Sunday, March 27, 2011

Day 8 - A Note on Becoming a "Real Writer"

Yesterday a reader left a comment that I think opens up a very important idea, one that has meaning to all writers trying to get started, established or even paid. The comment had to do with being a “real writer.”

I think everyone who writes runs into this idea, and I think they run into it more than once in their journey to becoming “real.” Because this project of mine, this self-publication adventure, has so much to do with trying to discover what being a “real writer” means, I decided that I would examine that idea with this entry in my blog.

What is a “real writer?”

When we are young—we being those who write or want to—we want to be like the great authors of our favorite stories. We want to be writers. Real ones. For me, it was Edgar Rice Burrows, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Phillip Jose Farmer. Those were “real writers.” What being a real writer meant to me back then was getting to make stories all the time, getting to live in an adventurous world of imagination that almost never stopped. It was all fun. Back then I’d never even heard of “editing” or “publishing.” Those were non words. Concepts that did not exist. Back then “writing” meant dreaming onto a page.

I don’t imagine it is a whole lot different for other writers. Perhaps it is, but I should think, being how similar we all really are—the predictable, emoting, ape-descendent us—that the only real difference is the images in the dreams.

Eventually, if that dream-writing desire holds, we get older and find out that writing takes discipline too. We discover that wanting to write is not the same as being able to. And being able to write is not the same as doing it well. At least that's what I discovered. That is the lesson I got with my first and second novels, particularly my second (the rejection of which I wrote about in the entry on Day 1). That discovery is the point when we, or at least I, run aground of a different understanding of what it is to be a “real writer.”

Being a “real writer” quickly transformed from something nebulous and dreamy to something precise. Someone who got books published. And to do that, that someone had to be able to write in a way that some other person recognized the work as “real” writing. That's tough. Nobody wants to be judged, and nobody wants his or her fate in the hands of someone else. But that's how it works, or at least how brick and mortar publishing works. Which means, we have two choices. Make lots of grumbly noises and rely on our friends to keep telling us how good we are while we continue to hang rejection letters (or just stop sending at all), or we can get to work on our craft.

Developing craft is how we hedge our bets when it comes to getting access to distribution for our work. That can be a brick and mortar publisher, or that can be word of mouth on something we publish for ourselves. Ideally, I think most of us would like to get a brick and mortar deal.

So, here’s where it gets sticky. We all know that critics and editors don’t get it right all the time. And it’s not me squeezing sour grapes. Just read stuff that's out there. There are tons of horrific books, terrible magazine articles, movies that are so stupendously unwatchable… all things that have been published or produced, vetted by “experts” who have the official role of editors, publishers, producers etc., and are supposed to know what “good” is. Sometimes they do. Sometimes they don’t. They probably do more than they don’t. But regardless, we, the writers, have no control over them, their skills, or their perspicacity.

What we do have control over is us. That's how we improve our odds. We have to make sure our writing is as good as it can be. A lot of people self publishing right now are NOT doing this. Since I started on this project, I have looked at many, and they are not good. And this is not me being harsh or elitist. It’s a fact. A self-published book that has typos on the back cover is inexcusable. And yes, I’ve seen that. I’ve seen worse.

Which leads back to the point I want to make: craft matters. Being a real writer may or may not have anything to do with being published. But if it does have to do with that, I think it first has to do with how beautiful the language is. How good it is.

To be a real writer, I think we must all strive to perfect our craft. And yes, I just said “perfect.” As soon as we read the word, we all know that’s never going to happen. But that’s my point. We must strive for it. Always.

To be a “real writer,” at least for me at this point of my writing career, the thing that makes me “real” or not is my pursuit of craft. It’s learning and reading and the brutal discipline of going back over and over and over looking for tiny flaws in the surface or the framework of what I have made. It’s about finding different lenses to view revisions: lenses of place, of character, of voice, of sensory appeal, of overarching metaphors, of grammar… of lots of things. That’s my battle currently. I want to get it right… as in beautiful, engaging, rhythmic. All of that. I pluck adjectives and adverbs from my stories like a monkey picking nits from its troop mate. I read poetry (make myself read it, because I’m not really into it that much), so I can see what the “right” noun and the “right” verb really look like.  I’m trying to absorb the greatness of so many amazing, immortal writers who came before me, before us.  Trying to soak up some of what they knew how to do, just some tiny glob of it… please! For me, that’s what I have to do before I can call myself a “real writer.” I have to keep trying to get better—we have to. All of us who write. If we ever think, “Hey, I’m a real writer now,” because we have X-number of subscribers or Y-number of books, and we use that as our excuse to stop improving, we won’t be “real writers” any more. We’ll be ex real writers, or never were’s.

