Thursday, June 22, 2006

So You Want to Be a Writer? Frequently Asked Questions


Scratch the average person and there's sure to be a frustrated, would-be writer underneath. If you have wanted to try your hand at writing and didn't know how to begin, here are answers to some common questions would-be writers ask.

How can I get started?
Start thinking like a writer. Ideas for unwritten books, stories, articles, film scripts or poems are everywhere. Consider this true story: A police officer in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., buys a lottery ticket. Lacking small change and unable to leave a tip after breakfasting in a coffee shop, he promises to split his winnings with the waitress if his ticket wins. It does, and he does. Millions read this story in newspapers across the country. Yet it took screenwriter Jane Anderson to see its possibilities and turn it into the script for the 1994 hit film, It Could Happen to You, originally titled Cop Gives Waitress $2 Million Tip. Critics and moviegoers loved the film. We all have had personal experiences, or have some expertise, or are familiar with stories that could be set down on paper and sold successfully. Too many writers roam the world searching for ideas, and ignore the gems and nuggets lying at their feet.
Fiction, nonfiction, poetry?
Not surprisingly, your first decision should be to choose the genre you are most comfortable with. Are you a born storyteller? Then you should think in terms of writing fiction. You must then choose between writing a novel or short stories. If you are curious about the natural world, think about the possibility of writing nonfiction--a broad category that includes everything from magazine articles, essays and book reviews to full-length books, including memoirs and personal experiences. You can hone your nonfiction skills with letters to the editor of your favorite newspaper. Some would say that a novel is nothing more than a group of short stories with a common thread. Similarly, a nonfiction book may be compared to a collection of articles on a common theme. Poetry is perhaps the most demanding area and the least rewarding in terms of chances of publication and amount of payment.

It is not dismissive to say that in the beginning it doesn't matter what you write--it's the habit of writing that you want to cultivate. An oldster writing reminiscences as a contribution for the local historical society or a youngster attempting some avant garde poetry--their efforts all have worth and can find a home.

How should I record my ideas?
Keep a notebook, journal or diary. Inspiration can strike at any time. Memory is undependable and fleeting. Wise writers always keep a small notebook with them for jotting down ideas. Anne Lamott, author of  Bird by Bird, a book of advice for writers, favors index cards. She scatters them around the house and keeps some in the glove compartment of her car. Even when walking her dog, a pen and an index card are in her pocket. Recording the day's events, experiences, observations and ideas in a journal or diary at day's end is a useful practice. Years later, these notes will be there to spark memories. An old-fashioned composition book is excellent for this purpose.

How important is reading?
Every good writer is an inquiring reader. Reading is a way of training for writing. Successful writers are omnivorous readers and will read anything at hand: a dog-eared magazine in a doctor's waiting room, the breakfast food box on the kitchen table, even yesterday's day-old newspaper. If you hope to earn money from writing, read the writings of other writers for clues to the secret of their success.

The works of other writers also can have a positive effect on your style. Joseph Heller, author of "Catch-22," named the writings of Louis Ferdinand Celine and Vladimir Nabokov as the inspirations for his iconoclastic antiwar novel. Stephen King’s simple formula for learning to write well: “Read four hours a day and write four hours a day. If you cannot find the time for that, you can’t expect to become a good writer.”

Careful analytical reading will make you more attuned to what successful writers are selling and what editors are buying. Even though you have subscribed to a magazine you hope to write for, you should study its style carefully. Count the number of sentences in paragraphs. Count the number of words in sentences. Does the magazine use the serial comma (a, b, and c) or omit it in a series of three or more items? You’ll be surprised at how much you can learn from such quantitative research. Learn to use all the tools (i.e., punctuation marks) in the writer's toolbox aside from the period and the comma: for example--the colon, semi-colon, long dash and other marks to give variety to your writing. Most magazines offer style sheets to writers who send a request accompanied by a stamped and addressed return envelope.

How should I do research?
Every writer should know how to use the Internet and traditional reference works as tools for research. Even fiction writers have an obligation to get their facts straight. Anachronisms--representations of someone as existing or something as happening in the wrong historical setting or chronological order--have doomed many a novel.

The late Patrick O'Brian, British cult author of a series of 17 maritime novels set in the Napoleonic era made himself an expert in all aspects of life in that period. These embrace music, poetry, food and science--including astronomy and medicine--not to mention the arcana of shipboard life, sailing and navigation. Similarly, American author E.L. Doctorow does extensive reading in American historical sources before starting to write. His impeccably researched works--Ragtime is perhaps the most famous--recreate their period settings with remarkable truth and vitality. In their artful melding of flawless scholarship with writing of high quality, the books of O'Brian and Doctorow have crossed the line between fiction and history to start an entirely new genre.

