I Want Chapter

'I Want To Write,
but don't know where to start'
Elizabeth Bezant

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.

False starts
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.
‘How to’ or ‘reference books’ are another great way to improve language skills and use. This method does, however, rely on your initiative to work through the book and of course, you get no personal feedback. On the other hand, once you’ve bought the book, its information and exercises are a constant resource that can be referred back to whenever necessary.

It’s always possible that you’ll discover that only one section of your English knowledge, not every aspect of it, is holding up your understanding. Many years ago my dad came to visit and I asked him if he could help me punctuate the piece of writing I was working on - a task that, with his guidance, took a fraction of the time it usually took me.

A couple of weeks later, a small package arrived in the mail. Whilst in a book store he’d found a book that covered, in clear detail, the exact aspects of grammar I was struggling with. I was delighted, but also a little confused by the ‘DO NOT REMOVE’ sticker he had placed on the book’s cover. 

Being the obedient daughter that I am, I didn’t remove the sticker. Instead I held the cover up to the light to see what was written underneath the DO NOT REMOVE. 

Much to my surprise I read, ‘SUITABLE FOR AGES 9 – 11.’ For some reason that was the fundamental area of English that I had been struggling with for years.

Other options
If none of these ideas suit you and your needs, you can get immediate results by employing an editor to work with you on your writing. 

An editor will provide the skills to change a basic piece of your writing into a professional manuscript. But bear in mind you must pay for their knowledge and if you intend to make writing a long term vocation, this can become a costly option. 

Finding the right word
A wide vocabulary is vital for all kinds of writing, as is the knowledge of how meanings vary between similar words. 

Inlet, creek or estuary
If you are writing a piece about a waterway, which of the following words can be interchanged throughout the article: stream, inlet, estuary, creek? Depending on the exact nature of the article, any of these could be used - or none of them. 

These words all mean different things. This is something to take into account when considering if, how and when to use them.

For this reason it’s essential to own a high quality, current and accessible dictionary and thesaurus. (See chapter ‘Dear Santa.’)

How to extend your vocabulary
Consider the ‘one new word a day’ approach. This involves familiarising yourself daily with one new word and its meaning, then using it in at least one sentence within twenty four hours. 

This process may not guarantee the word will stay locked in your vocabulary, but it makes you aware of the word, which will improve your chances of remembering it. 

If one word a day sounds too many, consider one new word a week, but use it daily.

The source of these words is entirely up to you. You can:
  • pick them at random from a dictionary or newspaper, 
  • get them sent from a website offering the service (do a search on ‘word of the day’),
  • copy them from a book or calendar created specially for this purpose, 
  • collect them from conversation. 

Whilst I have suggested some specific ways to learn necessary skills, there is another way that is fun and all-encompassing: reading. 

To be a successful writer it is essential to read, read, read. 

If there’s a specific genre that you want to write in, read widely from available examples of it. After all, what better way to become familiar with the world you want to be part of, than to immerse yourself in it? Learn from those who have gone before you. 

The phrase that says, ‘read what you want to write,’ holds a lot of truth. 

What to look for
Discover consciously and subconsciously the secrets of plotting, sentence structure, descriptions, word usage, characterisation and the hundred and one things that make your favourite written work absorbing. Consider the plot and sub-plots, the flow and pace of the story, the tension, the dialogue, descriptions, settings and sentence length.

Discover with others
Book Clubs, where groups of people get together to discuss a recently read book, are a great place for learning more about how a book is structured, and how that affects readers. 

Many libraries and Writing Centres have Book Clubs attached to them, or you may find adverts in local papers or on community boards. 

Should there be no signs of one in your area, consider starting one yourself with a few friends. Knowledge gained from such a venture far outweighs the initial effort of setting up.

The ability to analyse a story or article is a skill which puts one writer above another, not only when reading someone else’s work, but also when working on your own. 

Self-critiquing, or editing 
This can be one of the hardest parts of writing. It requires more than correcting the odd typo, or slip in tenses. Often it means resequencing, or even cutting out whole chunks of a manuscript. 

If you’ve spent months writing a draft, then deciding which parts of your work are worth keeping and which must go may be nothing short of distressing. It requires objectivity and the ability to look at a piece of work you’ve read fifty times as if you’ve never seen it before. Yet it’s this skill that can make a most valuable contribution to the professional development of your writing. 

Early Feedback
When starting out, many writers benefit from having their work read by a writer who is more experienced - preferably someone who’s familiar with the form of writing they are attempting. 

Often when your work has reached that ‘almost final draft’ stage there’s a temptation to ask family and friends to read and comment on it. Consider this action carefully before handing out copies. 

People who know and love you will probably not give the most objective feedback. They may not know the market you are aiming at and will probably want to encourage your efforts. This is all well and good, but it mightn’t provide the constructive criticism necessary to grow. Unless you have a close friend who’s an expert in your chosen field of writing, I recommend you ask for feedback elsewhere.

Another factor that is sad but true is that many people, close to you or others, can be all too eager to express their thoughts, even when they really don’t know what they’re talking about. There’s nothing like someone’s helpful, ‘Oh, I wouldn’t think that would sell,’ to drown any nurtured dream. The people concerned might have the best intentions or might not even know they are doing it, but once the comment is made the damage can be devastating. 

