AdviceSo You Want to Be A Writer...

Being a series of nine articles of advice to would-be writers, originally written 1988-1990, published in various fanzines, and now updated for the Web. While not as bad as Part One, some of this is probably out of date.

Part Two: Some Basics

by Lawrence Watt-Evans

Okay, you want to be a writer. Where do you start?

Well, first off, you write. You don't think about writing, or talk about writing, or worry about selling the stuff or what the market is like or anything else. You write. There is no way around this. You sit down at the keyboard and put words together.

This would seem to be obvious, but it apparently isn't, because there are thousands of people out there who come up to writers and say things like, "Oh, I've got this wonderful story idea I'd like to tell you about. I don't have time to write it myself..."

Or maybe instead of "I don't have time," it's "I couldn't do it justice," or some other excuse.

No excuse is valid. You do not become a writer by wishing, or talking about it, or by pitching ideas to writers. You might possibly become a screenwriter by pitching story ideas to producers, but that's another category entirely.

For one thing, writers aren't in the business of helping other people write, and generally have plenty of ideas of their own. Ideas are cheap.

You don't have time to write? Either make time, or forget about becoming a writer.

You couldn't do your story justice? Then practice writing until you can.

You don't have talent? You can't spell? Your grammar is weak? Practice! Teach yourself!

"Yeah," you say, "but people like Ray Bradbury just sit down and pour out all that lovely prose, and when I write it sounds so clunky!"

Bull. Ray Bradbury burned his first million words because they were unsaleable garbage. That lovely prose doesn't just pour out; it's pumped out by hard work, and then has to be cleaned up, the garbage that came up with it filtered out.

Most writers started out writing reams of garbage. I sure did. Bradbury did. Virtually every writer did. The only two writers I ever heard of who sold their first stories were Robert Heinlein* and Edgar Rice Burroughs, and they're both very special cases.

(Besides, have you ever read the original first chapter or two of Burroughs' "Under the Moons of Mars"? Talk about clunky!)

One way of looking at it is to picture this big heap of stories in your head, like a giant compost heap. You want to get at all the nice, ripe, rich stuff at the bottom.

What's on top, though, is just junk, and you need to clear that away first. You shovel it away, one story at a time, and you pitch the stuff that's obviously useless.

When you find stuff that might be some good, you give it a try--you send it to one of those delicate flowers, an editor.

Chances are, it's no good, and he'll send it back.

Eventually, though, if you keep working at it, you'll get to some nice rich fertile stuff in there, and the editor will eat it right up.

Of course, there's some variation. Heinlein, perhaps because of his Navy background and because he was starting older than most writers do, seems to have had no garbage on the pile to clear away--though some people may argue that he went through his entire supply of good stuff, and by the end was shovelling out the dirt from underneath, rather than any of the pile.

Some people dig for years and never seem to reach anything worthwhile.

But if you don't start digging, you'll never know what's in there.

So you need to actually write, not just look at the pile and imagine what might be in there. Pitching ideas is just adding to the pile. Writing is the only way to dig into it.

So how do you do it?

You sit down at the keyboard, and you don't get up until you've written something, that's how.

Many writers use a daily quota, and it's a good way to get yourself started and instill some of the self-discipline a writer needs. You don't wait until you feel inspired. You don't wait until you know what you're going to write. You don't wait until you have every little detail of character and plot worked out. If you wait for anything, you'll probably wait forever.

Instead, you set rules, and you force yourself to obey them--like dieting, or exercising, or anything else requiring willpower.

Some people have specific hours they work, and during that time they force themselves to sit at the keyboard, and write.

A system I like better, and which I used myself, is to have a specific quantity that must be produced.

Frederik Pohl has a daily quota of three pages. Every day, day in, day out, he writes three pages of something a day.

Stephen King, I've heard, has a daily quota of several thousand words, but we won't talk about people like that. That's not normal.

My quota, back when I didn't have kids and could therefore manage one, was a thousand words a day. That's three or four pages, depending. I had to write a thousand words a day, five days a week (I got to pick which five, and could arbitrarily declare any given day to be a "weekend," so long as I hadn't already used up my two weekend days that week). If I hadn't written it, I couldn't go to bed. I wouldn't allow myself to do so any more than I would go to bed without brushing my teeth.

If I absolutely couldn't write on a given day, then I could put it off--but the amount I owed automatically doubled the moment I fell asleep. That was my inflexible rule. And I didn't allow any carryover, either--if I wrote 8,000 words on Tuesday, I still had to write a thousand more on Wednesday. If I didn't write anything on Wednesday, my quota for Thursday would be 3,000 (Wednesday's doubled, plus Thursday's). No fractions smaller than 500 words were allowed, either. If I wrote 950 words one day, I owed 2,000 the next.

What made this possible was that the thousand words didn't need to be any good. I could have written "The quick red fox jumped over the lazy brown dog" a hundred times, and it would have counted--but I'd have been very bored.

Letters didn't count, though, or anything else of practical value; at first, I counted letters as 250 words each if they ran longer than about a thousand words each, but I stopped that when I found myself writing lots and lots of very long letters and no stories.

Often, I'd write a thousand words, fall into bed exhausted, get up the next morning, and throw the whole thing out. The point wasn't to write a thousand words of good stuff each day; it was to write something, in hopes I could find a few good words here and there, and to develop the habit of writing.

It worked, too; I've now sold over a million words, won awards, and so on, but back in 1974, when I set my quota, I was writing nothing but garbage. It took four years of writing garbage (I was in school for two years, which don't count) before I sold a novel.

So if you want to be a writer, don't talk about it, don't plan, don't worry about markets, don't worry if it sucks--write! Keep on writing! Write on napkins at lunch while your other hand holds a sandwich if that's the only time you can find, but write! Write stories, plays, articles, anything!

There is no shortcut, no other way, that you can ever become a writer!


* This turns out to have been a self-serving lie on Heinlein's part. Before he sold his first story he had written an entire crappy novel that never did sell while he was alive.


All contents and referenced pages are copyright by Lawrence Watt Evans except as noted.
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No reproduction permitted without permission of the author


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