To Be a Writer

By Maeve Maddox

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There’s a saying that “everyone has a book in him.” Since self-publishing has become so easy, quite a few people seem to be trying to expel it.

During the month of November, hundreds of thousands of people signed up to write a novel during NaNoWriMo.

The annual ritual of National Novel Writing Month began in 1999 with 21 participants, six of whom finished the challenge of writing a manuscript of 50,000 words. In 2018 (the last year I’ve found stats for), 450,000 people signed up; 53,000 of them completed the challenge. How many of those produced a publishable novel is another question.

As the Good Book says, many are called, but few are chosen.

Several weeks ago, I received an email from a man who said that, because of a disability, he was “unable to work,” and had “decided to buckle down and actually start writing.” He said that he had long had a dream of writing a particular kind of novel and wanted to “finally make that dream a reality.” But, he wrote, “The only problem is, I don’t know where to start or how to even begin to write a book.”

I responded by saying that where to begin all depended upon where he was starting from. I offered some generalities and asked for a few details about his previous reading and writing experience so I could make some practical suggestions. Never heard back.

Yes, everyone’s life can provide the material for a book, but not everyone has what it takes to write one.

Free advice to writers is plentiful on line:

• Keep a daily writing habit. …
• Read diligently. …
• Take writing classes. …
• Join a writing group. …
• Keep reference books handy. …
• Write in a variety of forms. …
• Learn the rules. …
• Outline before you write.

Then there are the paid services whose purpose is to sell the idea that all one needs to achieve the dream of becoming a best-selling author (the only kind of writer anyone dreams about becoming) is their product:

Have you always wanted to be a writer? Don’t let doubt or fear get the best of you—take a chance and learn how to start writing a book, novel, short story, memoir, or essay.

True, the basics of writing can be taught.

Anyone can learn to write a workman-like product description, instruction manual, news story, or opinion piece. But a whole book? Especially, a novel that will draw a reader into a fictional dream filled with memorable characters living exciting, frightening, interesting, lives?

Writing a novel is HARD. Not everyone who wants to write one and even begins writing one is able to finish it.

Lack of talent is not the greatest obstacle to completing a book. Brian A. Klems says it all in his charming essay, “7 Reasons Writing a Book Makes You a Badass.”

Many people don’t write a book because it’s extremely hard. Forcing yourself to sit down, brainstorm, write, edit, rewrite, edit, cut, add, rewrite, workshop, rewrite, and rewrite some more until you’ve got somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 words is grueling work. (Writer’s Digest, May 18, 2015)

The best advice is “Know Thyself.” Are you tenacious of purpose? Can you eschew TV and human company for many hours at a time? These are characteristics you will need to possess—in addition to a broad reading background and competency with standard English.

Some years ago, another aspiring writer emailed me about his plans to write. As I recall, the request for advice began something like, “I don’t read much, but I want to write a book.”

The best writers read plenty. Many of them, when they become famous, write books about why and how they write and how they found their calling. Here is a short list of books about writing that can help an aspiring writer get a good idea of what it means “to be a writer.”

Margaret Atwood Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on writing
John Gardner On Becoming a Novelist
Elizabeth George Write Away
Stephen King On Writing
Anne LaMott Bird by Bird
Ursula K. LeGuin Conversations on Writing

Writing a novel is not for the faint of heart.


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