How to be a Writer

One of the keys to becoming a writer is first to be a reader. I don’t think I would have ever thought of writing for a living if I hadn’t been an avid reader. My mom would read stories to me all the time when I was very young, and once I was reading on my own, we made nearly weekly trips to the library to get books. I remember coming home with stacks and consuming them all within the week. Rather than watching television, I would read. It is a pattern that continues until today. When given the option, I would rather read than watch television, despite my enjoyment of much that appears on the SyFy channel.

Another important part of my development as a writer was very practical: I learned to type as soon as I could, which in my case happened to be in junior high—eighth grade to be specific. Although voice recognition technology has improved tremendously, and I know one author who, because of her partial blindness, uses it to do her writing—typing remains the input method of choice at the moment for most authors. Some enjoy using a tape recorder to record a book, but of course that then requires someone later to transcribe the material. There are even a handful of authors who enjoy writing the first drafts out in longhand, using pen on paper as authors did for most of the history of writing. Neal Stephenson, the science fiction author best known for Snow Crash, Cryptonomicon and the three volume Baroque Cycle, still favors that method. But most authors type their work, using a word processor. Harlan Ellison still insists on using a typewriter, a surprising thing for a science fiction author, unless you happen to know Harlan, who defines idiosyncratic.

Then there is the writing itself: Jerry Pournelle points out that an aspiring writer should plan on throwing away about a million words. This is not masochism, but simply the nature of learning how to write. It is one thing to have read extensively, it is another thing to start putting into practice what you’ve seen. It will take awhile to get to the place with your writing that anyone else will want to read what you’ve put down. Or enjoy it.

To be a successful writer, you’ll also need to develop self-discipline, along with drive, determination, and perseverance. Most writers face constant rejection of their work, especially at the beginning of their careers. It can take years of work before you start seeing any payoff and if you are easily discouraged, if you don’t believe in yourself, then you simply won’t make it. Steel yourself to long years of struggling with nothing but a stack of form letters from editors telling you “no.” Also, if you have dreams of becoming rich from writing, you should abandon that immediately. Very few authors ever become wealthy; most struggle on the edge of bankruptcy instead. You have to decide to write because it is something you need to do, not because you imagine it is a road to financial well-being.

Due to the years of, well, failure that you’ll likely have to endure, it is important that you either have a day job (or night job) to keep a roof over your head and power going to your computer—or else that you have a patient and loving spouse who is gainfully employed and who is willing to support your odd career choice. Tied to this, you need to be willing to put up with the derision or even hostility of acquaintances and relatives who will not think your choice is a good one, since it is clearly not a wise choice, if wise is defined as “likely to lead to making money on a regular basis.”

Once you do start finding publication, you’ll still have to endure rejection. Just because you’ve sold one book doesn’t mean other editors will be accept your next effort. Additionally, those who criticized your path will not be that impressed by the fact that you sold a book, especially when they learn how much you actually got paid for it. Although the popular belief that authors are wealthy people may work to your advantage for awhile, once your relatives see that you’re still driving the same five year old car and have yet to move to the Hamptons, they’ll start to suspect the truth.

Also, even if you manage to sell a book to a major New York publisher, the equivalent of landing a spot on a major league baseball team, your friends and relatives will not be as impressed about it as you are. People will not like you more or pay attention to you more just because you published a book. Since, you’re not a major league baseball player, after all.

Finally, being a writer requires recognizing that writing is no different than doing any other sort of job. You have to get up in the morning and start working, cranking out the text. Waiting for inspiration or the muse might be the fodder of movies and bad TV, but is not a part of a working writer’s experience. If you wait for inspiration you won’t get much written. If you’re a writer, you write, much in the same way that a ditch digger digs.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm a deacon at Quartz Hill Community Church. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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