So, that said, I think what it really means to be a “real writer” is that. It’s to read and to write continuously, striving to improve, caring and having the discipline to make beauty out of words, beauty of language from which others can find the entrance into your dreams, your imaginary worlds, and enjoy them with you. That’s being a real writer. Hopefully from there, editors and publishers somewhere will see and help spread that joy around. But the one must come before the other. Or at least it should.


  1. OK now that you've knocked that hornet's nest down and are contemplating what it all means, I would suggest, um, don't forget to run like hell!

    No, seriously, I see a major disconnect between writing ('real' writing) and money. Lots of bad writing makes good money. On the other hand, many famous writers died in poverty. A few famous writers made decent money before they croaked.

    This doesn't mean that if you are poor you are automatically a 'real' writer--it just means there's no rational relationship between art and money. It's totally irrational. If you try to figure it out you'll go nuts.

    This popular notion that great writing is rewarded quickly and fairly with big bucks seems so obviously delusional that it's hard to understand why it persists.

    I always think of it this way: If you write because you have to, because you do, no matter what, you're probably a real writer. If you write for attention, money, or as an excuse not to work a crap job, you're probably in for some pain.

    Anyway, writing itself is not 'real'. It's a symbolic activity most often favored by deeply neurotic persons, addicts, and drunks. As Brendan Behan put it, "I'm a drinker with a writing problem." Yeah.

    I never understand why anyone 'wants to be writer.' In a lot of ways, it's more of an affliction than a gift. Sorry for babbling. Always enjoy your thoughts.

  2. Lots to think about in that page there.

  3. Pam, I completely agree with you. Writers have to write. It just comes out. I was recently asked by a friend who found out I'm editing and revising a new novel, "OMG, you wrote ANOTHER novel? How do you do that?"

    My answer to her was, "How do I not?" I can procrastinate stories, just keep honing an outline, but at some point, they just want to come out so bad I can't help it. It's just the only thing I can think about until I finally just start.

    And I also think you are spot on about money and great writing not having a necessary relationship. They clearly don't, as you pointed out. Which is a shame. None the less, at least for me, just because I want to write, because I enjoy it (and because I'm going to do it whether I want to or not lol), I still think that nobody writes in a vacuum.

    I don't believe anyone sits down in front of a computer or a type writer or note pad, pours hours and hours of themselves onto the page for years and years in hopes of it never being read. And while I can't prove that, and while there may be some who are like that, I just don't think that there's many who truly want their work to never be seen. Who never want anyone to meet the wonderful characters they have lovingly created, meticulously revised and painstakingly plotted through. I don't think there are many, or, I suppose I can only speak for me, but I know that I am sad to think that Altin and Orli, the two main characters of my book, might never live a life beyond my mind. Their struggles, their suffering, their joys ought to be lived by more than just me.

    I didn't write them for you, or for some editor, or for any number of readers with credit cards they can have on file at I wrote them because I care about them, because I wanted to give them life, and a universe to be in. I wanted to give them love.

    But I want you to read it too. I want everyone to. They are part of me, like family. And I don't want them to be alone.

    Now look, I get that sounds romantic or drippy, and maybe it is. And I don't mope around lamenting the isolation of these fictional people. But I think you get my point.

    That's all. :)

    Thank you for a wonderfully insightful and excellent comment. Your mind rocks, and I'm glad to think I might have an opportunity to watch it more often again.

    @ Michele, you're right. And, thanks to you for it. :)

  4. You know, it's funny. I've had to write for years - and I mean HAD to as in there was something that made me do it whether I wanted to or not. It's only recently that I've started writing where anyone else was able to see it. It's all about there being a story that HAS to be told. But, the more I write, and the more I read, the scarier the whole gig gets.

    I recently wrote an article about some of the things I struggle with as a writer, and by the end I couldn't help but ask myself, "If you were really a writer, would you struggle with all this crap?"

    In the end, I have something in me that HAS to come out - and it will only come out in writing. I have been given a gift - a story to tell that's meant to be told, by me. I AM honing a craft. I AM trying to be a GOOD writer, not just slap out another cheesy teen vampire novel and rake in some cash. I'm learning from the experts as I go. BUT, I know a secret now that maybe others haven't figured out yet. Dolly Parton said a zillion years ago, "It takes a lot of money to look this cheap." I think the same goes for writing. It takes a LOT OF WORK to make beautiful writing look effortless. I have some tools, I'll get some more, and I'll put in the work.

    Guess that's the part of becoming a "real writer" that too many of us try to go around, rather than through. Funny how inspiration comes from sources you'd never expect. Thanks.

