Tag Archives: reading

Five Things a Writer Needs

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!

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Why Read? Good Question

To everyone with aspirations of becoming a writer, let me say this: if I finish my book, and by some incomprehensible miracle manage to get it published, I strongly encourage you to not read it.  That’s right, I said to not read it.  A strange thing to say, and one that must be sending my writer friends into paroxysms of despair as, “there he goes again.”  But this is not defeatism on my part.  It’s an epiphany.

I’m told repeatedly by well-meaning fellow writers that I don’t read enough, that I should read much more, in my genre, out of it, whatever.  That all writers are big readers.  The more I read, they say, the more I see what other writers do, the more it will help my own writing.  That has not been the case.

When I read, what I see above all is case after case of writers doing things I’ve been told I must not do.  And also writers not doing things I’m told I have to do.  So much for leading by example.  Even worse, there’s no consistency.  Every writer does it differently.  Thus, if I read because I want to learn how to improve, for example, my dialogue, I will see one writer do it one way, and another writer do it in effectively the opposite way.  As a result  I learn nothing, except that every writer has a different answer to the same question.  This is why I’m advised not to get too much critique, but then that makes it obvious that it also means not to read too much.

But, you are no doubt saying, it’s okay that they are all different; by looking at what they do, I can then work on developing my own voice.  In other words, study other writers so that I can figure out how I want to do it.  Well, hell, I already know how I want to do it.  I don’t need to read other writers to know that.

But there’s another, even greater impediment to reading: I don’t like the stuff I read.  I have yet to encounter a Young Adult novel recommended to me that is not boring, insipid, offensive or tedious.  Usually more than one of those things.  This should present a problem, right?  As one person told me, “It will be hard for you to write in the genre if you don’t like it.”  And, for a time, I agreed with that, and was quite discouraged and full of self-doubt, wondering what everyone else found so wonderful that I couldn’t see.  But I’ve come to realize that that’s not the case.  I find myself inspired by a different example than Suzanne Collins and J. K. Rowling and that crowd.  I’m inspired by the attitude of one Walter Elias Disney.

As I’ve written before, I’m a Disneyland junkie.  I’ve been going there as long as I can remember.  And I know a great deal about the history of the park, particularly its beginnings.  When Walt set out to build his dream, nobody thought he could do it.  His starting point was his love of small-gauge railroads.  He had one in his backyard and he loved to take his guests, and especially their children, on rides.  And he wanted to go bigger.  He wanted a full-size railroad to ride around.  And he wanted destinations to ride to, with things to do.  Sound familiar?

As he began buying up orange groves in Southern California, and trying to find investors, he kept being told it was a folly, in the literal sense of the word.  It wouldn’t work.  He’d lose his shirt.  Nobody would want to come.  But he’d learned from Snow White not to give up in the face of detractors.  He carried on.

The most interesting criticism from my perspective came from none other than his wife Lillian.  To understand her objection, and his inspirational response to it, we must understand the circumstance of the time. 

In the 1940’s and 50’s, when Walt was putting his ideas together, amusement parks were seedy, fly-by-night operations full of crime and filth, with uncomfortable, unsafe rides, lurid sideshows, and rip-off games run by disreputable carnies.  Not pleasant places, and certainly not somewhere you’d want to take the kids, despite the fact that the attractions were strictly kidstuff.  Aware of this, Lillian asked Walt a key question: “Why do you want to build an amusement park?  They’re such awful, dirty places.”  Walt’s answer showed his full visionary brilliance:  “That’s exactly why I want to build one.”

The implication was clear: amusement parks were terrible, so he wanted to build one that wasn’t.  He wanted a place that was clean and safe, where families could enjoy doing things together, to have fun, to be inspired, maybe to learn something.  The result: Disneyland.

I think of Walt’s words when I note my own struggles to write Young Adult fiction in the face of a genre that I find distinctly uninspiring.  I don’t want to write it for the reason most writers do, because they love it.  I want to write it because I don’t love it, and I want to write something better.  Something that’s good.  Something that I could be proud of.  For that I don’t need to waste time reading stuff I don’t enjoy.  Nor did Walt spend much time visiting carnivals, except to see what mistakes he wanted to correct in his park.  So it shall be for my book. 

Don’t get me wrong; it’s not my intent to just stop reading entirely.  I will read all these books I’ve been given.  That is, I will read the first chapter.  If at that point I feel compelled to continue, then by all means I shall (it has yet to happen, but I live in hope).  If not, then I’m done.  I figure that’s more than an editor will be willing to give my manuscript to make an impression, so it’s entirely reasonable.  If someone says, “Hang in there, it gets great,” I’ll simply respond by asking if I can say that in my query letters.

