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Why I’ll never be a writer

11/03/2014

Few books today are forgivable

Some people who know me can’t understand why I don’t try writing for a living. The question comes up less frequently now than it did before my depression. That took away a lot of my skills and working vocabulary and while some is slowly returning with practice I know I’m just a shadow of the writer I once was and my best work is behind me.

I have been paid for my writing. One of my adolescent short stories earned me the princely sum of $32 from a short-lived Australian SF&F periodical. I’ve since been commissioned to write a handful of articles for magazines and journals. I’ve declined offers to prepare submissions to parliament for pay as well. Generally, if I believe in what I’m writing I’ll do it for free. If not I won’t do it at all.

The reason I don’t write professionally is because producing to professional standard is hard work and I don’t like hard work. Or at least I don’t like the sort of hard work I don’t like. Most of the work of professional writers is of that kind.

I love playing with words and concepts. I like to imagine people enjoy my writing because they enjoy my ideas. Or rather my passion for the ideas of others. I’m not sure I’ve ever had one of my own. So the work of formulating ideas into words is easy for me, even if it takes a lot of time, effort and frustration, because I like doing it.

The part of writing I don’t like is what many people think of as editing. That’s the real grunt work that separates pros from dilettantes and hacks. Something I lack the patience and attention to detail to do on all but the rarest occasions.

Those great novels and short stories you know and love were not born in a stream of consciousness or flash of inspiration. They are almost all the result of many rounds of twisting, tweaking and rewriting. A good writer probably consigns at least a dozen pages to the trash for every one she sends to her publisher and the publisher does the same with the manuscripts he receives before putting the finished text before a reader – usually after several more rounds of editing. I’m sure some gems get washed away with the dross but it’s a fair generalisation to say that when you select a book from the shelf you are only seeing the best of the best. I leave you to contemplate the quality of much published work and therefore of the work that is rejected. Come to think of it there’s no need to theorise about the rubbish that doesn’t make the grade. These days you can read it on blogs like this one.

By editing I don’t just mean proofreading for spelling, grammar and punctuation errors. I’m too lazy to do that too, but at least some of it can now be automated. The real work is constructing sentences that sing, paragraphs that convey meaning, narratives that hold together and a story that offers to others the richness it possesses in your own mind. That means going over and over your work from several different perspectives. It means going through your sentences to trim them of the unnecessary words that are the literary equivalent of ‘Umm’. It means turning them back to front and inside out, splitting them and recombining them, looking for the best way to express even the most trivial detail. If something is not important enough for that sort of effort it is probably not important enough to waste time reading. Even a modestly successful story will be read by thousands so if you are not prepared to rework it dozens of times to get it right you are disrespecting your readers and yourself. You may still get lucky, but you will have produced fifty shades of crap.

You’ll probably need trusted friends prepared to carefully read your work who are brave enough to tell you if they find something lacking, superfluous or inept. You must find it in yourself to listen without letting attachment to your work block your ears and destroy your friendships.

What all that means is rewriting, rewriting, rewriting. Like I said, I love ideas. But I don’t think I love any of them enough to go to that much time and effort.

I know something of what drives a professional writer. That need to find a way to articulate what I am thinking. To end it’s rampage through my mind by exorcising it to a page. But there’s a lot of hard work between a first draft and something that is fit to be put before a paying reader. What drives the pros hard enough to undertake it? I love money and fame as much as the next guy (well, probably not actually, though I wouldn’t mind a bit more of the former) but there’s easier ways to acquire those than writing a book.

If money is your object you shouldn’t be writing stories, essays or poems. Perhaps the most reliable way to earn money from writing – other than forging cheques – is to solicit it from those who think they can earn money from writing. The best working title for a bestseller may be “How to Write a Bestseller”. Don’t worry that someone might wonder why you write books like that instead of the ones you advise others to write. No-one ever asks.

All of that said I expect I will soon be taking a lazy path towards becoming a lame imitation of a writer. I plan to collect some of the words from my notebooks and this blog, do some superficial editing then compile them into self-published e-books that will be available for whatever people are prepared to pay. Probably nothing. I don’t expect enough reimbursement to alleviate my steadily tightening financial situation, but I do hope enough people will stump a dollar or two for me to call myself a writer without being hit by lightning. I will have to find cheaper accommodation soon and having ‘disability pensioner’ on the application form is the kiss of death in the Newcastle rental market. Maybe being a ‘writer’ will both excuse some of my eccentricities and help me get a foot through the door despite having pets. A more honest description would be ‘word-busker’ or ‘scrounger’ but I don’t think either of those terms would impress a potential landlord much.

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5 Comments
  1. Sometimes I feel like every single thought I’ve ever had has come from someone else… too… It’s a weird train ride.

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    • When you think about the number of clever people who were thinking and writing before we were even born it would be pretty surprising if we did have an original idea. Usually when I’ve thought I had one I’ve later discovered some Greek or Indian dude wrote all about it over 2000 years ago.

      I think people should be rewarded for creative effort, but I don’t believe in intellectual property. That’s because I reckon all any of us ever do is remix and regurgitate the ideas that are already in our societies. That’s why you so often see the same ‘new idea’ appear in multiple places at once.

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  2. It seems like you’re writing my heart out in this post. Loved it. This is exactly what I believe and I never thought I’ll find a like-minded person.

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  3. You wrote it out, man. You wrote out the truth. 🙂

    Like

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