What's the best place to do research?
With vast amounts of reference material on databases and CD-ROM disks, home computers and printers make the laborious task of note taking unnecessary. Larger public libraries and regional libraries offer access to research tools such as complete files of back-number newspapers and magazines or subscription databases that may be beyond the reach or the pocketbooks of smaller libraries or individuals. Visit your local public library and ascertain the websites that the library offers access to, and take advantage of the laborsaving possibilities of these new research tools. For older reference works, you may still have to rely on books, note taking and the copying machine.

Don't disdain traditional sources of information. There's still a wealth of useful information locked up in books and off-trail periodicals. Introduce yourself to your local reference librarian; a phone call to a knowledgeable librarian can often save a trip to the library or endless hours of searching for elusive information on the Internet. The reference librarian can arrange to borrow scarce materials for you through the medium of interlibrary loan.

The Internet is a vast storehouse of data. Care must be exercised, however, in tapping into it. Because items can be posted easily, no guarantees can be made about the accuracy of the information. Also, users must exercise caution not to violate copyright; some unscrupulous individuals have posted copyrighted information on the Internet without the permission of the copyright owners.

Should I buy books?
An unabridged desk dictionary is not a purchase--it's an investment. As the cornerstone of your writer's library, it will serve you well for meanings, spellings, word-breaks and word origins. Another equally valuable tool is a thesaurus. Both are available as traditional books or electronically. But don't refer to a thesaurus until you have racked your brain for the right word or phrase; too-frequent use of a thesaurus as a crutch may make you too dependent on it. An encyclopedia can be a useful adjunct to any writer's library. Sets of the "big three"--Britannica, Americana or Collier's--can often be found at bargain prices at second-hand bookstores. I frequently use my 24-volume set of the 14th edition of the Britannica bought at a garage sale for twenty dollars.

How can I learn the basic rules of writing?
Your next purchase should be a style manual. These are of two types: those that review the rules of grammar, and those that set guidelines for the stylization of manuscripts for publication, as well as clarifying grammar, spelling and punctuation. Among the former, Strunk and White's The Elements of Style is a modern classic, despite its compact size. Among the latter, The Chicago Manual of Style, published by the University of Chicago Press, is the style manual used by many publishers and editors. Words Into Type is an especially readable favorite as is The New York Public Library Writer's Guide to Style and Usage.

How can I ncrease my vocabulary?
Words are the fundamental building blocks of writers. You should constantly be on the lookout for new words and meanings to add to your vocabulary. With very little effort, anyone can acquire a larger and more useful vocabulary. When you encounter a new word, jot it down in your notebook. Later, look it up in your dictionary.

More than a half-century ago, Johnson O'Connor, director of the Human Engineering Laboratory at the prestigious Stevens Institute of Technology, made a startling discovery: a large vocabulary and an extensive knowledge of word meanings was a characteristic of all successful men and women. Education was not the key; those who had left school before their sixteenth year and worked their way up to executive positions turned out to have one thing in common: they had acquired larger vocabularies through self-instruction than many executives who were college graduates. O'Connor's English Vocabulary Builder often turns up in second-hand bookstores. If you spot a copy, snap it up.

When, where and what should I write with?
These three topics have been covered in depth in an earlier article entitled "The Work Habits of Highly Successful Writers" available here.

Should I discuss my writing ideas with others?
Don't make the common mistake of inexperienced writers by trying out your ideas or writing plans on friends or relatives before setting them down on paper. If you discuss what you intend to write too often before writing it, the important qualities of freshness and originality will soon vanish. Then when you finally get around to writing it, your original idea will seem stale and will have lost its appeal. In fact, your original excitement with the idea will have faded, and you'll be unhappy with it. So keep your ideas and imagination bottled up inside you until the moment of literary creation.

Do I need to make an outline?
Just as you wouldn't embark on a long automobile trip without a road map nor build a house without an architect's plan, don't start any nonfiction-writing project longer than a page without first making an outline. A detailed outline is the blueprint from which your actual writing should be executed. Most beginning writers pay too little attention to outlines. When they attempt one, it is usually too skimpy to reflect the structure of the intended work, with a loose and meandering piece of writing as the inevitable result. To be effective, an outline almost cannot be too detailed.

An outline is akin to a movie director's shooting script, leaving nothing to chance. An outline can also be compared to a sculptor's armature of pipe and wire on which the raw clay is draped. The outline, like the sculptor's armature, is always there under the finished work, lending strength and support to it but never being overtly apparent under the clay or behind the words. The addition of a little more clay here and the taking away of some clay there by the sculptor can be compared to the writer's revision process.

