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So You Want To Be A Writer?


Michael McCollum

© 2000, All Rights Reserved.

It has been my observation that there is a universal human desire (and it isn’t the one that just crossed your mind!).  Everyone, it seems, wants to be a writer.  Whether this desire is imbedded somewhere in the arrangement of genes and chromosomes that define what it is to be human, or is merely an artifact of western culture, sooner or later we all seem to be bitten by the writing bug.  The fact that you are reading this would tend to indicate that you have not only been bitten, but that you have come down with the contagious disease known as “the desire to be a writer.”  My condolences.  It is often a disease for which there is no cure.

So what is a writer, anyway?  In this supposedly literate world, just about anyone can write, can’t they?  Yes, more or less.  However, by long convention, the name “writer” belongs to those who put words down on paper for the consumption of others, and then sell those words to anyone who is willing to pay money to read what the writer has written.

Which brings us to the first characteristic of a writer.  Writers are people who expect other people to exchange money (that could otherwise be used to purchase beer) for pieces of paper smudged with ink in patterns that convey the writer’s thoughts.  Can you imagine anything more egotistical?  Not only do I want to tell you my thoughts, but I want you to pay for the privilege!

So, the first thing you should ask yourself if you want to be a writer:  Just how egotistical am I?  If you wouldn’t think of intruding your opinion on other people, or would find it enormously embarrassing to have others read your innermost thoughts, then you will probably not be successful as a writer.  If, on the other hand, you have a reputation among your peers of having an opinion about everything and of not being reluctant to share it, then you may well have what it takes to write.

The egotism of writers has a number of interesting side effects.  One of these is the pay scale, which, despite what you may have heard, is below the poverty line.  The reason for this is simple.  Writers write, not for money, but for ego.  And for this reason, there is an almost endless supply of would-be writers to fill the available commercial publications.  The law of supply and demand states that when the supply of something is nearly infinite, then the price of that commodity will be as cheap as dirt.

I began my career as a writer of short stories and novelettes, selling to the monthly science fiction magazines.  In 1939, the monthly magazines were paying approximately 3 cents a word for short stories.  In 1996, they are paying 5-7 cents per word.  Considering all of the inflation that has gone on since those days before World War II, that isn’t an increase – it’s a decrease!

You have to write a lot of words to keep yourself in food, clothing, and shelter at 5 cents per word.  In fact, it takes so many words that you can’t possibly make a living as a short story writer.  The reason for this is simple.  You might be able to write enough words to live, but you won’t be able to find sufficient markets willing to pay you for your output.  A single writer today can easily swamp all the available markets for his or her particular kind of writing.  That is why the old pulp writers had so many pseudonyms.  It wasn’t unusual for a single writer to fill most of the pages of a particular magazine issue with his 3-4 pen names.  In today’s market, of course, the competition is sufficiently fierce that you will be lucky to get six stories a year published in one of the magazines.  That is, of course, if your particular genre still has magazines.  There are many fields where there is no market at all for short fiction.

This, of course, is why people write novels.  It pays better than short stories and there are more places to sell a novel than there are surviving monthly periodicals.  The problem with novel writing is that you have to put a significant amount of work into each of your projects.  If one doesn’t sell, then you have wasted between 3 months and 1 year’s effort.  What do you live on in the meantime?

But everyone knows that writing pays well, right?  It does, but only for the handful of writers who manage to break out of the huge pack and become financial successes.  There are so few of them that you can probably name a good percentage from memory:  Robert Ludlum, Tom Clancy, Stephen King, etc.  The truth is that the average writer in the United States makes less than $5,000 per year.  So if you want to become a writer, I will reiterate the most important piece of folk wisdom in all of publishing:  Don’t quit your day job!

So, you have decided that you are sufficiently egotistical to write, and that you have boundless confidence that you will be one of the few to make the big bucks. What’s the next hurdle?

