So Ya Wanna Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star… Writer?
by G.D. Maxwell
More frequently than is comfortable, people ask me how they can become a writer, which is to say, make some money, if not a living, writing. My first response is always the same. “Are you nuts?”
If they answer no, or worse still, take offence, I tell them to forget it. You have to be nuts to want to be a writer!
Consider: A recent survey of Canadian writers show they’re making 27% less from their writing than they were making in 1998. And almost half of them said they were working harder to earn even that amount.
Consider: An Authors Guild survey in the U.S. showed member’s income had dropped 24% in five years… to somewhere south of the poverty line.
Consider: A survey of 2,500 UK writers last year discovered their income had fallen 29% since 2005.
But fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly and, apparently, writers gotta write. So if those dismal numbers don’t have wannabe writers mumbling, “You want fries with that?”, here’s my best advice.
1. If you’re ever in a writing class, seminar or retreat and the person leading is says, “Write what you know,” demand your money back and leave immediately. That person is not your friend. Let’s be honest; how much do you know? Exactly. Pretty slim pickin’s.
Do you really think Arthur C. Clarke knew much about alien visitation or space travel when he penned 2001: A Space Odyssey? Contrary to popular belief, Margaret Mitchell did not live through the Civil War before she wrote Gone With the Wind. Library shelves would be bare if writers wrote what they knew, so unless you’re planning to make a career writing ‘How-To’ books, don’t even think of writing what you know.
Write what you can imagine. Otherwise you’re going to run out of things to write pretty fast.
2. Follow your head, not your heart. That is to say, listen to the voices in your head. If you don’t have any, you’ll never be a writer. Those voices have the best ideas and, if you eavesdrop and pay attention, they write the best dialog you’ll ever steal. Oh, and once you start listening to them, don’t delude yourself into thinking you can control them. Just sit back and let them do the work.
3. Find your voice. Easy, eh? Guess again. The writer’s toolbox is a spare collection of grammar and punctuation. And the good stuff is hidden under a lot of rules you may recall from earlier brushes with English Composition, many of which you’re going to have to toss away to become a successful writer… like not beginning sentences with conjunctions, for example.
This isn’t to say you can chuck out the rules of grammar and punctuation willy-nilly. You have to know them cold to understand which you can ignore and which you can’t. Especially punctuation! Punctuation is almost all you have to make what you write sound — to a reader — like something you might actually say. Punctuation makes or breaks cadence; it creates subtle inflection; it establishes tone. In other words, all those elements that establish voice.
4. “You have to read to write.” Well, maybe, maybe not. Read for entertainment. Read to discover the mechanics of how good writers do certain things — create metaphors that simplify complex ideas, for example — in the same way you might study a magician’s tricks. But don’t read what other writers have written about something you’re going to tackle. It’s impossible to not be influenced and it’s what keeps copyright lawyers in business.
5. Ask impossibly beautiful people to have sex with you. It’s the quickest way I know to learn about dealing with rejection.
6. Lower your expectations.
8. But never lists.
G.D. Maxwell is a local writer, through no fault of his own. Guided by the voices in his head, he’s scratched out a living writing on subjects he knows little about. He is inured to rejection.
As published in Pique Newsmagazine