Fiction writers, on the other hand, are of two schools on the subject of outlines. One group insists that an outline is the outstanding fiction. The other is just as vehement in its insistence that fiction should evolve from the writer’s mind and imagination. They claim that a good story will literally tell itself. Stephen King, for example, told an interviewer that he begins with certain ideas and a sense of direction--but no plot outline. "I'm never sure where the story's going or what's going to happen with it. It's a discovery."

How much should I write?
The length of your writing session is up to you. Writing as little as a page a day will yield a good-sized book manuscript in a year. In his book, How To Write, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Rhodes suggests a clever way to induce words to flow: "If writing a book is impossible, write a chapter. If writing a chapter is impossible, write a page. If writing a page is impossible, write a paragraph. If writing a paragraph is impossible, write a sentence. If writing even a sentence is impossible, write a word."

According to Contemporary Authors, Stephen King likes to work on two things simultaneously, beginning his day early with a two- or -three miles walk.... He devotes his afternoon hours to rewriting.... While he is not particular about writing conditions, he is about output. Despite chronic headaches, occasional insomnia, and even a fear of writer's block, he produces six pages daily.’ And that's like engraved in stone,' he says."

Is there a key element in good writing?
Yes, revision, revision, revision. Real estate agents maintain that three elements make a house salable: location, location and location. Similarly, repeated revision is the key to a successful manuscript. As a teacher of writing and literary agent, I can say without exaggeration that I have never seen a manuscript (including my own) that could not profit from one more revision.

How can I discipline myself?
Organized work habits are the hallmark of every successful writer. Set a rigorous writing schedule for yourself, and stick to it. That second cup of coffee and the morning newspaper may be enticing--but are taboo. If you cannot discipline yourself, forget about writing. No successful writer ever said writing came easy. "Easy writing makes hard reading," was how Hemingway put it. If you are not exhausted at the end of each writing stint, you are not giving writing your all.

Procrastination is an enemy every writer has to face. Some writers will make it a point to tidy up the writing area before starting to write. Others practice meditation before each writing session. Don't worry about the bugaboo called "writer's block." Writers who write for a living will tell you that this problem simply doesn't exist except as a mysterious malady afflicting beginning writers and conjured up regularly by the editors of the so-called "writer's magazines."

Is there one quality that makes for writing success?
Yes, there is: Perseverance with a capital P. Perseverance is the trait shared by all successful writers. Twenty-two publishers turned down Dubliners, James Joyce's collection of realistic sketches, over a period of nine years. One of its stories, "The Dead," is today regarded as among the greatest short stories of all time. Lust for Life, by Irving Stone, the first book by the "inventor" of the biographical novel, had a difficult birth. Twenty-six publishers refused Stone’s manuscript, based on the life of Vincent Van Gogh, before it finally saw the light of day.

American author J.P. Donleavy's stream-of-consciousness novel The Ginger Man was rejected thirty-five times before being accepted by Maurice Girodias's Paris-based Olympia Press. Because Donleavy's bawdy novel was included in the publisher's series of pornographic paperbacks, the writer sued Girodias. After many years of unsuccessful litigation, Donleavy bought the defunct Olympia Press at a bankruptcy auction. In an ironic twist, he then had to call off his lawsuit: he was suing himself.

Forty-nine different editors refused Cool Hand Luke, a first novel by Donn Pearce, a 36-year-old merchant seaman who had spent two years on a chain gang. But the fiftieth publisher's first reader saw the story of an indomitable prisoner on a Florida chain gang as a book well worth publishing. Hollywood snapped up the film rights, and Pearce shared an Academy award for the screenplay.

The Stephen King Story
The prize for perseverance surely goes to Stephen King, hands down. Encouraged by his working wife, he abandoned menial labor and a low-paying teaching job in Maine, and elected to stay home and write. Upon completing his first book manuscript titled Getting It On, he cast around for a publisher. Impressed with The Parallax View, a 1970 novel by Mamaroneck, N.Y., author Loren Singer, King sent a manuscript to Doubleday, the book's publisher, addressed, "To the Editor of "The Parallax View." That editor happened to be on vacation, so the manuscript was given to William G. Thompson, another Doubleday editor. Although Thompson saw the power in King's writing, he couldn't get editorial support from fellow Doubleday editors, and the King manuscript was eventually rejected. Thompson encouraged King to keep trying.

