Any wise aspiring writer will, sooner or later, seek out the advice of established writers in the hope of gaining useful insights, practical tips and encouragement. She may seek that advice in person, through books, magazines, writing courses or social media.
I’ve been no exception. I’ve found some advice useful, some of it inspiring, and plenty more merely confusing. I’ve wasted money on writing courses that simply iterated for a fee information I might have acquired free from the public library. I’ve been hoodwinked by any number of clever marketers, dabbled in revenue sharing sites, and read every ‘how to write’ book that’s ever found its way to print.
However, I’m fortunate to number several excellent writers among my friends ~ each successful in her own field. Ask any of them what it takes to be a writer and you’ll get different, even conflicting, answers.
One will answer you in mythical language, framing the act of writing in terms of a mystical inner journey. Another will focus on the kind of word-processing software she favours, or the gritty realities of the publishing industry. Yet another will warn you off altogether, sighing wistfully about the enviable security that comes with a ‘proper’ job.
To try and make sense of all this, it may be worth dividing the advice into two categories:
- Practical advice
- Spiritual advice
Most practical advice is fundamentally the same: develop a business-like attitude, cultivate discipline, write every day, work to a quota rather than a timetable, submit your work. There will be minor variations, little devils dancing through the detail, but essentially they all agree:
Anyone can write, but to make a living at it, you have to display a certain resilience and practical aptitude. If you haven’t got these qualities at the outset, then you need to develop them as soon as possible.
One very successful and prolific writer I know, the author of the world’s longest running medieval mystery series, was once a computer salesman. His name is Michael Jecks. (You can meet him on Twitter here, and go here to find out more and buy his books).
There’s no doubt that his passion for history and his flair for a phrase contribute to the quality of his work; but he’ll tell you it’s the discipline of getting up and doing his job, day in and day out, come rain or shine, to meet his sales quota, transposed from his former occupation to his work as a writer, that has led to his success.
It was Michael who taught me the secret of productivity. I now produce 5000 words a day, 5 days a week without fail, just as he does. The ‘secret’ would be no surprise to a builder, or a factory worker, or indeed a computer salesman, but seems quite shocking to many aspiring writers. I’ll pay that ‘secret’ forward in a future post.
So much for the practical.
Before we think about spiritual advice, a word about that term. It’s a tricky one for me. I don’t believe in things supernatural. For me, Nature is enough ~ and she is valuable and sacred in her own right. Supernaturalism only serves to undermine and insult her. I can’t be doing with it.
However, I love ghost stories and have no issue with gods, faeries, angels, dragons, demons and the rest, as long as they remain in the fantasy worlds they should properly inhabit and don’t try and insinuate themselves into the realms of morality or public policy. I am considerably less tolerant of gurus, prophets and snake oil salesmen.
Now you know.
I use the word spiritual to indicate the realm of subjective, interior experience. Nothing else. The word is embedded in our culture. It’s a shorthand we all understand.
Given the above definition, it’s no surprise the spiritual advice writers give is often less useful. You’ll find otherwise rational authors saying very irrational things. Philip Pullman talks about his stories seeming to ‘come from somewhere else’ even though he is quite clear he does not believe there is anywhere else.
Terri Windling, one of the most generous and insightful editor/writers I know, compiled a fascinating series of quotations on her blog Myth and Moor, about ‘rituals of approach.’ It quotes famous writers describing their various ritualised ways of ‘entering the zone.’ My own take is that it’s just procrastination dressed in fancy clothing. But there’s a lot of it about.
The enquiring aspirant will hear a great deal about ‘plumbing the depths of her soul,’ characters that ‘take on a life of their own,’ being ‘possessed by the Muse’ and other very odd sounding descriptions of the writing process.
I think the difficulty and the danger for new writers in hearing all of this is that it casts writing as something rather mystical and strange. It’s true that when you’re ‘in the zone’ it seems that way. I’m no stranger to it myself. I love it. When it happens it’s one of the greatest pleasures to be derived from the act of writing. But that experience is a subjective by-product of writing. It’s not what writing is. You can perfectly well write without it. If you’re going to make a living at it, you’ll absolutely have to a lot of the time.
I suggest that the aspiring writer would do well to listen politely to the spiritual advice of other writers and then dismiss it without regret as a mere distraction. She should, however, listen assiduously to all practical advice she can obtain. She should be no less assiduous in the application of that advice.
Writing is the technical craft of getting words down in the right order.The writer is closer kin to the bricklayer than she is to the shaman. The good news is that writing can be learned. It’s hard work, of course, and the work itself is the only teacher.
The aspiring writer must apprentice herself to the craft. She must turn up each morning, take the raw material of words and fashion them into phrases, put them together in sentences, from the sentences build paragraphs and from the paragraphs, pages. She must perform this labor again and again without relent and without complaint, until the craft is mastered and the work complete.
A writer may combine the practical and the spiritual, but the practical always comes first. To invoke the Muse, the writer must first build Her a temple. But be warned: if She comes, She will demand sacrifices.
The title of this post ~ Hunger, Fire & Iron: The Making of a Writer ~ is drawn from my own experience and so may indicate the very species of advice I have just warned you against taking. It may also have practical implications. You must trust your own judgement on the matter.
The title is a shorthand list of the three things that finally made a writer of me. I share them in the hope they might prove useful to you. Here they are expanded:
- Hunger in the belly.
This is about need. What it means is that the need to earn a living, pay the rent or mortgage, feed a family and get the children through University, is a very powerful motivator to get on and do the work. Write for money no less than art.
- Fire in the mind
This is about passion. Being a writer is hard. It requires huge effort, persistence and resilience. I think it is simply impossible to sustain the effort unless you love words, ideas, imagination and storytelling with an absolutely burning passion.
- Iron in the fist
This refers to discipline. The same kind of self-mastery and discipline that is required of the iron-fisted martial arts master is required no less of the writer.
Hunger in the belly, fire in the mind, and iron in the fist have been the making of every writer who has ever achieved even moderate success in her field.
If you are an aspiring writer seeking the wise counsel of established writers, ask them first about these things, and heed their answers well.
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