What kind of personality have you?  Are you outgoing?  Do you like people to the point where you must be with others for much of your day?  Do you go to 3 parties a week, are the last one to leave, and look forward with great anticipation to the next time you can get together with your friends?  Are you the boisterous one who keeps things moving, the life of the party, the person who always seems to attract a clump of others to listen to whatever it is that you have to say?

If the above paragraph describes you perfectly, then I have bad news.  You will probably never be a writer.  In addition to their egos, writers share one other characteristic in common.  We are almost 100%  introverts.

We all know the scene in the movies:  the Hollywood writer is at the pool with a gorgeous blonde under one arm and a gorgeous brunette under the other.  The trio is wending its way among a crowd of muscular men and bikini-clad women, all of whom seem to hang on the writer-hero’s every word.  The scene is so common that it has become a cliché.

It is also fantasy.  Such scenes appear in movies because it is the Hollywood writers who write the scenes.  And though virtually every writer would like to be like that, none of them are.  Writers are people who sit alone for long hours at their typewriters or computers, amusing themselves by putting words down on paper (or in glowing phosphors).

I have been to a fair number of writer functions in my career and have been struck by an interesting observation.  They are almost universally dull.  I remember a Nebula Awards dinner in Hollywood one year.  Everyone sat around in small clumps, talking to the people they already knew, and looking around at the people they didn’t.  There was almost none of the spontaneous mixing you get with gatherings of extroverts.  Everyone just sat there and looked, wondering how to break the ice, but seemingly unable to do so.

“But what about Truman Capote?” you ask.  He was renowned for giving parties when he worked in Hollywood, the very archetype of the social butterfly.  The answer, of course, is that he was faking it.  Mr. Capote was a small, shy man with a squeaky voice, who decided to overcome his “handicap” and become the life of the party.

Dale Carnegie, the inventor of the course on how to make friends and influence people, was the same way.  The course teaches you to be an extrovert, to clap people on the back and confidently draw them into conversation.  Mr. Carnegie was nothing like that.  He, too, was a shy introvert.

It isn’t that the tendency to be introverted cannot be overcome.  It can.  People at work always argue with me when I tell them that I am an introvert.  That is because I am one of those people who seems to have an opinion on everything and who feels free to express it.  Still, when they see me at a party, I am usually seated on the couch in the corner of the room, or behind the potted plant, talking to my wife.

So, introversion is a social defect that can be overcome – everywhere, that is, except in front of the typewriter or computer screen.  When you are alone and in a creative mood, you must let the introvert in you come to the surface.  For if you crave the presence of others, it won’t be too many minutes alone before you have to talk to someone.  And that is something a writer cannot do.  To write, you must commune with your inner thoughts, you must be completely alone and undisturbed while the words pour out onto paper or screen, and you must do this for hour after endless hour.

Introverts call this fun.  Extroverts call it torture!

So, if you are an egotistical introvert, someone who must impose his or her opinion on the world regardless of the difficulty in making the world listen, and one who has an alternate means of making a living, then you just might have what it takes to be a writer.  There are other requirements, of course.  You have to know how to type (which in the age of word processing isn’t the skill it once was).  You have to have perseverance, a thick skin, and be able to take rejection (if not well, then at least with some measure of stoicism). 

But most of all, you have to want to write.  It has to be a burning desire so strong that you can almost taste it, a need to communicate that will not let you sleep, an inner voice that screams silently in your head until the entire world can hear it.

If any of the above symptoms are plaguing you . . . take two aspirins and go directly to bed.  If the symptoms persist in the morning, then buy yourself a comfortable chair to put in front of your word processor.  It looks like you are going to be spending a lot of time there.

It looks like you are going to be a writer!


The End

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This article is Chapter 1 in The Art of Writing, Volume I.

Jump to The Art of Writing Page

Rules for Writers

So You Want To Be A Writer?

Bill Gates on E-Publishing

Security for E-Content

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Page was last edited on 12/02/07 07:33:38 PM