Born To Write
At a recent writers’ retreat, a question was raised, ‘Do you have to be born a writer to become a successful writer?’
Thankfully, the answer was a resounding, ‘No!’
Just as some people are born with a high IQ, or the looks of a Supermodel, some people are born with the traits necessary to become a great writer. Children who read chapter books before they enter Pre-school for example, or who are always telling stories to their toys, or who write grammatically correct stories only months after learning to spell their names.
But this doesn’t mean they’re the ones born for greatness. There are also plenty of people out there who, having discovered their love for writing, create and learn the skills to get them to where they want to go.
The Novelist and the Brain Surgeon
Some people consider that it’s no great deal to get a story or article published. They believe that, so long as they have a basic grasp of the English language, some free time, a supply of paper, a pen and something to say, they could do it.
In fact, you only have to talk to a handful of people before you find that a good percentage of them think that they too could write a best seller that would earn them pride of place in a book store’s window.
Sadly, this is rarely the case. Especially when you consider that approximately 95% of submissions made to book publishers are returned, unsuccessful, to their owners. But it’s a topic that always brings interesting responses when raised at social gatherings and brings to mind a joke on the subject.
Two men met at a party. As they talked, they discovered they were both about to take a month’s holiday from work.
In answer to a question, the first man said, ‘I work as a brain surgeon and thought I would spend my time off writing a best seller and becoming a famous novelist.’
To which the second man replied, ‘Well I’m a novelist and have decided to spend my holiday becoming a brain surgeon.’
This joke is not meant to imply that a novelist is on a par with a brain surgeon (although it sometimes feels like it), or that novelists are an arrogant bunch - only that it’s sometimes easy to underestimate just what’s involved if you want to succeed in another line of work.
What you need to succeed as a writer
The criteria I mentioned earlier: knowledge of the English language, free time, paper, pen and something to say, are the basics needed to succeed in writing. And whilst a belief in yourself and your abilities is important, there are also a variety of other requirements needed to improve the level of your work to publishable quality.
The vital component in becoming a good writer is - passion. That need and drive to write is what makes the difference between someone who always says they are going to write, and the person who actually does writes. The determination keeps us going, regardless of the solitary hours spent working on a manuscript and the publishers who feel our work doesn’t ‘fit their current needs.’ It’s the pure love of writing that keeps us putting words down on the page.
A passion for writing is not always apparent from childhood. Sometimes it simmers along at the back of our lives for years, even decades. It can be something that we’re consciously aware of or something that hits us like a revelation. It can be a passion for writing poetry, songs, greeting cards, novels, picture books - anything.
But, in whatever form it appears, it’s what qualifies a Writer with a capital ‘W’. Writers, simply, have to write.
In fact, I know writers who become physically unwell if they’re unable to write for several days or more. My children have, from a relatively young age, always been able to tell when I haven’t been writing for a while. I was stunned the first time it happened. Without any adult intervention, they had recognised my lack of focus, patience and concentration, and had found the reason for the character changes. It took me a bit longer to recognise and accept what they were saying, but they were right. Take me away from pen, paper or computer and I’m a different person. Many writers are.
A passion for writing is like any emotion –
it can’t be stifled for long.
It needs to be channelled, directed, encouraged and balanced
to produce the best results.
Have you got a half-finished book stowed away somewhere?
A stack of papers contained in a recycled envelope, a computer disk hidden behind the others, a school exercise book filled with half legible words written so eagerly?
Do you remember how it felt when the overflowing lines that started in a whirlwind of excitement drove you? Lines that by the third chapter rippled along on a light summer breeze, only to stop when night fell and world became still and silent? I’d hazard a guess that a high percentage of all writers do. I know I do.
In fact, I have half a filing cabinet drawer devoted to my false starts. My favourite is a children’s chapter book written many years ago, entitled ‘The Hollow Tree’. I went back to it recently and cut out the first six thousand words, because like many beginners, I’d started the story too soon. Just think, six thousand wasted words - it almost sounds criminal. If I had planned the story better, those words would have been enough to finish the book!
I expect that half-written books have taught their creators one thing:
the trick is not just finding a good story
or even writing with skill,
the trick is learning to channel and direct the initial enthusiasm
so that it lasts to the final page.
The initial energy must sustain you through the necessary research and through the first, second and third drafts of your book, till at last you arrive at the end of your final rewrite.