I will finish my book – and, with luck, the series – and it will be what YA science fiction should be, rather than what it is.  And if you want to be a writer, don’t read it.  Just write your own book.  In the end, that’s the only way to ever have something the way you really want it to be.

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Originality

You’ve probably heard of Thomas Edison.  You know, inventor of the light bulb, phonograph, motion picture and numerous other things for which he gets the credit.  People tend to hold up Edison as a model of dedicated genius.  What a great man, the single-minded, hardworking visionary who persevered until he achieved his goal.  Nothing beats hard work, he would say.  Yes indeed, someone to emulate, a shining example to us all. 

But in fact he really was a model of blind stubbornness.  It’s well documented that he tried hundreds of different combinations of gasses and filaments before finding success with the light bulb.  How inspiring, right?  Not really.  See, a lot of the things he tried had already been tried – and rejected – by others before him.  He would have known that had he studied their works.  But he refused to do so, seeing that as a waste of time, time that should be spent in the lab working.  But it was working pointlessly, and how much time did he waste replicating the failures of others? 

That we see his approach as a cause for pride is a distinctly American perspective, the same one that allows Libertarians to brandish their copies of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, celebrating the individual who owes nothing to anybody. What nonsense.  Nobody works in a vacuum.  Every innovation the modern age knows owes itself to previous innovations by others.  Nikola Tesla built on Edison’s work and was instrumental in the development of alternating current; too bad Edison missed the point and persecuted Tesla mercilessly because AC was more efficient than Edison’s own direct current.  Had Edison been willing to work together with Tesla, how much more innovation might they have brought to the world?  The fact is, we are all in it together.  Sorry, Randians, but that’s not a bad thing.  People working together are a source of strength. 

That’s why I spend time with other writers, seeking their feedback.  I do know writers who are pretty solitary, who rarely show their work to anyone, and certainly not before it’s “ready.”  We believe in the solitary, cloistered writer, pulling ideas whole out of his fertile mind.  But that’s not realistic.  We write for audiences, which means we have to step outside our own heads.  True, getting too many opinions can be overwhelming to the writing process, especially early on, but I gain more from the thoughts of others than I lose.  And I’m confident enough now that I have the ability to decide which advice to apply, and which to reject. 

And the most common bit of advice I get is to read.  Read as much as I can.  Every writer should be a reader.  But there’s the challenge.  The time I take to read is time I don’t spend writing.  It’s frustrating, but it’s worth it, ultimately.  Reading different writers shows me different approaches, ideas to try, strategies to consider, pitfalls to avoid.  This is what I tell my students, though they aren’t writing fiction.  I have them read a great deal of material.  And I tell them something that’s revolutionary for a classroom setting: it’s not all necessarily good.  Just because it’s in a book doesn’t make it an example of successful writing.  There may well be things the writer does that the students can learn to avoid.

Then there’s the reality that one student may like a particular piece, and another may hate it.  One isn’t “right” over the other.  Rather, they are seeing that different writers are effective for different readers.  By reading many different writers, they see many approaches they can try as they go through the process of finding their own voices.

I must do the same, and read many things.  That’s a relief, because the prospect of immersing myself entirely in Young Adult Science Fiction is a bit discouraging.  There’s a lot there that I don’t much care for.  Maybe that’s bad.  Surely if I want to write it I should love it.  But maybe my goal is different, and really what I want to do is write something better than the stuff I don’t like.  Try to improve on it.

I still have to read it to do that.  Doing so will also give me a good sense of what’s already been done, so that I avoid doing something unintentionally derivative.  Or worse, being accused of plagiarism simply because I wasn’t well-enough read to have found something that’s a lot like what I’m doing.

Actually, I’ve already encountered books with very similar elements to what I’m writing.  Twice, at least.  Initially I found that pretty discouraging, and wondered if there was any point of continuing.  But I was reminded of what I tell my students: few of them will ever create something truly original.  That’s just reality.  If it’s possible to do, it’s probably been done.  So the objective is to do something that may have already been done, but to do it in a new, better way than it’s been done before.  As one person told me, if my book is similar to something already out there, the people who liked that one will be interested in reading mine precisely because it is similar.  As long as it’s creative and engaging, I’m fine.

So, again, the key is to read.  If I encounter another writer doing something that reflects on what I’m doing, no one says I should throw my hands up in despair.  And they certainly don’t suggest I stop reading.  In the end it’s all different ways of broadening my horizons.  We all can learn from each other, even from the people with whom we disagree.

And I guess that means I can still benefit from reading YA books that I don’t like.  Even with a book I hate, perhaps I’ll find something that turns on a light in my own writing.  Let’s just hope it’s not a bulb that was already tried and rejected before I even got started.

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