Three subsequent King submissions met a similar fate and also were declined. Undeterred, King sent Thompson the manuscript of still another novel, his fifth. King had written what he later described as a "parable of women's consciousness," and then threw it away. His wife retrieved it from the trash and urged him to expand it into a novel. Titled Carrie, it was an exciting tale of a young girl with supernatural powers. Thompson liked it and convinced other Doubleday editors that the book could be a winner. The publisher offered King an advance against royalties of $2,500. King accepted and, as the saying has it, the rest is history.

As publishers regularly do with most hardcover books, Doubleday shopped proofs of Carrie around to paperback publishers. Interest was lively and paperback rights to King's first novel went to New American Library for a cool $400,000. Doubleday's contract with King called for income on subsidiary rights to be split 50-50 between publisher and author, making King rich beyond his wildest dreams. In part because of the sale of its paperback rights, Doubleday ordered an initial press run for Carrie of 30,000 copies, a huge number for a first novel. Contemporary Authors noted, "the novel was marketed as horror fiction, and the genre had found its juggernaut."

After the runaway success of Carrie, King followed with two more books, Salem's Lot and The Shining, the latter title King's first hardcover novel to land on the New York Times bestseller list. In 1977, King argued convincingly that the time was ripe for a reconsideration of the first four rejected King manuscripts, but Doubleday had strong reservations about overexposure of its now best-selling author. Accordingly, King persuaded New American Library to publish the four previously rejected manuscripts in hardcover under the pen name of Richard Bachman, a thin disguise that many of King's fans easily saw through.

Getting It On became the first of the so-called "Bachman books." Retitled Rage, it told the story of a gun-loving high school student who takes over his classroom and kills his teacher and carried a dedication to Thompson. The other Bachman titles, The Long Walk, Roadwork, The Running Man and Thinner were published at intervals of a year or two beginning in 1979. All were modest successes. However, shortly after the publication of Thinner in 1985, it was publicly acknowledged that King was Bachman, and the book shot to No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list. A mere four weeks after Thinner fell from the No. 1 spot, the next Stephen King book, Skeleton Crew, reached No. 1--the only book of short stories ever to do so.

When King's ultralong manuscript of more than 1,600 pages titled The Stand reached Doubleday, the publisher had already parted company with editor Thompson, and King acquired a new editor. The publisher told King that he must cut the size of the book by 150 pages in order to keep the cover price down. This infuriated King, but he did what he was told to do. Doubleday's edition of 24,000 copies sold well but never topped the bestseller lists. In 1990, twelve years later, the book about an America in which most of its people have been killed by plague and in which the forces of good and evil compete for the remnant population, was issued as King originally wrote it with the excised pages restored. Retitled The Stand: The Complete and Uncut Edition, and despite the previous edition, the book entered the New York Times bestseller list at No. 1 and remained there for four weeks. In all, it was on the Times list for 37 weeks, attesting to the pulling power of King's name.

Because Doubleday, one of the few publishing companies to own a printing plant, published King's books as part of press runs for its lower-quality book clubs editions, King soon became unhappy with the quality of the Doubleday-printed books and Doubleday’s chintzy advances. Matters came to a head when King issued an ultimatum: He would sell Doubleday rights to his three next already-written novels for $3.5 million. Thompson, King's editor, urged Doubleday to meet this price, but the company refused and shortsightedly made a final counteroffer of $3.0 million, $500,000 short of King's figure. King took his books elsewhere. New American Library had no such qualms and easily met King's asking price, then sold the hardcover rights to a delighted Viking Press in what publishers call a "backward deal."

King's fifth novel and his first book for Viking, The Dead Zone, published in 1979 is, in King's eyes, his finest work. It became the first King book to make the New York Times bestseller list. The story of a man who comes out of a coma with the ability to foresee the future. Not liking what he sees, he sets out to change it. In 1980, the second of King's book to make that list, Firestarter, is about an eight-year-old girl who can set things afire just by looking at them. It spent 35 weeks on the list. Less than a year later, King again attained No. 1 with Cujo, a story about rabid dog disturbing the peace of a rural Maine town.

Despite bouts of addiction to alcohol and hard drugs in the 1980s and being struck by a vehicle in a near-fatal accident in 1999 while walking along a rural highway, a recovered Stephen King remains a veritable book factory. No other author has come close to the number of Stephen King’s books that have appeared on the New York Times bestseller lists, To this day, he still negotiates multimillion-dollar advances for his books. Demonstrating that dogged perseverance can indeed pay off for a writer, since 1977 there has not been a year without the appearance of one or more books bearing Stephen King's name as author. That's perseverance with a capital P.

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