On Writing; What it takes to be a writer

Being a writer.

In this article I’m going to talk about what you need to be a writer. Naturally this isn’t proscriptive, but it is a pretty accurate list of traits and requirements you need in order to be able to write and write successfully.

You have to laugh at all the wrong things.

A writer tends to find odd things funny. This can be anything from dogs with toast balanced on their heads to people using the elderly as bumper cars. If someone, mistakenly, ends up asking you what you’re thinking about they may be treated to a detailed description of cats in space playing the banjo in order to defeat robo-chainsaws-for-hands-and-a-backup-chainsaw-penis-Hitler.

You read. A lot. Too much maybe.

This is particularly aggravating for those around you as you abscond with the book they were about to read or when you steal important documents to use as bookmarks. You’ll be struck by such thoughts as ‘Ooh, that knitting book sure looks fun. So does that story about a train. Oh boy, I wanna read this story all about the pixies that live in Old Mr Sherman’s butt! That sounds cool!’

Writing helps you soothe your tormented self-loathing.

If you awaken from a fugue state and find a twelve page manifesto, written by what you can only imagine to be a psychopath, then I would say that you are clearly a budding author. You’d be in less trouble if you really were going loopy.

Make sure these poetry snippets, fiction vignettes and random thoughts get saved. On the one hand it’s a good thing to have a paper trail that the criminologists can decode your madness from, but on the other its raw potential. Make sure that you keep these because such scraps can yield a gold mine of later ideas.

Writing also increases your self-loathing.

Friends will find you hunched over bowls of ice cream, sobbing uncontrollably. ‘What’s wrong?’ they will ask, ‘did you not manage your word count?’ You will reply that yes, of course you did, but the word are wrong somehow: They do not tell the story in the right way, they aren’t clever enough, they aren’t simple enough, they look wrong, etc, etc.

Friends will dutifully look over what your words and pronounce it not too bad, but oh, what a monster their praise will unleash. They may as well have punched a shark in the face or challenged a Bengal Tiger to a wrestling match. Praise to a writer is something to be either distrusted or beaten into submission and dissected. You will tell them that they are wrong, that your words are in fact ‘the worst’. You will interrogate them for clarification and demand they explain why the words you wrote are not the steaming piles of offal you believe they are.

You have ideas all the time.

You’ll keep writing notes, scrawled on bits of paper, loo rolls, bank statements, texted to friends in the middle of the night, children’s foreheads or else carved into the side of those who were too slow. Sometimes these notes will be short; leprechaun, pumpkin, goat, for example. More often they will be long, complex or downright disturbing; A.N. had always hated xxx with its inexpensive ice. It was a place where he felt unstable. He was a ruthless, arrogant, brandy drinker with xxx. His friends saw him as a grotesque giant. Once, he had even xxx. That’s the sort of man he was.

If you answered yes to any of the above then I have bad news for you…

Turns out you may just have the special defects that could make a writer. So what’s next? What are you going to do about this frightening new development? Run and hide is my best advice, but if you want to stick around then here’s a few words of, well, let’s not call it wisdom, let’s just call it experience.

A writer’s life is hell.

If you or someone close to you wants to write then there’s a lot of work ahead. It’s not easy work either. You can sit on the checkout at ASDA all day, staring into space and earning your crust without ever having to worry about spelling, grammar, punctuation, syntax, character arches, themes, word count, blog traffic or any of the other things careening around a writer’s brain.

You’ll know where your next pay check is coming from on the checkouts. You’ll have job security and staff meals thrown in. You’ll have clothes and proper shoes you can wear outside. You’ll have store discounts. You won’t have the ever present feeling that you are wasting your life and that you are doing everything wrong.

As a writer you will live on your computer. You’ll get back stress, neck cramp, rubbish skin and eye strain. You’ll come to love it, but it won’t be a healthy love. You know Gollum? That’s you and your computer. That’s you and everything that you use to write.

You’ll spend days looking for writing gigs and getting rejected. You wrote a book? Cool, get in line to get rejected and nail those rejection letters to you like you’re Buffalo Bill with his lady-skin suit. You’ll look in the mirror and laugh at the fool before you. ‘Haha, fool,’ you’ll say, ‘you have failed at all your endeavours!’ Then you’ll break down crying because that fool is you.

Days will disappear as you wade through piles and piles of character questionnaires you use to make the shallow two dimensional people you write about into something more normal and relatable. You’ll agonise about whether Janie likes fish or not. Did Charles attend Oxford or Cambridge? Which is it Pen-monkey? You’ll be trying to live fourteen different lives all at once and sucking at all of them.