Of course, if you want to go on and have your story published in some form, getting to the stage where you write ‘THE END’ on your manuscript is the start of another adventure. It’s also, in many ways, when the real fun begins.
This is why writers need the drive that comes from passion, because succeeding isn’t just about putting words on a page. It’s also about learning, observing, creating, believing and waiting.
Sow before you reap
Many years ago, when my husband and I lived in the wheatbelt of Western Australia, I became all too familiar with the long-term planning and seasonal income received by farmers. I had no concept of how they could continue over months, and sometimes years, putting time and money into their farms, believing that all their expenses and time would be repaid when it came time to harvest.
The same goes for fruit growers and viticulturists, in the south of this state, who wait years to receive any income from their fruit and wines.
Yet, on a smaller scale, this way of life isn’t so different from a writer’s.
All require an input of time, money, faith and patience with little or no guarantee that when the whole process is completed, the reimbursement will be a suitable compensation.
The importance of research
As with any risk, there are, however, ways to improve the chances of a positive outcome. Just as fruit growers do their research on potential markets before beginning the process, just as they work consistently towards attaining their goal, and just as they do their best to provide a high quality product, so must writers.
A writer only has to walk into a local library, large bookshop or look at a magazine rack to see a small percentage of the competition.
And whilst, thanks to the Internet, there is the ever-growing range of electronic forms of publishing: ebooks, print on demand, ezines, for example, it’s a fact that many traditional book and magazine publishers are fighting daily to make a profit and stay in business.
All of this means that any writer who wants to make money from their passion needs to be professional in their approach, their presentation, their standard of writing and also in the originality of their outlook.
A last word
Having said all that, and hopefully not frightened off too many people, let’s get back to the basics. Let’s go over the skills that will help an average or beginner writer become a better writer.
‘I want to but I can’t’
Regularly, I talk to people who enjoy writing for themselves or who dream of having work published. Yet when I ask why they don’t take the next step of submitting work to a publisher, the standard response is, ‘I would, but my writing isn’t good enough.’
Writing is like any other skill: it can be learned.
With sufficient incentive, willpower, determination and self-belief you can improve the standard of your writing or at the very least, find a solution that makes writing possible.
Believe me, because you left school early or because someone said you are no good at writing, or that you can’t spell, doesn’t mean you can’t become a writer. If you really want to do it you can.
However, the first major step is for you to believe you can.
When I left school in England at the age of seventeen, I had failed the English ‘O’ level exam twice, eventually passing a lower grade test by the narrowest of margins.
I enjoyed reading and writing to a certain extent, but all the information we were taught in class about spelling, punctuation, grammar and the mechanics of the language made absolutely no sense to me.
My excuse is that at that time I didn’t know I wanted to be a writer. Had I known that I’d have a regular, national column in ‘Nova’, or be published in American best-seller anthologies like, ‘Chicken Soup for the Mother’s & Daughter’s Soul’ and ‘Chocolate for a Woman’s Courage’, or have numerous articles published in England, America and Australia, I might have studied harder to begin with and saved myself much effort later. But then hindsight is a wonderful thing.
Had I known all this, I probably would have read more than a handful of books a year, too. Still …
So if you find yourself saying, ‘I can’t write because my grammar is so poor,’ or ‘I’ll never be a writer because my spelling is terrible,’ turn the statement around. Ask, ‘How can I improve my writing ability?’
Do you like telling stories?
Remember, writing should be fun. If you can understand and take part in everyday conversation then you’re half way to writing well. After all, if you’re able to tell a story to your friends, the only difference between that and a written version is choosing the words to write on paper.
When we tell a story or talk to a person face to face, we have the advantage of being able to use facial expressions, hand movements and the tone of our voice to make ourselves understood. The person we’re talking to can also get us to stop and ask us to explain if they’re confused by what we’re trying to say.
These are luxuries that don’t exist with the written word. This is why stories can be improved so greatly by skill in sentence structure, grammar and choice of words. All of these lead to building interest and impact in the story, but putting the words onto paper is the first step.
Enrolling in an English course
This is an excellent way to start and need not be at University level. A TAFE course or local evening class should provide enough information to raise your confidence and skill.
This style of learning offers personal feedback and immediate answers to your questions. It also allows you to mix with others with similar interests. The negative side is that you must find a regular time each week to fit in with the course timetable.
Correspondence English courses
These can be done through the mail or over the Internet. Unlike classes, they don’t require a regular time to be set aside each week, but you will need to find the same amounts of time and to finish each assignment unprompted.