. Writing, as I said, takes time and energy. You need to be able to focus on it. You can’t do this if you are the primary (or sole) breadwinner in your household. If you have a job that eats up your time, you won’t have time to write. Every time you do sit down to write, you will remember that deadline from your job. Even worse is when your job involves writing. You just won’t want to write when that’s what you just did all day. And then there’s all the other things you have to do as a writer. There are conferences to attend, which charge hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars for you to sit and listen to some writer talk about how great he is. That doesn’t include travel and accommodations. And your bar tab will also increase. Okay, perhaps not. But the point is you need to have a lot of money that you don’t actually have to spend time earning. A high-paying job you never have to show up to, like the women on Sex and the City. But that’s fantasy. The only hope for you, of course, is another source of income. A spouse who pays the bills (but doesn’t intrude on your writing time). A hefty inheritance would be nice. Best of all is to be a successful writer, so that you earn your living by writing. Catch-22.
Luck Okay, I lied, there are actually six things you need. The first five are indeed essential, and if you lack even one then failure is assured. But none of them actually matter as much as this. Indeed, really, this is the only determiner of success and failure. You can have all of those things and still fail, while someone else who is no better than you grabs the brass ring. Why? Luck. Sure, it helps to know the right people, which is why most successful writers these days already had careers in publishing and media. But, in the end, it’s a matter of your manuscript falling on the right editor’s desk, on the right day, at the right time, in the right place in the pile. The odds of that are long against you, and there is absolutely nothing you can do to change that. You just have to keep writing and try. Or you can play the lottery; your chances of winning are significantly higher than your chances of getting published. Good luck!