I was flipping channels yesterday and came across somebody – I think she was a life coach – giving advice to a thirty-something guy who said his dream was to become a writer. He had apparently given up (at least temporarily) when he didn’t make it into grad school in the creative writing program he wanted.
My reaction was really complex. First there was the “But you don’t need a degree in writing to be a writer!” reaction. It’s a product-driven field; credentials don’t mean much unless you want to teach. OK, some people find having classwork assignments and course deadlines useful, but if that’s what it takes to get you to write a book or a story, this is not the career for you.
Which led to the “Anybody who gives up after ONE rejection is not going to get anywhere as a fiction writer” reaction. Nobody I know has sold first time, every time (except possibly for the vanishingly small number of folks whose first novel sold on the first try, and who never wrote or tried to sell anything after that).
About that time, I tuned back in to what was happening onscreen and discovered that what Mr. Wannabe really wanted wasn’t just “to be a writer,” it was “to write a blockbuster bestseller, because otherwise it would be a waste of time.” Ms. Life Coach allowed as how that was perhaps a tad ambitious as a goal for his first novel, and perhaps he should start by just writing something. She eventually talked him down to committing to an hour of writing every Saturday morning until he finished the book. She was a heck of a lot more tactful than I would have been; I suppose that’s why she’s a Life Coach and I’m not.
In order to be or become a writer, you have to write. Writing takes time. Also some thought and effort, but mainly the whole “butt in chair, fingers on keyboard” thing. Regardless of whether you are an intuitive writer or an analytical one, a plodder or a sprinter, actual words-on-paper/pixels has to happen, and that takes time. The odds are way below “slim” that you will find anyone to pay you to spend time doing this until you have a track record of having done it, whether you plan to shop your book around to traditional publishers or self-publish it. The only way to have a track record of writing and finishing stories under those circumstances is to spend a bunch of unpaid time writing and finishing stories. The less time you spend writing, the longer it will take you to finish anything (this applies no matter how fast or slow your absolute rate of word production is. Other things being equal, two hours per week spent writing will net you more words than one hour per week. There’s a point of diminishing returns, yes, but very few writers hit theirs at such a low level of committed writing time).
Mr. Wannabe has the dual problem of unrealistic expectations about his eventual goal (blockbuster novels are a rare exception for any writer; for a first-time novelist…well, “unrealistic” is probably too kind an adjective) and unrealistic expectations about what it would take to get there (producing a 120,000 word novel in one year requires roughly 2,300 words of final pay copy every week – which means he’d have to write and revise that many words in one hour, every single week. If he gives himself two years, he’s looking at 1,150 words of pay copy in each one-hour writing work-week. Maybe he can do it…but given his comments and reactions during that interview, I take leave to doubt it).
I am extremely dubious that Mr. Wannabe is going to ever succeed in finishing a novel, let alone selling one. If he does, though, I predict it will happen like this: Mr. Wannabe will start off determined to sit down once a week for an hour on Saturday mornings. He’ll actually do this for a bunch of weeks in a row, and he won’t think anything of it when some of the one hour sessions get a little longer than he intended. After all, that only happens when he’s really on a roll, and there are some weekends when even writing a paragraph in that hour is horribly difficult, so he’s just catching up a little.
Then he’ll start thinking of bits of dialog or cool new scenes while he’s on the bus, or doing filing at the office, or as he’s falling asleep at night. After the third or fourth one that he can’t remember, he’ll start keeping a notepad and pen with him so he can scribble them down. There will come a day when he gets a whole scene or plot segment or something and he has to grab it all, and suddenly he’ll be squeezing writing time into his coffee breaks and lunch hours.
At some point, it will all come to a screeching halt. He’ll have his notebooks, but nothing will get written in them. He’ll spend his Saturday hour staring at a blank screen, or going over and over the stuff he’s already written. He’ll be convinced he has writer’s block and will never write again, and it will make him twitchy.
The twitchiness will get worse, not better, and eventually he’ll start writing again in self-defense. It will be like trying to haul a refrigerator out of the basement without any help or mechanical assistance, but slow, slow progress will happen. It may take months, but there will be another chapter, and then another. And then, at some other random point, it will all break loose and he’ll be scrambling to find more writing time in which to get it all down before it escapes.
Unexpectedly, he’ll find himself at the end of the first draft. If he tells people about it, one of his friends will give him a copy of The Unstrung Harp, or Mr. Earbrass Writes a Novel by Edward Gorey (or possibly a DVD of Stranger Than Fiction), which he will greatly appreciate. He will dive into revising. He may begin working on the first draft of his second novel before he finishes revising, or he may wait until the first one is pretty well done and he’s started sending out queries. By this time, “one hour a week on Saturdays” will have become “as much time as he can beg, borrow, or steal for writing,” and writing will be about as much waste of time as breathing, blockbuster novel or not.