Saturday, January 17, 2009

What Should You Write?

This is the question that every writer has to answer eventually.

When a writer first begins work, that writer seizes upon whatever idea fascinates or seduces the creative machinery inside the writer's mind. The writer isn't thinking about career at this point. The writer simply has a story that must be told. At this juncture, the writer isn't even thinking about the audience because the writer is the audience.

I think that's truly the beautiful part of beginning to be a writer. You simply get to write for yourself. You don't worry about whether not people are going to like it, because you're in love with it. This is your baby. How can anyone not love your baby?

This is the most innocent stage of a writer. This is the child at play. But like all children, the writer child has to grow up at some point.

Usually other children grow up according to their parents' wishes, not necessarily as their parents would have them grow up, but on a schedule that their parents have in mind. Usually this growing up involves trading off childhood for responsibility and increased freedom. Theoretically, a son or daughter who turns 16 must then begin to act more adult.

In our society as it is at present, most parents have a tendency to baby their children. We now have what is called extended adolescence or emerging adulthood. Specialists disagree on what to call this time period. But they do agree that the time period it takes a child to grow up is now somewhere around 25 years of age.

Parents allow their children a few extra years of childhood, yet they also give them the perks of adulthood. An example is a car and insurance and gasoline. I see this happen all the time because parents feel like they owe their kids an easier life than they had. Generally, the parents these days had a fairly easy life. At least, the ones who can afford this extended adolescence or emerging adulthood for their own children.

However, some children willingly trade off their childhood to begin assuming the responsibilities and freedoms of adults. I started working when I was 13 years old. By the time I was 18, back in 1976, I had a car and a motorcycle that were paid for and $2000 the bank. That was a lot back then. Especially for a kid still in high school and living at home.

I traded my childhood off to get ahead as an adult.

Writers don't have anyone to force them to give up their childhood. So they negotiate with themselves as to when they're gonna stop "playing" at writing and get serious about it.

Sidenote: at this point I have seen several writers get waylaid not by their own fears or frustrations with writing, but by family and friends. So often family and friends undermine a writer's confidence and ability to learn. It's hard to learn to be solitary while working on a story. People tend to be social creatures and want company, or they want to be able to share what is important to them. Family and friends often tell writers they're working too hard at something that will never result in any kind of success. If family and friends can't persuade the writer to give up this "addiction" to writing, then they will either shame the writer into giving up or bribe the writer into staying away from work so long that the passion wanes.

Giving up your writer's childhood is hard. You have to put away your toys and begin thinking like an adult, which means you have to see some measure of success in your writing. Too often writers forget that they're still learning the craft. They start expecting themselves to be adults and be successful.

But if writing is something you love to do, like a child at play, you never truly learn everything about it. I've been a professional writer for 21 years now, have sold over 150 books, and I still learn something -- if I'm very lucky -- every day. This isn't frustrating for me. It's exciting. It's like going to the playground and meeting a new friend who has new ideas about the things you can do there.

I believe that's how writing should be for everyone. Always something to learn, always something new to do.

Many writers don't agree with me. They believe a writer should learn what they can do best. They believe a writer should learn to be a mystery writer, or western writer, or suspense writer, or romance writer. I believe that if you truly learn to write, you will know all these things. I have written books in every genre except westerns, and I know how to write one and want to, but just haven't had the opportunity yet. I grew up reading Louis L'Amour and in backwoods Oklahoma.

Some writers like to play it safe. They only want to write what they feel comfortable writing. Or maybe they only write what they think they want to write. Back in the pulp days of the 1930s and 1940s, writers had to learn to write everything if they were going to make a living. They would write a mystery story, slip a new page of paper into the typewriter and begin a science fiction story, then knock at ranch romance or a horror story by the end of the week. That's how these guys worked. They couldn't afford to accept self-imposed boundaries or boundaries that someone else gave them. J. K. Rowling's first Harry Potter novel was rejected nearly 40 times before was published. If she had given up in there anywhere, she'd still be waiting tables and the world would not have this boy wizard.

I believe writers should be that way. They need to learn anything and everything they can. Writers should write fiction, they should write reviews of books and movies or anything else they may be involved with, they should write for free if someone will give them the opportunity, and they should try to make a living out of writing any way they can.

The sheer opportunities to write, especially if you're getting paid for it, is going to make you a better writer. Writing allows you to chip away the fat, the insecurities, the awkwardness, and the lack of focus you have when you first begin writing. Pursue these opportunities however you can. Any kind of writing you do is going to make you a better writer.

I believe that anyone can write. I believe that anyone can do surgery, with enough training. Most people won't elect to do surgery. They won't like the blood, they won't like the hours, they won't like the idea that someone else's life is in their hands. And believe it or not, not everyone wants to be writer. Sure, there a lot of people who would like to write, but very few are willing to sit in a chair for hours out of days out of every week out of every month out of years to learn how.

One of my favorite stories about writers was told me by friend of mine who writes books. He got a B.A., then got a master's in professional writing at Edmond, Oklahoma. His mother had a party to celebrate his first novel. She invited a lot of her friends and many of them were doctors. During the course of the party, one of the doctors told my friend that he always wanted to write a book and was thinking about starting to work on it on some weekend. My friend replied that he had always thought about being a doctor and figured he could work in a little brain surgery on the weekends. The doctor didn't understand that he had insulted my friend by denigrating the work and time my friend had put in to learn the craft.

Everybody thinks writing is easy until they sit down and have to do it. So writers often don't get any real respect until they get to be millionaires and public icons.

Another friend of mine is a professional artist. I griped to him at one point about some bad reviews people had given me. He pointed out that I was lucky because people had to actually read my books, spend hours at it, before they could render an opinion. He told me his work was evaluated in a handful of seconds. I realized that I had the better deal.

So as you leave behind the childhood of the writer, you have to decide to continue following your heart and write what you want to, or study the market and see if you can learn to sell what seems to be selling. The really tough part is that you generally don't have anyone to guide you in this endeavor. No one can tell you that you're dragging your feet, and no one can warn you that you're not ready. No one knows who you are or what you can do at this point. Least of all you.

Next time we're going to talk about writing what you want to versus writing what the market will bear. And whether not you should reinvent the wheel.

In the meantime, get published. routinely publishes reviews on just about anything. Books, movies, gardening tools, underwear, just take a look at what they're selling and you'll find something to review. If you haven't been published there before, try to get published there before I do my next post. Write in, let me know you've been published, and send me a link to what you've reviewed. I've become a top 500 reviewer there simply because I wanted to keep a list of books that I bought so I wouldn't keep buying the same ones over and over again. Now I get free books from publishers to review because they like my reviews, and I've gotten to be known as a reviewer in some places. I even got interviewed by the New York Times because of a review I had written for Diary of a Wimpy Kid. I'm actually a character in the third book in the series, and the author, Jeff Kinney, wrote a nice acknowledgement to me that he didn't have to do.

Go out there. Get successful. Tell me about it.


  1. An author friend was looking for reviewers and offered to send out copies so I signed up. Here is a link

    I'm sure she would love it if you reviewed it. If you want, I can ask her and send you a copy to review. It's in pdf format.
    Most of it is fantasy and had a lot of werewolf stories in it but as you can tell,I liked it.

  2. Hey JW, I'd be happy to. Thanks for the tip!

  3. Here's something for thought: How do I write something I love, but also make it marketable? -especially if the two don't necessarily fit together.

  4. Amanda, I'll be answering that question for you Monday night or Tuesday morning. It deserves a column by itself, and the answer coincides with another topic I wanted to write about. Thanks for asking.