Today we continue our series on “Six Simple Steps to Literary Lionhood.”
“Simple” is not the same as “easy.” The six things you must do to pluck fame and fortune from the slushpile of rejected hopes are as simple as any six steps can be.
If they were easy, everybody would be Stephen King.
Step One was “Skip Straight to Literary Lion.”
This week we feel compelled to point out that writing is also an essential prerequisite.
Step Two: Write
At some point, every writer asks, “Am I really a writer?” Or, “How do I know if I’m a writer?”
The simplest answer is best. If you write, you’re a writer.
This answer does not rest on anybody’s laurels. You need not be a member of the Authors’ Guild to be a writer—though, if you are a writer, it’s not a bad guild to be a member of.
You need not have won a National Book Award, a Pulitzer Prize, or a Newbery Medal.
You need not even have published a book, an article, or a poem to be a writer.
If someone asks what you do, just say, “I’m a writer.” This will get you past impostor syndrome. Unless you don’t actually write.
As to where you write, when you write, how often you write, how much you write, whether or not anybody reads what you write, whether or not anybody likes what you write—these are details.
Just get something down on paper.
(When we say “on paper,” we mean to include virtual representations of paper, as in a computer file.)
Maybe you already have something down on paper. Maybe you need to add something to it, so what you have on paper becomes a more complete something. It could be a story, a screenplay, a poem, a novel, a novella, an essay, or a memoir.
Your first object is to write—and to keep writing. We’re talking about discipline, which belongs to what is called “the craft” of writing.
Writers all have different methods, or different approaches to the actual task of putting something down on paper.
Some write before breakfast; others write after lunch.
Some write on a laptop; others use goose quill pens on antique parchment paper.
Some write from a beach house overlooking a blue lagoon; others write in rented office space to get away from family and friends; others write on the kitchen table while feeding six hungry children.
Some write in absolute silence; others type to the tune of a Death Metal soundtrack.
It’s all okay. Your way is your way. But the more rarefied your minimal writing conditions become, the more obstacles you place in the way of getting anything down on paper.
By all means, find the time and place that works best for you—but if things are less than perfect, write anyway. Do not let the perfect defeat the good.
How much, and with what regularity, should you write? How much, and how regularly, can you write? There are no wrong answers to this question. But the more you can write, the more you will write.
Some well-known authors apply the seat of their pants to their writing chair and do not rise until they have produced a thousand new words. Or they write flat-out for four hours each day and stop in mid-sentence when their buzzer goes off.
If you need to quantify your efforts in that way, go for it. But one size does not fit all. Some of us just write whenever we can squeeze it in. If a lot of things bubble up inside you that you need to write down, that’s as good a way as any.
So relax. Your Muse will not fail you. Just write.
We hate to even mention “writer’s block,” but we suppose we must, even though it’s akin to whispering “homesick” at a summer camp full of junior Brownies.
Some writers insist writer’s block is a myth, that there is no such thing.
We prefer to say that if writer’s block exists, it applies to non-writers, not to writers. And the beauty part of that is, you get to decide each day whether you are the one or the other.
We noted above that you may already have something down on paper. We gently suggested that you keep on writing. When you reach the place where it makes sense to type “The End,” go ahead and do so.
Then do a little victory dance, eat a Twinkie, and congratulate yourself. You have achieved that which many people never achieve. You have completed the first draft of a literary work. Well done, thou good and faithful servant.
But know that the achievement you just celebrated is the start of a long process. First drafts are inherently defective.
Some writers have even said, “All first drafts are shit.” We prefer more moderate expressions.
But the fact remains that all first drafts need to be improved. No author ever rolled a first draft out of his old Underwood typewriter, sent it off to Random House, and received a million-dollar advance in the next mail.
(Harold Robbins claimed that was his process, but he was a notorious liar.)
Suffice it to say, before you can begin to improve your first draft, you must have a first draft to improve. Thus our constant admonition: “Keep writing.”
When you go back and read your first draft, you will want to change something, and that’s revision.
For many of us, revision is the fun part of writing. We are editors at heart and love to chop away at dull prose, spruce it up, and bring it to life. And that is a good and holy thing.
But if you are one of us—one of those who would rather edit than write—try to resist the urge.
You may be the greatest reviser on God’s green earth. But if you start with a poorly conceived first draft, no clever amendments to the copy will revise it into greatness.
That is why they pay James Patterson a lot of money.
We fear, Dear Reader, that you must acquire the knack of putting a good story into your first draft right from the start.
Unless you are a “natural storyteller,” to build a compelling story, one worth writing down with the best words and phrases you can bring to it, is an art that takes many years, and lots of practice, to acquire.
So you’d better start now.
There you are: Just you and your keyboard. What are you going to do?
You start with an idea. We can’t help you there; it has to be your own idea. The good news is, there are a lot of ideas you could have that will deliver the goods, depending what you choose to do with them.
Let your idea become a person. A specific person, a character with a need and a desire. The story you are going to write will be her story. She is the “progagonist.” Her chief attribute, above all others, is action.
A protagonist takes action prompted by his or her needs, to meet his or her desires, and despite serious obstacles.
Here is where it gets tricky, Dear Reader. It may be hard to put yourself in the protagonist’s shoes. Unless you are a swashbuckler in real life, a protagonist is different from you and me.
When faced with the demands of life, we hem and we haw. We shilly-shally and we dilly-dally, in a wishy-washy way.
Not our protagonist. The protagonist plunges right in and commits herself to a course of action, whether impulsively or with a carefully calculated plan.
She acts. Right now.
Before you, the author, can catch your breath, the protagonist has dragged you into a conflict, a problem, a nearly-insoluble dilemma.
The protagonist will have to use her wits and battle her way out. So the one thing the protagonist cannot be is passive.
Writers sometimes say: “The protagonist must protag.”
That may be the main principle to observe in writing your first draft.
In your new identity as a literary lion (see Step One), you are no doubt reading books and articles about story structure—books that break or analyze your story’s plot into definable acts, or beats, or “stages of the Hero’s Journey.” All of these concepts are fine and dandy. They will help you out of tight spots. We encourage you to learn and use them.
But none of them will work out well unless your protagonist is active. And if your protagonist is active, he or she will organically create the story structure, just by protagging all over the story’s landscape.
Keep your protagonist protagging until you come to some satisfying end.
Then you can start revising.
You cannot revise out of thin air, Dear Reader. For successful revision, you must expose your first draft to intelligent readers and get well-considered feedback. Which will be the subject of our next article.
NEXT INSTALLMENT: “Step 3: Get Feedback”
Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author