If, by some miracle that magnum opus of yours is just tripping off your tongue, then beware! Whatever magic you are using must not be trusted. You raise your hands high, bellow your demands to the winds of magic and call upon the leviathan beasts of the Never-Never to do your bidding. The sky boils with your arcane might, black clouds spinning into a vortex with you at its centre, your howls and entreaties to the Gods-Below echoing across time and space. You recite the twelve names of Ashentor, the being that eats the stomachs of children. You call to Obanok, the tree god that dreams of murder and you beseech the wailing maiden, Bolani, to gather the spirits to your cause.

Then you explode!

What happened? You done messed up, that’s what happened. Maybe you mispronounced something. Maybe you got one of Ashentor’s names wrong or accidentally called Bolani a twerp.

This is the life of a writer. It is a grim, dark place in which only the most determined, rabid and ferocious get by.

Prepare yourself for doubt. You’ll doubt yourself for the rest of your life. You really will. The day the doubt stops is the day you’re not critically thinking about your work.

Prepare yourself for rejection. For every article you submit, you’ll write six that get rejected. Every novel you write, four will sit on your desktop unsold.

But also prepare yourself for the most fulfilling and magical experience you can have. You’re going to spend all day thinking about and stories. You can narrate the lives and experiences of your characters, plot the fall of empires and send people into the most miraculous places imaginable. You can craft stories all about the things you love, be it a war torn dark future, a steamy sex palace, a bright and colourful world of kittens and rainbows or anything else.

You get to see the look in people’s faces when you say ‘I’m a writer’.

And one day, if you keep at it long enough, someone will come up to you and say that that book you wrote helped them through a time when they didn’t understand themselves or what was happening around them. They’ll say that your characters articulated something that their own mind never could.

There’s nothing in the world that can compare with that.

The Wild West of Writing beckons. It’s a rough place and you have to watch out. If you want to prosper here then you’ll need to follow a few simple rules.

Be prepared; writing off the top of your head can be rewarding and fun but unless you’re very, very good at what you do then then it has its shelf life. It’s like running an obstacle course or driving in a random direction, full of challenges to be overcome by those with quick reflexes and valiant hearts. But if you run out of petrol then you won’t get far and if you don’t know how deep that water is then you will drown.

It’s best to have a plan. There’s no ‘one size fits all’ plan that you can use I’m afraid, you have to come up with it yourself. It’s got to be more than; start writing, finish writing, make millions. That’s not a plan.

Most of the time people will just start writing a novel on the home computer and never give a second thought to any of the other options – trust me there are loads of different ways to get paid for your writing. There are websites galore out there that want your work and will pay for it. You just have to go looking.

One of the potential employers out there is the video game market. It’s a tough one to break into unfortunately. Not all games require a narrative arc, of course, but it’s a rather common feature of quite a few mainstream titles, and these days if an actual writer is going to touch the script of one of these games — as opposed to the lead designer or the producer — some Very Important People probably have a Very High Opinion of the property. But this doesn’t happen very often. Sure, Halo,  The Witcher, Metal Gear will all have writers consulting on them, but your average Mario style platformer is going to consider a writer just an added expense. Unless you’re good at coding this isn’t something you can break into by yourself. You’ll need to do this in partnership with someone, whether it’s a big studio or an indie game developer. What I’d suggest is contacting some up and coming indie devs and asking them if you can work for free on their games writing fluff text. The point is for you to pad your resume here and build contacts. You can even talk to prominent Youtubers and ask them if they want word monkeying done for free, as long as you can get your name in the credits.

The advent of kindle publishing is a boon to the short story writer. Magazines and websites still pay for your work, but kindle and the free short story is where it’s at. Write a few, upload them and then write a few more and stick them in a compendium with all the stories. As long as you have the skills – or a high enough Google-fu level – you can make covers inexpensively and have your book up on sale in no time.

If you want to go down the nonfiction route then you could always try writing articles. Blogs, magazines, newspapers, tech journals, YouTube videos, research papers, all of them need writers. You can find people willing to pay you for them, but the key here is to read the brief for whatever you’re writing on – you wouldn’t want a hard hitting piece of tech journalism to turn into a review of a cooking sim would you?

So, you think you have enough guts to be a writer? Give it a go, but remember; a writer is only a writer if they consistently produce work and consistently get paid for it. Sign up here and start writing for people. If they reject you ask for feedback, but always keep writing. Stephen King wrote for almost twenty years before Carrie got published. Cohen Obrien served coffee to the Simpsons writers for years before they let him touch a script.

Keep going. Keep writing. The work never gets easier, you just get better at it.

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