So it's started. Word is out that I have a book deal and the emails are arriving from friends and acquaintances wanting to know how I did it, they're writing their own books, can I help?, etc.
As there is a vast amount of information on the internet on this topic, I thought I'd add to the massive volume of existing commentary by sharing my own path to How It Happened. I'm doing this mainly because I don't want to a.) endlessly rewrite the same email to inquiring friends or b.) issue a form letter, which would make me feel like a business, not a friend. So maybe you're reading this because I've popped a link to this post into an otherwise chatty letter about our respective lovelives and plans for the weekend, or alternatively you're someone I don't know wandering the internet looking for guidance on how to have a writing career. In either case: "Hello!" and I'll do a series of little blogs on these topics, adding the caveat that I am totally prejudiced and speak entirely from my own experience.
Okay, so what's interesting to me is that I sometimes get the question "how do I become a writer?" from people who don't actually write. Usually, these are people who love reading and want an "in" to the other side of the page. As a writer, let me tell you, all readers and all audiences are beautiful. People who love to read not only make our worlds worthwhile, but they form the government of those worlds; they become the agents, and assessors, commissioners, editors, publishers, producers and directors, the actors and illustrators who administer, enact and produce what we create - as well as negotiate the contracts and pay us.
But writing itself is neither a spectator sport or an exercise in good government. Writing falls somewhere between a vocation and a pathology depending on how much money you're earning - and the reason why the vast majority of writers spend their early careers in desperate poverty is they're incapable of *not* writing... and it tends to get in the way of holding down a day job. A writer writes AT LEAST 1000 words a day through an act of addictive compulsion, and this behaviour usually kicks in at age 13. Before 13, the "imperative" manifests itself in rambly story-telling, lots of games of pretend, self-made books and an obsessive love of words.
Sound like you?
To people who want to be writers, I ask: How many dictionaries do you own? Do you subscribe to a "word of the day" service? Do you pause a conversation if someone utters a word you don't know and ask for them to explain it to you? Do you look up words you haven't seen before when you strike them in a book or newspaper or online and chant the meaning to yourself until each new word's embedded in your own vocabulary? How do you feel about punctuation? I don't mean this last question in the context of "Are you a fastidious grammarian who gets hysterical in the face of a misplaced apostrophe?" but do you have an intuitive sense of how EVERYTHING changes with the choice of a comma, full stop and ellipsis?
Does this sound like you?
The business of writing is simply "to make words work". In the context of writing a novel, the words and their punctuation are pounded and squeezed to tell a story in its most exciting, beautiful or beautifully exciting way. Great literature - those books that flap their pages like wondrous plumage on lists like these chosen by writers are those where an interesting sequence of events (a story) is told in a uniquely compelling way. It's one thing to retell an interesting experience or recount an adventure - anyone can do that, and everyone does on a daily basis - but the writer's hard work with words is what puts you THERE, in the story, in the landscape, amongst the characters. Consider the difference:
Yeah, I met this hot guy at a party when his friend was hitting onto my sister, but he was, like, really rude to me. My sister was seeing his friend for a while but he broke up with her with no explanation and I heard that the hot guy was behind it because he had, like, totally the wrong idea about everything - and I guess I'd been a bit of a bitch to him, which wouldn't have helped. We had heaps of family stuff going down, it was crazy. Anyway, the hot guy realised that my sister was actually cool, and sorted stuff out between his friend and her, so they're back on, and I found out the hot guy had actually had some problems of his own, and wasn't a bad guy, and turns out that he thought I was hot, too, so we're together now. Yeah.
Kinda banal until Jane Austen gets hold of it and turns it into Pride and Prejudice.
If you like telling stories, that's fantastic. If you want to tell stories for money, you have to slave-drive words with the obsessive control of a master tyrant. This does not mean that writing means learning to pack a sentence with as many obscure, if appropriate, words you can pluck from the depths of the extended OED (Alexander Theroux beat you to it in Darconville's Cat, anyway). It means twisting the language we all use and understand to have a singular meaning; yours. If you want to understand why other writers go dotty for Harold Pinter, Kurt Vonnegut, Caryl Churchill, ee cummings, Cormac McCarthy, William Faulkner and ingenious writing like MAUS, consider that the triumph of these authors is to condense chillingly precise meaning into vocabularies that seem restricted, inarticulate or even lost in translation. Of course, it's a trick; these guys know exactly what they're doing.
Disingenuously, and maybe to be polite, I could tell you that if you want to be a writer, write 1000 words a day and buy a lot of dictionaries. Learn more words. Read Vonnegut, he's really good.
Really, though, as far as writing goes, there's only one truth, as I understand it:
If you want to be a writer, you should be writing already.