  5. As a new guy on the block I got a lot out of reading this article. I found it to be interesting and informative. Thanks John.
    I also want to thank you for accepting my friend request.

  6. Michele, it's good that you are willing to look at the fear part of writing. Writing does require courage. First, if you're putting it out there to be read, you are letting others see you, analyze you. But more, when you start making art, you risk something even scarier, and that is seeing yourself. Who isn't petrified by that idea? But pushing through it as you say, all of it, the learning craft, the finding the story, the real one, all of it, I think makes us whole. As Pam suggested and we all agree, as a writer, you just have to do it.


    @ Cybersupe, you're welcome, and I'm glad you're finding something you can use here. That is my hope in doing it, and it's made all the better with great comments from people.

  7. Expound on something for me, please? What did you mean about reading poetry to see what the "right" noun or the "right" verb looks like?

  8. Alright, Michele. So what I meant by that is that poets must consider every word very carefully. There's not a lot of room in a poem, so poets are the stingiest about their diction. The reason that matters to prose writers (to any writer really, in my opinion, copy writers or anything else), is that people don't want to read words, they want to read meaning. So, if we don't use the right nouns and verbs, we have to use adjectives and adverbs to make up for our lazy writing. You may recall I made comment somewhere about plucking out adjectives and adverbs like knits on a monkey or some such in one of these blog posts. That was on the same note. Here's an example I use a lot. Let's start with a basic sentence:

    The dog barks.

    Simple and to the point, right? Then in school they taught us to embellish that sentence to make it more interesting:

    The big dog barks loudly.

    So, that's fine, it's more descriptive. This is where most people stop developing their writing. Some will push it further as they try to develop their creative writing:

    The big scary dog barks very loudly.

    Now we're really getting somewhere we think. This is where a lot of self-published writers are actually are today. (Yes, this is a very basic example but I think you'll see what I mean in a moment.)

    So, your question about the RIGHT noun and the RIGHT verb comes into play here. A poet, or someone who has studied the economy of language from them, will not keep slapping adjectives and adverbs into that sentence. Instead, they will look for a better noun and a better verb so that they don't need any adjectives or adverbs at all:

    The Rottweiler raged.

    Now we are back to the original sentence length, but by chosing the RIGHT verb and noun, we don't need any adjectives or adverbs at all. Not only do we have economy of language, we have a much more descriptive and sensory sentence that the one with all the extra words. Now we can see the dog, we know its colors, its size, and we can see it doing it's scary thing clearly in our minds. That’s poetry.

    At this point, if we decide to add an adjective or adverb, it should only be to add more depth to the story:

    The abandoned Rottweiler raged.
    The pregnant Rottweiler raged.

    Stuff like that. Now the adjectives are doing some work for the story, giving us insight not so much about the dog, but about the dog’s circumstance.

    I know this was long. I hope it helps.

  9. It helps. I figured it had something to do with poetry often being restrictive in terms of length, syllables, and such - simply having to say it in as concise a manner as possible. I wanted to be sure that I understood it as you meant it. Ugh. I'm the queen of the cursed adverb. I've been trying to get away from it as much as I could after reading a couple of your pieces. Hell of a lot harder than it looks.

  10. And, it goes right along with your admonition to not let your language be an accident. Hmmmm.

  11. Well, here's the thing: this sort of writing doesn't happen on the first draft. At least not any time soon. I know I don't hit this with my first drafts, at least not everywhere. Although I have gotten better.

    So, rather than curse yourself for using them, look at it this way: Adverbs and adjectives ARE easy to find. Let them serve as sign posts to help you when you REVISE your drafts. YOu draft to get the story out. You revise to make art (or good copy or whatever). So, look for these things as signals for weak nouns and verbs. Fix them, then pepper back in the perfect adjectives/adverbs to really put beauty in.

    Go read Wilfred Owen's "Dulce Et Decorum Est." I know it's brutal but it's one of the most amazing examples of how this works in practice.

  12. I'm looking it up on the Chicago Public Library site as we speak.

  13. Like I say, it's kind of brutal, but if you spend the time to go through every line of that, carefully, slowly, and think about every choice he makes, and why he chose it, you will come out a better writer on the other side.

  14. Okay. Can I just tell you this book is bloody HARD to find. Ugh.

  15. Not to look like a complete idiot in front of the world - I know, too late - but is this a SINGLE poem I'm searching for or a collection?

    Yes, you may sardonically abuse me now if you must. ;)

  16. LOL. A poem. Incase you didn't find it, and for anyone who might wander in and be curious, here's a link to it.

  17. Oddly enough, I did find it and right at that very place!

    Thank you. Yes, I'm blond. I can't help heredity, you know. Sheesh.