So as I said earlier, consider carefully who you show your work to. Dreams can be fragile, so don’t give anyone the right to damage them.

Where to look
A good place to start is at a local Writing Centre. Most members are more than happy to help new writers. Writing Centres can be found by contacting your State Literature Officer, library, or through the phone book. (For more information on Critiquing Groups, refer to the chapter ‘How to tell if you are any good.’)

I know writers who have never learnt to type with more than two fingers. I also know some who only type up their final copy, preferring to write all others in longhand. It is, of course, a personal preference. But being a person who touch-types, I can’t imagine how a writer can manage without this skill, especially if they’re working on extensive manuscripts.

If you don’t currently type but would like to have a printed manuscript, there are several solutions to the situation. 

One way to learn typing is through traditional classes. Look at any list of subjects taught in adult or out-of-school classes, and typing or keyboarding seems to be a regular.

Most libraries and educational stockists have a variety of workbooks designed to teach typing, from any starting level.

Interactive programs
Available from computer retailers are a variety of interactive computer programs that teach typing skills. Many are designed as edutainment - educational and entertaining. However, should the commiserating or congratulating animation in the software bother you, there are many typing packages available that are more conventional.

Free downloads
Another option is through the Internet, where a variety of typing programs may be downloaded, free. Try a web-search entering ‘free typing software’ to find out what’s available to you. 

Voice-recognition software
For those who find typing difficult or painful, there’s always the option of buying a voice-recognition program. This software enables the computer to recognise your voice, then print on the page what it hears you say - the wonders of technology! 

Over the years, this kind of software has come down in price and improved in accessibility. At first, you will need to spend time teaching your computer to recognise each word you say, but your efforts will be rewarded as you watch the correct words appear on your screen. 

Computer Skills
With more and more households owning at least one computer, their availability for writing is better than ever. If you have access to one I strongly advise using it. 

Now I understand that at this point there will be a split in responses. Some of you will be lying in contortions on the floor, feet in the air, spluttering, ‘Well what else do you expect me to use?’ Others will be saying, ‘I would if I had one.’ And yet others, ‘I know I should, but I don’t know how.’ 

Competent computer users
Since you already feel comfortable with computers, their abilities, advantages and uses, please feel free to skip this section.

Would if you could
Computers can be leased for a monthly rental and they seem to be coming in down in price almost daily. Frequently computers are discarded for more high-end models, creating a second hand market, and the wonderful thing about wanting a computer purely for typing or wordprocessing is that, unless you choose to rely on voice recognition software, you can use the most basic of computers. 

But, if both of these options are out of your reach, consider asking a friend if you could use theirs. Writing Centres often rent computer time by the hour and some schools allow parents/grandparents to use their computers when they aren’t being used by students. You may even find that your local library offers a similar service; some even include use of the Internet.

If you feel your need for a computer is holding your writing back, think creatively and look at the possibility of bargaining for time on one.

Where’s the ‘on’ switch?
When my husband and I owned and operated a computer learning centre, I was constantly amazed by the number of people, especially mothers, who came to the centre to learn. The standard phrase we would hear was, ‘all my family can use the computer, even our 6 year old, but when I ask them to show me how to do something, they do the task for me and race off. I don’t even know where the on/off switch is.’ 

Just as typing is a constant on the list of classes for adults, so is computing. But there are several things to look for when deciding which course to take. 
  • Firstly, pick one that teaches whilst you have a computer in front of you. What you’re being taught stays in your mind longer if you put it into action straight away. It doesn’t matter if you’re sharing, providing you get a fair go on the keyboard and mouse.
  • Secondly, any more than a 90 minute class can be a struggle to stay focused in.
  • Thirdly, look for a class that provides step by step printed directions. These are essential when you want to repeat at home what you did in class. 

After attending any class, practise what you have learnt at home daily. Computing is made up of one little action after another, and if you feel comfortable with the first basic actions, the rest will come easily.

Having said that, there’s also an extensive range of books available on basic computing and wordprocessing. Often when starting out, it’s only the basic knowledge that a writer needs. 

Books have the advantage of listing step by step instructions and you can have them open beside your computer. However, this works best if you have someone available to answer your questions and give you one-on-one feedback when necessary.

Sometimes it may just be one misunderstanding of the directions that’s holding you up. A classic example is the lady who phoned up the computer stockist to complain that her new computer wasn’t working.

‘I can’t turn it on,’ the lady said to the young male assistant. ‘I’ve put the machine together, but the treadle just isn’t working.’

It turned out that the lady was a seamstress who had, over the years, spent many hours using her sewing machine. In fact, she had spent so much time sewing that, thinking the computer mouse was a treadle, she had placed it on the floor and was trying to operate the computer by pushing her foot on the ‘treadle.’

A true story.
If you're interested in getting a paperback copy of this book it's currently available from: 
The Bodhi Tree bookstore cafe, cnr Oxford & Scarborough Beach Rd, Mt Hawthorn. WA 
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